Barbara Everett

  • Alexander Pope by Maynard Mack
    Yale, 975 pp, £15.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 300 03391 5
  • Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ by A.D. Nuttall
    Allen and Unwin, 250 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 04 800017 5
  • The Last and Greatest Art: Some Unpublished Poetical Manuscripts of Alexander Pope by Maynard Mack
    Associated University Presses, 454 pp, £48.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 87413 183 9
  • The New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse by Roger Lonsdale
    Oxford, 870 pp, £15.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 214122 8
  • Collected in Himself: Essays Critical, Biographical and Bibliographical on Pope and Some of his Contemporaries by Maynard Mack
    Associated University Presses, 569 pp, £26.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 87413 182 0

Even Swift, who liked to think he was half author of the Dunciad, had trouble with its allusions and wrote grumblingly to warn Pope that twenty miles from London ‘nobody understands hints, initial letters, or town facts and passages.’ The delighted poet seized his chance and added to his poem for its 1729 ‘Variorum’ edition those profuse helpful footnotes which make the text more confusing than before. Pope glosses, for instance, the first occurrence of the name of the poem’s first hero, called in it ‘Tibbald’ though we would now write the name of the Shakespearian scholar in question ‘Theobald’; and the poet’s note mentions that Tibbald’s name was in fact always pronounced so, though written as Theobald. Working on the poem rather more than two hundred years after Pope, the distinguished editor of the Twickenham Dunciad, James Sutherland, declined to take the poet at his word, and added a note on the annotation explaining that the name ‘really was pronounced’ Theobald. Presumably following this lead, an equally distinguished Popian, Maynard Mack, has now in his long-awaited and richly-informative new Life of Pope found a corner in which to extend this editorial scepticism into his own full-blown critical observation: ‘Even the name of the hero dunce, Lewis Theobald, though printed out in full, was “translated” (like Bottom wearing the ass’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) into a foolish tumble of syllables rhyming with “ribald”.’ Elsewhere in the Life, Professor Mack makes the point that the sheer fictiveness of Timon’s villa in the ‘Epistle to Burlington’ ‘will be evident to those who have travelled much among English country houses’. It doesn’t seem irrelevant therefore to point out that those who travel much by bus in Holborn are likely to hear the conductors, not all of whom can have read the Dunciad, calling ‘Theobald’s Road’, ‘Tibbles Road’.

Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names supports both Pope and the bus conductors, pointing out that Teobaldus or Theobaldus is the Latin form of the name for which Tebald or Tibald is the vernacular; it refers to Shakespeare’s Tybalt, cites the surnames Tibbald and Tibbles, and quotes Pope’s Dunciad note without supposing any irony. As to Tybalt, I have myself always assumed that since Mercutio with cheerful derision calls his enemy ‘King of Cats’, ‘Prince of Cats’, making allusion to rat-catching and the possession of nine lives; and since furthermore Elizabethans appear to have called their Tom-cats, Tib-cats – then the chances are strong that our still-surviving habit of calling the occasional cat Tibbles dates back at least as early as the 16th century. From all of which it seems safe to conclude that the talented Augustan editor of Shakespeare, Lewis Theobald or Tibbald or Tibbles, inherited a name that just happened to be as innocently embarrassing as, say, Thomas Kitten.

The name Theobald/Tibbald was there; Pope didn’t put it there. What is difficult about Pope is not his fantasy but his facts. The poet might have told Mack that no ‘translation’ had taken place, that not he but Nature had made Theobald/Tibbles write like a tomcat. The sense of the amazing nature of life’s observable quantities, of the things that are actually there, fills the Dunciad – this gritty and atomistic masterpiece dense with people, streets, dead dogs, data, ‘Millions and millions ... /Thick as the stars’, ‘As thick as bees’, ‘As thick as eggs’: a whole world thick with itself, with books, words and above all names:

’Twas chatt’ring, grinning, mouthing, jabb’ring all,
And Noise and Norton, Brangling, and Breval,
Dennis and Dissonance, and Captious Art,
And Snip-snap short, and Interruption Smart.
Hold (cry’d the Queen) a Catcall each shall win ...

A Catcall is that shrill hostile whistle from the gallery, but also (perhaps) the noise that Tibbles makes. ‘Captious’ is an odd and difficult word too; the dictionary defines it as ‘Fallacious, sophistical ... trying to catch people in their words’, which is what Pope and Swift did par excellence. If Pope’s verse and Swift’s prose are the great literary achievements of the earlier Augustan period, it is because both learned how to live within yet to master their culture’s dominant premise that truth was observable fact. That mastery involved for Swift the formation of a style that could be called uncannily plain, and for Pope the regular claims he makes to an ‘Honest Muse’: neither manner is free of ambiguities. In Pope’s case, there is a parallel between the elusive simplicities of his work (how do you pronounce ‘Theobald’?) and the complex relation with the world of public fact maintained by the poet in his private existence. The one thing that most people know about Pope’s life is that he called in his private correspondence by trickery in order to publish it with improvement. No period has writers who play more difficult games with fact and factuality than the Augustan. This helps to make Pope the most interesting and problematic of subjects for biography.

