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Young on Pope’s lack of originality

Young on Pope’s lack of originality

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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.’]

POPE 439

a murder of his Musick is putting half Homer to death. Blank is a term of

diminution; what we mean by blank verse, is, verse unfallen, uncurst; verse

reclaim’d, reinthron’d in the true language of the Gods; who never thunder’d,

nor suffer’d their Homer to thunder, in Rhime; and therefore, I beg you, my

Friend, to crown it with some nobler term; nor let the greatness of the thing lie

under the defamation of such a name.

But supposing Pope’s Iliad to have been perfect in its kind; yet it is a

Translation still; which differs as much from an Original, as the moon from the


[Young goes on to attack Swift]

Would not his friend Pope have succeeded better in an original attempt?

Talents untried are talents unknown. All that I know, is, that, contrary to these

sentiments, he was not only an avowed professor of Imitation, but a zealous

recommender of it also. Nor could he recommend any thing better, except

Emulation, to those who write. One of these all writers must call to their aid; but

aids they are of unequal repute. Imitation is inferiority confessed; Emulation is

superiority contested, or denied; Imitation is servile, Emulation generous; That

fetters, This fires; That may give a name; This, a name immortal: This made

Athens to succeeding ages the rule of taste, and the standard of perfection. Her

men of Genius struck fire against each other; and kindled, by conflict, into

glories no time shall extinguish. We thank Eschylus for Sophocles; and

Parrhasius for Zeuxis; Emulation, for both. That bids us fly the general fault of

Imitators; bids us not be struck with the loud report of former fame, as with a

Knell, which damps the spirits; but, as with a Trumpet, which inspires ardour to

rival the renown’d. Emulation exhorts us, instead of learning our discipline for

ever, like raw troops, under antient leaders in composition, to put those laurel’d

veterans in some hazard of losing their superior posts in glory.

Such is Emulation’s high-spirited advice, such her immortalizing call. Pope

would not hear, pre-engaged with Imitation, which blessed him with all her

charms. He chose rather, with his namesake of Greece, to triumph in the old

world, than to look out for a new. His taste partook the error of his Religion; it

denied not worship to Saints and Angels; that is, to writers, who, canonized for

ages, have received their apotheosis from established and universal fame. True

Poesy, like true Religion, abhors idolatry; and though it honours the memory of

the exemplary, and takes them willingly (yet cautiously) as guides in the way to

glory; real, though unexampled, excellence is its only aim; nor looks it for any

inspiration less than divine.

Though Pope’s noble muse may boast her illustrious descent from Homer,

Virgil, Horace, yet is an Original author more nobly born.1 As Tacitus says of

Curtius Rufus, an Original author is born of himself, is his own progenitor, and

will probably propagate a numerous offspring of Imitators, to eternize his glory;

while mule-like Imitators die without issue. Therefore, though we stand much


obliged for his giving us an Homer, yet had he doubled our obligation, by giving

us—a Pope. Had he a strong Imagination, and the true Sublime? That granted,

we might have had two Homers instead of one, if longer had been his life; for I

heard the dying swan talk over an Epic plan a few weeks before his decease….

…Originals shine, like comets; have no peer in their path; are rival’d by none,

and the gaze of all: All other compositions (if they shine at all) shine in clusters;

like the stars in the galaxy; where, like bad neighbours, all suffer from all; each

particular being diminished, and almost lost in the throng….

…[Addison] has a more refined, decent, judicious, and extensive Genius, than

Pope, or Swift. To distinguish this triumvirate from each other, and, like Newton,

to discover the different colours in these genuine and meridian rays of literary

light, Swift is a singular wit, Pope a correct poet, Addison a great author. Swift

looked on Wit as the Jus divinum [divine right] to dominion and sway in the

world; and considered as usurpation, all power that was lodged in persons of less

sparkling understandings. This inclined him to tyranny in wit; Pope was

somewhat of his opinion, but was for softening tyranny into lawful monarchy; yet

were there some acts of severity in his reign; Addison s crown was elective, he

reigned by the public voice:


Per populos dat jura, viamque affectat Olympo.


But as good books are the medicine of the mind, if we should dethrone these

authors, and consider them, not in their royal, but their medicinal capacity, might

it not then be said, that Addison prescribed a wholesome and pleasant regimen,

which was universally relished, and did much good; that Pope preferred a

purgative of satire, which, tho’ wholesome, was too painful in its operation; and

that Swift insisted on a large dose of ipecacuanha,2 which, tho’ readily swallowed

from the fame of the physician, yet, if the patient had any delicacy of taste, he

threw up the remedy, instead of the disease?

