« PreviousContinue »
The illiberal and unfeeling style in which Johnson has so frequently indulged, in his Life of Pope, is strikingly exemplified in the manner in which he has treated the subject of these verses. Without affording us any information as to the real facts, he supposes that the Lady was “impatient, violent, and ungovernable;" that “her desires were too hot for delay, and that she liked selfmurder better than suspense;" to which he adds, that “poetry has not often been worse employ'd, than in dignifying the amorous fury of a raving girl!"
Such are the criticisms to which this poem has given rise-a piece which, although produced at an early age, is not exceeded in pathos and true poetry by any production of its author. But whilst we admit the extraordinary powers displayed by the Poet, we cannot but perceive that they are apparently employed to give a sanction to an act of criminality, and to inculcate principles which cannot be too cautiously guarded against. It must, however, be observed, that this piece is not to be judged of by the common rules of criticism. It is, in fact, a spontaneous burst of indignation against the authors of the calamity which it records. Throughout the whole poem, the author speaks as if he were under a delusion, and utters sentiments which would be wholly unpardonable at other times. It is only in this light that we can excuse the violence of many of the expressions, which border on the very verge of impiety. The first line of the poem demonstrates that he is no longer under the control of reason. He sees the ghost of the
person whom he so highly admired and loved. The “visionary sword” gleams before his eyes, and in the excess of his grief he perceives nothing but what is great and noble in the act that terminated her life. This impassioned strain is continued till his anger is turned against the author of her sufferings, when it is poured out in one of the most terrific passages which poetry, either ancient or modern, can exhibit; a passage in which indignation and revenge seem to absorb every other feeling, and to involve not only the offender, but all who are connected with him, in indiscriminate destruction. Nor is this sufficient-their destruction must be the cause of exultation to others, and they are to become the objects of insult and abhorrence
“ There passengers shall stand, and pointing say, &c.”
Compassion at length succeeds to resentment, and pity to terror. The poet in some degree assumes his own character, and his feelings are expressed in language of the deepest affection and tenderness, which impresses itself indelibly on the memory of the reader.
The concluding lines, whilst they display the ardour of real passion, demonstrate how greatly the author was attached to the art he professed ;-that, and his affection for the object of his grief, could only expire together;
“ The Muse forgot and thou belov'd no more.”
TO THE MEMORY OF
AN UNFORTUNATE LADY.*
Whatbeck’ning ghost, along the moon-light shade
* See the Duke of Buckingham's Verses to a Lady designing to retire into a Monastery, compared with Mr. Pope's Letters to several Ladies, p. 206, quarto Edition. She seems to be the same person whose unfortunate death is the subject of this poem.
P. Ver. 1. What beck'ning ghost,]
“What gentle ghost besprent with April dew,
Ben Jonson. The cruelties of her relations, the desolation of the family, the being deprived of the rites of sepulture, the circumstance of dying in a country remote from her relations, are all touched with great tenderness and pathos, particularly the four lines from the 51st:
By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos'd; Which lines may remind one of that exquisite stroke in the Philoctetes of Sophocles, who, among other afflicting circumstances, had not near him any σύνδροφος όμμα. ver. 171.
The true cause of the excellence of this Elegy is, that the occasion of it was real ; so true is the maxim, that nature is more powerful than fancy ; and that we can always feel more than we can imagine; and that VOL. III.
Oh ever beauteous, ever friendly ! tell, 5
Why bade ye else, ye Pow'rs! her soul aspire
NOTES. the most artful fiction must give way to truth ; for this Lady was beloved by Pope. After many and wide inquiries, I have been informed that her name was Wainsbury; and that (which is a singular circumstance) she was as ill-shaped and deformed as our author. Her death was not by a sword, but, what would less bear to be told poetically, she hanged herself. Johnson has too severely censured this Elegy, when he says, “ that it has drawn much attention by the illaudable singularity, of treating suicide with respect;" and that “poetry has not often been worse employed, than in dignifying the amorous fury of a raving girl.” She seems to have been driven to this desperate act by the violence and cruelty of her uncle and guardian, who forced her to a convent abroad; and to which circumstance Pope alludes in one of his Letters.
From these perhaps (ere nature bade her die)
But thou, false guardian of a charge too good, Thou mean deserter of thy brother's blood !
30 See on these ruby lips the trembling breath, These cheeks now fading at the blast of death ; Cold is that breast which warm’d the world before, And those love-darting eyes must roll no more. Thus, if eternal justice rules the ball,
35 Thus shall your wives, and thus your children fall: : On all the line a sudden vengeance waits, And frequent hearses shall besiege your gates ; There passengers shall stand, and pointing say, , (While the long funerals blacken all the way) 40 Lo! these were they, whose souls the Furies steeld, And curs’d with hearts unknowing how to yield. Thus unlamented pass the proud away, The gaze of fools, and pageant of a day! So perish all, whose breast ne'er learn’d to glow 45 For others good, or melt at others woe.
What can atone, oh ever-injur'd shade! Thy fate unpity'd, and thy rites unpaid ? No friend's complaint, no kind domestic tear Pleas'd thy pale ghost, or grac'd thy mournful bier. By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos’d, By foreign hands thy decent limbs compos'd,