Pope, Alexander

Pope, Alexander the celebrated English poet of the 18th century, deserves a place here as the writer of poems of a decidedly religious cast, for the speculative character of some of his productions, and their peculiar philosophical tendency. Pope was born May 21, 1688, in London, of rather humble parentage, of the Romish communion. A sickly child, Alexander's early educational advantages were scanty, but notwithstanding all deficiencies his poetic talent was manifest at a most tender age, though it is true that his celebrity is chiefly due to his satirical power, which was displayed in the writings of his maturer years. We would not, however, be understood as underestimating Pope's poetical qualifications; for, although he confined himself to the didactic style-leaving untouched the two higher orders of poetry, the epic and dramatic-he was yet in this department the master unsurpassed. No other English poet, not even Cowper, has combined such powers of reasoning with such splendid decorations of fancy; and Pope's works have been more frequently edited than those of any other British poet except Shakespeare. When but fifteen years old, Pope prepared poetical translations of several Latin poets, and thereby proved his attainments in the classical languages. From the age of twelve he had himself formed a plan of study, to which he rigidly adhered, and completed with little other incitement than the desire of excellence. His general reading, too, was uncommonly extensive and various, and at twenty-five he was one of the best-informed men of his generation. When only eighteen years old he produced his Messiah, a sacred eclogue in imitation of Virgil's Pollio. Pollio was a Roman senator in the time of Augustus, and celebrated not only as a general, but as a patron of letters and the fine arts. Virgil addressed to him his fourth eclogue at a time (B.C. 40) when Augustus and Antony had ratified a league of peace, and thus, as it was thought, established the tranquility of the empire, as in the times of the "golden age." In this eclogue Virgil is most eloquent in the praise of peace and in some of his figures and expressions is thought to have imitated the prophecies of Isaiah, which he had possibly read in the Greek Septuagint. But, however this may be as regards Virgil, Roscoe well remarks of this production of Pope, that "the idea of uniting the sacred prophecies and grand imagery of Isaiah with the mysterious visions and pomp of numbers displayed in the Pollio, thereby combining both sacred and heathen mythology in predicting the coming of the Messiah, is one of the happiest subjects for producing emotions of sublimity that ever occurred to the mind of a poet." Pope's next remarkable work was his Essay on Criticism- (written in 1709), which displays such extent of comprehension, such nicety of distinction, such acquaintance with mankind, and such knowledge both of ancient and modern learning, as are not often attained by the maturest age and longest experience. About 1713 he set about a translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which he published from 1715 to 1720, and secured by it a worldwide renown. It was received with admiration, and well deserved the praises of his contemporaries. But the work which gives him special interest in our line of study is his Essay on Man (1733), a philosophical didactic poem in vindication of the ways of Providence, in which the poet proposes to prove that, of all possible systems, Infinite Wisdom has formed the best; that in such a system coherence, union, subordination, are necessary; that it is not strange that we should not be able to discover perfection and order in every instance; because, in an infinity of things mutually relative, a mind which sees not infinitely can see nothing fully. Thus we see Pope setting forth, after Bolingbroke, a theory of optimism (q.v.), the consequences of which he probably did not fully understand. The Essay aspires to be, like Leibnitz's celebrated work, a theodicy, and is really a poetical version of the religious creed of Pope's age of that deism which took various shapes with Clarke, Tindal, and Shaftesbury, and which Bolingbroke seems to have more or less put into shape to be celebrated in poetry by his friends. The poem is didactic, and not only didactive, but ratiocinative. The emotion is always checked by the sense that the Deity whose ways are indicated is after all but a barren abstraction, in no particular relation to our race or its history. He never touches the circle of human interests. Considered as a whole, this production, though Pope's most ambitious, remains radically unsatisfactory; yet there are, it must be granted, many brief passages marked by Pope's special felicity of touch; many in which the moral sentiment is true and tender; many in which he forgets for a moment the danger of open heterodoxy, and utters with genuine force some of the deeper sentiments that haunt us in this mysterious universe. Of his other works, none interest us here. One of the most admirable of Pope's religious poems is "The Universal Prayer," beginning with

"Father of all! in every age, In every clime adored."

Pope's celebrated lyric, "Vital spark of heavenly flame," like some other productions of his pen, is an imitation. The original source of this hymn is supposed to be a poem composed by the emperor Adrian, who, dying A.D. 138, thus gave expression to his mingled doubts and fears. His poem begins: Animulum vagula blandula, Hospes comesque corporis ("Sweet spirit, ready to depart, guest and companion of the body"). It is afterwards found freely rendered in a piece by a poet of some note in his day— Thomas Flatman, of London, a barrister, poet, and painter. Flatman's poem is called "A Thought of Death;" and as he died in the year Pope was born, 1688, and the poems are very similar, there can be little doubt that Pope has imitated his predecessor. From Pope's correspondence we learn that on Nov. 7, 1712, he sent a letter to Mr. Steele for insertion in the Spectator on the subject of Adrian's last words; to which Steele responded by asking him to make of them an ode, in two or three stanzas of music. Pope replied immediately, saying that he had done as required, and sent the piece. To show how close is this parallel between the poets, we print a stanza of each:


Full of sorrow, full of anguish, Fainting, grasping, trembling, crying, Panting, groaning, shrinking, dying Methinks I hear some gentle spirit say, 'Be not fearful, come away'


"Vital spark of heavenly flame! Quit, oh, quit this mortal frame! Trembling, hoping, ling'ring, flying, Oh, the pain, the bliss of dying! Cease, fond nature, cease thy strife, And let me languish into life!"

It has been urged by critics that it is inconsistent and inconceivable that a dying man should hold such a soliloquy with his soul-it is altogether too studied and rhetorical, too artificial. Although undoubtedly a grand poem, yet it cannot be regarded strictly as a hymn, any more than Toplady's famous production, "Deathless principle! arise," judged by the rule of St. Augustine, who tells us, "A hymn must be praise-the praise of God, and this in the form of a song." Pope died May 30, 1744. He does not seem to have been a very lovable character, if we may judge him by his caustic satires. His person was small and deformed; and his temper of mind often also crooked, as we learn from one of his best friends, bishop Atterbury, who once, referring to Pope's irascibility, described him as "mens curva in corpore curve." The best edition of his Works is by Roscoe (Lond. 10 vols. 8vo). It is one of the choicest contributions to English literature of the present century. See Life by Dr. Johnson prefixed to Pope's Works; Stephen, Hist. of English Thought, 2, 348-360 et al.; Chambers, Cyclop. of Engl. Lit. vol. 2; Warton, Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope; Macdonald, England's Antiphon, p. 285. See also the excellent notes on the literature of Pope by Superintendent Winsor, of Boston, in his Catalogue of the Boston Public Library (2d ed. July, 1873), p. 221, col. 1; Westminst. Rev. 92, 149; Lond. Qu. Rev. Oct. 1875, art. 3. (J. H. W.)

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