Page images

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,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;

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,
The long majestic march, and energy divine.

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. As a poet he must 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.

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,

And calls a finished poem an essay;

[merged small][ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

and Glanville says, "This treatise prides itself in no higher a title than that of an essay, or imperfect attempt at a subject." Locke named his great and elaborate work an Essay on the Human Understanding," from the consciousness that it was an ❝ imperfect attempt," and when hostile critics refused him the benefit of his modest title, he answered that they did his book an honour "in not suffering it to be an essay." Pope borrowed both the word, and the plan of his poem, from some works which enjoyed in his youth a credit far beyond their worth, the Essay on Translated Verse by the Earl of Roscommon, and the Essay on Satire, and the Essay on Poetry by the Earl of Mulgrave, afterwards Duke of Buckingham. These small productions had been suggested in their turn by Horace's Art of Poetry, and its modern imitations. Roscommon and Mulgrave, men of common-place minds, were incapable of originality, and Pope, with the latent genius of a leader, was a follower in early years.

"The things that I have written fastest," said Pope to Spence, "have always pleased the most. I wrote the Essay on Criticism fast; for I had digested all the matter in prose bofore I began upon it in verse. "91 This last circumstance was mentioned by Warton in his Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, long before the Anecdotes of Spence were published, and Johnson commented upon the statement in his review of Warton's work. "There is nothing," he said, "improbable in the report, nothing indeed but what is more likely than the contrary; yet I cannot forbear to hint the danger and weakness of trusting too readily to information. Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of false information, or enable any man to conceive that so many groundless reports should be propagated as every man of eminence may hear of himself. Some men relate what they think as what they know; some men of confused memories and habitual inaccuracy ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and some talk on without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by successive relators."2 The caution was not intended to discredit the evidence of Spence. Warton had suppressed his authority, and Johnson had a proper mistrust of common hearsay.

On the title-page of the poem in the quarto of 1717, it is said, that it was "C written in the year 1709," to which Richardson has attached the note, "Mr. Pope told me himself that the Essay on Criticism was, indeed, written 1707, though said 1709 by mistake." The poet continued the alleged mistake through all succeeding revisions. The quarto of 1743 was the last edition he superintended, and 1709

1 Singer's Spence, p. 107.

2 Johnson's Works, ed. Murphy, vol. ii. p. 354.

appears as usual upon the title-page, but Warburton announced in the final sentence of the commentary, that the Essay was "the work of an author who had not attained the twentieth year of his age," and as the author was born in May, 1688, he must, according to this testimony, have completed his task before May, 1708, which confirms the account of Richardson. Pope had thus assigned one date to his piece on the first page of the quarto of 1743, and sanctioned the promulgation of a different date on the concluding page. There is the same contradiction in his conversations with Spence. "My Essay on Criticism," he said on one occasion, was written in 1709, and published in 1711, which is as little time as ever I let anything of mine lay by me.' This agrees with the printed title-page. "I showed Walsh," he said to Spence on another occasion, "my Essay on Criticism in 1706. He died the year after."2 This falls in with the evidence of Richardson and Warburton; for Walsh died on March 15, 1708, and 1706 was an error for 1707. The double date reappears in a note to the Pope Letters of 1735, solely through a change in the punctuation. "Mr. Walsh," it was said in some copies,

[ocr errors]



Such a series of conflicting state. When Pope published the quarto again altered the note. "Mr.

died at 49 years old, in the year 1708. The year after Mr. Pope writ the Essay on Criticism." "Mr. Walsh," it was said in other copies, "died at 49 years old in the year 1708, the year after Mr. Pope writ the Essay on Criticism." In the first version it is asserted that the poem was written in 1709, or the year after Mr. Walsh died; in the second version it is asserted that it was written in 1707, and that Mr. Walsh died the year after. ments could not all be accidental. edition of his Letters in 1737, he Walsh," he then said, "died at 49 years old, in the year 1708, the year before the Essay on Criticism was printed," which informs us of the new fact that it was printed a couple of years before it was published, and since the poet assured Spence that it was written two or three years before it was printed, we have the date of its composition once more thrown back to 1707. Pope forgot the confession in the poem, ver. 735-740, that in consequence of having "lost his guide " by the death of Walsh, he was afraid to attempt ambitious themes, and selected the Essay on Criticism as a topic suited to "low numbers." However fictitious may have been the reason he assigned for the choice of his subject, he there admits that he did not form the design till after the death of his friend in March 1708. In his later statements he oscillated between the truth, and the desire to magnify the precocity of his genius. He was always ambitious of the kind of praise which Johnson bestows upon the Essay, when he calls it "the stupendous performance of a youth not yet twenty." But at 2 Spence, p. 147. 3 Spence, p. 205.

1 Spence, p. 128.

whatever period the poem was first written, it did not appear till May, 1711, and represents the capacity of Pope at twenty-three. He avowedly kept his pieces long in manuscript for the purpose of maturing and polishing them, and they were as good as he could make them at the period when they finally left his hands.

The Essay on Criticism was published anonymously. Warton was informed by Lewis the bookseller, that "it laid many days in his shop unnoticed and unread." Pope wrote word to Caryll, July 19, 1711, that he did not expect it would ever arrive at a second edition. Piqued, said Lewis, at the neglect, the poet one day directed copies to several great men, and among others to Lord Lansdowne, and the Duke of Buckingham. These presents caused the work to be talked about.1 The name of the author, which soon transpired, assisted the sale, and the paper of Addison in the Spectator on December 20, 1711, brought the Essay under the notice of the entire reading world, though it was still another twelvemonth before the thousand copies were exhausted.

The notoriety, if not the sale, of the Essay on Criticism must have been promoted by the angry pamphlet put forth by Dennis six months before the laudatory paper of Addison appeared in the Spectator. Dennis was the only living writer who was openly abused in the poem, and there was an asperity in the language which savoured of personal hostility. He and Pope were slightly acquainted. "At his first coming to town," says Dennis, "he was very importunate with the late Mr. Henry Cromwell to introduce him to me. The recommendation of Mr. Cromwell engaged me to be about thrice in company with him; after which I went into the country, and neither saw him, nor thought of him, till I found myself insolently attacked by him in his very superficial Essay on Criticism." A passage quoted by Bowles from Pope's Prologue to the Satires reveals the cause of the enmity :

Soft were my numbers; who could take offence
While pure description held the place of sense?
Like gentle Fanny's was my flow'ry theme,
A painted mistress, or a purling stream.
Yet then did Dennis rave in furious fret;
I never answered, -I was not in debt.

Here we learn that Dennis thought meanly of Pope's Pastorals.

1 Warton's Pope, vol. i. p. xviii.

2 Dennis's Reflections, Critical and Satyrical, upon a late Rhapsody called An Essay upon Criticism, was advertised as "this day published" in The Daily Courant of June 20, 1711. Pope sent the pamphlet to Caryll on June 25, and in a letter to Cromwell of the same date, he says "Mr. Lintot favoured me with a sight of Mr. Dennis's piece of fine satire before it was published."

3 Remarks upon Mr. Pope's Dunciad, p. 39.

4 Ver. 147.

« EelmineJätka »