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In the year 1709 was written the Essay on Criticism, a work which displays such extent of comprehension, such nicety of distinction, such acquaintance with mankind, and such knowledge both of ancient and modern learning, as are not often attained by the maturest age and longest experience. It was published about two years afterwards, and being praised by Addison in the Spectator, with sufficient liberality, met with so much favour as enraged Dennis, “who,” he says, "found himself attacked without any manner of provocation on his side, and attacked in his person, instead of his writings, by one who was wholly a stranger to him, at a time when all the world knew he was persecuted by fortune; and not only saw that this was attempted in a clandestine manner, with the utmost falsehood and calumny, but found that all this. was done by a little affected hypocrite, who had nothing in his mouth at the same time but truth, candour, friendship, goodnature, humanity, and magnanimity." How the attack was clandestine is not easily perceived, nor how his person is depreciated; but he seems to have known something of Pope's character, in whom may be discovered an appetite to talk too frequently of his own virtues. Thus began the hostility between Pope and Dennis, which, though it was suspended for a short time, never was appeased. Pope seems, at first, to have attacked him wantonly; but though he always professed to despise him, he discovers, by mentioning him very often, that he felt his force or his venom.
Of this Essay Pope declared that he did not expect the sale to be quick, because "not oue gentleman in sixty, even of liberal education, could understand it." The gentlemen and the education of that time seem to have been of a lower character than they are of this. He mentioned a thousand copies as a numerous impression. Dennis was not his only censurer. The zealous papists thought the monks treated with too much contempt, and Erasmus too studiously praised; but to these objections he had not much regard. The Essay has been translated into French by Hamilton, author of the Comte de Grammont, whose version was never printed; by Robotham, secretary to the king for Hanover, and by Resnel; and commented by Dr. Warburton, who has discovered in it such order and connection as was not perceived by Addison, nor, as is said, intended by the author. Almost every poem consisting of precepts is so far arbitrary and immethodical, that many of the paragraphs may change places with
no apparent inconvenience; for of two or more positions, depending upon some remote and general principle, there is seldom any cogent reason why one should precede the other. But for the order in which they stand, whatever it be, a little ingenuity may easily give a reason. "It is possible," says Hooker, "that, by long circumduction from any one truth, all truth may be inferred." Of all homogeneous truths, at least of all truths respecting the same general end, in whatever series they may be produced, a concatenation by intermediate ideas may be formed such as, when it is once shown, shall appear natural; but if this order be reversed, another mode of connection equally specious may be found or made. Aristotle is praised for naming fortitude first of the cardinal virtues, as that without which no other virtue can steadily be practised; but he might with equal propriety have placed prudence and justice before it, since without prudence fortitude is mad, without justice it is mischievous. As the end of method is perspicuity, that series is sufficiently regular that avoids obscurity, and where there is no obscurity, it will not be difficult to discover method.
The Essay on Criticism is one of Pope's greatest works, and if he had written nothing else, would have placed him among the first critics and the first poets, as it exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactic composition-selection of matter, novelty of arrangement, justness of precept, splendour of illustration, and propriety of digression. I know not whether it be pleasing to consider that he produced this piece at twenty, and never afterwards excelled it. He that delights himself with observing that such powers may be soon attained, cannot but grieve to think that life was ever after at a stand. To mention the particular beauties of the essay, would be unprofitably tedious; but I cannot forbear to observe that the comparison of a student's progress in the sciences with the journey of a traveller in the Alps, is perhaps the best that English poetry can show. A simile, to be perfect, must both illustrate and ennoble the subject; must show it to the understanding in a clearer view, and display it to the fancy with greater dignity; but either of these qualities may be sufficient to recommend it. In didactic poetry, of which the great purpose is instruction, a simile may be praised which illustrates though it does not ennoble; in heroics that may be admitted which ennobles, though it does not illustrate. That it may be complete, it is required to exhibit, independently of its references, a pleasing image; for a simile is said to be a short episode. To this antiquity was so attentive, that circumstances were sometimes added which, having no parallels, served only to fill the imagination, and produced what Perrault ludicrously called "comparisons with a long tail." In their similes the greatest writers have sometimes failed. The ship race compared
with the chariot race, is neither illustrated nor aggrandised; land and water make all the difference. When Apollo, running after Daphne, is likened to a greyhound chasing a hare, there is nothing gained; the ideas of pursuit and flight are too plain to be made plainer, and a god and the daughter of a god, are not represented much to their advantage by a hare and a dog. The simile of the Alps has no useless parts, yet affords a striking picture by itself; it makes the foregoing position better understood, and enables it to take faster hold on the attention; it assists the apprehension, and elevates the fancy.
