Joseph S. Salemi
Many years ago, I read a comment by some trendy New York “artist” about a brief quotation from Alexander Pope. The quote had been included in a subway advertising poster. It was the well-known couplet from the Essay on Criticism:
True Wit is nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest.
The artist’s comment on these perfectly crafted lines was this: “That’s not real poetry! It’s nothing but a statement!” I was sitting in my office at the university when I read this, and in a rage I flung the journal where it was printed directly into the trash bin, with a blood-curdling oath.
The great distance we have come from the brilliance of Pope to the imbecility of modernist aesthetics is neatly illustrated by that artist’s stupidity. Words are statements. A poet’s task is to put them together in beautiful ways, so as to make more complex statements. Alexander Pope put words together as few poets have ever been able to do. If some dimwitted contemporary New York artist thinks otherwise, tant pis.
I had to be brutal here, because the sheer ignorance of and bigotry against Pope have become standard in the average academic mind, as if the man represented everything that modern thinking has rebelled against. Pope is clear. He is intelligible. He is witty. He is self-controlled. He is precise. He uses the English language just as a master violinist uses a Stradivarius. Our contemporary freak-scene poets, vogueing like narcissistic drama queens at an open mike, can’t stand that sort of meticulously tuned craftsmanship.
Let me add that disdain for Pope is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Matthew Arnold (who should have known better) also dismissed Pope as a “master of prose” rather than of poetry. Ever since the triumph of Romanticism there has been an instinctive hatred of verse that is consciously well-structured, classically composed, and directly intelligible to the sane human mind. We live in a poetic world of deliberate vagueness and impressionistic fog and pig-headed obfuscation. Pope’s grace and style are anathema to it. It’s time to reconsider the man’s genius.
Alexander Pope was born in London, in 1688, to Roman Catholic parents. Both his parents were in their forties then, and Pope was their only child. Anti-Catholic bigotry during the reign of William and Mary forced an early retirement upon Pope’s father (a linen merchant), and prompted the family’s move to more remote rural surroundings. Legally barred from attending public school or university, Pope was trained privately by relatives and priests, and later in small unofficially recognized Catholic academies.
Despite the religious limitations on his opportunities for schooling, Pope was a voracious reader, student, and autodidact. He learned Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. His natural talent for perfectly sculpted verse was recognized early, and his first major work (Pastorals) was written in 1704, when he was sixteen years of age. Published five years later in a book of miscellanies, it was prefaced by young Pope’s A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry, a scholarly comment on the history of the pastoral tradition from Theocritus and Virgil to Tasso and Spenser, such as one might expect from a learned, elderly Oxbridge don. Right from the start of his career Pope showed himself a meticulous, well-read, and painstakingly erudite writer, thoroughly versed in the history and traditions of whatever genre he chose to work in.
Only two years later (in 1711), Pope published his Essay on Criticism, an amazing production for a youth of twenty-two. It is a tripartite discourse of over seven hundred lines, in heroic couplets, dealing with poetic composition and the proper use of literary criticism. Pope angered certain contemporary writers with this poem, but it brought him the attention of the literary world, as well as commanding its respect. The Essay on Criticism is a master work of didactic verse, filled with lines and phrases that have become commonplace in Anglophone culture (“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” or “To err is human, to forgive divine”). Pope took as his model Horace’s Ars Poetica, and expressed the view that a close study of the aesthetic practice of the ancients was indispensable to a poet, as well as attention to decorum, clear diction, and very careful metrics. He mentions with approval Horace, Quintilian, Longinus, and of course Homer. But Pope is equally a champion of “Nature,” and the balanced harmony that the eighteenth century saw in that hypostatized ideal. In other words, what we learn from the study of ancient texts is merely the felicitous expression of what is natural and proper:
Those rules of old discover’d, not devised,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodized:
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same laws which first herself ordain’d.
Pope’s genius can be seen in how he manages to put a rather convoluted argument into crystalline couplets, without sacrificing either nuance or sequential thought. Here he speaks of the strict guidance that the poet must take from Nature, even as the spirit of Nature remains an invisible hand:
First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart
At once the source, the end, and test of Art.
Art from that fund each just supply provides;
Works without show, and without pomp presides:
In some fair body thus th’ informing soul
With spirits feeds, with vigour fills the whole,
Each motion guides, and every nerve sustains;
Itself unseen, but in th’ effects remains.
