On Alexander Pope
“Whoever writes couplets wants to please by concision, I suppose. But what’s the good of concision when they’re a book?” – Martial
We must, upon having completed our long journey through the voluminous works of Alexander Pope, a literary adventure of unequalled scope and profound beauty upon which—whenever the weather of life permits—all should happily take the occasion to embark, dismiss, with a wave of the hand and a chuckle on our lips, the supposition of that witty and belligerent Roman. Martial, epigrammatist par excellence, a writer between whose high insight and low manners, a wider gap has never been known, was correct in his observation of near everything else. His words are inapplicable to Pope for he, master of couplets, pleased not by concision, but by abundance and length.
Having charted Pope’s swirling pages and navigated his undulant lines, having been aroused by his classical allusions and quieted by his philosophic depth, one can’t help but relish the immense journey across which, at the urging of some graceful zephyr, he’s been led. Indeed, one hopes with all sincerity and zeal that this vast journey might never encounter its end. He hopes never to descry through the mist of the horizon the waiting shore on which he might be forced to alight. Alien to concision, Pope’s work is the feat of a large authorship by which the devout and enamored reader is both consumed and refreshed, engulfed and—pace Martial—immeasurably pleased.
For, you see, the great Alexander (not Alexander the great—though his pen was as trenchant as the young Macedonian sword!) wrote couplets so copious, and rhymes so incessant, they simply refuse to be numbered. Concision, as the reader soon finds, was never Pope’s specialty—versatile genius though he was. Martial was much the greater master of terseness, of the kind of brevity for which his enduring epigrams are still hailed. That said, deserving of merit though both may be, Pope and Martial make unequal demands on your attention and share the glories of the laurel wreath not. Indeed, Pope’s couplets could, and very well should, consume all the years of one’s life, while Martial can be skimmed and appreciated in an hour.
Frankly, we’d not want it any other way. We find in the grand totality of Pope’s work, that unmatched oeuvre in which all lovers of beauty should indulge, neither frugality nor reticence, hesitation nor pith. We find a spirit never unforthcoming, a voice seldom intimidated by consequences or abashed at whom it might offend. And, as we soon discover, there was neither a shortage of things to say, nor a dearth of countrymen deserving of his elegant scorn. Still, we find joy in every second dedicated to his writing, and despair at the approach of each chapter’s untimely end.
Yet, despite the thousands of pages through which one might pass an entire decade flipping, and with the notable exceptions of such luminous figures as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Samuel Johnson (among whom, unquestionably, our present subject ranks) Pope’s lines are perhaps the best-known in the English-speaking world (which is to say, all the world). Without extending to him our thanks and attribution, we unknowingly reference his genius and repeat his wit on nearly every occasion in which we might find ourselves. His eminently quotable, deliciously articulate two-line epigrams continue, like a delicious candy with the power never to dissolve, to coat the English tongue. They’re the honey by which that grand organ is sweetened, and the milk by which it’s moved. The epigrams of Martial, on the other hand, we either neglect or misremember.
Pope’s couplets, countless, rest in the palm like finely-crafted grains of sand. They sit there as though a mound of complex molecules, a lattice of literary art, about whose exact quantity and real number, one can offer only the feeblest guess. They can be scrutinized beneath the minute gaze of the shrewd microscope, or tossed in the air to cover every corner of the globe. In so doing, they make a veritable conquest of the earth. Like that royal son of Phillip, that undefeated warrior by whom, to nearly every continent touched by the sun, a newly restive vigor and Hellenistic spirit was suddenly spread, Pope disseminated his literary genius to all parts of the intelligent world.
He did so, largely, with the couplet—the style he used to the exclusion of almost all others. It was the primary force with which he conquered his vast terrain, much as the army of Alexander claimed Europe, Africa, and Asia with the weight of its baleful phalanx, and the point of its elongated spear.
The couplet, at the risk of extending a metaphor too far, was, for him, the weapon with which he was most skillful. He was uniquely adroit in the handling of pentameter. Having unsheathed it as a boy in the coerced seclusion of his upbringing, the couplet grew into the blade by which his bon mots were carved, the point by which his enemies were pierced, and the tip by which his adoring fans were at once tickled and piqued. In wielding it, he pleased not by keeping them short, but by extending them into an eloquent infinity, a sublime length upon which no editor would dare impose a blunt abridgment or an indelicate stop.
