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Richardson on Pope’s lack of genius

Richardson on Pope’s lack of genius

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What does the name of poet mean? you answer after some such manner as this—‘It

means a maker, and, consequently, his work is something original, quite his

own. It is not the laboured improvement of a modern culti-vator bestowed on a

soil already fertile, and refining on a plan already formed; but the touch of

Armida’s wand, that calls forth blooming spring out of the shapeless waste, and

presents in a moment objects new and various, which his genius only could have

formed in that peculiar manner, and his taste only arranged with that peculiar

grace. These two enchanting gifts of taste and genius were possessed by

Shakespeare in a surprising degree, in both dramas,’ &c.


Critical clichés of 1759

W.H.Dilworth, extracts from The Life of Alexander Pope, Esq; With

a View of his Writings…(1759). This hack biography may have

been, as George Sherburn suggests, an attempt to benefit by the

interest created by the publication of Warton’s Essay three years

earlier. Although Dilworth attempted to replace what he called the

‘farrago’ of Ayre’s Memoirs (see No. 97), The Life of Alexander

Pope, Esq is shapeless and carelessly strung together; into the

bargain, it uses passages from the earlier book without bothering to

acknowledge the source.

[Early poems]

His Pastorals having been previously perused and approved by the above

mentioned lords and gentlemen, and others of the best poets and critics, were

published. Their uncommon elegance of style, and smoothness of versification,

joined to the youth of their author, made them to be universally admired, and put

in competition with the best productions of that kind in the English language.

They were by many preferred to those of Mr. Ambrose Philips, author of The

Distrest Mother, which led their partisans to support them in opposition to Mr.

Pope’s… ALTHO’, by all candid critics the poems in question of both must be

allowed to be pastoral, yet Steele1 inclined to refuse that apellation to those of

Mr. Pope, which he politely evasive called too elevated, saying, they savoured

too much of the golden age. He asserted, that Mr Philips was nearer the standard

of Nature, having been careful to imitate Spenser in some places; and that, where

requisite, he was capable of elevating his style. [pp. 12–13]

…Mr. Pope…appeared…from time to time in elegant performances,

particularly the Messiah, a sacred poem in imitation of Virgil’s Pollio, which it

far exceeds, being enriched with the rapturous imagery and expressions of the

prophet Isaiah.

SOON after appeared that masterly and unequalled piece of landskip poetry,

called Windsor Forest, in which all rural beauties appear with advantage, thro’ a

perspicuous elegance of stile, couched in the most easy and most flowing

numbers, varyingly appropriated to the different subjects that are delineated.


AGAINST all cavillers, who have maliciously endeavoured to prove, that Mr.

Pope had no invention, fancy, or imagination, and that all his merit consisted in

being a correct plagiarist, The Rape of the Lock may be quoted. It abounds with

fancy and fine humour, and is the foremost of heroi-comic poems.

THIS truly elegant piece in five cantos was wrote to expose the little

unguarded follies of the fair sex. The passages are fabulous, and the machinery

raised on the foundation of the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits, according to

which the four elements are supposed to be in-habited, the air by sylphs, the

earth by gnomes, the water by nymphs, and the fire by salamanders.

THIS celebrated poem, that has run thro’ such a number of editions, has more

true humour and good natured mirth in it, than any other extant, either in the

ancient or modern languages. [pp. 19–20]

MR. Pope was by this time got so far into favour and reputation with the town,

that he needed no other recommendation than his own merit; and he began (as he

was justly entitled) to assume the name of a critic, and to give rules to others in his

Essay on Criticism, which abounds with wit, beautiful turns, variety of

metaphors, and masterly observations on poetry and criticism. It is the best work

of the kind that has appeared among the ancients or moderns. [p. 27]

MR. POPE wrote a most excellent letter in verse from Eloisa to Abelard…. It

may be asserted, that it is not in the power of our language to go beyond this

poem in tenderness and harmony. The only production of even our author that

can be put in competition with it, is the piece so justly admired for its beauties,

called Verses to the Memory of an unfortunate Young Lady. [pp. 31–3]

[The Dunciad]

THE Dunciad was an interrupted work, which he wrote from time to time, and

has made it the most complete piece of poetical castigation in our language. He

had indeed ample matter, having a numerous body of dunces to take cognizance

of. Some who did not absolutely deserve that appellation, he has rapped over the


THIS poem, as was observed above, is dedicated to the humorous and

satyrical Dr. Swift, who called it Mr. Pope’s master-piece. The rewe beg to differ

in opinion with that great man, tho’ at the same time we allow the Dunciad to be

the most excellent piece in its kind that we have, or perhaps any other nation is

possessed of.

SWIFT’S preference may be accounted for from his own fondness for satyr, at

which he was a master-hand, and from a personal resentment to many of the

scriblers therein exposed. Altho’ it be written in the spirit of Dryden’s

Macfleckno, it is more comprehensive; the latter poem having but one object,

whereas the Dunciad has many… [pp. 77–8]


[A reference to Pope’s anonymous Guardian no. 40; see No. 9]

436 POPE

[Moral Essays]

IT is now time to speak of the Ethic Epistles, which are to bad men, what the

Dunciad is to bad poets; and as in the latter, so in the former, he does not intirely

spare the ladies. It would have been highly erron-eous in our great moral censor

to neglect being of service to that desireable and most lovely part of human society.