Biography is itself perhaps the most Augustan branch of literary studies, being an off-shoot of History; it isn’t surprising that Boswell’s Life of Johnson competes with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall for the title of the greatest literary work of the 18th century. Professor Mack acknowledges this affiliation with History as he pays tribute to helpers in the Preface to his Life of Pope: ‘dear Daughters of Memory, Muse of History, Muse of Biography (if any), speak loud as many of their names as you can ... sing rapturously these ...’ But in doing so he compacts some of his problems. A literary biography, being part of History, must serve the facts: the great pleasure of this fascinating form is the sense of seeing objectively and externally a world hitherto known from the inside of the subject’s own experience. Yet as well as the facts there are always the Muses, any biography’s ambition to be a thing in itself, even an art-work in itself. Mack’s Life of Pope achieves this ambition – it’s a thoroughly readable and enjoyable book. Its 800 pages (with Notes and Index, 975 in all) don’t seem excessive; the narrative is conducted with large assurance and urbanity, and manages to communicate a great deal of information without weighing anything but lightly on the reader’s attention. As biographer, Mack probably gets both confidence and continuity from the purpose stated in his Preface: ‘There are few poets who cannot use an advocate.’ For, although the poet has had enthusiasts, the general biographical tradition – in our own time relatively fragmentary – had tended to borrow the toughness of Johnson’s short and classic Life, written some forty years after Pope died, without necessarily possessing the Augustan critic’s very great intelligence, judgment and wit.

Mack’s intention has been to write a Life of Pope that will be popular in a number of different senses. He has wished not only to be read with pleasure, but to tell a pleasurable story – a story of Pope’s great success as a writer, not merely in England but more widely throughout Europe; to show the poet as essentially, despite his faults, a richly likeable man, perhaps more widely befriended than any other English poet; and to indicate that his life and character made him, not merely a literary man in a narrow sense, but something of a culture-hero for both his time and our own. In this portrait there may be noted a stress which illuminates the observation that ‘poetry for [Pope], as for his great predecessors, is emphatically more a social than a personal institution’ – a debatable point when made concerning Pope, but perhaps relevant to the book’s own approach. Mack states his purpose as the giving of ‘a comprehensive account of the man in his times’. There seems to be something static in the phrase which is matched by the general movement, or lack of movement, the sense of relished vista in the book as a whole. A reader learns in the first few pages not the least fascinating of the innumerable pieces of information which the Life has to offer – that Pope’s maternal aunt was wife to the man who was perhaps the finest English painter of the 17th century, the miniaturist Samuel Cooper; and the Life itself, illustrated by many portraits – both reproductions and verbal descriptions of the poet’s host of friends – is not unlike a collection of Augustan miniatures. Its spacious, slow-moving and sociable construct calls back an older sense of the 18th century as an ‘Age of Elegance’, a period when the increasing wealth of civilisation was fostered by the ‘Peace of the Augustans’. Mack’s easy grip on his materials – in a sense, he has neither story to tell nor thesis to argue – leaves the identity of his subject both as man and poet free to be uncertain, to develop, expand and dissolve into what might rather be called ‘Pope’s world’ than ‘Pope’. Louis MacNeice once referred in a poem to what he called the ‘tea-coloured afternoons’ of Poussin’s paintings. That there is something of the tea-coloured afternoon in Mack’s biography is not inappropriate to its subject. And it certainly adds to the pleasure of what will clearly be an extremely popular biography, likely to remain for many years the definitive Life of Pope.

It is because the book will be read so widely, will prove so influential, and will last so long, that there is room to voice a few regrets. Everything, even the enjoyable, has its price, and the price of the pleasures of ‘advocacy’ can seem at moments a high one; an advocate, after all, is only a man paid to tell lies on one’s behalf in a court of law. The claims, in short, of the Muse are not always compatible with those of History. A certain kind of Popian fact gets lost in this golden and likeable Life of Pope; and the facts that get lost are valuable and interesting facts, in no way merely diminishing to the poet. One single case may be cited, partly because the Muse comes into it.

Part of the charm of this biography is its profuse illustration. Since cost-cutting (the book is remarkably low-priced) seems to have proscribed an index to the illustrations, finding one of these pleasing images can occasionally be tiresome, and when found it may prove to be poorly reproduced. This is the case with one of the poet’s most interesting portraits, now in the National Portrait Gallery and reproduced on page 342 – so darkly as to make it unsurprising that Mack twice calls it ‘teasing’. The poet’s friend Charles Jervas painted it, probably in 1717, when Pope – aged 29 – was deep in his translation of Homer, a lengthy task that not only sealed his fame as the country’s leading poet (he was admired by good judges when still under twenty) but secured him the fortune which made him free of patrons for the rest of his life: the first poet, he liked to think, who had ever thus earned his independence. Understandably, a bust of Homer stands on a bracket in the upper left-hand corner of the picture. Below it, the slight, bewigged figure of the poet fills the centre of the composition, perched with dignity in a sumptuous high-backed leather chair, his white face resting on his right hand, whose wrist is cuffed by a wonderfully fine cambric shirt. Behind the back of his chair, on the right and balancing the Homer but a little lower down the picture, a girl with her back to us stands on tiptoe in stockinged feet on a footstool, reaching up or lifting down a large book (invisible in this reproduction).

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in