« PreviousContinue »
MEMOIR OF POPE.
In the year 1688, on the second day of the month of May, there was born in Lombard Street, London, a child who was destined, very early in his life, to polish the English language to the highest pitch; and to give utterance in eloquent words, many of which have become proverbial, to the peculiar common sense and thought of his country.
That child was Alexander Pope; a tender, beautiful in. fant, but delicate, ailing, and slightly deformed by excessive weakness ; of sweet and gentle disposition; and with a voice so melodious that he was called in fondness “ The little nightingale."
His father was (he says himself) of a good family, and had made about twenty thousand pounds in trade-a very considerable sum in those days; his mother, Editha Pope, was one of the Yorkshire Turners.
Alexander was taught reading by an aunt; and at seven or eight years of age became passionately fond of it. He learned to write by imitating printed books, which he did with great skill.
The parents of Pope were Roman Catholics ; he was consequently placed with a Catholic priest, who resided in Hampshire, for education. The child was then eight years of age. Mr. Taverner, his tutor, appears to have been worthy of his pupil. By a method very rarely practised, he taught the little lad Greek and Latin at the same time. He also taught the child to love the classics by letting him read Ogilby's Homer, and Sandys's translation of Ovid in English. Ogilby does not seem to have impressed him favourably, though of course he was indebted to him for his first knowl. edge of the immortal tale of Troy ; but of Sandys he declares in his notes to the Iliad “that English poetry owes much of its beauty to his translations." His poem of Sandys's Ghost" (p. 383) shows how long he treasured his boyish predilection for this translation. Under the care of Mr. Taverner the young poet made great and rapid progress. He was, wien older, removed to a school at Twyford, a lovely village near Winchester ; but the master was so inferior to his first instructor, that the little fellow lampooned him, and was con. sequently sent home in disgrace. Pope could not remember when first he began to write verses ; "he lisped in number; for the numbers came,” he says of himself. “From pleasant Twyford and its inefficient master, he was removed to a school at Hyde Park Corner. While here, occasional visits to the theatre roused his infant genius, and he formed a play from Ogilby's translation of the Iliad, with verses of his own interspersed, which was acted by his schoolfellows: his master's gardener personating the mighty Ajax. He used to say that at these schools he lost a little of that which he had acquired under Mr. Taverner ; but as he translated at them more than a fourth part of Ovid's Metamorphoses,” his. loss must have been chiefly in Greek.
Whilst little Alexander Pope was at school, his parents were residing at a small house which his father had purchased, at Binfield in Windsor Forest. The hopes of Mr. Pope had, naturally, been cruelly disappointed when the king, who was of his own faith, fled, and Dutch William assumed the government wrested from his wife's father, Conscientiously he could not lend the usurper's government a penny of his honestly earned savings, therefore he kept his fortune in a chest, and lived on the capital-a sure way of diminishing the inheritance of the son he dearly loved, but whose worldly interests he would not place above the sincere dictates of his conscience. No doubt, in this our day, such a mode of action would be sneered at as fanatical and absurd. Let us at least allow that it was honest ; perhaps, if conscientious scruples existed still, we should not hear of such frequent ruin; at least Mr. Pope-père-preserved and enjoyed his wealth, and knew no fear of the bankruptcy of Moslem creditors.
It was to this pretty cottage by the wayside, with a row of elms in front, separating it from the road, and twenty acres of land behind it, that Mr. Pope recalled his gifted child, when Alexander had attained the age of twelve ; and so sweet and tranquil was his home, that the little fellow broke forth at once into rhyme and wrote the “ Ode on Solitude;" see page 358. His father and mother must have been delighted with it. The father, proud of the child's precocious talents, encouraged him to write verses, criticis. ing them, and never consenting to be satisfied till they had been made as perfect as the young poet could render them; that “ best ” attained, he would say with paternal satisfaction, “ These are good rhymes !”
A happy life for the studious boy if only he had not suffered so from cruel headaches, and been unable to join in boyish sports or exercise. For a few months he had a tutor at home, a Mr. Deane ; but did only a little of “Tully's offices” with him. Thenceforward Pope taught himself; and-at twelve years old !-formed a plan of study from which he never deviated.
Reading the English poets of those days—amongst whom Shakespeare was scarcely reckoned-he at once detected the superiority of Dryden, and, in his youthful enthusiasm, persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house frequented by the great poet, that he might at least gaze on « Glorious John." As Dryden died before Pope was twelve years old, this visit must, however, date previous to his return to the Binfield home.
At fourteen he made a version of the first book of the « 'Thebais” of Statius; he translated also t'ı epistle from Sappho to Phaon–from Ovid-and modernised Chaucer's “January and May,” and “ Prologue to the Wife of Bath.” At fourteen, also, 'ie wrote his poem on “ Silence” in imitation of Lord Rochester's “ Not ing.”
