It has often been remarked as a queer coincidence that Alexander Pope was by profession a Papist. But this is only the beginning of the historical punning that can be made upon his name. For while in private he accepted Papal authority, in faith and morals, in public he was, in the latter part of his life and for nearly a hundred years after his death, invested with almost Papal authority in the domain of letters. That authority was broken by the great outburst of Romanticism in English poetry which marked the close of the eighteenth century, the true author of which was, perhaps, Rousseau. Since the overwhelming triumph of that Reformation, the name of Pope has hardly been mentioned in literary criticism except with a veiled sneer or, at best, a “damning with faint praise” such as he himself complained of in
It is the continual plea of Bossuet and Newman and other defenders of authority in matters of religion that while the reformer or heretic might seem at first sight nobler, more full of conviction and enthusiasm, more humane and of more prophetic quality than the Church he was attacking, you must await developments before judging of the quarrel, you must wait till this heresy has worked itself out, and watch the frantic credulities, and more frantic incredulities, the welter of mad sects and the denial of necessary things, which are the ultimate fruit of the gospel that looked so pure and persuasive. Whether such an argument be sound or unsound I am not concerned here to inquire, but I am very sure that it has its analogy in literature. And just as in the anarchy of modern speculation many just and clear minds have turned once more to the Pope of Rome so in the anarchy of modern art such minds will turn increasingly to Mr. Pope of Twickenham. And when this happens a very great poet will be rediscovered for the admiration of men.
For Pope was a great poet. His own generation and those immediately succeeding it may have overrated him, but this is by no means so certain as that the nineteenth century has culpably underrated him. To speak of him, as a little while ago it was the custom to speak of him, as a cold formalist is simply to write yourself down insensible to the grand style. Read some of the speeches in his “Homer.” I am not here concerned with whether they are good renderings of Homer; I say that they are magnificent poetry, full of life and energy. Read, above all, his invectives. Read the “Atticus.” You may call it cold, if you like. But I’d bet my boots that
It is quite true that, after Pope, English poetry began to freeze into too narrow a traditionalism. It is emphatically not true that that age produced no poetry of the highest rank. If it had only produced Gray it would have only produced enough for one century. It also produced Goldsmith, whom the criticism of what may be called the Shelleyan era has abominably neglected. Even Dr. Johnson has not, since the literary revolution, received his fair due for the one or two really great things he achieved in poetry- the description of Charles XII, for instance, in “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Still, it is broadly true that English poetry was at a low ebb when Wordsworth and his companions began to write, and for the galaxy of great men who heralded the new age there are no words that do not minimize.
Nevertheless, among these very men there was one- and he among the greatest-who saw the danger. He threw his whole power into the effort to avert it: he failed, and he ahs paid for his failure in the comparative neglect of half a century. But the event has proved him right. The poetry of the age did want reinvigorating by the inspiration of stronger passion, by the freer expression of individuality, and by a closer contact with nature. Byron saw all this, and no one was better qualified than he to supply what was needed. He had, to use the vigorous metaphor of another writer, more fire in the belly than all the Lake School put together; and at vivid natural description there is, I think, no English poet (except perhaps Tennyson) to touch him. But Byron saw something else. As there was a point at which he withdrew from Shelley in politics, so there was a point at which he withdrew from him in aesthetics. He saw that Shelley’s aesthetics and Shelley’s’ politics would ultimately mean anarchy, and he was a republican, not an Anarchist. The event has justified him on both points.
The matter may be put thus: It is true, I think, that Shelley was a greater poet than Pope. It may be true- though it is not quite the same thing- that it is more difficult to write like Shelley than to write like Pope. But it is certainly immeasurably easier to pretend to write like Shelley than to pretend to write like Pope. And Byron had the vision to foresee a whole world of men pretending to write like Shelley, or to be more Shelleyan than Shelley. That is, he foresaw our time.
Romanticism is a splendid thing. It is impossible not to sympathize with its vigor and even with its anarchy in the inspiration of its first youth. But a stale anarchy is the most intolerable thing in the world, and it is a stale anarchy that we see all around us in the intellectual world today. In philosophy the clear and lucid rationalism of men like Huxley has given place to a thing called Pragmatism, which, as far as I can make head or tail of its babble of meaningless phrases, seems to deny to men altogether the use of their reason. “Bears,” said Burke “are not philosophers,” but bears are excellent Pragmatists. In painting, the very genuine cleverness and insight of Whistler have given place to a school of “artists” who impudently parade the sort of thing a baby would paint after a long, wet day, when it was tired of “drawing things” and found it a pleasant recreation to mix up all the colors in a paint box. In poetry, we find people producing “Canzoni,” or some such stuff, the two qualifications of which are that it shall neither scan nor mean anything.
We have seen the end of the great romantic revolt, and we necessarily look at it with different eyes from those of the men who saw only its beginning. And as we watch in bewilderment the crashing fall of al the traditions that are the defense not of art only, but of sanity, there sounds suddenly in our ears a ringing voice- a voice that we had forgotten for nearly a hundred years- foretelling the end.
She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold
Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sickening stars fade off the ethereal plain;
As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is night.
See sulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defense,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.
Who will deny that the man who wrote those lines was a poet? Who will deny that he was also something of a prophet?
From the New York Times