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outrages on inoffending passengers.
Drunkenness, says a high authority, “became for the first time a national vice." It was confined to no class of society, and there is hardly an author of the so-called Augustan Age who was entirely free from it. The underlying brutality and coarseness of the age in thought and action stain the pages of its literature; its misanthropy, its petty spites and literary rivalries, break out in slanderous abuse, and bitter, mirthless satires. On every side are indications of a low moral tone. At the beginning of the century the Church was lifeless and worldly, and its great places were intrigued for and sought after as political spoil. Public life was debased, and bribery was regarded as a regular feature in the conduct of government. Many of the greatest men of the time, disgusted with the mercenary spirit and low aims which surrounded them, lost confidence in human virtue, and expressed – sometimes with terrible power — their cynical contempt for man, and their hatred of his petty world. Yet even at this time the higher and nobler elements of the English character were struggling to reassert themselves, and long before the death of Pope the spiritual redemption of England had begun.
“He [Dryden) died, nevertheless, in a good old age, possessed of the Kingdom of Wit, and was succeeded by King Alexander, surnamed Pope.
“This prince enjoyed the crown many years, and is thought to have stretched the prerogative much farther than his predecessor.”
- FIELDING, The Covent Garden Journal, No. 23. “As truly as Shakespeare is the poet of man, as God made him, dealing with great passions and innate motives, so truly is Pope the poet of society, the delineator of manners, the exposer of those motives which may be called acquired,
- LOWELL, Pope.
Pope was beyond all. question the poet who represented most truly the brilliant, narrow, and self-centered life of the London of Queen Anne. There were other men possessed of keener intellect and more penetrating vision, who were above the petty bickerings of the time, and who saw through its shallow optimism; but Pope, by reason of his scintillating wit, his bitter, satirical attacks upon his enemies, his brilliant, pointed expression, and his contentment with the commonplaces of thought, is most truly the child of his age.
In many ways Pope's story is both painful and pitiaable. He himself spoke of his life as "a long disease" and he spoke truly. His delicacy of constitution, his nervous sensibility, affected his whole life and character; and we cannot help feeling the narrowness, bitterness, and irritability of the invalid in his work. Yet there was lodged in his weak and deformed body a spirit of indomitable persistence and courage. A nervous invalid, small, fragile, misshapen; his thin face, drawn as if with pain, was yet alive with an eager intellect, and lit with the large, brilliant eyes of the poet. And in
a brutal time that spared neither the weak nor the unfortunate, he won and kept the headship of British letters.
His Life. Alexander Pope was born in London in 1688. His family were Roman Catholics, and in the years immediately following the deposition of James II
the feeling against persons of that faith was very strong. Almost from the first, therefore, Pope's religion set him apart, and stood in the way of his worldly advancement. Included on account of his religion among a “hated minority," he grew up entirely outside of the regular educational system of his country, and separated from the youth of his own age, who would have been his
natural companions. His education was accordingly desultory and superficial. He had some instruction from a priest, and he studied for a short time at a Roman Catholic seminary near Winchester. The better part of his education he gained for himself. A lonely and precocious child, he found his resource and delight in books, and especially in poetry. He read, according to his own account, without any design but that of pleasing himself, “like a boy gathering flowers in the fields just as they fell in his way.” Latin, Greek, and French he for the most part taught himself. At eight years of age, he read a translation of Homer, "the great edition with pictures," and also one of Ovid. He read voraciously many of the English and foreign poets, and began early to make verses. Indeed from his first years it had been his ambition to write. As a boy of twelve he had seen the great Dryden at Will's Coffee-house; and at the same age he had composed an epic poem. His father would set him to writing verses, we are told, and then criticize them severely if they failed to come up to his standards. But this constant application soon broke the boy's health, and “ruined his constitution.” His father took a house at Binfield, a village near Windsor Forest. In this beautiful retreat, then much wilder and more thickly wooded than at present, the greater part of Pope's youth was spent. There the lad of sixteen rode horseback in the forest and discussed the classics with Sir William Trumbull, a man past sixty and a former Secretary of State. By hard and careful study and by incessant practice, Pope was making himself master of his art, and by his precocious talents was winning the attention and friendship of some of the most distinguished men.
The Pastorals. — Pope's first literary venture was the
publication of the Pastorals (1709), a series of poems treating of shepherd life and the four seasons, largely in imitation of Theocritus and Vergil. The poems are noteworthy for the smooth and even flow of the verse, but not for originality of treatment, or for any real understanding of pastoral life. Although the scenes are laid in England, they are not drawn true to English landscape or English character. Classic names are used, heathen gods and goddesses are domesticated in England, and Apollo is to be gladdened by the sacrifice of a “milk-white bull” near the banks of the Thames. The poems are artificial because the poet had in mind only the rules of the critics and the models of the ancients, and not the actual life of real shepherds, its rustic labors and pleasures, or any of its simple tenderness. Pope was here breaking his own admirable rule, "to know thoroughly what one writes about, and not be affected.” But we must remember that these poems were written when Pope was but sixteen years old, and that they were little more than poetical exercises.
Essay on Criticism. — Pope's next publication, An Essay on Criticism (1711), took London by storm. It is a didactic poem in which many of the established rules of composition are set forth in a terse and clever fashion. To us its thoughts seem trite, its subject unsuitable for poetic treatment, but to the men of the early eighteenth century it seemed to be the final word on literary criticism, and its form to be perfectly fitting. To us the Essay on Criticism is interesting chiefly because it is quotable. All through it we find couplets in which an idea, often commonplace enough, is packed into a form so terse, striking, and remarkable, that it has become firmly embedded in our ordinary thought and speech. Through his power to translate a current