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.
“Perhapses,” “we may surmises,” sights such as “an imaginative youth might have known,” and unabashed rhetorical questions abound in the biography. A curious sentence concerns the thoughts in Pope’s mind when he wrote the “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady”; it begins, “And doubtless there were others [thoughts] of which we know nothing”—and then continues without a break, “including, it may be,” and proceeds to list the others, some extremely far-fetched. Speculations and rhetorical questions are by no means illegitimate devices in themselves, but when there is no possibility of verifying the speculations and not even an effort at answering the questions, they take on the character of an indulgence. Ten rhetorical questions in a row without a single affirmative in between disfigure pages 530–531.
By the simple devices of omission or avoidance, awkward questions about Pope can be obscured or concealed altogether. Mack repeatedly quotes charges by Pope’s contemporaries that the translator of the Iliad and the Odyssey knew no Greek. Amid the abundance of charges against Pope, we are evidently to think that these libels do not even merit an answer. But Dr. Johnson thought they did, and looked into the matter with his usual thoroughness and fairness. His account of Pope includes a judicious, explicit estimate of the part played in the translations by a group of paid assistants, established editors and commentators, and several previous translators into the modern tongues. Pope, it appears, knew some Greek, but not a great deal; according to Johnson, he leaned pretty heavily on trots, particularly Chapman. This is not a very precise answer to the question, but Mack leaves the matter altogether open.
In Latin, of course, Pope was thoroughly expert, and the several poems he wrote in imitation of Horace show him perfectly aware of what he was doing, both in manipulating the Latin text and in maneuvering himself now to contrast with it, now to bring out equivocal or disputed meanings in the original poems. There are therefore important and difficult questions about what Pope was doing when in 1734 he issued anonymously a poem which can be called either Imitation of Horace I, ii or Sober Advice from Horace to the Young Gentlemen About Town, Imitated from his Second Sermon. Mack refers to this production only by its first, neutral title, and apart from a single adjective “bawdy,” one could read his entire account of the poem without suspecting that it was anything but a satiric attack on Dr. Richard Bentley, occasioned by his recent “corrected” edition of Paradise Lost.
In fact it is, both in the Horatian original and in Pope’s version, a boldly outspoken assault on all forms of sexual repression in the form of morality. This “sermon,” so called by a deliberately false translation of Horace’s “sermo,” and intended patently to outrage the English word, directs young men to lay their hands on any cheap and available piece of womanflesh they can catch. It discusses the promiscuity of Pope’s enemies but also of his friends; it calls attention to its own obscenities of language, its own incoherence of structure; it concludes with “moral” advice which questions the value of moral standards as such. All this on the theme of sexual lust, which, however it bothered youthful Horace, seems a curious obsession for the middle-aged, sickly, and dwarfish Pope—ordinarily so anxiously alert to his own public image. What can he have been up to? How does this piece fit with the general tenor of his other moral teachings? Mack hardly allows his reader to guess; he dodges the poem proper almost entirely, and suggests that Pope in the footnotes was taking revenge on Bentley for his annotated Milton. But for this there is neither evidence nor probability. Bentley had edited Horace in 1711, and a reader of Pope’s imitation would naturally think first of that edition when he saw Bentley mocked in the notes. In any event, the derisive notes do nothing to explain the poem, which most of all needs explanation.
It is a heavily colored biography, then; and its argument that Pope is an author for the modern reader, though pushed only sporadically, will cause chiefly amusement in those who are only a little more modern than I. In quasi-avuncular and rarely convincing phrases, Mack urges that what Pope did or felt was just like what “we” do or feel today. The first person plural gets a thorough workout in this biography. More conspicuous are Mack’s attempts to render Pope “up-to-date” by working in meditations, his own or someone else’s, on the state of the contemporary cosmos. These are supposed to parallel Pope’s thought processes at various stages of life. Thus a set of 1713 lectures by William Whiston expounding on the implications of the telescope and microscope left old texts charged with new meanings, “as were the first chapters of Genesis in 1945 by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” Quotations from Christopher Lasch and Lewis Thomas enforce the notion that the Essay on Man is in line with all the latest “modern” thinking. This sort of formula carries with it its own built-in obsolescence.
The biography is plentifully embroidered with quotations stitched into the prose without quotation marks wherever pretext offers itself. Yeats and Keats, Dylan Thomas and Dickens, Jonson and Johnson, T.S. Eliot e tutti quanti, are laid under contribution. What end the author thought these tags would serve, to compensate for the inevitably scrappy and distracting effect they produce, is hard to guess. Finally, it is to be regretted that a vigilant editor did not prune the manuscript of a recurrent, deplorable mannerism that renders the book much more of an obstacle course than it need have been. This is the trick of starting a sentence, then interrupting it for several parenthetical clauses or complete quotations, and finally completing it, after half a page or more has intervened, only when the reader has wholly lost track of its beginning. Like it or not, the reader is too often pushed into a grammatical game of “pin the tail on the donkey.”
