Page images



BUST OF ALEXANDER POPE, 1 From the Original Clay Model in the possession of Mr. JOHN MURRAY. the Publisher.



IN excuse for the delay in the appearance of the volume that completes this Edition, I have only to plead limited leisure, and the difficulties inherent in a subject as thorny and intricate as has ever served to perplex a biographer. The least of these is the task of giving an appearance of freshness to a tale which has been already ten times told. It is evident that the many new facts respecting Pope and his surroundings which have been brought to light in the present generation, and the marked changes which have manifested themselves in the taste of society, have rendered it necessary to set the character and genius of the poet in a light different from that in which they were presented by earlier critics. The really perplexing problem is how to place these new facts and these changes of taste in such just perspective and proportion, as may at once satisfy the claims of truth, and do justice to the memory of one of the most famous names in English Literature.

All the early biographies of Pope, with the excep

tion of Johnson's, have, more or less, the character


of critical pamphlets. Each of them betrays very plainly the hand of a partizan, and a determination to support some theory in regard to Pope's character and genius. They thus form the links in a long chain of literary controversy. Warburton's edition is an answer to Bolingbroke's attack upon Pope's memory: Warton's Essay on the Genius of Pope answers Warburton Bowles' edition embodies and extends the principles of Warton: Roscoe's is a criticism of the criticism of Bowles. Wherever personal questions arise, the particular animus of the literary critic is always apparent in the work of these biographers. They make no attempt to elucidate the private and social allusions in Pope's satires, and though some of them are ready enough to enliven their narratives with gossip injurious to his character, they are very careless about investigating its truth. This period of biography is fitly closed with the general controversy in the years 1819-1825 respecting the moral and poetical character of Pope.

In the last generation there was a reaction to the opposite extreme. After the first Reform Bill the taste for personal history and antiquarianism rapidly increased. Numerous critics now began to interest themselves in studying the life of Pope from a merely personal point of view. Of these by far the most eminent was the late Mr. Dilke, to whom, more than to any other man, biographers of Pope are indebted for

[ocr errors]

the materials enabling them to form a just idea of his character. Acute, accurate, and industrious, he spared no pains to penetrate the mystery in which the poet loved to involve all his actions. The example set by his papers in the 'Athenæum' was widely followed, and every recorded incident in the poet's life was subjected to a rigorous examination, which led to many discoveries of real importance, but which undoubtedly tended to overload the whole subject, and to submerge all sense of proportion in a mass of insignificant detail. The typical biography of this period is that by the late Mr. Carruthers, which is admirable for its painstaking research and the popularity of its style, but which suffers from two serious defects. The first edition appeared before the revelations of Mr. Dilke in the Athenæum,' and though the second edition was largely remodelled in consequence, it is obvious that the newly discovered facts had been published too late to enable the author to alter his work as completely as circumstances required. Moreover Mr. Carruthers altogether ignored the critical questions that are involved in Pope's life and works. He seemed to be unaware that in the previous generation there had been a controversy as to the poetical merits of Pope half as long as the siege of Troy; and he was content to dismiss this part of the subject with the observation, that "criticism on the poet's works has been exhausted: his position as an


English classic has long been fixed." Within a year after these words were written the late Professor Conington, in an essay which is a model of sound and masculine criticism, examined Pope's claims to that pre-eminence in correctness' which had previously been disputed by De Quincey and Macaulay, while during the last ten years Pope's poetical aims and his place in literature have been discussed with the greatest diversity of opinion by many writers, including scholars of such eminence as Mr. Mark Pattison, Mr. Matthew Arnold, and Mr. Leslie Stephen.

In dealing with the personal side of Pope's history, I have endeavoured to follow, as far as possible, the good example set by Johnson. Johnson well understood the tortuous tendencies in Pope's character; but he knew that, in writing the life of a poet, it was not his main business to moralize on his defects as a man. His essay has therefore an air of impartiality which distinguishes it honourably from the performances of Pope's other biographers. It shows neither the literary partizanship of Warton, nor the censoriousness of Bowles, nor the sophistry of Warburton and Roscoe, but gives a lively and well-proportioned estimate of Pope's genius, with just incidental reflections on such passages of his conduct as naturally call for observation. Pope's genius cannot be understood without reference to his moral character, but on the other hand his moral character must be judged

« PreviousContinue »