Addison wrote little in Verse, much in sweet, elegant, Virgilian, Prose; so let

me call it, since Longinus calls Herodotus most Homeric, and Thucydides is said

to have formed his style on Pindar. Addison ‘s compositions are built with the

finest materials, in the taste of the antients, and (to speak his own language) on

truly Classic ground; And tho’ they are the delight of the present age, yet am I

persuaded that they will receive more justice from posterity….


[For Samuel Richardson’s comment upon Young’s first version of his account of Pope

in the Conjectures, see No. no]

1 [Georgia, iv. 562: ‘gave [a victor’s] laws unto willing nations, and essayed the path to

Heaven.’ Virgil is speaking of Octavian’s victory at Actium, 31 BC]

2 [Root of a South American shrub used as an emetic and purge]


Algarotti on Pope


Conte Francesco Algarotti (1712–64), extract translated from letter

to Agostino Paradisi, 4 October 1759, Opere del Conte Algarotti,

‘Edizione novissima’ (Venice, 1792), x. 10–13.

Your criticism of Pope is very fair. He is guilty of excess of blood as he himself

states when speaking of authors who have too much wit:

For works may have more wit, than does ’em good,

As bodies perish thro’ excess of blood.

[An Essay on Criticism, ll. 303–4]

He does not give his reader enough time, does not allow him a pause but piles up

thought upon thought, image upon image. His poems, for the most part those

written in his youth, resemble those buildings on which all the framework is

carved, none of which stands out from the rest thereby affording the viewer’s eye

some rest. And antithesis, a very beautiful figure in itself when it arises from the

subject and is used in moderation, on occasions instils not a little satiety when

employed by him.

Of his youthful work one must needs, however, make an exception of The Rape

of the Lock. Such defects are not present in this charming work. It is vivified by

wit and not burdened by it; it is a well-nourished body and not may I say a

plethoric one. The gods who set the ‘machinery’ in motion in this poem are so

suited to their subject that the poet’s fantasy transports the reader to a world in

which all proportions are geometrically observed, just as in Gulliver’s by his

friend Swift.

It seems that the very English language has become plainer, sweeter, more

harmonious, and that the subject imparts quality and colour to it. It is by far

superior both in inspiration and in every other respect to that other pleasant poem

by his other friend Gay entitled The Fan. Even the French who are renowned for

their good taste have no work to equal this and it must appear almost as strange

442 POPE

that the most gallant poem there is should be born amongst the English as it is

that arquebus powder [i.e. gunpowder] should be the invention of a monk.

When he was advanced in years Pope was purged of his youthful defects:

You grow correct that once with rapture writ1

he makes himself say in one of his last works. It was therefore not altogether by

chance that he found some consolation in this in Horace, his imitations of whom

are so beautiful that these alone would suffice to qualify him as the greatest

versifier, if not the greatest poet, England has produced.

In his imitations he has, on occasion, even improved on the original.

Urit enim fulgore suo, qui praegravat artes

Infra se positas; extinctus amabitur idem2

is a passage in which, because of its expression, I have never found Horace’s

customary refinement. The words ‘urere’ and ‘praegravare’ kick each other;

there is no continuity of image; the heterogeneity of the metaphors offends by

being superfluous. Pope has imitated it continuing the same figure with charm:

Sure fate of all beneath whose rising ray

Each star of meaner merit fades away!

Oppress’d we feel the beam directly beat,

Those suns of glory please not till they set.

He himself experienced a similar destiny, criticised, torn to shreds by



[Epilogue to the Satires, I. 3]

[Ep., II. i. 12–13 (ll.19–22 in Pope): ‘For a man scorches with his own brilliance who

outweighs merits lowlier than his own, yet he, too, will win affection, when his light is




Johnson on Pope and ‘easy poetry’

October 1759

Dr Samuel Johnson, extract from The Idler, no. 77, 6 October 1759,

Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. ii. ed. W.J.Bate, et al (New Haven,

1963), pp. 239–41.

Easy poetry is universally admired, but I know not whether any rule has yet been

fixed, by which it may be decided when poetry can properly be called easy;

Horace has told us that it is such as ‘every reader hopes to equal, but after long

labour finds unattainable’.1 This is a very loose description, in which only the

effect is noted; the qualities which produce this effect remain to be investigated.

