- 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- The Last and Greatest Art: Some Unpublished Poetical Manuscripts of Alexander Pope by Maynard Mack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).
Mack describes this young woman as pushing ‘up and away some sort of drapery or heavy curtain, almost as if she were engaged in an unveiling’. There is a certain oracular heightening here, reflected in Mack’s whole sense of the picture, as indeed perhaps in his image of Pope throughout the Life. The ‘Muse’ reappears. The biographer identifies the young girl as either ‘the poet’s Muse’, or as Teresa Blount, the elder of two sisters of good Catholic family with whom Mack insists Pope was in love – and certainly the younger, Martha, became his close friend for life. But it is unlikely that either the Muse or Teresa would have agreed to be painted in the posture and dress of a serving-girl. For this is surely what the girl lifting a book behind the chair is; just as the curtain she draws can be no more than the common shield against the sun once used in great houses to protect their more valuable books and pictures (its presence here probably indicates that the book, presumably written by Pope himself, is valuable). The girl herself, one would guess, is only ambiguously valuable, ‘a treasure’. For her pleasant, crude and dark-skinned face (for centuries before 1900 the English upper classes believed working-class people to be actually darker in hue, owing to a genetic inheritance of lives of sunburned outdoor labour): her simple clothes, shortened skirts and stockinged feet – shoes politely removed before ascending the posh footstool – all indicate servant class. It seems clear that the poet has posed himself between Homer and a serving-girl, a pairing faintly echoed when Johnson speaks of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ as admired ‘by readers of every class, from the critic to the waiting-maid’. The phrase comes from his Life of Pope, which, elsewhere using a published account by just such a serving-woman, released into biographical tradition what may in any case have been a kind of legend quite consciously furthered by the poet himself – the idea of a great man’s dependence on faithful female menials has a quality Pope would have liked. Johnson speaks of the ‘perpetual need of female attendance’ on the part of a writer never strong or well (born of ageing parents, developing early what we now believe to be a spinal tuberculosis contracted from a foster-nurse, and further weakened by a bad accident in infancy, a trampling by a vagrant cow, Pope was a delicate – though decidedly beautiful – child, and an incapacitated adult, in middle life crippled and often in pain). Johnson tells how, all his life, not only at home but in the houses of his increasingly grand friends, Pope would call for the day-long and even night-long ministrations of coffee-bringers and other helps, the more willing for being charmingly thanked and very well paid.
In other portraits, Pope chose ironically to pose himself with one of his vast, muscular, adoring and adored dogs (about whom Mack has some excellent stories to tell) gazing up towards the poet’s small, deformed person. In this image Pope has surely ‘framed’ himself between what he saw as the defining laws of a limited life. Before him stands a cold marble bust; behind, a female servant. The poet’s cheek leans on his hand in the ancient pose which Panofsky’s study has taught us to recognise as that of the artist as Melancholy Man.
Should Mack be mistaken here, the slip is of no importance among the splendid wealth of information he offers us. Yet the character of the error is interesting. There is a kind of significant factuality about the serving-girl, both as an aesthetic image and as what she represents, particularly to an Augustan consciousness. The avoidance of this factuality, and in its place the stress on a Muse or mistress – like the similar neglect of the reality of ‘Tibbald’s’ name – suggest to what degree this Life by a scholar leans towards ‘the Muse’ and away from the facts of History. There is a sense (as Peter Ackroyd cogently observed in his Life of Eliot) in which every literary biography is something of a tightrope-walk between these two poles: a sense in which, that is, all biographies are really re-interpretations on the part of each individual biographer of what he or she takes the word ‘Life’ to mean. If Mack’s sympathetic romanticism provokes thought here, it is partly because, by the chance of that brilliant fluid intelligence that seems to surround Pope always like a flood of varying light, the very topic of Pope’s picture appears to present its own counter-statement to that made by Mack’s 800-page biography. If Jervas’s portrait has any meaning, it must be that the poet, alas, has no ‘Life’.
Though Mack claims that the elusiveness or reserve of his subject’s personality is peculiar to himself, this ‘most perplexing aspect’ could by contrast be said to be congenital to most poets: who exist with intensity to other generations only by their work. Their ‘life’ has a tendency to contract to an intellectual or literary centre more properly the concern of the critic: or it expands to a far periphery that has less to do with a ‘Life’ than merely with ‘life’. Or this can be put another way. Poets like Milton, or Byron, are exceptions; most poets, being ‘inward’, don’t do that much actual living – or, as Pope said, ‘contemplative life is not only my scene, but it is my habit too.’