At fifteen he became desir sus of adding a knowledge of modern languages to Greek : nd Latin; he went to London, and learned French and Italian. Returning to his home, he appears to have devoted himself to ? ^rary pursuits. He wrote a tragedy, a comedy, and an epic poem; and confesses that “ he thought himself a great genius.” The boy rated himself only at his real value. The tragedy was founded on the legend of St. Geneviève, the epic poeni was called “Alcander;” but the maturer judgment of the m: i condemned all these 'performances to destruction. He was also a great and universal reader.
Before he was quite sixteen he won a friend of the greatest importance to his future success in lifu.
Scarcely two miles from the residence of Pope's father there lived, at that time, Sir William Trumbull or Trumball. IIe had been a statesman and an ambassador, but at sixty years of age, sought repose and quiet enjoyment in the country. The boy of genius was introduced to the old man of ciety and politics, and both were charmed by the acqu ntance.
In 1704 the lad submitted his MS. “ Pastorals” to the inspection of his new friend, and received the highest commendation from him. The MS. was shown to competent judges, who at once decided that it evinced the dawn of genius. In the present day thɔ Pastorals will scarcely be thought to presag : such a future as that of the witty satirist and shrewd thinker: but if we consider how inferior the poets of that age were--Dryday alone surviving from them— we shall not wonder at Sir William Trumbull's admiration of Pope': smooth and elegan: orses.
The “ Pastorals (still in -13.) were shown next-perhaps by Cir William himself to tho old dramatist Wycherley, who lived near; this celebrated wit, then near seventy, professed :-imself enchanted with the poem“, and at once invited Pope to his house. A friendship sprang up between the youth of sixteen and the septuagenarian; the former paying the natural homage of youth to the fashionable writer of the ag? jy passing away; the selfish old roué anxiou3 tɔ uso the great talents of the young poet in the revision of his own writings.
By Wycherley, the “Pastorals” were shown to Cromwell, an amateur critic and man of the world; and by Cromwell to Walsh, a minor poet, but who it seems was a very judicious critic.
The friendship between Wycherley and Pope was not, however, of long duration. The old writer requested the young one to correct his poems; Pope complied, and did his task honestly and thoroughly; but with ingenuous frankness ended by advising Wycherley to turn his poems into prose! The old bard never forgave this plain speaking, but Pope retained a feeling of kindness for his friend to the last, and visited him shortly before his death.
Walsh, whose own poems have long since sunk to oblivion, encouraged Pope by his praise; and advised him to especially study correctness, hitherto entirely neglected by English poets.
The “ Pastorals” were published in 1709 in Tonson's Miscellany, in a volume “ wlich began with the ‘Pastorals' of Philips,” says Johnson, “and ended with those of Pope.” The same year he wrote the “ Essay on criticism.” Addison praised it in the “Spectator;" but the celebrated critic of the day, Dennis, wrote an abusive pamphlet against it, and Pope allowed that Dennis had hit upon some blunders in the first edition. His co-religionists also reprobated this Essay as being too severe on the monastic orders, and too laudatory of Erasmus. The poem is a very remarkable one to have been written by a youth of twenty years of age.
It was followed by the beautiful poem “The Messiah," written at the suggestion of Steele, and criticised by him before its publication in the “ Spectator.” The “ Verses on an Unfortunate Lady” were composed about the same time as the Essay. There is no absolute certainty even now as to whom this lady might have been. It is said that her name was Winsberry, and that she was a sister of Lord Gage ;that she was the same lady to whom the Duke of Buckingham wrote a song, entitled “To a Lady retiring to a Convent ;" by Voltaire she was said to be a lady who had fallen in love with a French prince, the Duke of Berry, and whose love had proved vain and hopeless.
In 1711 Pope produced that poem which at once placed him on the highest eminence of fame, “ The Rape of the Lock.” It was founded on fact, and was good-naturedly ineant to reconcile friends who had quarrelled. In the second edition he rendered the poem a masterpiece of its kind, by the delicate and playful machinery of the sylphs. Addison advised him not to venture on this elegant and fanciful addition to the original, but Pope clung to his idea with the tenacity of genius, and, finally, finding it success. ful, suspected the cautious critic of jealousy, and of a wisiz to prevent him (Pope)from taking a high place in literature.
or The 20th of September, 1714, was distinguished,” says Bowles, “ by the coronation of George the First. On this occasion the following verses (Epistle to Miss Blount) were written, generally understood (and so given out by Pope) as addressed to Martha Blount . . . . . ." They were, however, really addressed to her sister Teresa, who at that time was thought a reigning beauty in London.
In the quaint fashion of the age, Teresa Blount had for some years corresponded with a Mr. James Moore-afterwards he took the name in addition of Smythe or Smith-as Zephalinda, the gentleman rejoicing in the non de plume of Alexis, while Martha was called Parthenia. The names,