Easy poetry is that in which natural thoughts are expressed without violence to

the language. The discriminating character of ease consists principally in the

diction, for all true poetry requires that the sentiments be natural. Language suffers

violence by harsh or daring figures, by transposition, by unusual acceptations of

words, and by any licence, which would be avoided by a writer of prose. Where

any artifice appears in the construction of the verse, that verse is no longer easy.

Any epithet which can be ejected without diminution of the sense, any curious

iteration of the same word, and all unusual, tho’ not ungrammatical structure of

speech, destroy the grace of easy poetry.

The first lines of Pope’s Iliad afford examples of many licences which an easy

writer must decline.

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber’d, heav’nly Goddess sing,

The wrath which hurl'd to Pluto’s gloomy reign

The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain.

In the first couplet the language is distorted by inversions, clogged with

superfluities, and clouded by a harsh metaphor; and in the second there are two


[Ars Poetica, ll. 240–2]

444 POPE

words used in an uncommon sense, and two epithets inserted only to lengthen the

line; all these practices may in a long work easily be pardoned, but they always

produce some degree of obscurity and ruggedness.

Easy poetry has been so long excluded by ambition of ornament, and

luxuriance of imagery, that its nature seems now to be forgotten. Affectation,

however opposite to ease, is sometimes mistaken for it, and those who aspire to

gentle elegance, collect female phrases and fashionable barbarisms, and imagine

that style to be easy which custom has made familiar. Such was the idea of the

poet1 who wrote the following verses to a ‘Countess Cutting Paper.’

Pallas grew vap’rish once and odd,

She would not do the least right thing

Either for Goddess or for God,

Nor work, nor play, nor paint, nor sing.

Jove frown’d and ‘Use (he cry’d) those eyes

So skillful, and those hands so taper;

Do something exquisite and wise’—

She bow’d, obey’d him, and cut paper.

This vexing him who gave her birth,

Thought by all heav’n a burning shame,

What does she next, but bids on earth

Her Burlington do just the same?

Pallas, you give yourself strange airs;

But sure you’ll find it hard to spoil

The sense and taste, of one that bears

The name of Savile and of Boyle.2

Alas! one bad example shown,

How quickly all the sex pursue!

See, madam! see, the arts o’erthrown

Between John Overton3 and you.

It is the prerogative of easy poetry to be understood as long as the language lasts;

but modes of speech, which owe their prevalence only to modish folly, or to the

eminence of those that use them, die away with their inventors, and their

meaning, in a few years, is no longer known….


[Pope, ‘On the Countess of Burlington Cutting Paper’]

[The Countess’s maiden and married names]

3 [A printseller, especially of mezzotints]



Pope and Boileau in conversation


Lord George Lyttelton, extract from ‘Dialogue XIV. Boileau-Pope’,

Dialogues of the Dead (1760), pp. 112–17. Baron Lyttelton (1709–

73), who had been a good friend of Pope, wrote this piece in middle

age. The tradition of the Dialogue of the Dead was a commonplace

one: for Lyttelton’s effusive verse letter written as a young man to

Pope, see No. 62.


MR. Pope, you have done me great Honour. I am told, that you made me your

Model in Poetry, and walked on Parnassus in the same Paths which I had trod.


We both followed Horace: but in our manner of Imitation, and in the turn of

our natural Genius, there was I believe a great deal of Resemblance, which I am

proud that others observe. Our Tempers too were the same in many respects.

They were both very warm with the Love of good Morals, true Wit, and sound

Learning, and fond of the Glory of our being their Champions. But they were too

irritable, and too easily hurt by Offences, even from the lowest of Men. We

turned the keen Edge of our Wit against those whom it was more a Shame to

contend with than an Honour to vanquish. Yet our Muse was not always severe

and ill-humoured. She could smile on our Friends, and understood how to praise

as well as to blame.


It would perhaps have been better if in some instances we had neither praised

nor blamed so much. But in Panegyric and Satire Moderation is thought to be

flat and insipid.


446 POPE

Moderation is a cold unpoetical Virtue. Mere Historical Truth should be

written in Prose. And therefore I think you did very well to burn your History of

Louis le Grand, and trust his fame, and your own, to your Poems.


When those Poems were written he was the Idol of the French Nation as much

as mine. If You and I had not known how to speak to the Passions, as well as to

the sober Sense of Mankind, we should not have been the favourite Authors of

the French and the English, nor have acquired that kind of despotic Authority in

the Empire of Wit, which we both held as long as we lived.


The Praise which My Friends had from me was unbought. In this, at least, I

may boast a Superiority over the pensioned Boileau.


