Alexander Pope is the most widely quoted English poet after Shakespeare. You know a good deal of Pope whether you realize it or not. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. A little learning is a dangerous thing. What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. To err is human, to forgive divine. Hope springs eternal. Damn with faint praise. Whatever is, is right.
At the same time he is now nearly impossible to read at any length. The reasons for this are related, and interesting.
The 18th century made a fetish of “correctness,” and Pope wrote the vast majority of his verse the heroic couplet, the preferred form of the time. Pope translated Homer, among the least correct of poets, into heroic couplets; it is excruciating reading. His couplets are invariably end-stopped; grammatical units rarely extend beyond the two rhymed lines. The accents are heavy. The caesuras fall mid-line, after the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllables, almost without exception. Enjambment, being “incorrect,” is out of the question. The effect, after thirty or forty lines, is deadly, and Pope’s poems run 500 lines or more. Here is an oft-admired passage, the introduction to Book IV of The Dunciad:
Yet, yet a moment, one dim ray of light
Indulge, dread chaos, and eternal night!
Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil, the deep intent.
Ye powers! whose mysteries restored I sing,
To whom time bears me on his rapid wing,
Suspend a while your force inertly strong,
Then take at once the poet and the song.
F.R. Leavis comments that “this astonishing poetry ought to be famous and current as the unique thing it is,” which testifies only to Professor Leavis’s capacity to be moved by heavy rhythms and trite language. The passage is as far as possible from being “unique”; it is a formulaic invocation to the Muses. It succeeds to the degree it does precisely because the language is stereotyped. Here Pope mocks the convention, as in The Rape of the Lock; unfortunately ironical triteness is still trite, and still dull. And Pope employs the same procedure perfectly seriously in other poems, such as Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, that Professor Leavis praises with nearly equal fervor.
Pope has better moments:
Beneath her foot-stool Science groans in chains,
And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground.
His blunted arms by Sophistry are borne,
And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn.
Morality, by her false guardians drawn,
Chicane in furs, and Casuistry in lawn,
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dullness gives her page the word.
The passage is energetic but trivial. It would not make the slightest difference to its meaning if Wit were gagged, Science exiled, Morality in chains, Logic stripped, and Rhetoric garotted. And the monotonous movement has begun to set in.
The heroic couplet is indelibly associated with Pope in the history of English literature, but it can be used very differently. Consider this passage from Pope’s near-contemporary, Charles Churchill. He is satirizing Wiliam Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, a notable literary bully of the time.
Bred to the law, you wisely took the gown,
Which I, like Demas, foolishly laid down.
Hence double strength our Holy Mother drew;
Me she got rid of, and made prize of you.
I, like an idle Truant, fond of play,
Doting on toys, and throwing gems away,
Grasping at shadows, let the substance slip.
But you, my Lord, renounced Attorneyship
With better purpose, and more noble aim,
And wisely played a more substantial game.
The passage has a subtle and stately movement; Churchill achieves an especially brilliant effect by ending the self-description at line 7 while suspending the rhyme. One looks in vain for anything like it in Pope.
The 18th century loved its abstractions, large and capitalized. Yet reason, as we understand it, has very little do with Reason, morality with Morality, and science with Science. These facts can be put aside when reading short excerpts of Pope but quickly become impossible to avoid. Pope conceives of Reason as knowing one’s place in universe as the middle link in the Great Chain of Being. “To reason well,” he writes, “is to submit”:
In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Professor Lovejoy, whose book The Great Chain of Being is the best on the intellectual history of the century and a model for writing the history of ideas in general, properly terms this “rationalistic anti-intellectualism.” The Age of Reason turns out to be ironically named.
For all Pope’s apostrophes to Isaac Newton, his view of Science shows clearly enough in his lines on the microscope:
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.
It’s poor flawed humanity jumping itself up again. True Science, intent, as Pope often writes, on seeing things whole, has no need for such artificial aids. Here Pope agrees with his friend Swift; Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, the voyage to Laputa, has much the same theme. It is anti-technology and at bottom anti-scientific. All told the microscope has had a rather more impressive career than seeing things whole has.
Ethics, similarly, is easily disposed of. If whatever is, is right, then what else do you need to know? “Equal are common sense and common ease.” Know and keep your place in the universe is what Pope preaches, everywhere and always. In practice this advice devolves into petty Toryism:
Order is heaven’s first law, and this confessed,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest,
More rich, more wise.
The best poetry is rarely the most quotable; it derives much of its meaning from its context. Pope is highly quotable because he had a superb verbal gift; but the context is foolish. He is like an exceptionally brilliant student who has mastered his exercises and regurgitates them expertly. His poetry is unsatisfactory because the dominant ideas of his time are unsatisfactory. He might have written great poetry had he been born a hundred years earlier or two hundred later. Instead he was bequeathed a cheap and facile philosophy, lacked the intelligence to think his way out of it, and became a poet of glittering fragments, no more. His vices are those of his age; his virtues are his own.