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small, lean, so crooked as to be called an interrogation point, so weak that he had to be corseted and sewn up in flannels. But this was in later life. As a child, his half-sister tells us, he was a pretty, healthy boy with a rosy face and a docile temper.
Education. — Pope's family were devout Catholics, and as such were unjustly discriminated against by the schools and laws of that time. As a Catholic could not enter the best schools, we find Pope receiving a desultory home education. He never had that disciplinary training which the prescribed studies of a college curriculum give; or at least are supposed to give. On the other hand, he escaped the deadening influences of bad teaching and uninteresting subjects. He read widely and abundantly. From twelve to seventeen he read omnivorously; at fifteen he persuaded his parents, who usually granted him what he desired, to allow him to go to London to learn French and Italian. Although it is said he mastered these languages in the few months he was in London, we know that is a polite exaggeration. Voltaire later said, “Pope, with whom I was intimately acquainted, could hardly read French and spoke not one syllable of our language."
By the time he was seventeen his devotion to learning and his total disregard of the laws of hygienic living had brought on the nervous breakdown to which his heredity disposed him. With the vanity so characteristic of his nature, he enjoyed giving a melancholy farewell to all his friends, for he expected to die. But the sensible family priest insisted that a good physician be consulted. Study less and ride out every day," was the laconic prescription given by the physician, proving that in spite of the universal custom of those days of curing all ills by blistering and bleeding, there were physicians of good sense.
Early Friends.- Near Binfield lived Mr. Lister Blount, whose two daughters, Teresa and Martha, play a long and prominent part in the life of Pope. Sir W. Trumbull, a retired diplomat, was a friend of the Popes, pleasing the father by praising the artichokes, and the son by riding with him and talking literature; he encouraged the boy to follow in the steps of Milton. From him Pope also received the suggestion about translating Homer. Another friend was William Walsh, the “knowing Walsh,” as Pope calls him, a gentleman of fortune and a critic highly praised by Dryden. He it was who gave the youthful poet a bit of advice that made a lifelong impression. We have had great poets, “but never one great poet that was correct.” To be a correct poet became the aim of Pope's effort.
Two other friends who had a great influence on Pope's early life were Cromwell, a distant relative of the great Protector, and Wycherley, the dramatist, wit, and courtier. Cromwell, thirty years older than Pope, with some reputation as a wit and beau, helped to introduce the youthful aspirant for literary honor into the society of celebrities. Wycherley was more than a gay man of town: he had written plays of some fame in an age when vulgarity was no bar to popularity. He was fifty years older than Pope, his last play, The Plain Dealer, having appeared eleven years before Pope's birth. There is no question but that at first Pope was flattered by the acquaintanceship of these men. It is unfortunate that his hero-worship was not more worthily bestowed.
Will's Coffeehouse was the literary center of London at that time, and there Pope frequently went, hoping to meet celebrities. At length in a slight way he made acquaintance with Addison and Steele. Swift visited London in 1705 and 1707, but he is not mentioned in the early letters of Pope.
The Three Groups. — Pope is preeminently a literary man. The story of his life is the story of his writings. These easily fall into three periods: 1. The Pastorals, Windsor Forest, Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock; 2. The Translation of Homer; 3. The Essay on Man, The Dunciad, and moral and satiric epistles. These are not the titles of all his writings, but only the principal ones in each group.
The Pastorals.- Pope made his formal introduction to the literary world in May, 1709, through the medium of Jacob Tonson's Sixth Miscellany, a collection of poems including work by Rowe, Garth, and pastorals by Ambrose Philips. These “miş
cellanies " appeared from time to time, having somewhat of the function of a modern magazine in bringing current literature before the public. The Pastorals were written in 1704, and before publication had been handed about in manuscript among admiring acquaintances.
Tonson was a man of some note, having served as Dryden's publisher; consequently the young Pope must have been highly flattered when he received a letter written on April 20, 1706, by Tonson,
“I have lately seen a pastoral of yours in Mr. Walsh's and Mr. Congreve's hands, which is extremely fine, and is generally approved by the best judges in poetry. I remember I have formerly seen you at my shop, and am sorry I did not improve my acquaintance with you. If you design your poem for the press, no person shall be more careful in printing of it, nor no one can give a greater encouragement to it.” Between this offer and the final publication, Pope busied himself in making translations from Ovid and Statius, and in paraphrasing one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Occasionally he visited London, cultivating the acquaintanceship of the wits and rakes. Pope was not given to dissipation, but he liked to be known as a man of the world, and sometimes lived a life that must have had a very injurious effect upon what Wycherley called his “little, crazy, tender carcass.”
To the modern reader it is hard to understand why the Pastorals were so highly praised by the reading public of two hundred and more years ago. Under the captions of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, we find the customary characteristics of the greater part of English pastoral poetry, a dearth of genuine feeling and a mixture of Greek and English names and ideas. As in early American poetry the English nightingale chanted from the depths of the American forest, so in the artificial pastoral poetry of the eighteenth century Greek gods and goddesses, satyrs, dryads, and milk-white bulls disported themselves in the Berkshire hills. A city roof-garden decorated with a few artificial ferns and palms bears about the same relation to nature that Pope's Pastorals do to country life. The old assump
tion, that pastoral poetry is the natural expression of the idyllic life of shepherds who, while tending their sheep, sit on rocks and pipe love ditties to blue-eyed innocence, has about as much truth in it as the modern theory that three acres of land spell liberty and prosperity for the possessor. The joys of country life are sung by the jaded denizens of the crowded city. The dweller in the country is usually too busy doing the chores to write poems. In modern times, however, the poet of pastoral pleasures does spend some time in the country with his eye on the object; in Pope's time he went to the library and searched his Vergil and Theocritus,
Essay on Criticism. — This poem of 744 lines, completed probably in 1709, and published anonymously in 1711, was considered a masterpiece by the critics of the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson declaring that it contained "every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactic composition.” The same enthusiastic critic considered the simile in this passage the finest in the language:
"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
A nineteenth-century critic, De Quincey, went to the other extreme, calling the Essay “a mere versification, like a metrical multiplication table, of commonplaces the most mouldy with which criticism has baited its rattraps."
Why is there such diversity of opinion? The answer is that the standard of the eighteenth century is not the standard of the nineteenth. To be fair to Pope we must seek to discover what he tried to do, what were his ideals. He was not an original observer, nor a profound thinker, nor a passionate reader of the heart of man. Imagination, mysticism, passion — these are terms that had no charm for Pope, nor for the age in which he lived. These lines in the Essay express his thought and his ideal:
“True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.” Nature is something too coarse and burly to appear in good society; to be original is impossible, therefore take old thoughts and shape them into unforgetable phrases. The eighteenth century was the age of the deification of Wit and Good Sense; an age in which philosophers like Hobbes and Locke extolled the supremacy of the understanding, when theologians like Tillotson preached the Gospel of Commonsense, and when Shakspere would have been placed among the great poets had he conformed to the canons of Aristotle. Knowing the eighteenth century, one is not surprised to learn that the epigrammatic terseness and the polished platitudes of the Essay on Criticism soon made Pope the most quoted poet in England. Couplets like these could not easily be forgotten:
“ 'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own."
Turned critics next, and proved plain fools at last.” The Rape of the Lock. - Merely mentioning Windsor Forest, Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, and Eloisa to Abelard, we come to The Rape of the Lock, published in 1714, of which a judicious critic writes, “No more brilliant, sparkling, vivacious trifle is to be found in our literature.” It is generally