In the Introductory chapter to his intelligent, stimulating study, Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’, A.D. Nuttall puts it crisply if slightly more objectively when he summarises the poet’s life after youth as ‘a steady march of major works and a most unedifying and intricate mess of quarrel and intrigue’. Mack’s ‘advocacy’ of the poet makes him choose to interpret this history in terms of a psychology less literary than largely social. ‘The poet in his world’ consists in a man for whom we could and should feel an understanding sympathy. But the biographer interprets such terms as ‘psychology’ and ‘social’ in a fashion in itself fairly tendentious and personal. He explains much of Pope in the light of two main dominating conditions, personal (the debility of his health) and social (the exclusions forced on him by the fact that his parents belonged to the Roman Catholic Church – the poet, for instance, could not attend university, nor at certain periods live in central London). The feeling we are tacitly asked to render Pope divides between the admiration deserved by a successful public man, and the pity we owe to a human being whose personal unattractiveness so little encouraged that triumph.
This reading makes sense: but it omits some things that fill the verse (as well as the Jervas portrait) with reserve, with irony. Again, one specific, slight but interesting case may illustrate this mixed inflation and reduction Mack seems to be unconsciously carrying out on what might be meant by a creative writer’s ‘psychology’ or ‘society’. Early in the first book of the Dunciad, which Pope first brought out in 1728, when he was 40, a reader meets a pair of lines which have all the peculiar Popian blend of fantastic imagination, humour and implacable ‘factuality’ – what Swift would have called ‘town facts’. They tell us that even the dull City of London businessmen (whom Pope calmly takes as symbols of those who pursue the trifling squalors of the pleasures of this world) have their own ‘dreams’, for, after the riotous feasting of the Lord Mayor’s Banquet,
Now May’rs and Shrieves all hush’d and satiate lay,
Yet eat, in dreams, the custard of the day.
These surely hysterically funny lines Mack ‘personalises’, tracing the reference back to Pope’s happy and cherished babyhood and boyhood: ‘One cannot help wondering whether Pope’s characteristic later association of poetic rewards with custard and puddings [he quotes from the Dunciad] had its origins in an extra or more tempting slice of egg-pie (for such custard then was) rendered to a small boy for “good rhymes” ’ – i.e. by the poet’s father. Yet it’s not too difficult to learn, from early plays and jokebooks if from nowhere else, that a vast custard-pie – into which a clown jumped – was once the grand climax of Lord Mayor’s Banquets. Here it becomes a wonderfully funny and poignant image of the gross and mean and unimaginative pleasures that life can bend people to, a ‘dream’-custard. Like the use of the name ‘Theobald’ and of the figure of the servant-girl, the custard-pie is an example of Pope’s grappling with the real stuff of existence, and transforming it – by a kind of ‘mental fight’, by a life’s reserved skill and labour – into an inimitable poetry.
These slips, or this reduction in the significant range of Pope’s ‘social’ world, seem to arise from something missing in the biographer’s sense (a lack perhaps owed to his concept of a popular audience) of the primacy of the poet’s life as a writer. To that intense centre, everything can prove relevant; it is only if we try to focus externally ‘the man in his time’ that a certain incoherence takes over, and everything collapses into a ‘climate of opinion’. It is not that Professor Mack is unaware of the problems of writers, both in Pope’s time and in our own. Thus, he speaks of ‘the by no means always successful struggle of the serious writer to keep from drowning in a Sargasso sea of soft porn or other eyewash prepared to formula for the tired typist home at teatime’. The possibility that this phenomenal sentence is merely parodic, a mockery of the base civilisation which gives the modern writer his troubles, ebbs under the realisation that the remark is hardly worse than the half-page in which we are told that Walpole ‘was not ... a mere opportunist: he had a genuine paranoia about Jacobitism that could raise oaks out of acorns in his mind overnight’; that ‘the Court, having been kept abreast of developments, had made a killing before selling out’; and that George I, ‘though hardly brilliant, was bright enough to know that his hold on the affections of the English nation was just now something less than ironclad.’