And yet soon after, Pope carefully preserves the freedom of the poet to violate the strict rule of Nature, and create something unusual or striking:
Great wits may sometimes gloriously offend,
And rise to faults true critics dare not mend;
From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
Which, without passing through the judgment, gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains.
The clarity of that judgment is eons beyond the mindless jargon that one must endure from English department faculty today, as they attempt to create intellectual justifications for the worthless and self-absorbed garbage that passes for modern literature.
Even before the appearance of this major poem, Pope had been noticed by some of the important literary figures of his day. He was acquainted with Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and the writers associated with Addison and Steele’s Spectator magazine. He was a member of the Scriblerus Club, and began to form links even with prominent Tory political figures. Everything suggested that Pope was at the beginning of a stellar career in English letters.
The next year did not dash this hope, for 1712 was when the first edition of The Rape of the Lock appeared (an expanded version came out in 1714). This is, without argument or debate, one of the most important poems in English literature. Anyone who considers the piece trivial or silly or inconsequential is, in my view, debarred from the practice of serious literary criticism. The Rape of the Lock is not just unique; it is perfection and sublimity elevated to the highest level. It is the apotheosis of the English language, and its triumphant chariot-ride to immortality. And it all began with a minor spat. For those unfamiliar with the relevant history, let me summarize the facts briefly.
As a recusant Roman Catholic, Pope was acquainted with a number of prominent Catholic families. At one of their social gatherings—Pope himself was not present—a young aristocrat cut off a dangling lock of hair from the head of a young lady to whom he was a suitor, without her permission. The man was Robert, Lord Petre; and the girl was Arabella Fermor. Miss Fermor was insulted and angered at this impertinence, and the contretemps occasioned a serious dispute between the relatives of the parties involved.
As a way to heal the breach between these two Catholic families, and perhaps make straight the path of future courtship between Lord Petre and Arabella, Pope’s friend John Caryll approached the poet and asked him if he could do anything by way of conciliation or mediation. Pope’s brilliant idea was to use the incident as the subject of a short mock-epic, taking what was merely a minor misunderstanding and turning it into a poetic jeu d’esprit. He would use the cutting of the lock of hair as the start of an epic conflict, just as the abduction of Helen generated Homer’s Iliad, and the rape of Proserpina sparked Ovid’s De Raptu Proserpinae.
Pope aimed at making both sides see that their minor dispute was unimportant, while also producing a magnificent poetic scenario of lush description, playful mockery, mild satire, praise of female beauty, celebration of luxury, amatory longings, anger and conflict—with all of these things guided and directed by a world of unseen ethereal spirits, very much like those in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in the fantasies of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. In its final form, the Rape is in five cantos, with nearly eight hundred lines of verse. And yet no true lover of the English language could find it tedious, any more than a genuine devotee of music could find a Mozart concerto dull.
Where to begin? Pope creates two fictitious characters to represent the parties to the dispute: the lovely Belinda, and her beau The Baron. One morning Belinda is in a dreamy sleep wherein she is visited by her guardian sylph, Ariel. He has come to warn her of some mishap due to occur that same day, and to explain that sylphs are the spirits of lovely women who serve to protect living young girls who are both chaste and fair. But unfortunately Belinda is awakened by her lap-dog, Shock, who licks her face. Aroused suddenly from her slumbers, she forgets completely about the visit of Ariel. Just an incidental passage is enough to show the delicate power of Pope’s skill in description:
Sol through white curtains shot a tim’rous ray,
And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day:
Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve awake:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock’d the ground,
And the press’d watch return’d a silver sound.
The poem continues with the details of Belinda’s elaborate morning toilet: her clothing; her vanity table with its opulent array of perfumes, cosmetics, and jewels; her combs and pins and powders. A maidservant does Belinda’s hair up in a magnificent style, aided by unseen sylphs who make sure that all is done properly.
Meanwhile The Baron, fascinated by the two locks of hair that hang at the nape of Belinda’s neck, prays to the god of Love to help him in his plan to snip them off. Both he and Belinda will be attending a festive royal gathering at Hampton Court, and it is there that he intends to cut off the locks. The sylph Ariel marshals all his forces in the spirit world to fend off whatever danger may lie in Belinda’s path, though he is uncertain as to what form that danger may take. He gives orders for the protection of Belinda’s clothing, jewelry, and accessories, but takes particular care for any sexual threat to her:
To fifty chosen sylphs, of special note,
We trust th’ important charge, the petticoat:
Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail,
Though stiff with hoops, and arm’d with ribs of whale;
Form a strong line about the silver bound,
And guard the wide circumference around.
Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is notable for this linkage of the sexual and the playful, and the feigned assumption that an erotic fall is not much more serious than a minor mishap such as the loss of a bracelet or the staining of a gown’s hem. Consider this couplet on Belinda’s necklace, the facetiousness of which overwhelms its irreligious scandal:
On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.
This comic spirit and lighthearted ebullience are what make the poem a masterpiece in the mock-epic mode. The poem is profoundly anti-Puritan in its unabashed celebration of wealth, leisure, fashion, festivity, sexual desire, luxury, gaming, and all the wonderful products available from England’s world-wide network of seaborne trade. Coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate, silk, embroidery, Chinese cups and vases, porcelain, lacquer furnishings, perfumes, rare jewels, ivories, tortoise-shell, precious metals… all these things appear in profusion in the poem, as props for a lavish scenario of sybaritic pleasure. Here’s Pope’s description of the serving of tea and coffee at Hampton Court:
For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crown’d,
The berries crackle, and the mill turns round:
On shining altars of Japan they raise
The silver lamp; the fiery spirits blaze:
From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
While China’s earth receives the smoking tide.
The poem also shows us Belinda and the many guests at the party playing at cards, and Pope uses the competition of the various cards as a mock-heroic reflex of the battle scenes in a real epic. But the high point of drama comes when The Baron uses a pair of scissors (which Pope calls, most wonderfully, by its Latin name “forfex”) to clip off one of Belinda’s locks. It happens despite Ariel’s efforts, since he delves deep into Belinda’s mind to give her warning, but there he finds that she is not chaste. He therefore cannot serve her any longer:
Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close recesses of the virgin’s thought:
As on the nosegay in her breast reclin’d,
He watch’d th’ ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden he view’d, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,
Resign’d to fate, and with a sign retir’d.
The Baron’s action leads to the poem’s fatal climax: an insulted Belinda descends into an underworld of depression and rage (“Spleen”), where in anger she summons up the dark powers of feminine resentment to declare war on The Baron, and all men in general. This allows Pope to present us with a real mock-heroic “battle” of the beaux (the men) against the belles (the ladies). The Baron, joined in battle by his absurdly named friends Sir Dapperwit, Sir Fopling, and Sir Plume, have no chance at all against the ladies, whose beauty and fierce looks of disdain strike them dead, though even after they are “killed’ in combat, they revive.
As for the lock itself, Pope suggests that it was swept up into the skies to become a new comet in the heavens. And Pope ends his mock-epic with words to Belinda, but also, by implication, to Arabella Fermor. They are among the most powerful and lovely concluding words in English poetry:
Then cease, bright nymph! to mourn thy ravish’d hair,
Which adds new glory to the shining sphere!
Not all the tresses that fair head can boast
Shall draw such envy as the lock you lost.
For, after all the murders of your eye,
When, after millions slain, yourself shall die;
When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust;
This lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame,
And ’midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name.
That is the sheer magic of The Rape of the Lock. A situation of disagreement and misunderstanding is transformed into a comically hyperbolic fiction of fun. The angry real-world spat becomes an imaginative joke, but a joke that carries with it a wealth of good sense, satire, literary pyrotechnics, and robust celebration. If Pope had written only The Rape of the Lock and nothing else, he would still be in the highest rank of English poets. The poem was a major success with readers. It made Pope’s reputation not just in England but all over Europe, being translated into dozens of languages. He once boasted that his publisher had sold three thousand copies in the space of a few days.
Pope devoted several years after this triumph to what was to be a staggering task—his translation of Homer’s Iliad. The labor was immense, but highly profitable. Pope became financially secure as a result of the translation, and undertook a subsequent rendering of the Odyssey into English. His version of the Iliad is generally considered the superior of the two. He also produced an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, but he took many liberties with the received text, and the edition was badly received by scholars.
