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THE AGE OF POPE
“In tea-cup times of hood and hoop,
TENNYSON, The Talking Oak.
We have seen in the preceding chapter how English literature with the gradual weakening of the splendid creative energy that marked the age of Elizabeth became, in the hands of Dryden and his contemporaries, less national, less imaginative, and less truly poetic. Though great in his command of the English language and in his power of versification, Dryden had neither the broad humanity and daring originality of Shakespeare, nor the majesty and profound sincerity of Milton. . In a worldly and prosaic age, he had written for the Court rather than for the nation, and had deliberately chosen for poetic treatment subjects that were more fit for prose.
The Age of Queen Anne, or the first half of the eighteenth century, continued very largely the poetic traditions of the Restoration. Dryden, as we have seen, like Ben Jonson before him, had, by reason of his personal influence and by the brilliancy of his talk, wielded a wide-spread influence on his contemporaries. As the literary dictator of his age, he had set the standards of taste and of correct writing, and these proved to be so
in harmony with the spirit of the time that for fifty years after his death they prevailed with even greater strength as the standards of his successors. of Pope, like that of Dryden, was an age of prose. Common sense, reason, conformity with the classic rules of composition, continued to prevail over imagination, passion, and independence in thought and style. On the theory that they could be made poetical by the outward adornments of rime and rhythm, the most commonplace and prosaic subjects were treated in verse. One poet discussed the raising of sheep, the treatment of their diseases, and the details of the manufacture of woolens; another the Art of Preserving Health; while another set forth the advantages of fresh air and exercise. And in this way the distinction between poetry and prose was too often lost. Even the greatest poet of the time confined himself almost entirely to satiric, moral, and didactic themes. Pope writes personal and political satires, critical and philosophical essays, and lengthy epistles in verse. He and his school seem to have believed that poetic excellence consists not in genuine and sincere poetic feeling and imagery, but in smooth versification, in elegance and propriety of language, and in the terse, pointed, and brilliant expression of thought, — thought that they had taken usually at second hand. It was an age when less value was placed upon original matter than upon finished style; when poets were contented to write
“What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express’d.”
As the result of this care for style, a manner of verse was elaborated which reflects with striking exactness the merits and the limitations of its careful builders. It is generally clear, fluent, and flexible, often clever,
often epigrammatic; it can express a trite thought, or moral precept, in a neat and easily remembered couplet; it can describe a game of cards, or a muddy London street after a shower, with vividness and accuracy. But we feel that there is something about it which is formal, mechanical, artificial; that it does not speak for humanity, but for the literary and social London of Queen Anne; that it moves on the easy level of the worldly and the conventional, incapable of comprehending the tragic depths of man's anguish, or the heights to which, at rare moments, his spirit can ascend.
The Literature of the Town. Literature in the age of Pope was, in every sense, a literature of the town; born in the town, written mainly for the town, and often portraying the life of the town to the minutest detail. The London of Pope is even more wonderfully alive to us through literature than the London of Shakespeare. We can see its ill-paved streets with their narrow sidewalks and their running gutters; we know Grub Street, where obscure authors fought with debts and starvation; the old Fleet prison; the gay boating parties on the Thames; the pleasure-gardens where society drank and flirted, listened to the music, and exclaimed at the fireworks. All that restless, gay, animated life is still before us; the beauty in her sedan chair, the beau with his lace ruffles and his flowing wig; and we can imagine the courtly presentation of the snuff-box, or the flutter of the fan.
But this brilliant surface was but a thin veneer, and beneath it life was vulgar, vicious, and cruel. The age which prided itself on its polish and politeness indulged in bull-baiting and cock-fights; its young aristocrats, wandering in drunken frolics through the ill-lighted London streets, habitually committed the most shocking
and raillery, I will force my genius to obey it, though with more reputation I could write in verse."
Dryden went so far in his efforts “to delight” his age that he produced some comedies whose .license was marked even in that lax time. Yet, while he traded in vice, he kept a touch of the Puritan's conscience. In one of the most beautiful of his poems, he cries out in a rare burst of genuine feeling:
“O gracious God! how far have we
And towards the close of his life, he confesses with manly frankness, “ I am sensible, as I ought to be, of the scandal I have given by my loose writings; and make what reparation I am able by this public acknowledgment." There is much that is pathetic and even tragic in this late realization that through the best years of his life his mental powers had largely been misspent. Of all his plays, only one, he says, was "written for himself;". All for Love — "the rest were given to the people.”
One poem, Annus Mirabilis (1667), broke this period of dramatic activity. It deals with two events of the wonderful year 1966, the War with Holland, and the Great Fire of London.
Satires and Other Works. — At fifty, Dryden had made but a slight impression as a poet: his reputation rested almost entirely on his plays. Yet at fifty he entered suddenly upon the most splendid period of his career with the publication of his great political satire, Absalom and Achitophel (1681). Here Dryden takes the biblical story of Absalom's revolt against David the King as an allegory to disclose to the nation the traitorous intent and the evil character of Monmouth and Shaftesbury, who were plotting against King Charles.
After years of apprenticeship, Dryden had come to his own, and we feel at last those distinctive qualities in which he has been seldom approached and never excelled
the impetus of the rapid verse, the keen, discriminating intellect, the epigrammatic brilliancy, and the tireless vigor that animates the whole. Other satiric masterpieces followed, among which Mac Flecknoe (1682) is perhaps the best known. In the Religio Laici, or Religion of a Layman (1682), and in the Hind and the Panther (1687), Dryden showed his extraordinary power of arguing in verse. The first is a declaration of faith in the teachings of the Church of England, the second a lengthy argument in behalf of the doctrines of the Church of Rome, Dryden having changed his religion after the accession of the Roman Catholic King, James II. The “milk-white Hind” represents the Church of Rome, the Panther the Church of England, and the two oddly assorted beasts engage in a lengthy theological argument. But, in spite of the absurdity of its scheme, the poem has great melody, charm, and intellectual power, and shows us Dryden at his best.
Later Years. In 1689, when the Protestant sovereigns, William and Mary, came to the throne, Dryden had many temptations to change his religion again, but this time he stood firm. This single act of constancy stands out in the midst of all the fluctuations of Dryden's career, and at no time of his life is he so worthy of our respect as in the years that followed. He toiled manfully for his support; he wrote plays, translated Vergil and other classic poets, modernized Chaucer, and told some stories from Boccaccio in charming verse. He toiled, as he tells us a few years before his death,
“struggling with want, oppressed with sickness," and “curbed” in his genius, yet steady to “his prin