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:

Initially one supposes that Gildon represents poverty, Dennis madness. Yet in the second line quoted, Pope emphasises his own passivity – which in turn suggests the fury of Gildon, not of Dennis. Similarly the fourth line constitutes in effect an answer to the first: Pope’s freedom from poverty allows him to escape the ‘raving’ of Dennis. In the last couplet appears a typical chiasmic sequence, want/madness/Bedlam/Mint. Moreover want ‘provokes’, that is, stirs up and excites – the postponement of the composite object ‘them’ means that the verb attains an absolute or intransitive force. This last is a common device in Pope. The total effect of this degree of interplay is to indicate that madness and poverty are very near allied. In Pope’s world of the Dunces, the Bedlamite and the pauper are of imagination all compact.

But if Rogers sometimes proceeds in a fashion derived from the New Critics, his range of interests and skills extends well beyond close reading of canonical poetry. In an essay on ‘Windsor-Forest, Britannia and River Poetry’, for example, he demonstrates Pope’s detailed knowledge of a Latin poem on the marriage of Thames and Isis, printed in fragments in Camden’s Britannia and translated into English verse by the Oxford scholar Basil Kennett: this sheds light on Pope’s verbal facility, his theory of history, his social and intellectual connections. The impulse to seek such illumination in the musty world of the archive is frequently apparent in these essays. Observations of the gardens at Chatsworth, culled from a forgotten book by the antiquarian William Stukeley and an unpublished diary by Sir John Percival, make possible a significant contribution to the debate about the models for Timon’s villa in the Epistle to Burlington. Patient research into Chancery records yields an amusing note on ‘The Case of Pope v. Curll’, which established the principle that a personal letter is not the property of the recipient. Classifying hundreds of specific readers into categories leads to a greatly enriched picture of ‘Pope and his Subscribers’. In the final essay, ‘Pope and the Antiquarians’, Rogers demonstrates that the poet who frequently launched satirical attacks on virtuosos and collectors was nonetheless infected by the characteristic 18th-century obsession with collecting pieces of the past; surely a part of what Rogers celebrates in this essay is his own antiquarian impulse, his scholar’s fascination with interesting bits of forgotten lore.

As the theoretical struggles of the last thirty years have shown, there is a potential for tension between the two impulses displayed in these essays: an interest in close analysis, driven by aesthetic appreciation, may come into conflict with an interest in historical detail, especially if the historical interest is driven by an ideological programme entailing a deep suspicion of aesthetic judgments. Taken as a whole, Rogers’s collection, like Mack’s The Garden and the City, shows how the two kinds of work can operate synergistically. His influential essay on ‘Pope and the Social Scene’ (1972), republished here with alterations taking recent feminist criticism into account, is an especially strong example. Rogers forges convincing links between the various kinds of people with whom Pope had social relations – aristocrats, country squires, professionals and women – and the styles in which he wrote poetry to those people; the sociology of class turns out to be reflected in niceties of diction, metre and rhyme.

In constructing his edition of Pope, however, Rogers faces some choices which allow no middle ground between aesthetics and history. The first of these concerns the ordering of Pope’s late works. As Miriam Leranbaum demonstrated years ago, Pope embarked in the 1730s on a project he thought of as his magnum opus, a series of philosophical poems, all related in various ways: these eventually became the four epistles of the Essay on Man and the four epistles Warburton retitled the Moral Essays in his edition of 1751. Pope’s notions of how the individual poems related to each other, and to the series of Horatian imitations in which he was simultaneously engaged, changed frequently. As Rogers correctly states, ‘the standard layout of Pope’s canon’ derives from ‘a late reconceptualisation of the oeuvre by Pope and Warburton’. Abandoning that standard order, Rogers prints these poems in order of composition, arguing that ‘we get a much clearer sense of Pope’s actual working procedures if we read the poems in the order that they appeared, with a recognition that the series developed out of what were at first occasional and disparate poems.’ The restoration of Pope’s actual order of composition creates fascinating juxtapositions. The ‘Epistle to Bathurst (Of the Use of RICHES)’, with its moral outrage at paper credit and stock swindles, leads to ‘The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated’, in which Pope defends his satire as a ‘Weapon’ to be worn ‘in a Land of Hectors,/ Thieves, Supercargoes, Sharpers, and Directors’. Concluding his dialogue with the Whig lawyer Fortescue, Pope playfully argues that ‘Libels and Satires [are] lawless Things indeed’, and promises to write ‘grave Epistles’; on the next page we encounter the first epistle of An Essay on Man. In the ‘standard layout’, by contrast, the Essay on Man precedes the Moral Essays, of which the ‘Epistle to Bathurst’ is the third of four; then comes the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, placed by Warburton at the head of the Imitations of Horace, in which the poem to Fortescue stands first. Indeed, in the full-scale, multi-volume Twickenham edition, these three poems appear in three different volumes.