It remains an oddity of the Eng Lit academic life that the authority who has given us, in his remarkably handsome and informative edition of some of the poet’s manuscripts, The Last and Greatest Art, evidence of Pope’s own endlessly self-correcting and self-refining perfectionism can himself as Pope’s biographer write as he does here. There is in the Sargasso sea of eyewash a real failure to understand that individual, inward apprehension of language which constitutes the reading and the writing of literature; to understand that a reader’s response to such sentences must be a dazed chaos of killings and sellings, of soft porn, of oaks and acorns for the tired typist at teatime. A certain side of English studies even now, after many critical revolutions, assumes that ‘style’ is to be deprecated as being a faint grace incommensurate with true scholarship or historical intelligence. But the fact is that style is historical intelligence. The ‘Muse’ has in cold fact its own facts, its own History, its own laws of nature which may not be violated: for a breast is not oak or iron, nor is eyewash what any typist, however tired, has for tea.
Literature has its own factuality, which forbids loose talk of the Muses; in other words, words matter. The ‘tired typist home at tea-time’ is the corpse that has floated out of that true factual poem, Eliot’s The Waste Land. The idiosyncrasies of Professor Mack’s writing extend themselves into his treatment of the fragments of other writers’ writing that surface through his text in incessant quotations – quotations not so much buried as washed-up. Thus a passage in Pope’s ‘Satire II’ is called ‘one of the most charming pictures in English poetry (visionary, to be sure: a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?) of a way of life in which limit has become freedom, the dancer indistinguishable from the dance ...’ Certainly there is enthusiasm and energy written into this, and it is no crime to mix a metaphor or cross a quotation. But do Browning or Yeats actually help us to see Pope better? That is to say, is it the poet, or something else, which the enthusiasm and energy are actually ‘advocating’? Again, the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’ makes way for Milton and (presumably) Beethoven: ‘It is from this succession of opening chords – harsh, studiedly impatient – that the mind makes its way to its famous close, in calm of mind, all passion spent.’ This is Pope merely being used to illustrate some quite general or social concept of ‘culture’. Elsewhere, Mack fuses Swift’s ‘Only a woman’s hair’ with Donne’s ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone’, thus merging two writers who seem to me radically unlike; uses a line from Shakespeare’s sonnets, ‘in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’, to gloss the equally unShakespearian critic John Dennis in his brutal, difficult, intelligent and tragic old age; and trails a hash of Dylan Thomas’s resonant phrases (‘those short days when Time lets us play and be/golden in the mercy of his means’) across the end of the section dealing with Pope’s work in the 1720s, thus bringing together two poets almost ideally incompatible.
In all these cases the biographer seems to lose his grip on the real literary identity of every writer involved. He is caught in a quandary that makes him fail to write sense, in a fashion interestingly close to what occurs when he tries, as he does pervasively through this Life, to use Pope not as a poet but as a kind of culture-hero. Struggling as ‘advocate’ to make us think well or better of his subject, on some terms other than those that result from our reading of his poetry, Mack effects a bewildering collapse of the principles of his argument into a mere ‘climate of opinion’ surrounding ‘most of us’ – though it is a paradoxical feature of this book to show a pervasive and very decided antipathy to the modern culture of ‘most of us’, to write as ‘an astringent observer of our own cultural scene’.
Speaking of Pope’s definition of the perfect critic in the ‘Essay on Criticism’, Mack adds: ‘Pope shared with most of us a total inability to attain this ideal.’ But can it be true that the author of that extraordinarily accomplished and gifted poem, the ‘Essay on Criticism’, had as total an inability to criticise poetry perfectly as non-poets have? Similarly, the Grotto which Pope carved out of the basement of his Twickenham house, and which Mack has written of elsewhere with more point than here, is described as ‘a diverting toy, no doubt, for the child in Pope, who as in most of us, never grew up’. Certainly the Grotto is grotesque, and it remains ridiculous that, together with Pope’s garden, it probably helped to make formative changes in English taste influential in Europe at large: but does this allow us to confuse that clear child’s vision never lost by creative persons with the lack of psychological maturity some adults suffer from?
