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Young on Pope’s lack of originality
438 THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
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
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—
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.’]
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
440 THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
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
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
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’
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]
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.
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
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE 447
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
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’]