Do we get a new Pope, then, at the end of this new biography? Hardly; nor would it be fair to expect one. The main lines of the story, set for many years now, are not much changed, though more details are assembled and some new emphases are added. Pope is still capable of vindictive and implacable enmities, but he shows some new and unpredictable touches of kindness; for example, he secretly paid a pension to his bitter enemy John Dennis when that crusty old critic fell on hard times. He still talks too much about his intimacy with “the great,” and still protests too much his moral independence of them. A liar he was, beyond question, often when the necessity and even the advantage of a lie were not clear; he was capable of ugliness in his scurrility, but somehow even more offensive in what Bolingbroke called “his pompous professions.”
Yet there was a clear streak of integrity in the little man, as there is a touch of the true sublime in his poetry. Even after extended biographical investigations he remains for the curious reader, as he was for his contemporaries, a paradox; with regard to no other English author does one have to compare more carefully surface and substance, the public mask and the private mask, and something well below both, the arranging as opposed to the arranged self.
One thing that will do Pope no good is exaggerated claims; they blur his outlines, and increase a reader’s mistrust of the criticism when he finds no such thing in the text as he has been told to look for. Pope is often sublime, for example, but generally in his own impure way. The diatribe of Thalestris, in Canto IV of the Rape, culminates “magnificently”:
Sooner let Earth, Air, Sea, to Chaos
Men, Monkies, Lap-dogs, Parrots, perish all!
In the same way, The Dunciad culminates in a moment of universal downfall:
Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall,
And Universal Darkness buries All.
The same sense of the poet’s hand violently extorting order from chaos rings through the famous lines from the Essay on Man:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
Finally, to represent the splendor of Pope in a fragment, what other poet could write two such couplets as his on a filthy sewer emptying into a river?
To where Fleet-ditch with disem- boguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The King of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
In all these examples Pope makes something beautiful out of something filthy, something grandiose out of something trivial, a structure out of contradictions. This is fine, and enough. But when Mack, borrowing the words of a friendly witness to describe the Essay on Man, tells me that I should think of a Blakean angel sitting in the sun, and compares the poetry to the music of the spheres, the claims seem hyperbolic and ridiculous. Let those who have conversed with Blake’s angels and listened to the spheres’ warbling cherish such comparisons for themselves. Dr. Johnson, as so often, provides the astringent corrective when he writes (in words carefully not quoted by Mack): “This essay affords an egregious instance of the predominance of genius, the dazzling splendor of imagery, and the seductive powers of eloquence. Never was penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.”
If, after finishing Mack’s biography, one hasn’t had enough of Pope, the hundred pages of Johnson’s account will provide a moral and critical bracer. Better not read Johnson first, though; his is a tough act to follow.
The recent book by Frank Stack, Pope and Horace: Studies in Imitation, provides some useful supplementary comments on a dozen or so poems by Pope, published during the 1730s. These are all poems in which Pope maintained a connection, at once close and various, with particular poems by Horace; indeed, he commonly printed the original Latin texts across from his English versions, using typography to distinguish words or phrases of particular significance, and omitting boldly what he could not use. One reason for this procedure was ironic: what Horace had written to Augustus, for instance, could, by only the slightest tinge of overstatement, be made a gross parody when addressed to George II.
Another set of reasons involved the accrual of authority: Horace as an ancient author highly esteemed by a worldly emperor and a cosmopolitan culture could lend dignity to a private Englishman who assumed the same position as commentator. And then there was the play of wit involved in finding modern parallels for ancient figures and ancient happenings. All this of course is very much an eighteenth-century gentleman’s game; the nuances of Latin, the sly allusions, the buried ironies and abrupt shifts of tone make for a very intimate literary performance. Stack has studied with appropriate closeness both the original poems, Pope’s imitations of them, and the ever-varying space between them. He has been particularly careful to respect the several different ways in which the eighteenth century defined Horace—as a sycophant of the emperor, as a nostalgic republican, as an ironist seeking above all to cultivate independence and integrity of soul. The way in which Pope picked and chose among these various images of Horace gives us some clues to the shifting ways in which he defined his own self. It is critical work that calls for nimble wits as well as great persistence, and these Stack has. “Equivocation” might be a useful word to define the habit of mind that he uncovers in Pope; the poet rarely sticks for long to a single attitude, a single determinate self, a single vision of Horace. Even the poem (Epistle I, i) in which he pleads with anguished urgency to be granted such a unified self on the Stoic model is by no means univocal. It ends on a very dubious note with regard to Bolingbroke, to whom it is addressed, and in something like a confession of personal failure.
No doubt the suite of Pope’s Horatian imitations will always be an acquired, even a specialized, taste. I doubt if it accords with the modern ethos. But for anyone who appreciates finesse of workmanship, the poems, and Mr. Stack’s exploration of them, will provide a thoroughly satisfying exercise.
March 13, 1986