My point here is not that the intention of ‘advocacy’ can prove paradoxically reductive of the subject it seeks to defend. Rather, that it is dangerous for any literary biography to lose its proper focus on a writer. That focus, taking as its priority the writer’s work, includes as wide as possible a relevance from the historical period which is the work’s context. Only then shall we genuinely see ‘the man in his time’. Mack’s opening sentence, indeed his book’s opening paragraph, is a half-echo from Dickens: ‘It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.’ This is a shrug, and shrugging, though an available social gesture, doesn’t do for explanation. Mack’s Life gives us so much, and makes vivid so much in the poet’s existence, that to ask for more is unjust. Yet the word ‘Life’ does entail interpretation – Mack interprets as much as any biographer. And the element of what I have called ‘fact and factuality’ that is pervasively blurred or neglected here as a factor of interpretation is of quite primary importance in the Augustan period. The biography, with all its excellence, ignores the very quality that made Swift and Pope the major artists that they are.
The earlier 18th century was a period that presented quite exceptional difficulties for the making of poetry. It was not precisely what Arnold called it, an age ‘of prose’: but his objection made sense, and continues to make sense, in the mind of every new reader who is struck by a kind of oddness, a going against the grain, in Augustan verse. Certainly the culture was one that, in theory, adored and admired poetry. No reader of Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse – a collection too large and too rich to be more than mentioned here – can remain ignorant as to how far through Augustan society at large the passion for poetry spread. The major difference between this volume and its predecessor (apart from the coherence achieved in the present collection in terms of temperament and taste – Lonsdale’s anthology shows an attractive feeling for disadvantaged groups like women and animals) lies in the fact that the editor has extended the Oxford Book by about one poem in four, the new work having come from manuscripts or collections not re-published since their first appearance. This ‘resurrected’ verse – the word is the editor’s – offers a fascinating insight into a great social scene of women, labourers, army officers and clergymen all zestfully putting pen to paper: and in the process giving us invaluable information on the activities and interests of the period. But this is what we get: information. The verse Lonsdale finds for us is certainly interesting – to read once; it increases our knowledge of the society of the time; it aims to inform, and it does inform, and thus fulfils and exhausts its use in so doing. But that is not quite what we mean by poetry: which, in all periods, is re-readable by virtue of its rare capacity not just to inform but to embody an inner dimension as of individual inward experience, so that every new reading is a new meeting, a rediscovery.
Both to express and to surpass the peculiarly limiting demands of the culture of the time – this was an art given to very few writers. In a well-known comment from his Life of Pope, Johnson observed with dissatisfaction that the two greatest writers of the period preceding his, Swift and Pope, ‘had an unnatural delight in ideas physically impure’. This is true, but even truer if we leave aside the immediate literal application and the moral censure that goes with it. Both Swift and Pope were ‘unnatural’ and ‘impure’ as writers, because it was vital to corrupt and complicate and undermine the inhibiting restraints of their own highly external, politicised culture in order to ‘tell truth’, as good writers can tell it. (It is this that earlier criticism used to recognise in its conventional, sometimes in a way unhelpful, stress on the frequent satiric and parodic modes of the time. The best Augustan writing need not be ‘satiric’, but it does possess the inward obliquity which the ironical modes suggest.) No good art of the age can survive simply by virtue of those qualities which Lonsdale’s kindly Introduction defends in his rediscoveries – ‘freshness’ and ‘immediacy’. All the really good work by Swift and Pope is definitely ‘odd’ – partly because it works through and makes ironic use of those Augustan criteria which commend the equivalents of freshness and immediacy.
There is a sense in which Mack’s advocacy of Pope’s warmth and sweetness of nature fails to meet all these facts: for the verse fed on the alternative truth of his character, which was undoubtedly charming and affectionate, but also devious, elusive and cool. It is a simple fact that there is no outstanding love poetry in the true Augustan period, and that the culture did not lend itself easily to any greatly feeling mode. The problems of the Augustan love-medium are revealed nowhere more interestingly than in the poem Pope probably wrote in the year Jervas was painting his portrait, 1717, the ‘Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady’: which, tender and beautiful as much of it is, had such difficulty dramatising personal feeling through the (in practice) highly unstable characters of the heroine, the villainous uncle, the lover and the poet (and are these last two the same?) as to earn Johnson’s terrible rebuke: ‘A poet may be allowed to be obscure, but inconsistency can never be right.’ Like Pope’s other but even more chaotic and sexily frigid poem of passion, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, the ‘Elegy’ genuinely profits from being compared to a casual verse letter, written in 1714, that is nonetheless more moving in its flawless poise: ‘To Miss Blount, on her leaving the Town, after the Coronation’, a poem that takes its power from its refusal to write or mean love. Love as the ‘fond virgin’ feels it becomes a haunting, teasing, touching parallel, only, for whatever it is that Miss Blount feels in the imagined tedium of the country, and for whatever it is that the poet feels, remembering her, in the suddenly greater tedium of the town:
Vext to be still in town, I knit my brow,
Look sow’r, and hum a tune – as you may now.