This editorial decision shows Rogers’s preference for a somewhat messy history rather than the cleaned-up, formal ordering that nonetheless probably represents the poet’s final aesthetic judgment. We might logically expect him to display a parallel preference for the accidentals and typography of first editions, but he prefers instead to follow the quarto editions of 1744, sometimes called the ‘deathbed’ editions: this choice elevates the poet’s final aesthetic judgment over the actual history of his texts. Although this second decision would appear to contradict the principles of the first, it is not entirely arbitrary. As David Foxon established in his wonderful study Pope and the Early 18th-Century Book Trade, Pope was fussy about the details of his texts, closely supervising and altering later editions and moving them away from the somewhat baroque typography in which his early poems had first appeared; in his case, there is excellent reason to abandon the standard editorial practice of preferring the accidentals of first editions, a practice closely followed by the editors of the Twickenham edition. Many Pope scholars have been expecting someone to undertake an edition based on Foxon’s recommendations, which would give us an old-spelling text authorised by Pope, but one much less frequently littered with capitals and italics than the Twickenham text. Although Rogers embraces Foxon’s recommendations, his Oxford text is not, alas, the kind of text that Foxon proposed. Perhaps because it is designed as a basic teaching text for undergraduate courses, the Rogers edition is thoroughly modernised, altering spelling, capitalisation, typography and punctuation throughout.

Academics choosing undergraduate texts can now choose between John Butt’s one-volume distillation of the Twickenham edition, which prints all of Pope’s poems in the orthography of their first editions, following the Warburton sequence, and the Rogers collection, which prints most of the poems in chronological order, adding Book XVIII of the Iliad translation, well-chosen selections from the letters and such crucial prose works as the Peri Bathous and the Preface to the edition of Shakespeare – all in modernised texts and rigorously chronological order. To make room for these welcome additions, Rogers prints only the final version of The Dunciad (1743), whereas Butt also provides The Dunciad Variorum (1729). Rogers’s generally sensible and helpful notes appear at the back, though Pope’s own hilarious footnotes to The Dunciad appear on the page. Butt’s annotations constitute a selection from the even more massive annotation in the full-scale Twickenham edition, and are intended for a somewhat more scholarly and advanced reader than the student posited by Rogers. In the case of The Dunciad, a poem fated to accrue layers of annotation like barnacles, the layout in Butt’s edition makes it somewhat difficult to disentangle Pope’s comic footnotes from the solemn additions of later editors.

It is odd indeed that Pope should have been thought deficient in imagination by such critics as Warton, Arnold and Bateson. Even in his epic translations, the poet’s inventive capacities are at work. Consider this fairly typical passage from Book XII of the Iliad; first Richmond Lattimore’s closely literal modern translation, then Pope’s couplet version.

Lattimore:

           and they all gave ear to [Hektor]
and steered against the wall in a pack, and at once gripping
still their edged spears caught and swarmed up
                        the wall’s projections.

Pope:

They hear, they run, and gath’ring at his Call,
Raise scaling Engines, and ascend the Wall:
Around the Works a Wood of glitt’ring Spears
Shoots up, and All the rising Host appears.

Not only are ‘scaling Engines’ a somewhat modern intrusion, but the whole passage has become a kind of Christian miracle, in which a ‘rising Host appears’ and ‘spears’ (now visibly ‘glitt’ring’ rather than ‘edged’) become a ‘Wood’. Even a stone used as a weapon gains different significance from the moral tone of Pope’s diction:

Lattimore:

    it was blunt-massed at the base, but the upper
end was sharp; two men, the best in all a community,
could not easily hoist it up from the ground to a wagon,
of such men as men are now.

Pope:

A pondrous Stone bold Hector heav’d to throw,
Pointed above, and rough and gross below:
Not two strong Men th’enormous Weight cou’d raise
Such men as live in these degen’rate Days.

Pope remembered that last phrase in Book II of The Dunciad, where the goddess Dulness stages a race for booksellers with a phantom poet as a prize:

A Poet’s form she plac’d before their eyes,
And bade the nimblest racer seize the prize:
No meagre, muse-rid mope, adust and thin,
In a dun night-gown of his own loose skin;
But such a bulk as no twelve bards could raise,
Twelve starvling bards of these degen’rate days.

The oddly creative act by which Dulness produces her fat phantom employs language appropriate to the kind of invention Pope praised in the Essay on Criticism:

All as a partridge plump, full-fed, and fair,
She form’d this image of well-body’d air;
With pert flat eyes she window’d well its head:
A brain of feathers, and a heart of lead;
And empty words she gave, and sounding strain,
But senseless, lifeless! idol void and vain!
Never was dash’d out, at one lucky hit,
A fool, so just a copy of a wit.