Let me likewise dwell a little on the celebrated paragraph in which it is directed that the sound should seem an echo to the sense, —a precept which Pope is allowed to have observed beyond any other English poet. This notion of representative metre, and the desire of discovering frequent adaptations of the sound to the sense, have produced, in my opinion, many wild conceits and imaginary beauties. All that can furnish this representation are the sounds of the words considered singly, and the time in which they are pronounced. Every language has some words framed to exhibit the noises which they express, as thump, rattle, growl, hiss. These, however, are but few, and the poet cannot make them more, nor can they be of any use but when sound is to be mentioned. The time of pronunciation was in the dactylic measures of the learned languages capable of considerable variety; but that variety could be accommodated only to motion or duration, and different degrees of motion were perhaps expressed by verses rapid or slow, without much attention of the writer, when the image had full possession of his fancy; but our language having little flexibility, our verses can differ very little in their cadence. The fancied resemblances, I fear, arise sometimes merely from the ambiguity of words; there is supposed to be some relation between a soft line and a soft couch, or between hard syllables and hard fortune. Motion, however, may be in some sort exemplified, and yet it may be suspected that in such resemblances the mind often governs the idea, and the sounds are estimated by their meaning. One of their most successful attempts has been to describe the labour of Sisyphus :
With many a weary step, and many a groan,
Up the high hill he heaves a huge round stone;
The huge round stone, resulting with a bound,
Thunders impetuous down, and smokes along the ground.
Who does not perceive the stone to move slowly upward, and roll violently back? But set the same numbers to another sense :
While many a merry tale, and many a song,
Cheered the rough road, we wished the rough road long;
The rough road then, returning in a round,
Mocked our impatient steps, for all was fairy ground.
We have surely now lost much of the delay, and much of the rapidity. But to show how little the greatest master of numbers can fix the principles of representative harmony, it will be sufficient to remark that the poet who tells us that
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main ;
when he had enjoyed for about thirty years the praise of Camilla's lightness of foot, he tried another experiment upon sound and time, and produced this memorable triplet :
Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
Here are the swiftness of the rapid race, and the march of slowpaced majesty, exhibited by the same poet in the same sequence of syllables, except that the exact prosodist will find the line of swiftness by one time longer than that of tardiness. Beauties of this kind are commonly fancied, and when real are technical and nugatory, not to be rejected, and not to be solicited.-JOHNSON.
The Essay on Criticism is a poem of that species for which our author's genius was particularly turned,—the didactic and moral. It is therefore, as might be expected, a master-piece in its kind. I have been sometimes inclined to think that the praises Addison has bestowed on it were a little partial and invidious. "The observations," says he, "follow one another like those in Horace's Art of Poetry, without that methodical regularity which would have been requisite in a prose writer." It is, however, certain that the poem before us is by no means destitute of a just integrity, and a lucid order. Each of the precepts and remarks naturally introduce the succeeding ones, so as to form an entire whole. The Spectator adds, "The observations in this Essay are some of them uncommon.' There is, I fear, a small mixture of ill-nature in these words; for this Essay, though on a beaten subject, abounds in many new remarks and original rules, as well as in many happy and beautiful illustrations and applications of the old ones. We are, indeed, amazed to find such a knowledge of the world, such a maturity of judgment, and such a penetration into human nature, as are here displayed, in
This language, held by Warton in his Essay on the Genius of Pope, was subsequently reversed by him in his edition of Pope's Works. He then acknowledged that the notion of "a methodical regularity" in the Essay on Criticism was a groundless opinion."
so very young a writer as was Pope when he produced this Essay, for he was not twenty years old. Correctness and a just taste are usually not attained but by long practice and experience in any art ; but a clear head and strong sense were the characteristical qualities of our author, and every man soonest displays his radical excellences. If his predominant talent be warmth and vigour of imagination it will break out in fanciful and luxuriant descriptions, the colouring of which will perhaps be too rich and glowing. If his chief force lies in the understanding rather than in the imagination, it will soon appear by solid and manly observations on life or learning, expressed in a more chaste and subdued style. The former will frequently be hurried into obscurity or turgidity, and a false grandeur of diction; the latter will seldom hazard a figure whose usage is not already established, or an image beyond common life; will always be perspicuous if not elevated; will never disgust if not transport his readers; will avoid the grosser faults if not arrive at the greater beauties of composition. When we consider the just taste, the strong sense, the knowledge of men, books, and opinions that are so predominant in the Essay on Criticism, we must readily agree to place the author among the first critics, though not, as Dr. Johnson says, 66 among the first poets," on this account alone. rank much higher for his Eloïsa and Rape of the Lock. The Essay, it is said, was first written in prose, according to the precept of Vida, and the practice of Racine, who was accustomed to draw out in plain prose, not only the subject of each of the five acts, but of every scene, and every speech, that he might see the conduct and coherence of the whole at one view, and would then say, "My tragedy is finished."-WARTON.
As a poet he must
Most of the observations in this Essay are just, and certainly evince good sense, an extent of reading, and powers of comparison, considering the age of the author, extraordinary. Johnson's praise however is exaggerated.—BOWLES.
Essay" in Pope's day was used in its now obsolete sense of an attempt. Stephens in 1648 entitled his translation of the five first books of the Thebais "an Essay upon Statius:" and Denham's Essay on the second book of Virgil's Æneis " is a version and not a dissertation. "I have undertaken," Dryden wrote to Walsh, "to translate all Virgil; and as an essay have already paraphrased the third Georgic as an example." Two quotations in Johnson's Dictionary,- -one from Dryden, the other from Glanville,—show that the word was usually understood to imply diffidence. Dryden, in his Epistle to Roscommon, says,
Yet modestly he does his work survey,