In 1728, Pope published his prose essay Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry. This piece is a sustained ironic attack on a variety of stupid stylistic errors in many of his contemporaries’ work. All sorts of inept and indecorous lapses in diction, usage, and judgment are skewered, and Peri Bathous no doubt lengthened the list of Pope’s literary enemies. But the essay is a classic indictment of poetic failure, and is especially remembered for its lampooning of the common amateurish mistake of attempting reach sublimity in a poem, and unintentionally collapsing into ludicrous absurdity because of some laughable faux pas in diction or figures of speech.
No consideration of Pope’s achievement could omit mentioning his philosophical poetry. His lengthy An Essay on Man (completed in 1735) is a didactic work in four “epistles,” dealing with the universe and God, the individual human being, the structure of society, and true happiness. Although very popular, and praised widely throughout Europe, it did receive some serious criticism from professional philosophers who felt that its arguments were facile, and insufficiently buttressed by solid reasoning. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that Pope was a poet first, and a philosopher second. His poem is smooth and mellifluous, as everything that he wrote, but sometimes that easygoing fluency slides over the real logical and intellectual difficulties of the chosen subject. Today we would call it a “popularization.”
An Essay on Man begins as a work of “natural theology,” which is traditionally understood to be an attempt to answer the following question: What can we know about God, apart from revelation, scripture, received dogma, and ecclesiastical tradition? It was a fairly important question for eighteenth-century Europeans, who had over a century of bloody religious warfare behind them, and who preferred to think of religion in a more abstract mode that would not involve savage sectarian conflicts. Natural theology usually discusses whether God exists, what His attributes are, what does He require from us, what does the structure of the world tell us about Him, and similar questions. The convenient thing about natural theology is that in theory it allows persons of different religious persuasions to discuss God without fighting. A major issue for natural theology is what Leibnitz called “the theodicy problem,” or how it is possible to reconcile the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God with the existence of evil in His creation.
Pope begins his essay by arguing that we know almost nothing about God, except to see His traces and footprints in the great system of “Nature.” As for our own knowledge as human beings, it is seriously limited and incapable of grasping the larger significance of the universe we inhabit:
Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind?
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less?
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller and stronger than the weeds they shade?
It follows, argues Pope, that man has no right to judge the world in which he lives, or to criticize its maker or its basic arrangement. We are part of a larger whole, and can only grasp what we are meant to grasp:
Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee.
Submit, in this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one Disposing Power,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear: Whatever is, is right.
At one stroke, Pope has banished the theodicy problem. There is no evil in the world—only our inability to see the reasons behind the world’s workings, and our failure to know much at all about God. Hence, Pope implicitly tells us to forget about theology completely, and concentrate on mankind. And he begins his next epistle with one of the most majestic and moving pictures ever penned by a poet of what it means to be human:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
I have not the space to go into the wealth of detailed argument that Pope presents in the rest of his essay. Suffice it to say that he discusses the relation of self-love and reason, the human passions, the great chain of being, the link between Nature and Art, the growth of religion and social order, and the requirements for happiness. This is an amazingly ambitious agenda for a poet—and all within the space of about 1300 lines. Even if some of the argumentation is shaky, it is still a major poetic achievement.
Pope’s fame also rests on his monumental The Dunciad, first published in 1728, but enlarged to four books by 1742, and very heavily annotated by Pope himself. It is difficult to describe this work with any precision. Part epic, part mock-heroic, part satire, part critical essay, part allegory, part mythical fantasy, part comic spoof… it defies easy categorization. The Dunciad is a disquisition in heroic couplets about the goddess of Dulness, and the crowning of a king of Dulness to restore and rule over her vast Empire. The poem is peppered with a series of attacks on Pope’s personal enemies in the literary world, in particular the scholar Lewis Theobald (or Tibbald), and later on the hack poet Colley Cibber. However, he ranges over a host of other writers (the “dunces” of literature), lambasting their incompetence, failure, and general idiocy. The poem can be hysterically funny, and shockingly obscene. Today it must be read with Pope’s copious and half-serious notes, since many of the persons mentioned therein are long forgotten.
Pope’s brilliance can only be hinted at in a short essay such as this. He was more than just a competent poet; those types are fairly distributed in the world of letters. Pope was very much like a comet, whose fiery light is simultaneously surprising, beautiful, and unique. It is hard to imagine altering or revising a single line that he wrote. That is a great thing to be said of any poet.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming book, Gallery of Ethopaths, is forthcoming.