« iepriekšējāTurpināt »
planned, he could polish and file his writings as long as he chose. He did not fail to do so. When he had written a work, he kept it at least two years in his desk. From time to time he re-read and corrected it; took counsel of his friends, then of his enemies; no new edition was unamended; he moulded without wearying. His first production was so much recast and transformed, that it could not be recognised in the final copy. The pieces which seem least retouched are two satires, and Dodsley says that in the manuscript 'almost every line was written twice over; I gave him a clean transcript, which he sent some time afterwards to me for the press, with almost every line written twice over a second time.'1 Dr. Johnson says: From his attention to poetry he was never diverted. If conversation offered anything that could be improved, he committed it to paper; if a thought, or perhaps an expression, more happy than was common, rose to his mind, he was careful to write it; an independent distich was preserved for an opportunity of insertion; and some little fragments have been found containing lines, or parts of lines, to be wrought upon at some other time.' 2 His writing-box had to be placed upon his bed before he rose. 'Lord Oxford's domestic related that, in the dreadful winter of 1740, she was called from her bed by him four times in one night to supply him with paper, lest he should lose a thought.'" Swift complains that he was never at leisure for conversation, because he had always some poetical scheme in his head.' Thus nothing was lacking for the attainment of perfect expression; the practice of a lifetime, the study of every model, independent fortune, the company of men of the world, freedom from turbulent passions, the absence of dominant ideas, the facility of an infant prodigy, the assiduity of an old man of letters. It seems as though he were expressly endowed with faults and good qualities, here enriched, there impoverished, at once narrowed and developed, to set in relief the classical form by the diminution of the classical depth, to present the public with a model of a well-used and accomplished art, to reduce to a brilliant and rigid crystal the flowing sap of an expiring literature.
It is a great misfortune for a poet to know his business too well; his poetry then shows a man of business, and not the poet. I wish I could admire Pope's works of imagination, but I cannot. In vain I read the testimony of his contemporaries, and even that of the moderns, and repeat to myself that in his time he was the prince of poets; that his Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard was received with a cry of enthusiasm ; that one could not then imagine a finer expression of true poetry; that to this day it is learned by heart, like the speech of Hippolyte in the Phedre of Racine; that Johnson, that great literary critic, ranked it
1 Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets; Alexander Pope, iii. 114.
amongst the happiest productions of the human mind;' that Lord Byron himself preferred it to the celebrated ode of Sappho. I read it again, and am bored: this is not as it ought to be; but, in spite of myself, I yawn, and I open the original letters of Eloisa to find the cause of my weariness.
Doubtless poor Eloisa is a barbarian, nay worse, a literary barbarian; she makes learned quotations, arguments, tries to imitate Cicero, to arrange her periods; she could not do otherwise, writing a dead language, with an acquired style; perhaps the reader would do as much if he were obliged to write to his mistress in Latin.' But how the true sentiment pierces through the scholastic form!
'Thou art the only one who can sadden me, console me, make me joyful. . . I should be happier and prouder to be called thy mistress than to be the lawful wife of an emperor. . . . Never, God knows it, have I wished for anything else in thee but thee. It is thee alone whom I desire; nothing that thou couldst give; it is not a marriage, a dowry: I never dreamt of doing my pleasure or my will, thou knowest it, but thine.'
Then come passionate words, genuine love words, then the candid words of a penitent, who says and dares everything, because she wishes to be cured, to show her wound to her confessor, even her most shameful wound; perhaps also because in extreme agony, as in childbirth, modesty vanishes. All this is very crude, very rude; Pope has more wit than she, and how he endues her with it! In his hands she becomes an academician, and her letter is a repertory of literary effects. Portraits and descriptions; she paints to Abelard the nunnery and the landscape:
Declamation and commonplace: she sends Abelard discourses on love and the liberty which it demands, on the cloister and the peaceful life
1 Rev. W. Elwin, in his edition of Pope's Works, ii. 224, says: 'The authenticity of the Latin letters has usually been taken for granted, but I have a strong belief that they are a forgery. It is far more likely that they are the fabrication of an unconcerned romancer, who speaks in the name of others with a latitude which people, not entirely degraded, would never adopt towards themselves. The suspicion is strengthened when the second party to the correspondence, the chief philosopher of his generation, exhibits the same exceptional depravity of taste.'-TR.