A Pension in France was an honourable Distinction. Had you been a

Frenchman you would have sought it; had I been an Englishman I should have

declined it. If our Merit in other respects be the same, this will not make a great

Difference in it.


It is not for me to draw a Comparison between our Works. But, if I may

believe the best Critics with whom I have talked, my Rape of the Lock is not

inferior to your Lutrin; and my Art of Criticism may well be compared with your

Art of Poetry: my Ethic Epistles are thought at least to be equal to your’s, and my

Satires much better.


Hold, Mr. Pope—If there really is such a Sympathy in our Natures as you have

supposed, there may be reason to fear, that, if we go on comparing our Works,

we shall not part in good Friendship.


No, no:—the mild Air of the Elysian Fields has softened my temper, as I

presume it has your’s. But in truth our reputations are nearly on a Level. We both

of us carried the Beauty of our Diction, and the Harmony of our Numbers, to the

highest Perfection that our Languages would admit. Our Poems were laboured

and polished to the utmost degree of Correctness, yet without losing their Fire, or

the pleasing Appearance of Freedom and Ease. The Spirit of the Ancients

seemed to animate all of them; and we both borrowed much from those excellent

Masters; though You perhaps more than I: but our Imitations had still an

Original Air.



I will confess, Sir, (to shew you that the Elysian Climate has had its proper

effects upon me) I will fairly confess, without any ill humour, that in your

Temple of Fame, your Windsor Forest, your Eloisa to Abelard, and some other

Pieces you wrote in your Youth, there is more Imagination, more Sweetness,

more Fire of Poetry, than in any of mine. I will also allow, that you hit the

Manner of Horace, and the sly Delicacy of his Wit more exactly than I, or than

any other Man who has writ since his time.


What do you think of my Homer?


Your Homer is the most spirited, the most poetical, the most elegant, the most

pleasing Translation, that ever was made of any ancient Poem; tho’ not so much

in the manner of the Original, or so exact to the Sense in all Places, as might be

desired. But when I consider the Years you spent in this Work, and how many

fine original Poems you might with less difficulty have produced in that time, I

can’t but regret that you should have employed your Talents in a way, wherein

their full Energy could not be seen. A great Poet, tied down to a tedious

Translation, is a Columbus chained to an Oar. What new Regions of Fancy

might you have explored, if you could have freely expanded your Sails, and

steered your own Course, under the conduct of your own Genius!— But I am

still more angry with you for your Edition of Shakespear. The Work of an Editor

was below you, and your mind was unfit for the Drudgery of it. Would any body

think of employing a Raphael to clean an old Picture?


An Edinburgh professor’s view

c. 1762

Hugh Blair (1718–1800), extract from Lectures on Rhetoric and

Belles Lettres (1783), ed. H.H.Harding (Carbondale and

Edwardsville, Ill., 1965), ii. 368–70. Harding notes that Blair’s

lectures, which were highly successful when he gave them in

Edinburgh, were substantially complete by 1762, and that they

probably received only minor revision prior to their publication

twenty years later (ibid., p. xi).

Didactic Epistles, of which I now speak, seldom admit of much elevation. They

are commonly intended as observations on Authors, or on Life and Characters; in

delivering which, the Poet does not purpose to compose a formal treatise, or to

confine himself strictly to regular method; but gives scope to his genius on some

particular theme, which, at the time, has prompted him to write. In all Didactic

Poetry of this kind, it is an important rule ‘quicquid precipies, esto brevis.’1

Much of the grace, both of Satirical and Epistolary Writing, consists in a spirited

conciseness. This gives to such composition an edge and a liveliness, which

strike the fancy, and keep attention awake. Much of their merit depends also on

just and happy representations of characters. As they are not supported by those

high beauties of descriptive and poetical language which adorn other

compositions, we expect, in return, to be entertained with lively paintings of men

and manners, which are always pleasing; and in these, a certain sprightliness and

turn of wit finds its proper place. The higher species of Poetry seldom admit it;

but here it is seasonable and beautiful.

IN all these respects, Mr. Pope’s Ethical Epistles deserve to be mentioned with

signal honour, as a model, next to perfect, of this kind of Poetry. Here, perhaps,

the strength of his genius appeared. In the more sublime parts of Poetry, he is not

so distinguished. In the enthusiasm, the fire, the force and copiousness of poetic

genius, Dryden, though a much less correct Writer, appears to have been

superior to him. One can scarce think that he was capable of Epic or Tragic


[Horace, Ars Poetica, 1. 335; ‘let whatever you teach be brief’]

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