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Conington defends Pope's claims to‘correctness' with praiseworthy moderation and tedious prolixity'. His exposition leaves us in some doubt what precisely it was that the correctness consisted in, but he draws an interesting parallel between the advice given by Walsh to Pope and the advice given by Horace to the Roman authors of his own day. The Roman writer of tragedy, says Horace, has the genuine dramatic spirit and is successful in his daring flights ;
'Sed turpem putat inscite metuitque lituram,'
but in his folly he looks upon a blot as a disfigurement and is afraid of correcting. Again, in writing to the Pisos, Horace tells them that the Roman name would be as celebrated in literature as it is for valour and feats of arms,
'si non offenderet unum
Quemque poetarum limæ labor et mora3,'
if the toil and trouble of correcting did not prove such a stumbling-block to all their poets. Lucilius preferred quantity to quality :
in hora sæpe ducentos,
Ut magnum, versus dictabat stans pede in uno1':
many a time would he dictate a couple of hundred verses on the stretch within the hour, as if there were something wonderful in that. And in like manner, according to Pope,
-'Otway fail'd to polish or refine,
And fluent Shakespeare scarce effac'd a line:
That last and greatest Art, the Art to blot.'
tion having been pre-occupied by clever funambulists. Both Walsh and Pope forgot ever once to ask themselves what it was that they meant by correctness Neither of the two literati stopped to consider whether it was correctness in thought, or metrical correctness, or correctness in syntax and idiom; as to all of which, by comparison with other poets, Pope is conspicuously deficient.' There is another passage to the same effect in Vol. VIII. p. 14. The reader can test the truth of De Quincey's statements, so far as the Essay on Criticism is concerned, by consulting the Appendix to this book, pp. 158–65. 1 Miscellaneous Writings, Vol. 1. pp. 3--16.
2 Epist. II. i. 167.
8 Ars Poetica, 290—1.
4 Sat. 1. iv. 9—10.
5 Pope, Imit. of Horace, Book II. Epist. i. 278–281.
This is instructive so far as it goes, but unfortunately it goes such a very little way. To tell us that Pope was a 'correct' poet because he took a great deal of pains in correcting, sounds rather like a jest, and a jest which requires ten pages for its development is no laughing matter. De Quincey's question is left pretty much where it was before,—Correct in what?
The alleged 'correctness' cannot be a mere myth which has been accepted in a spirit of superstition by Pope's devotees. Byron was not the man to be gulled by imposture, and Byron speaks of Pope as 'the most perfect of our poets,—the only poet whose faultlessness has been made his reproach.' De Quincey declares that Byron's motive was 'as usually happened with him a motive of hostility to some contemporaries. He wished to write up Pope by way of writing down others1.' And no doubt Byron found in the disparagement of Wordsworth an added zest to his commendation of Pope. But his eulogy is too spontaneous and crops up in too many places for us to suspect its sincerity. In a letter to Murray2, he speaks of 'having lately gone over some of our classics, particularly Pope, whom I tried in this way,-I took Moore's poems and my own and some others, and went over them side by side with Pope's, and I was really astonished (I ought not to have been so) and mortified at the ineffable distance, in point of sense, harmony, effect, and even imagination, passion, and invention, between the little Queen Anne's man, and us of the Lower Empire. Depend upon it, it is all Horace then, and Claudian now, among us; and if I had to begin again, I would mould myself accordingly.'
Let us make our own attempt therefore to determine what are the qualities of Pope's poetry, which have gained for it the application of such epithets as 'perfect,' 'faultless,' ' correct.'
Are they qualities of his matter, of his method, or of his style? Probably a combination of all three. Unlike the Elizabethan poets, who made the passions the theme of their song, Pope and his contemporaries found their subjects mainly 1 Collected Works, Vol. XII. p. 21.
2 Sept. 15, 1817. Moore's Life, pp. 600—1.
in matters of conscience or intellect, or dealt with men in their social and political relations. And hence there appeared in our literature forms of composition as yet comparatively unfamiliar, —the satire, the epigram, the didactic essay.
