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THIS illustrious poet was born at London, in 1688, and was descended from a good family of that name in Oxfordshire, the head of which was the Earl of Downe, whose sole heiress married the Earl of Lindsey. His father, a man of primitive simplicity and integrity of manners, was a merchant of London, who, upon the Revolution, quitted trade, and converted his effects into money, amounting to near 10,000l. with which he retired into the country; and died in 1717, at the age of seventy-five.
Our poet's mother, who lived to a very advanced age, being ninety-three years old when she died, in 1733, was the daughter of William Turner, Esq. of York. She had three brothers, one of whom was killed, another died in the service of King Charles; and the eldest, following his fortunes, and becoming a general officer in Spain, left her what estate remained after sequestration and forfeitures of her family. To these circumstances our poet alludes in his Epistles to Dr. Arbuthnot, in which he mentions his parents:
Of gentle blood (part shed in honour's cause,
Each parent sprang-What fortune, pray?-their own;
The good man walk'd innoxious through his age:
No courts he saw, no suits would ever try;
His life, though long, to sickness pass'd unknown;
The education of our great author was attended with circumstances very singular, and some of them extremely unfavourable; but the amazing force of his genius fully compensated the want of any advantage in his earliest instruction. He owed the knowledge of his letters to an aunt; and having learned very early to read, took great delight in it, and taught himself to write by copying after printed books, the characters of which he would imitate to great perfection. He began to compose verses farther back than he could well remember; and at eight years of age, when he was put under one Taverner, a priest, who taught him the rudiments of the Latin and Greek tongues at the same time, he met with Ogilby's Homer, which gave him great delight; and this was increased by Sandy's Ovid. The raptures which these authors, even in the disguise of such translations, then yielded him, were so strong, that he spoke of them with pleasure ever after. From Mr. Taverner's tuition he was sent to a private school at Twyford, near Winchester, where he continued about a year, and was then removed to another near Hyde Park Corner; but was so unfortunate as to lose under his two last masters what he had acquired under the first.
While he remained at this school, being permitted to go to the playhouse with some of his schoolfellows of a more advanced age, he was so charmed with dramatic representations, that he formed the translation of the Iliad into a play, from several of
the speeches in Ogilby's translation, connected with verses of his own; and the several parts were performed by the upper boys of the school, except that of Ajax by the master's gardener. At the age of twelve our young poet went to his father, to reside at his house at Binfield, in Windsor Forest, where he was, for a few months, under the tuition of another priest, with as little success as before; so that he resolved now to become his own master, by reading those classic writers which gave him most entertainment; and by this method, at fifteen he gained a ready habit in the learned languages, to which he soon after added the French and Italian. Upon his retreat to the forest, he became first acquainted with the writings of Waller, Spenser, and Dryden; in the last of which he immediately found what he wanted, and the poems of that excellent writer were never out of his hands; they became his model, and from them alone he learned the whole magic of his versification.
The first of our author's compositions now extant in print, is an Ode on Solitude, written before he was twelve years old; which, considered as the production of so early an age, is a perfect master-piece; nor need he be ashamed of it had it been written in the meridian of his genius; while it breathes the most delicate spirit of poetry, it at the same time demonstrates his love of solitude, and the rational pleasures which attend the retreats of a contented country life. Two years after this he translated the First Book of Statius's Thebais, and wrote a copy of verses on Silence, in imitation of the Earl of Rochester's Poem on Nothing. Thus we find him no sooner capable of holding the pen than he employed it in writing
"He lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came." Though we have had frequent opportunity to observe that poets have given carly displays of genius
yet we cannot recollect that amongst the inspired tribe one can be found who, at the age of twelve, could produce so animated an ode, or at the age of fourteen, translate from the Latin. It had been reported, indeed, concerning Mr. Dryden, that when he was at Westminster school, the master, who has assigned a poetical task to some of the boys of writing a paraphrase on our Saviour's miracle of turning water into wine, was perfectly astonished when young Dryden presented him with the following line, which he asserted was the best comment could be written upon it;
The conscious water saw its God and blush'd.
This was the only instance of an early appearance of genius in this great man, for he was turned of thirty before he acquired any reputation: an age in which Mr. Pope's was in its full distinction.
The year following that in which Mr. Pope wrote his poem on Silence, he began an epic poem, entitled Alcander, which he afterwards very judiciously committed to the flames, as he did likewise a comedy and a tragedy, the latter taken from a story in the legend of St. Genevieve, both of these being the product of those early days; but his Pastorals, which were writ ten in 1704, when he was only sixteen years of age, were esteemed by Sir William Trumbal, Mr.. Granville, Mr. Wycherley, Mr. Walsh, and other of his friends, too valuable to be condemned to the same fate.
The three great writers of pastoral dialogue, which Mr. Pope, in some measure, seems to imitate, are Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser; Mr. Pope is of opinion that Theocritus excels all others in nature and simplicity.
That Virgil, who copies Theocritus, refines on his original; and in all points in which judgment has the principal part, is much superior to his master.