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At the age of twelve he formed a plan of study for himself, and plunged into the delights of miscellaneous reading with such ardor that he came near putting an end to his life. While dipping into philosophy, theology, and history, he delighted most in poetry and criticism; and either in the original or in translations (for he read what was easiest), he familiarized himself with the leading poets and critics of ancient and modern times. But in the strict sense of the term he never became a scholar. Seeing all other avenues of life closed to him, he early resolved to devote himself to poetry, to which no doubt he felt the intuitive impulse of genius. He showed remarkable precocity in rhyme. In his own language, —
"As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.'
He was encouraged in his early attempts by his father, who assigned him subjects, required frequent revisions, and ended with the encouragement, "These are good rhymes." Before venturing before the public as an author, he served a long and remarkable apprenticeship to poetry. Whenever a passage in any foreign author pleased him, he turned it into English verse. Before the age of fifteen he composed an epic of four thousand lines, in which he endeavored, in different passages, to imitate the beauties of Milton, Cowley, Spenser, Statius, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Claudian. "My first taking to imitating," he says, was not out of vanity, but humility. I saw how defective my own things were, and endeavored to mend my manner by copying good strokes from others."
Among English authors he fixed upon Dryden as his model, for whom he felt so great a veneration that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house frequented by that distinguished poet. "Who does not wish," asks Johnson, "that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer?"
His earliest patron, if such he may be called, was Sir William Trumbull, who, after serving as ambassador at Constanti
nople under James II., and as secretary of state under William III., had withdrawn from public service and fixed his residence in the neighborhood of Binfield. The extraordinary precocity of the youthful poet delighted the aged statesman, who was accustomed to ride and discuss the classics with him. It was from him that Pope received the first suggestion to translate the "Iliad."
Another acquaintance belonging to this youthful period was William Walsh, a Worcestershire gentleman of fortune, who had some reputation at the time as a poet and critic. From him the ambitious youth received a bit of advice which has become famous: "We have had several great poets," he said, "but we have never had one great poet who was correct; and I advise you to make that your study and aim." This advice Pope evidently laid to heart.
At this time he made also the acquaintance of Wycherly, whose store of literary anecdote about a past generation greatly entertained him. Unfortunately, however, his assistance was asked in revising some of Wycherly's verses; and this task he performed with so much conscientiousness and ability - cutting out here and adding there—that the aged author was mortified and offended.
At the age of sixteen Pope circulated some Pastorals," which were pronounced equal to anything Virgil had produced at the same age. Before he had passed his teens he was recognized as the most promising writer of his time, and was courted by the leading wits and people of fashion.
The first great work that Pope produced was the "Essay on Criticism," which was published in 1711. It was written two years previously, when the author was but twenty-one years of age. As was his custom with all his writings, he kept it by him for this period in order to revise and polish it.
It shows a critical power and soundness of judgment that usually belong only to age and experience. It is true that the critical principles he lays down are not original or novel. At this time Pope had his head full of critical literature. Horace's
Ars Poetica and Boileau's L'Art Poétique were perfectly familiar to him, to say nothing of Quintilian and Aristotle. He embodied in his poem the principles he found in his authorities. But he did this with such felicity of expression and aptness of illustration as to win the admiration, not only of his contemporaries, but also of succeeding generations.
"One would scarcely ask," says Leslie Stephen, “for originality in such a case, any more than one would desire a writer on ethics to invent new laws of morality. We require neither Pope nor Aristotle to tell us that critics should not be pert nor prejudiced; that fancy should be regulated by judgment; that apparent facility comes by long training; that the sound should have some conformity to the meaning; that genius is often envied; and that dulness is frequently beyond the reach of reproof. We might even guess, without the authority of Pope, backed by Bacon, that there are some beauties which cannot be taught by method, but must be reached 'by a kind of felicity."" Yet these commonplaces of criticism Pope has presented in inimitable form, exemplifying one of his own couplets:
"True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but neʼer so well expressed."
The "Essay" is full of felicitous statements that instantly command the assent of the judgment, and fix themselves in the memory. Some of the lines are in daily use. Who has not
"For fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
By the poet's striking presentation we are sometimes tempted to accept error for truth, as when he tell us,
"A little learning is a dangerous thing!
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."
His own lines often furnish a happy exemplification of his maxims. He tells us, for instance,
""Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
Then, by way of illustration, he continues,
"Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main."
But the poem is not without its faults. It would be too much to expect that; for, as he says,
"Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be."
Its extreme conciseness renders it obscure in places; words are sometimes used in a vague and variable sense; and there is a noticeable poverty of rhymes, "wit" and "sense" and "fools" being badly overworked. Yet, if he had written nothing else, this production alone would have given him a high rank as critic and poet.
The publication of the "Essay" was the beginning of a ceaseless strife with contemporary writers. In the following lines the youthful poet had the temerity to attack Dennis, whose acquaintance we made in the sketch of Addison :
"But Appius reddens at each word you speak,
And stares tremendous with a threatening eye,
This graphic picture inflamed the belligerent Dennis; and he made a bitter personal attack upon Pope, of whom, among other savage things, he says: "He may extol the ancients, but he has reason to thank the gods that he was born a modern; for had he been born of Grecian parents, and his father conse
quently had by law had the absolute disposal of him, his life had been no longer than that of one of his poems - the life of half a day."
Though Pope affected to despise these attacks, yet his sensitive nature was deeply wounded by them. To some friends he remarked, when one of Cibber's pamphlets came into his hand, "These things are my diversion." But they noticed that his features, as he read, writhed with anguish; and when alone one of them expressed the hope that he might be preserved from such diversion as had been that day the lot of Pope. But, as we shall see, his revenge was terrific.
The next important production of Pope was "The Rape of the Lock," published in 1712. It is the most brilliant mockheroic poem ever written. The subject is trifling enough. Lord Petre, a man of fashion at the court of Queen Anne, playfully cut off a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor, a beautiful maid of honor. This freedom was resented by the lady, and the friendly intercourse of the two families was interrupted. To put the two parties into good humor, and thus to effect a reconciliation, Pope devised this humorous epic. Sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders form a part of the delicate poetic machinery. Here is a description of the unfortunate lock:
"This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourished two locks, which graceful hung behind
And beauty draws us with a single hair.”
Speaking of the trifling circumstances that gave rise to this poem, Roscoe says: "To Cowley it might have suggested some quaint witticisms or forced allusions; to Waller or Suckling,