BESIDES, their natural tendency to vanity must have been too much

encouraged, on finding themselves let pass free of all censure, and seeing the

other sex so mauled.

THE first Ethic Epistle, which is on the knowledge and character of men, our

poet addressed to lord Cobham, who honoured him with his friendship, finding

him so thorough a hearted Englishman, which was an additional merit to his

excellence as a poet.

IT was remarkable of Mr. Pope that he never appeared so fond of any foreigners

(whatever might be their religion) as he was of his own countrymen. He was a

strenuous discourager, so far as in him lay, of Italian operas.

BESIDES, he was a warm promoter of English sense, and of all valuable

productions in his native language, which he deemed superior to all the modern,

and consequently the nearest to the Latin and Greek tongues, for energic prose,

and harmonious versification.

HE had so sanguine, so truly patriot an attachment to the manufactures of Old

England, that when in compliance with fashion he was necessitated to use things

of foreign produce, or manufactures, his national expression was—‘Pardon me,

my country, I offend but seldom.’

[PP. 94–5]


Young on Pope’s lack of originality


Dr Edward Young, extracts from Conjectures on Original

Composition (1759), pp. 20–2, 56–60, 65–9, 71, 96–9.

The text is based on the 2nd ed. of 1759. For other earlier

examples of Young’s opinion of Pope, see Nos 28c, 40. For

Richardson’s comments on an early text of that part of the

Conjectures concerned with Pope, see No. 110.

Must we then, you say, not imitate antient authors? Imitate them, by all means;

but imitate aright. He that imitates the divine Iliad, does not imitate Homer; but

he who takes the same method, which Homer took, for arriving at a capacity of

accomplishing a work so great. Tread in his steps to the sole Fountain of

Immortality; drink where he drank, at the true Helicon, that is, at the breast of

Nature: Imitate; but imitate not the Composition, but the Man. For may not this

Paradox pass into a Maxim? viz. ‘The less we copy the renowned Antients, we

shall resemble them the more.’

But possibly you may reply, that you must either imitate Homer, or depart from

Nature. Not so: For suppose You was to change place, in time, with Homer; then,

if you write naturally, you might as well charge Homer with an imitation of You.

Can you be said to imitate Homer for writing so, as you would have written, if

Homer had never been? As far as a regard to Nature, and sound Sense, will

permit a Departure from your great Predecessors; so far, ambitiously, depart from

them; the farther from them in Similitude, the nearer are you to them in

Excellence; you rise by it into an Original; become a noble Collateral, not an

humble Descendant from them….

Such meanness of mind, such prostration of our own powers,1 proceeds from

too great admiration of others. Admiration has, generally, a degree of two very

bad ingredients in it; of Ignorance, and of Fear; and does mischief in

Composition, and in Life. Proud as the world is, there is more superiority in it

given, than assumed: And its Grandees of all kinds owe more of their elevation

to the Littleness of others minds, than to the Greatness of their own. Were not

prostrate spirits their voluntary pedestals, the figure they make among mankind

would not stand so high. Imitators and Translators are somewhat of the pedestal-


kind, and sometimes rather raise their Original’s reputation, by showing him to

be by them inimitable, than their own. Homer has been translated into most

languages; Ỉlian tells us, that the Indians, (hopeful tutors!) have taught him to

speak their tongue. What expect we from them? Not Homer’s Achilles, but

something, which, like Patroclus, assumes his name, and, at its peril, appears in

his stead; nor expect we Homer’s Ulysses, gloriously bursting out of his cloud

into royal grandeur, but an Ulysses under disguise, and a beggar to the last. Such

is that inimitable father of poetry, and Oracle of all the wise, whom Lycurgus

transcribed; and for an annual publick recital of whose works Solon enacted a

law; that it is much to be feared, that his so numerous translations are but as the

published testimonials of so many nations, and ages, that this author so divine is

untranslated still.

But here,

Cynthius aurem

Vellit —


and demands justice for his favourite, and ours. Great things he has done; but

he might have done greater. What a fall is it from Homer’s numbers, free as air,

lofty and harmonious as the spheres, into childish shackles, and tinkling sounds!

But, in his fall, he is still great—

Nor appears

Less than Archangel ruin’d, and the excess

Of glory obscur’d.—

MILT[ON Paradise Lost, i. 592–4]

Had Milton never wrote, Pope had been less to blame: But when in Milton s

Genius, Homer, as it were, personally rose to forbid Britons doing him that

ignoble wrong; it is less pardonable, by that effeminate decoration, to put

Achilles in petticoats a second time: How much nobler had it been, if his

numbers had rolled on in full flow, through the various modulations of masculine

melody, into those grandeurs of solemn sound, which are indispensably

demanded by the native dignity of Heroick song? How much nobler, if he had

resisted the temptation of that Gothic Dæmon, which modern Poesy tasting,

became mortal? O how unlike the deathless, divine harmony of three great

names (how justly join’d!), of Milton, Greece, and Rome? His Verse, but for this

little speck of mortality, in its extreme parts, as his Hero had in his Heel; like him,

had been invulnerable, and immortal. But, unfortunately, that was undipt in

Helicon; as this, in Styx. Harmony as well as Eloquence is essential to poesy; and



[I.e., the imitation of classical writers to the exclusion of originality]

[Ecl. vi. 3: ‘Cynthius (i.e. Apollo) plucked my ear.’]

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