The tenderness of this enchanting ‘town and country’ poem is all obliquity, all wit, all imagination.
This emotional tone in Pope is often attributed to personal characteristics explainable one way as simple coldness, or another way as homosexuality. Johnson’s Life speaks of the number and lastingness of Pope’s friendships, a theme Mack takes up too, and makes the centre of his book: a welcome attempt to rectify the image of a man evidently vivid in his affections, and never – though attacked in his time for almost everything else – accused of loving his own sex. Since he was clearly a poet not only interested in human beings but one of the most brilliant psychologists who has written in verse, Pope’s difficulties in expressing feeling are best discussed as in his period something other than idiosyncratic. It may not be irrelevant to point out that the greatest prose work of Pope’s time, Gulliver’s Travels (published two years before the 1728 Dunciad), has a quite comparable quality of emotional strangeness. It is a book which lives by its heroic heartlessness, its austere acceptance of a universe reduced entirely to physical fact, to a concept of data as ‘those things outside the self’. Swift suffered from vertigo all his life, and it is perhaps surprising that no biographer has, so far as I know, noted that this vertigo gets extrapolated into his trick, in the Travels, of shocking the reader by the conversion of moral madness into a dizziness of sheer ‘sense’, a disproportion only stated as a matter of scale, status or measurement. When a malefactor is executed in Brobdingnag, ‘the Veins and Arteries spouted up such a prodigious Quantity of Blood, and so high in the Air, that the great Jet d’Eau at Versailles was not equal for the Time it lasted’: Swift approved neither of barbaric public executions nor of the pretty fountains at Versailles, a palace whose years of building killed large numbers of its starving labourers. Considering the reductiveness that makes this tough game possible, Johnson (again) was in a way right when he grumbled about the Travels that ‘when once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.’ But it is from this very coldness, this hard limitation of means, that the work builds up that power of unspoken, disallowed, as it were illegitimate feeling, which underlies the end of the story like a planted explosive. When the horse at last says to Gulliver, as he departs from Houyhnhnm-land, ‘take care of thyself, gentle Yahoo,’ the remark is almost enough to make a reader burst out crying – it so touches a nerve as to seem one of the greatly feeling things in Augustan literature: but it does so because of the coldness and emptiness all around. This is one of the facts implied by the truth of Johnson’s ‘unnatural’.
I earlier mentioned Johnson’s tribute to Pope’s art of friendship – an art that becomes one of Mack’s central themes, the creative emotional centre of his book. Yet Johnson perhaps is right too when, somewhat before his praise of Pope as friend, he drops a word concerning the social sphere in which many of the poet’s friendships were pursued: ‘His admiration of the great seems to have increased in the advance of life,’ and ‘To his latter works ... he took care to annex names dignified with titles.’ Pope’s friendships are not accounted for entirely without some mention of that romanticism which played a part in them, and of that strong worldliness (it is hard to find a better briefer term) which played a part in the romanticism. The great Bolingbroke was one of the people whom Pope loved most, and his greatness surely had its place in Pope’s not-altogether-worldly, but not-altogether-unworldly love. Mack quotes a fascinating discussion between Spence and the poet that reveals an intense reverence, not remotely homosexual in feeling, but startlingly ‘spiritual’ (‘I really think there is something in that great man which looks as if he was placed here by mistake’): clearly, a deep romanticism even to the point of spirituality may attach itself to the most worldly of persons and concerns in an unromantic age.
