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Putting Pope in His Place

Alexander Pope: A Life

by Maynard Mack
Norton, 975 pp., $22.50

Pope and Horace: Studies in Imitation

by Frank Stack
Cambridge University Press, 316 pp., $39.50

In almost two years, on May 21, 1988, we will arrive at the three hundredth anniversary of Alexander Pope’s birth. Major public manifestations are not to be expected. Pope is a classic of our literature, but he is of that numerous group that one could call shelf-classics. His books are in the research libraries, his poetry is analyzed in graduate seminars; college students as they run the annual obstacle course from Beowulf to Thomas Hardy make brief acquaintance with The Rape of the Lock. But a spontaneous, widespread, popular readership Pope has not had for a matter of centuries now, and does not have today. It is hard to imagine the extent to which in his own day he dominated the literary scene.

Some of the reasons for his remoteness are obvious. Pope lived and wrote the other side of that gigantic watershed of about 1750, from which rose the Romantic movement; despite repeated efforts to escape them, many of the presuppositions of that movement are still with us, and they cannot help making the “correct” style of Pope appear deliberately hard and dry. When Matthew Arnold put down Pope and Dryden as “classics of our prose,” he meant simply that they were not poets of the sort that English readers for a century or so had got used to. On another level entirely, Pope is difficult of access today because he was in good part a social poet, deeply involved in the life of his time. As with Dryden, his satiric verse commented in intimate detail on political events and personalities about whom few modern readers either know or care. The rights and wrongs of the Popish Plot, the deeds and misdeeds of Lord John Hervey, are only to be approached nowadays through a cheval-defrise of footnotes; and who is to say the unprofessional reader is wrong when he decides simply not to bother?

Thus Pope has become largely the province of professionals, for whom those difficulties that deter the amateur reader are active incitements to exploration. Books explaining the allusions and innuendos, showing the point of parodies and parallels, and restoring the zest of faded ironies have appeared in profusion over the last half-century; and naturally those who invested most effort in understanding Pope were most ready to proclaim that he is worth understanding—that he is not only a poet, but one of the supreme poets in English.

Such a contrast, between general apathy and extreme enthusiasm, only perpetuates an extraordinary division about the merits of Pope as a man and a poet that existed from his very early years. The object of many vitriolic hatreds, he also rejoiced in many warm and intimate friendships; his poetry was acclaimed to the skies and denounced to the pit. He was praised as a moralist and abused as a lying hypocrite. The passage of years has reduced the active hostility to general indifference; but the enthusiasts for Pope, though a minority, continue to make high claims for him, although qualifying their admiration in such ways as the character of the poetry and the canons of modern taste seem most likely to sustain. As often in criticism, the work that sticks closest to the printed text seems, after the passage of years, most substantial. Dame Edith Sitwell’s raptures over Pope’s personal character (1930) no longer carry much conviction; Professor Tillotson’s appreciation of his moral teachings (1938) rings hollow in a world where moral teachers, especially in verse, rank down there with political candidates and used-car salesmen. Careful scrutiny of Pope’s versification, with its wonderful combination of spacious vision and driving vehemence, has resulted in substantial appreciations, like that of F.R. Leavis in The Common Pursuit; but hardly at a level that would greatly influence the literary marketplace (too aptly so called). Thus, despite all the efforts of his admirers, the reputation of Pope, as a person and as a writer, remains obstinately in question.

In his new biography, the first seriously attempted in the twentieth century and by all odds the most comprehensive ever, Maynard Mack undertakes to overcome the gap, and to domesticate Pope in at least the suburbs of twentieth-century taste. He grasps Pope precisely where previous commentators have been least willing to encounter him, in the thorny and turbulent story of his personal life; and he labors mightily to make Pope both a convincing and a sympathetic figure.

Sympathy comes more easily than conviction. Pope’s accomplishments, both social and intellectual, were truly remarkable, considering the distances he had to traverse. His father was “in trade,” a condition more degrading then than now; he left a little money, but basically Pope had to earn his comfortable sufficiency by exercising his pen—he was the first Englishman to do so without having recourse to royal patronage or the stage. His Roman Catholic religion (to which he remained attached, though without much liking for either its dogmas or its institutions) prevented his attending the university or receiving the sort of official literary largesse that was poured forth on lesser talents. From birth he was sickly, almost deformed, and at a time when political, religious, and literary controversy constantly spilled over into personalities, he was reviled and libeled almost continually. He was not an original or profound thinker—did not pretend to be, and was not expected to be. He was simply a poet, and made his way entirely through the exercise of his craft.