There was, in Pope’s judgment, no genre to which his couplet, so congenial and pure, so natural and friendly, might not gain admittance. There was no style with which it might be deemed incompatible and, like a hostile visitor upon whom all patience is spent, unable to coexist. From the pastoral to the epistle, the eulogy to the elegy, the satire to the epitaph, the Homeric to the homily, Pope applied his mastery of the couplet with wide promiscuity. He did so with a liberality of use and a zest of style by which even the most modest reader is at once stimulated and gratified. In a word, Pope’s couplets, while not always concise, are unfailingly pleasurable, and one can but wish that they’d never end.
How is it, you might ask, that Pope came to the attainment of so exalted a genius? Truly, none would’ve predicted so complete a success had she observed the child in his earliest years. He was born in that most remarkable of years, 1688, an age particularly unpropitious for a boy saddled with last name of “Pope”. This, of course, was the famous year of James II’s astonishing dethronement. He, like his forbear Charles II, was yet another Stuart who’d succumbed (albeit less violently) to Anglican bias. Added to this religious zeal was the pressure of a Parliament wearied by the throne, and the usurping ambition of a vigorous Dutch Prince.
This time, the British government would ensure there’d be no backsliding into papist affiliations and Roman ties. In the person of the Stadtholder, married to a far less sanguinary royal by the Christian name of Mary, its unique form of Protestantism might be preserved. To achieve this aim, however, even the faintest embers and smallest professions of Catholicism needed to be doused. Such were the extents to which religious hatred brought them. Anti-Catholic laws were, yet again, suggested and promulgated, and the child with the surname, “Pope” could hardly expect to find the vaunted Christ-like generosity about which his anti-Papist neighbors preached.
Outside the narrow confines of his home, there was no formal school in which his mind might be developed, nor a lucrative profession from which he might hope to reap a comfortable profit. Indeed, his early aspirations were as retarded as his physical growth. In the words of Samuel Johnson, his most eloquent biographer and critical friend, Pope’s life was one “long disease”; from his mother, he inherited an intractable cough, and, from his father, a gnarled and kyphotic spine. The curvature was such that, “to bring him to a level with common tables, it was necessary to raise his seat”. At his tallest, he was, if measured generously, four and a half feet, but how towering his ability and Brobdingnagian his brain!
If he was physically diminutive, he was creatively enormous. What he sorely lacked in body, he was doubly awarded in mind. As the delicious fruits of his early authorship attest, he exhibited a precocity of soul, a fertility of genius, and a keenness of intellect at which the likes of Mozart and Pascal, Voltaire and Durkheim, would have to sit back and marvel.
Intoxicated at a young age by the likes of Dryden, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boileau, Montaigne, Pascal, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace, he combined their diverse and unsurpassed talents in his development of a style for which he, like them, might for all time to come be lionized and remembered. At sixteen years of age, he published his first work, Pastorals, which charts the progression of the seasons and the pangs of juvenescent love. Vernal, like his youth, he begins the work, and he ends it with a fitting brumal coda. It was an immediate success, and a warning shot to all literary competitors that another Alexander was rising to the field.
A few years later, he produced his masterful Essay on Criticism, a work of which the entire poetic class of London was gleefully enamored, and by which his fame was now, and forevermore, completely secured. Had he retired his pen after this, and this work only, posterity would still find his name impossible to ignore. In his day, though, few had time really to appreciate the youthfulness of the author and the supernatural facility of his skill before his next work, The Rape of the Lock, was sitting in their eager hands. The Temple of Fame followed it, after which an epistle or two (each incapable of being overlooked) were produced with astonishing rapidity and high literary merit.
Finally, Pope published, in serialized form, his audacious rendition of the foundational work atop which, despite the fervid efforts of the many hands committed to its destruction and, with it, our cultural demise, the Western canon still stands: The Iliad. Mind you, Pope was a Latinist; he flaunted only a shallow acquaintance with the language of the Greeks. This, however, proved no impediment to the vigorous flight of his ambition. He surmounted this linguistic gap into which less confident writers fell by referring to earlier translations, discerning their best parts, and re-imagining them in his own peculiar style. He combined these parts to produce, in iambic pentameter, an ancient story along which the English tongue could, in the eloquence of the modern age, gracefully dance.