I stress the worldliness, because it is surely significant, à propos of the ‘Essay on Man’, that its poet – who, as A.D. Nuttall remarks, ‘always writes well when he thinks of small animals or insects’ – was urged towards an opus magnum by this Great Man among great friends, Bolingbroke: ‘Employ not your precious Moments, and great Talents, on little men, and little things: but choose a Subject every way worthy of you; and handle it, as you can, in a manner which nobody else can equal, or imitate.’ Mack shows signs of believing, in his discussion of the poem in this biography, that the ‘Essay on Man’ was indeed that opus magnum; the same case is made perhaps even more strongly and warmly in his Twickenham edition Introduction to the poem, which now takes its place at the centre of Mack’s gathering of reprinted essays on Pope and allied subjects, Collected in Himself. Yet, spacious and weighty as is Mack’s praise of the ‘Essay on Man’, he never really comes to terms with Johnson’s well-known judgment on the work – that, despite all the splendid rhetoric, there is falseness somewhere, lack of sincerity: ‘Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.’ Johnson’s dry critique at least supports and explains a profound feeling hard to lose: that Bolingbroke could hardly have given a writer worse advice than this, even though it probably echoes the advice given by the ‘great’ to the arts in all periods.
Pope spent the second half of his career desperately trying to follow it. ‘The Rape of the Lock’, which is about ‘little things’, was the last (when Pope was aged 26) satisfactorily finished work that the poet managed in his career. For this is surely the shape of Pope’s career, an ironical design which the writer himself must have observed, but which Mack doesn’t quite trace: that the poet spent the first half writing to achieve a ‘greatness’ which he spent the second half trying to prevent from destroying his writing.
If ‘feeling’, ‘imaginative insight’ has been dispelled from early Augustan literature, what flows in to take its place is surely that manipulation of worldly energies in society which can be called politics in the widest sense (and the study of Augustan literature invariably involves the political). Both Swift and Pope struggled intensely for success; Swift adored, with whatever ironical intonations, the brief period during which ‘the Court serves me for a coffee house,’ and Pope (again, with whatever ironical reservations) wrote in the Preface to his 1717 volume of poems that ‘the privilege of being admitted into the best company’ was a chief reason for pursuing success as a writer. Such success, such friendship with the great, seems then to have accrued to itself something like our own social myth of romantic love, in defining happiness in a context as generally ‘social’ as was the Augustan. It is worth noting that, when Pope once threw a friendly dinner for some of his intimates, the four writers among the five distinguished men present there were all bachelors – Pope, Swift, Congreve and Gay, the exception being Bolingbroke: yet none was discernibly homosexual. Congreve’s life held two deep and abiding attachments to women; both were mutual, though in neither case was a marriage feasible in worldly terms. Yet Congreve was the least ambitious, the most withdrawn from the world, of all these five.
Any reader of Pope’s verse knows at sight that this is a brilliantly, studiedly worldly man (even his all-but-invariable use of the established couplet mode hints this to the reader). One of the strengths of his verse is the direct relationship it maintains with a given social world, a relationship which helps to explain its great early and continuing success. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ could not have been written other than by a man exquisitely habituated to the world around him; verse has hardly ever expressed a finer social comedy. But it remains an interesting fact that those about whom the poem was written were not entirely pleased with it. This ‘worldliest’ of men maintained the tenderest of regards for his elderly parents, not to mention his friends, not all of whom were great, and his dogs – he was in fact intensely pained by the sufferings of animals – and the little estate he cultivated with such pride was in the end not in London itself but out in the river ‘suburbs’ (the term is only just not anachronistic at this period) at Twickenham. Certainly the poet lived there a rather comfortable, well-off life, with Homer on the one side and the servant-girls on the other, and continual jaunts to the houses of his grander friends. But he also wrote the most effectively dangerous, offensive, poem ever published, about which his biographer frames the question: ‘Publishing the Dunciad was in many ways the greatest folly of Pope’s life ... What can possibly have impelled him to do what he did?’ Mack’s answers, including ‘Sheer arrogance ... that “saving-remnant” syndrome ... the usual compulsion of men who are physically very small’, perhaps show the limitations of a narrowly ‘psychological’ or ‘social’ explanation. I began this discussion by mentioning Theobald’s (or Tibbald’s) name. It is an oddity of the Dunciad, alluded to in passing by Johnson but not made much of by critics after him, that the second major version of Pope’s poem, published with revisions and extensions into a fourth book in 1742 (Pope was to die in 1744), drops the name of Theobald in favour of that of Colley Cibber, a genial actor in no way a scholar – yet the poem hardly alters the Theobaldian circumstances. Therefore, as Johnson points out, ‘by transferring the same ridicule from one to another he destroyed its efficacy.’