" 'Vale, unice.'
3 Pope's Works, ed. Elwin; Eloisa to Abelard, ii. 245, v. 141–160.
which it affords, on writing and the advantages of the post.1 Antitheses and contrasts, she forwards them to Abelard by the dozen; a contrast between the convent illuminated by his presence and desolate by his absence, between the tranquillity of the pure nun and the anxiety of the culpable nun, between the dream of human happiness and the dream of divine happiness. In fine, it is a bravura, with contrasts of forte and piano, variations and change of key. Eloisa makes the most of her theme, and sets herself to crowd into it all the powers and effects of her voice. Admire the crescendo, the shakes by which she ends her brilliant morceaux; to transport the hearer at the close of the portrait of the innocent nun, she says:
'How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to heav'n.
To sounds of heavenly harps she dies away,
Observe the noise of the big drum, I mean the grand contrivances, for so may be called all that a person says who wishes to rave and cannot ; for instance, speaking to rocks and walls, praying the absent Abelard to come, fancying him present, apostrophising grace and virtue:
'Oh grace serene! Oh virtue heavenly fair!
1 Eloisa to Abelard, ii. 240, v. 51-58:
'Heav'n first taught letters for some wretch's aid,
They live, they speak, they breathe what love inspires,
3 Ibid. 254, v. 297–302.
Hearing the dead speaking to her, telling the angels :
This is the final symphony with modulations of the celestial organ. suppose that Abelard cries 'Bravo' when he hears it.
But this is nothing in comparison with the art exhibited by her in every phrase. She puts ornaments into every line. Imagine an Italian singer trilling every word. O what pretty sounds! how nimbly and brilliantly they roll along, how clear, and always exquisite ! it is impossible to reproduce them in another tongue. Now it is a happy image, filling up a whole phrase; now a series of verses, full of symmetrical contrasts; two ordinary words set in relief by strange conjunction; an imitative rhythm completing the impression of the mind by the emotion of the senses; the most elegant comparisons and the most picturesque epithets; the closest style and the most ornate. Except truth, nothing is wanting. Eloisa is worse than a singer, she is an author: we look at the back of her epistle to Abelard to see if she has not written For Press.'
Pope has somewhere given a receipt for making an epic poem : take a storm, a dream, five or six battles, three sacrifices, funereal games, a dozen gods in two divisions; shake together until there rises the froth of a lofty style. You have just seen the receipt for making a loveletter. This kind of poetry resembles cookery; neither heart nor genius is necessary to produce it, but a light hand, an attentive eye, and a cultivated taste.
It seems that this kind of talent is made for light verses. It is factitious, and so are the manners of society. To make pretty speeches, to prattle with ladies, to speak elegantly of their chocolate or their fan, to jeer at fools, to criticise the last tragedy, to be good at compliments or epigrams,—this, it seems, is the natural employment of a mind such as this, but slightly impassioned, very vain, a perfect master of style, as careful of his verses as a dandy of his coat. Pope wrote the Rape of the Lock and the Dunciad; his contemporaries went into ecstasies on the charm of his badinage and the exactness of his raillery, and believed that he had surpassed Boileau's Lutrin and Satires.
That may well be; at all events the praise would be scanty. In Boileau there are, as a rule, two kinds of verse, as was said by a man of wit; most of which seem to be those of a sharp schoolboy in the third class, the rest those of a good schoolboy in the upper division. Boileau wrote the second verse before the first; this is why once out of four times his first verse only serves to stop a gap. Doubtless Pope had a more brilliant and adroit mechanism; but this facility of hand does not suffice to make a poet, even a poet of the boudoir. There, as elsewhere, we need genuine passions, or at least genuine tastes. When we wish to
1 Eloisa to Abelard, ii. 255, v. 317.
M. Guillaume Guizot.
paint the pretty nothings of conversation and the world, we must like
1 Goethe sings 'Liebe sei vor allen Dingen,