The result was a world historical event, a coup de maître by which the whole literary scene (not just in England, but on the continent writ large) was at once stunned and enthralled. Between 1715 and 1720, the story of Achilles’ wrath was, like never before, rendered with poetic-beauty and Homeric-vigor into the English language. It was, as Dr. Johnson rightly said, “a poetical wonder…a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal”.
Was this merely the exuberant bias of an adoring countryman, a slanted encomiast by whom no criticism, if even faintly suggested, might be offered? Most decidedly, it was not. As Johnson’s readers doubtless know, and his subjects soon learned, his criticism knew no country. He was a partisan of no land, and his friendships—howsoever many—would never blind him to the critical shortcomings on which they might be judged. His sycophancy was never for purchase and, even if it were, not even the ill-fated Croesus could afford to pay so large a sum.
For a further elaboration on the merits of Pope’s nonpareil imitation of Homer, I defer, yet again, to the boundless wisdom of Johnson. Pope’s version of the ancient work, Johnson claimed, “may be said to have tuned the English tongue, for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody”. Pope, in having achieved so groundbreaking a feat, might be deserving of a Falstaffian grandeur: he was not only melodious in himself, but the cause that melody is in other men. We must thank him for his charity, and the musicality with which, from the eighteenth century to our own age, he’s continued to bless us.
Johnson, at once enraptured, now sobered, continues as follows:
“Such a series of lines so elaborately corrected and so sweetly modulated took possession of the public ear; the vulgar was enamored of the poem, and the learned wondered at the translation. But in the most general applause discordant voices will always be heard. It has been objected by some who wish to be numbered among the sons of learning that Pope’s version of Homer is not Homerical; that it exhibits no resemblance of the original and characteristic manner of the Father of Poetry, as it wants his awful simplicity, his artless grandeur, his unaffected majesty. This cannot be totally denied, but it must be remembered that necessitas quod cogit defendit, that may be lawfully done which cannot be forborne”.
Johnson, remembered not only for being the most caustic, but also the most infallible and honest of critics, was in no way insensitive to the list of Pope’s shortcomings. He acknowledged them, candidly, as any man of letters would. Yet, regardless of this fact, he forgave Pope his every sin, for the benefit of his work negated every fault of which he might be alleged. He smiled upon the petty literary crimes of which, by only the most pedantic of scholars and conservative of rhapsodes, he was rather weakly accused.
“I suppose”, he proclaimed, “many readers of the English Iliad, when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found”.
Having just read the former and, for the third or fourth time, the latter, I can personally attest to so startling an experience. One expects to leap between the two works and find, if not mutually increasing, then commensurate beauties. One expects to climb ever higher toward the summit of Olympus, that high mountain atop which the twelve partisan deities still squabble, as he steps between the lines of Homer and Pope—between the words of the blind bard and the hunchbacked Briton. The new should serve as an embellishment of the old, and the old should reciprocate in kind. This, however, isn’t always the case.
Such a venturesome reader must be prepared for a fall. Perhaps it’s the bias of a native English speaker, an unabashed lover of the language into which he was born, but I find myself ever more enjoying the company of Pope. If, at times, I feel a creeping sense of guilt in having openly declared so naughty a preference and unorthodox an opinion, in having averred this Popish affinity toward which I’m so blithely but naturally inclined, I remember, yet again, the counsel of Johnson: “to have added can be no great crime if nothing be taken away”.
Pope, thus, is relieved of every charge; he strove only for the adornment of Homer, never for his denudation. He strove only for the enlargement of our sentiments, never for their abridgment. The entire tale of Achilles’ wrath, of Odysseus’ wiles, of Hector’s hubris, of Paris’ pusillanimity is told in couplets—and is told, at great length, to please. It does so by forgoing pith and embracing that which is least easily embraced—a long and inimitable epic.
And so, in response to Martial’s question, what’s the good of concision when the couplets stretch to occupy a book? we need only point to Pope. He’s the writer by whom the foul-mouthed Latin will be answered, and by whom we—his adoring readers—will be endlessly pleased.