From this it is fair to assume that Pope also cared less than might be imagined for any local, attacking or satirical force inherent in his poem. The alternative Mack sets up to a merely vindictive purpose is that large, even religious intent to put a whole culture on its feet which has become the major theme of Pope critics in justifying the poet’s actions. Thus: ‘Are these repeated intuitions of a Ruining City and an oncoming Great Darkness by any chance true apprehensions ... or are they simply, as in the Cave of Poverty and Poetry, the half formed maggots of overheated poetic brains?’ This is a thinking close to the Augustan division of possibility into either ‘fact’ or ‘fantasy’. One might say, rather, that Pope was struggling to overcome the division, that the poet is powered by conflicts and interdependences much more deeply personal than the idea of ‘social’ poetry allows. Johnson gives us the terms for this when, two or three lines before his trenchant remark about the poet’s ‘admiration of the great’, he tells us that, nonetheless (and his phrase seems to me magnificent), ‘Pope never set his genius to sale.’
Pope admired the great: and he never set his genius to sale. This is not an easy attitude in the Augustan period, or in any other. But it is within the span of this complex, conflicting, even anarchically principled ‘worldliness’ that Pope’s poetry acts itself out; and it is by the difficulty of the integrity of this balance that we recognise his high powers, and define what made him inimitable to the decades of couplet-writing poetasters who followed him. Early in his Life, Mack regards compassionately the young poet’s ‘unexplained bouts of irritability, sweeping irresistible impulses to throw a few bricks at the stained-glass attitudes of the excluding Establishment ... though I do not in any way wish to mitigate his responsibility for his actions’. I have to say that I find this nothing but imperceptively diminishing beside the tough ‘hostile’ generosity of Johnson’s ‘Pope never set his genius to sale.’ Moreover it does less than Johnson to explain the nature and power of the poet’s most impressive writing. Consider a line like that in the first paragraph of the Duncaid’s first book: ‘Still Dunce the second reigns like Dunce the first.’ Certainly we can explain this in terms of Pope’s Tory antipathy to the Hanoverian King Georges, and yet the charge of the line goes well beyond politics. Indeed, to undermine politics is precisely what it does. Its words work together, so that ‘Dunce’, involving with ‘reigns’, ‘second’ inbreeding with ‘first’, indict the working of all power in a fashion not very far from Shakespeare’s Timon, who rejects the power localised in all wealth, thus:
The learned pate
Ducks to the golden fool. All’s obliquy ...
In the eighth chapter of the third book of Gulliver’s Travels Swift ‘evacuates’ human history; life as mere existence in time is lived by the terrible Struldbrug. He is writing here in a tradition which includes the Rochester of ‘Upon Nothing’, Erasmus and More – the masters of both Swift and Pope – and ultimately Socrates. Pope’s Dunciad, which is similarly something other than prophetic, works by the same radical principle of subversion. It exposes worldly rituals of status, folly ‘high on a gorgeous seat’, all ambitious arts in the end reduced to a pissing competition, all impurities yawning to death at an ‘uncreating word’. The poem’s close has its own dark exhilaration, and a cleared air as ‘The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain.’
This extremity or violence is not Pope’s characteristic mode, though he can master many. He is perhaps most fully present in the more relaxed of the late poems: in, for instance, the dazzling, nervous, humorous, exacerbated ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’. This highly ‘social’ poem (it has the two lethal portraits of Atticus and Sporus) is at the same time intimate, even autobiographical; its theme is simply writing, and it begins with a decisive withdrawal from society (‘Shut, shut the door, good John!’), for the ‘world’ is really only a world of mad, bad poetasters. A little further into the ‘Epistle’, Pope tells us with grave pathos that
The Muse but serv’d to ease some Friend, not Wife,
To help me thro’ this long Disease, my Life.
Mack’s biography gives valuable insights into that limited ‘Life’. But it can’t do what the ‘Epistle’ does. For the poem reveals directly that creative vitality in Pope which kept his crippled existence going for 56 years: longer, not only than stronger members of his own circle, like Gay, but than Shakespeare himself, dead at 52.