On the other hand, his chosen instrument, the decasyllabic couplet, had taken form in the hands of his great predecessor, Dryden, and would receive its ultimate polish from him; after his death (like blank-verse tragedy after the age of James I) it had nowhere to go, and has not been really revived to this day. On a larger scale, the intimate oligarchy of the old regime—which was not intimate or oligarchic enough for Pope, admitting as it did all sorts of moneyed, landless bounders—once blown up by the French Revolution and its aftershocks, disappeared forever. Its sense of hierarchy, its commitment to order, and its rather withering optimism (“This is the best of all possible worlds, and everything in it is a necessary evil”), all are ancient history by now. Thus a good deal of our sympathy for Pope flows automatically; our sense of his contemporary relevance has to be pumped up.

In the style of modern literary biographies, this one is outsize, rich in factual detail, rich in anecdote, rich too in speculation. It has been painstakingly researched; and if the author is sometimes too deeply immersed in his materials, so that he refers to some of Pope’s many friends, not by their names, not by their titles, but by the names of their country houses, the momentary puzzlement can be resolved by a glance at the copious index. The book is printed largely without footnotes or footnote indications in the text; in the back of the book, quotations are identified by page number and tag, which keeps the page clean, but leaves the reader in frequent doubt whether he should look in the back of the book or not. For example, there are seven footnotes to material on page 397, and not the slightest reason in the text to suspect a footnote for six of the passages. Somewhere in the production process a computer glitched to the extent of producing (p. 845) a reference to “Irwin” Panofsky and his colleague “Raymond K. Pibansky.” But these are fleabites; as a whole, the book is thorough and exact, while the illustrations are admirable. There are portraits of Pope, portraits of his friends and enemies, pictures of his villa, garden, and grotto, and, for liveliness, some outrageous cartoons. Since it is most improbable that anyone will work over the same ground for years to come, it is good that Mack’s biography has been handsomely done.

Yet there are a good many soft places in it; and when one has praised its extensive factual detail and lofty critical aspirations, they have to be mentioned. There is, for example, a question about the book’s religious and political biases. Pope was born and died a Roman Catholic; if not himself a Jacobite (he was rather a quietist in politics than an active supporter of the House of Stuart), he associated with Jacobites, and in later life was violently hostile to George II, Sir Robert Walpole, the Hanover court, and the Whig ascendancy in general. Mack, carried away by natural sympathy for his subject, colors his account of public affairs in shades of black and white. Walpole and his “minions” (a favorite word) are about as evil as men could be; the Jacobites are honest, loyal gentlemen whose only preference is for a legitimate as opposed to a usurping king. This is of course an ancient political quarrel in England, and a biographer, no less than a historian, is entitled to a position on it—so long as it does not lead to an unconvincing or incongruous picture of events.

Consider, though, Mack’s account of Bishop Atterbury. He was, we are told, the leader of the Jacobite cause in England; but when the Walpole administration accused him of treason in 1722, “the trial was essentially a charade.” There was no credible evidence, and the only motive for the trial was to make Walpole’s political career. Yet Walpole, after presenting what evidence he had in court (when alone he is conceded to have shown some ability), succeeded in his prosecution, for the unexpected reason that on the central point of the trial Atterbury was guilty and knew it. Some charade! When, after a decade in exile, Atterbury died, and his body was returned to England for burial, Mack emphasizes the pathos of his meager funeral, and under the rubrics of “we may guess” and “it is tempting to think” attributes the same sense of pathetic indignation to Pope. But convicted traitors do not often get ceremonial tributes.

Coloring is thus a device of which Mack makes lavish use. Very often it takes the form of unsupported speculation—about what young Pope might have seen in Windsor Forest, for example, and might have thought about what he might have seen. For some of this speculation there is very good reason. Neither Pope nor anyone else left an exact account of his early experiences, and it is inescapable that he must have had some. But there are extraordinary longueurs in the biography that invite use of a term as unkind as “picturesque upholstery.” For example, four long pages of kapok are devoted to describing the pastoral landscape—not Pope’s pastorals, or anyone else’s, just the landscape of pastorals in general. With slightly more reason seven pages are given up to a detailed description of Lord Cobham’s park and garden at Stowe, which Pope occasionally visited during the summers of his later life. He may even have taken a small part in planning its adornments; but seven pages are surely excessive. Pope’s own decorating and garden-making activities are of course another matter; his establishment at Twickenham is an essential part of his character, and about it we can hardly know too much.

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