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Lutrin, Dispensary, Rape of the Lock, and Dunciad, address themselves to heathen gods, offer sacrifices, consult oracles, or talk the 'language of Homer, and of the heroes of antiquity?
This acute observation bears hard on the conduct of more than one of the heroi-comic poems above mentioned.
Nothing is here said of Hudibras; because its unrivalled excellence could not be discussed in a note. It is one of the poems that give peculiar lustre to our nation and language. One circumstance only I will here mention, that the ancients had no notion of such sort of Poems. The cruel wars between Pompey and Cæsar, and the execrable proscriptions of Augustus, were never treated in a burlesque style, as the horrors of the league in France, and the bloody civil war in England, were described in the Satyre Menippée, and in Hudibras. One of the most accurate Greek scholars of our time and nation, is of opinion, that the Batrachomyomachia is not by Homer, but a burlesque poem in imitation of his manner, by some ancient poet, who, though he adopted the words and expressions of the Greek Bard, formed his metre according to the pronunciation of his own country. With equal confidence we may pronounce the Margites to have been a forgery, though there are only four lines of it extant, three of which are quoted by Plato and Aristotle; but in these we have a compound verb, with the augment upon the preposition (saтo), which Homer's grammar did not admit. Knight's Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet, page 30. Warton.
Dr. Johnson truly says of the Rape of the Lock, that it is the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of all Pope's compositions. Indeed, upon this subject there cannot be two opinions; and Dr. Warton has praised it as warmly as Johnson.
This Poem is founded, however, upon local manners. And of all Poems of that kind it is undoubtedly far the best; whether we consider the exquisite tone of raillery, a certain musical sweetness and suitableness in the versification, the management of the story, or the kind of fancy and airiness given to the whole: but what entitles it to its high claim of peculiar poetic excellences?-the powers of imagination and the felicity of invention displayed, in adopting and most artfully conducting a machinery, so fanciful, so appropriate, so novel, and so poetical. The introduction of Discord, &c. as machinery in the Lutrin, &c. is not to be mentioned
at the same time. Such a being as Discord, will suit a hundred subjects; but the elegant, the airy Sylph,
Loose to the wind, whose airy garments flew,
Thin glittering textures of the filmy dew,
Dipt in the richest tincture of the skies,
Where light disports in ever-mingling dyes :
such a being as this, is suited alone to the identical and peculiar Poem in which it is employed.
I will now go a step farther in appreciating the elegance and beauty of this Poem; and I would ask the question: "Let any other poet, Dryden, Waller, Cowley, or Gray, be assigned this subject, and this machinery could they have produced a work altogether so correct, and beautiful, from the same given materials?" Let us however still remember, that this Poem is founded on local manners, and the employment of the Sylphs is in artificial life; for this reason, the Poem must have a secondary rank, when considered strictly and truly with regard to its poetry.
Whether Pope would have excelled as much in loftier subjects, of a general nature, in the "high mood" of Lycidas, the rich colourings of Comus, and the magnificent descriptions and sublime images of Paradise Lost; or in painting the characters and employments of aërial beings,
That tread the oose of the salt deep,
Or run upon the sharp wind of the north;
is another question. He has not attempted it: I have no doubt he would have failed. But to have produced a Poem, infinitely the highest of its kind, and which no other Poet could perhaps altogether have done so well, is surely very high praise. The excellence is Pope's own, the inferiority is in the subject; no one understood better that excellent rule of Horace :
Sumite materiam vestris, qui scribitis æquam
In the foregoing observations, Mr. Bowles has again attempted to inforce his opinion, that there are in poetry certain subjects which have a relative rank to each other, and that as the Rape of the Lock is founded on what he calls local manners, and artificial life, it is only entitled to a secondary station. It is also inferred, that if Pope had attempted loftier subjects, he would have failed, and consequently, that notwithstanding the admitted excellence of the foregoing poem, he was only a secondary poet.
From this it would follow, that the rank which a poet is entitled to hold must be determined by the subject on which he treats, and not by the genius which he displays; and that a poet may be intitled to a first, a second, or a third rank, according to the subject he adopts. Thus Homer was a poet of the first rank when he wrote the Iliad, and of the second rank when he wrote his Odyssey, which is founded on local manners and artificial life. In like manner Mr. Bowles informs us, that Pope," in his Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard," appears "on the high ground of the poet of nature," and that "nothing of the kind has ever been produced equal to it for pathos, painting, and melody;" that in another of his pieces he is "equal to Shakespeare,"-" yet," says he, " in speaking of the poetical subject and the powers of execution, with regard to the first, Pope cannot be classed amongst the highest order of Poets, with regard to the second, none ever was his superior.”
If then Pope is to be degraded to a secondary rank, let it be understood, that it is not because he has been found unequal to any subject which he has attempted, from the sublime strains of the Messiah, and the deep pathos of the Epistle of Eloisa, to the keen satire of the Dunciad, or the sportive pages of the Rape of the Lock; but because he has not undertaken some work of a higher order of poetry !— -as if any works could be of a higher order, than those which announce the awful predictions of futurity, and the sacred mysteries of religion; which awaken the tenderest sympathies of the human bosom; which embody and bring before us the liveliest pictures and most faithful representations of real life; which correct and discountenance vice and folly by the just severity of satire; or which instruct and mend the heart by lessons of wisdom, morality, and truth.