When Dulness inflates her phantom, she is doing what Pope did to Homer, and when the notorious bookseller Curll wins the race and tries to seize the phantom, it vanishes like the ‘baseless fabrick’ of Prospero’s masque, the most resonant English image of creative magic:

And now the victor stretch’d his eager hand
Where the tall Nothing stood, or seem’d to stand;
A shapeless shade, it melted from his sight,
Like forms in clouds, or visions of the night.

Not surprisingly, Prospero’s speech features in the very first of the wonderful footnotes to The Dunciad, in which ‘Theobald’ queries the spelling of the title, only to be corrected by ‘Bentley’:

The DUNCIAD, sic. MS ... Ought it not rather to be spelled Dunceiad, as the Etymology evidently demands? ... That accurate and punctual Man of Letters, the Restorer of Shakespeare, constantly observes the preservation of this very Letter e, in spelling the Name of his beloved Author ... THEOBALD.

This is surely a slip in the learned author of the foregoing note; there having been since produced by an accurate Antiquary, an Autograph of Shakespeare himself, whereby it appears that he spelled his own name without the first e. And upon this authority it was, that those most Critical Curators of his Monument in Westminster Abby erased the former wrong reading, and restored the true spelling on a new piece of old Ægyptian Granite. Nor for this only do they deserve our thanks, but for exhibiting on the same Monument the first Specimen of an Edition of an author in Marble; where (as may be seen on comparing the Tomb with the Book) in the space of five lines, two Words and a whole Verse are changed ... BENTLEY.

The ‘revels’ speech is indeed completely bungled on the monument in Westminster Abbey, which also spells the Bard’s name ‘Shakspeare’.

Linked by verbal echoes and associations, these passages tell us much about the workings of Pope’s mind. The Iliad translation shows his acute awareness of his audience, with its need for visual detail and explicit moralising. In satisfying this audience by dressing Homer in borrowed robes, Pope found opportunities for poetic creativity. Even the passage from The Dunciad, which satirises false creativity, does so with a gusto that suggests the pleasure to be found in even ‘empty words’ and ‘sounding strains’. And if the comic footnotes reflect Pope’s resentment at being exposed as a poor editor by Theobald and attacked as an amateur scholar by Bentley, they also show the spirit with which he could enter into the role of the manic annotator, and may reflect his concern about having his own poems passed down accurately to future readers.

The race for the phantom poet is so much fun that Dulness repeats it, claiming that the new prize is no less a poet than Pope’s friend John Gay:

Curl stretches after Gay, but Gay is gone,
He grasps an empty Joseph for a John:
So Proteus, hunted in a nobler shape,
Became, when seiz’d, a puppy, or an ape.

Pope can hardly have written these lines without remembering that his enemies in the pamphlet wars represented his signature as ‘A.P – e’, thus creating a verbal parallel to their pictorial assertions that his twisted form was simian. At a deeper level, however, the picture of an author as a Proteus who escapes capture by changing his form is especially applicable to Pope. Cursed with a physical shape that was far from noble, disadvantaged by an unpopular faith that blocked his access to ‘all Posts of Profit or of Trust’, he learned to display different aspects of himself to different interlocutors, as he admits in a letter to Martha Blount:

Every one values Mr Pope, but every one for a different reason. One for his firm adherence to the Catholic Faith, another for his Neglect of Popish Superstition, one for his grave behavior, another for his Whymsicalness. Mr Tydcomb for his pretty Atheistical Jests, Mr Caryl for his moral and christian Sentences, Mrs Teresa for his Reflections on Mrs Patty, and Mrs Patty for his Reflections on Mrs Teresa.

Like Pope’s contemporaries, modern critics value him for different reasons: Reuben Brower for his allusive links to the tradition, Leo Damrosch for his imaginative modernism, James Turner for his ‘libertine self-fashioning’, Douglas Brooks-Davies for his concealed Jacobite allegory. In both these books, Pat Rogers displays an exemplary eclectic attention to Pope’s life and works, but no one scholar can hope to do justice to every topic suggested by Pope’s variegated career. Although he notes the disadvantages of Catholicism, for example, Rogers says little about the role of religion in the development of Pope’s thought and writing, nor does he focus in any sustained way on the Classical past and Pope’s relation to it. Other scholars, such as Douglas White, Howard Erskine-Hill and Howard Weinbrot, have been attentive to these issues, as Rogers makes clear in his notes. Indeed, one of the most attractive features of Rogers’s work is his unfailingly civilised acknowledgment of other scholars, his willingness to be part of a group effort to extend out understanding of Pope and his period.