Every one values Mr Pope

James Winn

  • Alexander Pope: A Critical Edition edited by Pat Rogers
    Oxford, 706 pp, £11.95, July 1993, ISBN 0 19 281346 3
  • Essays on Pope by Pat Rogers
    Cambridge, 273 pp, £30.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 521 41869 0

Alexander Pope’s talent for inspiring enmity is central to his reputation. His contemporary enemies were impressive in quantity and intensity: J.V. Guerinot’s bibliography of Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope (1969) lists over six hundred items, including works in dreadful verse and sputtering prose denouncing Pope’s poetry, religion, morality and body – some illustrated by pictures caricaturing the hunchbacked poet as an ape with a papal tiara. The first extended treatment of his work, Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, accused him of lacking imagination, and went so far as to doubt whether his works should be called poetry. Matthew Arnold took this line further, dismissing Pope and Dryden as ‘classics of our prose’. Attacks on Pope’s morals also continued in the 19th century: C.W. Dilke was shocked to discover that Pope had ‘cooked’ a few letters in his published correspondence by claiming that he had sent them to persons more famous than the actual addressees; Whitwell Elwin assailed this piece of petty chicanery – utterly ordinary by the standards of most published 18th-century correspondence – as a dark sin against universal morality. It was a short distance from Elwin’s hostile footnotes to Lytton Strachey’s famous description of Pope as a monkey pouring boiling oil down on his victims. F.W. Bateson, who edited one volume of the Twickenham edition, came away with a low opinion of Pope’s mind: ‘Pope couldn’t think,’ he wrote in 1971. ‘Is there a single memorable aperçu in all his letters? The contrast with Gray, or Keats, or even Hopkins, is glaring.’ Ignoring Pope’s outsider status, a product of his Roman Catholic faith and his physical handicap, some self-proclaimed New Historicists have slandered him as an apologist for such establishment vices as colonialism, which he explicitly and powerfully deplored.

With such enemies, Pope did (and does) need friends. His correspondence records scores of relationships carefully and devotedly nurtured; some of these friends, notably the Earl of Oxford and the Queen’s physician, Dr John Arbuthnot, helped protect him from his detractors. After Pope’s death, he found friends among writers who could not have known him. Samuel Johnson’s Life (1781), though often dismissive of poems we now value, strongly countered Warton’s general criticism: ‘If Pope be not a poet,’ thundered the Great Cham, ‘where is poetry to be found?’ Anna Seward (1742-1809), ‘the Swan of Lichfield’, defended Pope’s morals and his versification in a series of spirited letters to the Gentleman’s Magazine. Byron swam against a tide of Romantic scorn, issuing his own poetic commandments in Don Juan: ‘Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;/Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey.’ And in the 20th century, especially since the Second World War, a number of distinguished literary scholars have devoted years to studying and generally celebrating Pope.

With the publication of a collection of essays on Pope and a new edition of the poems, Pat Rogers might appear to be laying claim not only to a place in this succession, already assured by his frequent and illuminating articles on Pope, but to the role of chief priest, long filled by Maynard Mack. Professor Mack remains active: he published a book on Shakespeare last spring, and his recent lectures typically begin with a variant on the modesty trope that Pope would have appreciated – a claim to senility couched in language so witty as instantly to disprove itself. Still, eight years after the publication of the Life and 24 years after The Garden and the City, he may be said to have made his major contribution. Rogers’s claim to the succession, if it is a claim, cannot be thought audacious or premature.

After more than a century of scholarly neglect, Pope enjoyed considerable attention during the ascendancy of the New Criticism. His intricate control of diction, syntax and rhythm makes his poetry a particularly rich subject for a criticism concerned to reveal and praise fine making. In some of the pieces reprinted in Essays on Pope Rogers follows analytical procedures similar to those of such earlier close-readers as Geoffrey Tillotson and W.K. Wimsatt. When discussing method in the Preface, he declares that ‘doctrinaire method should properly bend before the primacy of the text.’ He gives close, revealing attention to syntax, to hidden numerical symmetries in the youthful ‘Pastorals’, and to the many functions of proper names in The Dunciad.

In these essays Rogers alerts us to niceties and implications we might have missed. He has a sharp eye for selecting passages that richly illustrate his assertions, such as the following lines from the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot:

Yet then did Gildon draw his venal quill;
I wish’d the man a dinner, and sate still:
Yet then did Dennis rave in furious fret;
I never answer’d, I was not in debt;
If want provok’d, or madness made them print,
I wag’d no war with Bedlam or the Mint.

Most readers will recognise the importance of antithesis and balance in these lines, but Rogers sees much more, and what he sees eventually undermines the somewhat overworked notion of antithesis:

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