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conceded to be the best specimen of the mock-heroic in our language. The poet has taken a trivial incident, the stealing by a Lord Petre of a lock of hair from a Miss Fermor. This theft had caused some unpleasant feeling, and a friend of Pope's, Caryl, thought Pope could reestablish good feeling by writing a poem about the occurrence.
The character of the poem is well illustrated in the opening lines; Homer, Vergil, and Milton begin their great epics with serious invocations, while Pope begins with,
“What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty Rage?” In The Rape of the Lock Pope found a subject especially suited to his talents. Lacking that force and originality of the higher order of poets whose passion burns the dross from our hearts and whose sanity gives us a wholesome interpretation of life, Pope's imitative and polish-loving mind could best display its power in a trifle that called for wit and brilliancy. Freed from the ill-natured personalities that give so much piquancy to his other satires, this poem has charmed the critics of two centuries. Hazlitt has called it the "most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented. It is made of gauze and silver spangles, . . . it is the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery and folly."
His Quarrels.Pope was of a jealous, suspicious, and vindictive disposition — the kind of man to whom indirection and duplicity were far more interesting than straightforwardness and truthfulness. Throughout his life he was steeped in the venom of hate; he was never without his quarrel. This was due partly to his own temperament, partly to the character of his age. That the whole responsibility cannot be laid upon the spirit of the age is seen in the contemporary life of the amiable Addison that all the responsibility cannot be laid to the personality of Pope is evident to one familiar with the bickerings and factional animosities of the so-called English Augustan Age—an age which, as Mr. Ward well says, while not the most immoral, was certainly the most scandalous.
“If a man avowed himself, or caused himself to be supposed, the opponent of another, or of his coterie, or the supporter of a coterie opposed to the latter, any means of bringing his face to the grindstone was accounted within the limits of legitimate warfare. To blacken his character, to blast his reputation, to defile his grandfather's grave, all these things followed as a matter of course. .. How unnatural in the eyes of a more self-possessed posterity seems this age: when great poets made war upon women, when no enemy was deemed too weak to be worthy of the most practised steel.”
Pope's first important literary quarrel was with Dennis, who had written a tragedy called Appius and Virginia. In his Essay on Criticism Pope wrote.
“But Appius reddens at each word you speak,
Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry.” This called forth a bitter pamphlet from Dennis, in which he called Pope a hypocrite, a hunch-backed toad, a monkey with a mind as misshapen as his body was deformed. Such were the gentle amenities, such was the noble art of criticism, in the polished Augustan Age!
Of all Pope's early literary quarrels, to us the most interesting is that with Addison; not because there is any substance or dignity to the quarrel, but because of its connection with the gifted author of the De Coverley Papers. Without going into detail concerning the quarrel, we may say that the one impression that abides is that Addison's urbanity affords a striking contrast to the peevishness of Pope. The following passage against Addi
son, taken from The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, is one of the best examples of Pope's satire:
“Peace to all such! but were there one whose fires
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?” Translation of Homer.- For his translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, a task covering a period of ten years, he received the handsome sum of about £9,000, a princely reward in the light of the meager compensation which Pope had received for his previous efforts. Very appropriately now might he say that “thanks to Homer he could live and thrive, indebted to no prince or peer alive.” It is certainly to the credit of Pope that so many of his friends, both titled and untitled, busied themselves so earnestly in securing many names on the advance subscription list. The Iliad eventually appeared in six volumes at a guinea a volume, and the Odyssey in five volumes, at the same price. Lord Harley subscribed for ten sets of the Odyssey for himself, five sets for his wife, and one for his daughter. This meant eighty volumes of quarto size for the library, and an expenditure of four hundred dollars from a single subscriber.
Is the translation a great achievement? His contemporaries generally said “yes” to that question, and it is significant that today if one asks a bookseller for a translation of the Iliad he is apt to receive a copy of Pope's. But the gruff verdict of Dr. Bentley, the great Greek scholar of Pope's time, is the verdict of the critical scholars of our generation - "a very pretty poem, but not Homer." Yet a hundred years after its publication Byron cries enthusiastically, “Who will ever lay down Pope except for the original? As a child I first read Pope's Homer with a rapture which no subsequent work could ever afford.” And Gray, Gibbon, and Johnson have been admirers of Pope's version, Johnson calling it “the noblest version of poetry the world has ever seen.”
The ideal translation of Homer, like the ideal school, has not yet appeared, nor is it ever likely to appear. To reproduce a poetic version of the immortal bard requires a rare combination of scholarship and poetic genius. We have great scholars and there have been poetic geniuses, but it is too much to expect one body to be the holy temple of scholarship and poetic genius. Pope was neither a Greek scholar nor was he a poetic genius of the highest order. He had skill and taste in versification, but he was far removed from the elemental simplicity, the magnanimity, the sanity, and wholesome passion of Homer. What he did have has been well described by Mr. Leslie Stephen:
“Pope's style, when he is at his best, has the merit of being thoroughly alive; there are no dead masses of useless verbiage; every excrescence has been carefully pruned away; ... We have the pleasure which we receive from really polished oratory; every point is made to tell; ... The speeches of his heroes are often admirable, full of spirit, well balanced and skilfully arranged pieces of rhetoric -- not a mere inorganic series of observations."
His deficiency in Greek scholarship made his translation of Homer a tedious task. In later years he told his friend Spence:
"In the beginning of my translating the Iliad, I wished anybody would hang me a hundred times. It sat so heavily on my mind at first that I often used to dream of it, and do sometimes still. When I fell into the method of translating thirty or forty verses before I got up, and piddled with it the rest of the morning, it went on easy enough; and when I was thoroughly got into the way of it I did the rest with pleasure.”
So arduous was this work that when he later came to translating the Odyssey he called in two of his friends, Broome and Fenton, to help both in translating and in composition. Broome translated eight and Fenton four of the books, but with that duplicity too common in his career, Pope induced the obliging Broome to sign a statement that he had done only three of the books, and that Fenton had translated but two.
When the Iliad was finished, Gay, the poet, wrote a very flattering tribute to Pope, a Welcome from Greece, in which the poet is greeted joyously after his long sojourn in classic Hellas. Not all greetings were as flattering as this. His old enemy Dennis was lying in wait with a criticism that was almost brutal in its vehemence. He called the translation barbarous, flat, obscure, and unnatural, and the translator a rhymester without judgment, a Jesuitical pretender to truth, and a barbarous wretch.
The Dunciad. - This is a satiric poem in celebration of the dunce. As the Iliad is the epic of Troy, the Aeneid the epic of Aeneas, so the Dunciad is the epic of the dunces who at one time or another have offended Pope. The first edition, appearing in May, 1728, consisted of three books or cantos; at present it consists of four books with a total of 1754 lines. So bitter was the satire that Pope, fearing the natural resentment of his victims, published it anonymously. The title page contained the imprint of A. Dodd, Dublin, publisher, a fictitious firm.
The Dunciad has the reputation of being the cleverest satire ever directed against the literary tribe of scribblers and denizens of Grub Street. To us of the present day the wit is sometimes obscure and the satire coarse. Cowell goes so far as to say, “It is filthy even in a filthy age, and Swift himself-could not have gone beyond some parts of it. One's mind needs to be sprinkled with some disinfecting Auid after reading it.” The second book is most offensive, the fourth is considered the best.