There was a change also in poetic method. The age which dates from the Restoration was characterised by common sense, and common sense condemned the extravagances committed by writers of the Fantastic School,—their false view of nature, their far-fetched conceits, their recondite allusions, their bizarre ornaments. In every department of mental activity, common
sense reigned supreme. In metaphysics it was triumphing with Hobbes and Locke over the remnants of scholasticism; under Tillotson, it was expelling mystery from religion; and in art it was declaring war against the extravagant, the mystic, and the Gothic, a word then used as a simple term of abuse. Wit and sense are but different avatars of the same spirit; wit was the form in which it showed itself in coffee-houses, and sense that in which it appeared in the pulpit or parliament. When Walsh told Pope to be correct, he was virtually advising him to carry the same spirit into poetry1.'
As a consequence increased importance was attached to literary form. Poetry was subjected to rigorous criticism. Art was to be restrained by rules. Graces of style were to be cultivated according to method. But the chief demand of common sense was for clearness of expression. Hence the age of reason was the age also in which our modern English prose style was created, and much of the so-called poetry belonging to this age is merely versified prose. 'Buffon ends by saying, in praise of certain verses, that they are as fine as fine prose2.' The qualities necessary for success are terseness, neatness, polish, lucidity, elegant diction. These are the qualities of good prose, and they are also the qualities which were prized most highly in the poets of the classical age.
Making use of these considerations to help us in interpreting the term correctness' as applied to Pope, we may say suc
1 L. Stephen, Pope, p. 29.
2 Taine, History of English Literature, Vol. 111. p. 356.
cinctly, in the words of Mr Leslie Stephen, that it is 'the quality which is gained by incessant labour, guided by quick feeling, and always under the strict supervision of common sense1'; or we may express ourselves in greater detail to the following effect:— Correctness' implies
(1) A change of matter, from the subjects which gave play to the passionate fervour of the Elizabethan poets and to the spirit of quaint extravagance in their successors, to subjects congenial to an age of common sense, which condemned enthusiasm as hysterical and aimed at philosophic calm :
(2) A change of method, from the metaphysical subtlety with which nature had been viewed by writers who had appropriated the débris of scholastic philosophy to a direct portraiture of nature or of those particular aspects of nature in which alone Pope's contemporaries felt any interest :
(3) A change of style, from what is haphazard, ungainly, promiscuous, exuberant, to what is carefully elaborated, wellproportioned, symmetrical, select; a change from straggling sentences to compact expressions, containing finish, elegance, skilful arrangement, antithesis, or epigram; and a change from loose irregular versification to the harmonious smoothness of the couplet.
'It must not be hence inferred that every line written by Pope is as perfect as it should be, or may be taken as a model. Writing is a sustained endeavour to express meaning, and the artist is perpetually dropping below his own ideal. Besides, a long piece is to be regarded in its effect as a whole. The attempt to make it all point would result in a string of epigrams, not in a complete poem, which must be compounded of complementary parts. Incessant brilliance is unnatural, and fatigues the attention. Pope is at times flat, and below himself; sometimes fails in putting his meaning clearly; is occasionally clumsy; often ungrammatical. But in the art of rising and falling, of knowing when to stimulate attention and when to let it repose, he has few equals in our literature?'
1 Pope, p. 196.
2 M. Pattison, Introduction to Pope's Satires and Epistles, p. 19.
'The weak point,' says Mr Lowell, 'was that Pope's nicety concerned itself wholly about the phrase, leaving the thought to be as faulty as it would, and that it seldom extended beyond the couplet, often not beyond a single verse.... His more ambitious works may be defined as careless thinking carefully versified1.'
THE ESSAY ON CRITICISM.
A wide diversity of opinion respecting the merits of the Essay on Criticism appears in the following judgments of Johnson and De Quincey. 'The Essay on Criticism,' says Johnson, 'is one of Pope's greatest works, and if he had written nothing else, would have placed him among the first critics and the first poets, as it exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactic composition—selection of matter, novelty of arrangement, justness of precept, splendour of illustration, and propriety of digression. I know not whether it be pleasing to consider that he produced this piece at twenty, and never afterwards excelled it?' On the other hand De Quincey considers it 'the feeblest and least interesting of Pope's writings, being substantially a mere versification, like a metrical multiplication table, of common-places the most mouldy with which criticism has baited its rat-traps. The maxims, of no natural order or logical dependency, are generally so vague as to mean nothing, and, what is remarkable, many of the rules are violated by no man so often as by Pope, and by Pope nowhere so often as in this very poem3.'
As Mr Courthope points out, 'the critical sense of the Essay is most warmly appreciated by those who are nearest to it in point of time, and is coldly spoken of in proportion as the practical value of its maxims becomes less apparent.' Where
1 My Study Windows, 'Pope,' pp. 376—7.