Pope—The "Rape of the Lock"
A S you have already guessed by the number of prose writers you have been reading about, this age, the age of the last Stuarts and the first Georges, was not a poetic one. It was an age of art and posturing. It was an age of fierce and passionate party strife—strife between Whig and Tory which almost amounted to civil war, but instead of using swords and guns the men who took part in the strife used pen and ink. They played the game without any rules of fair play. No weapon was too vile or mean to be used if by it the enemy might be injured.
You have often been told that it is rude to make personal remarks, but the age of Anne was the age of personal remarks, and they were not considered rude. The more cruel and pointed they were, the more clever they were thought to be. To be stupid or ugly are not sins. They ought not to be causes of scorn and laughter, but in the age of Anne they were accepted as such. And if the enemy was worsted in the fight he took his revenge by holding up to ridicule the person of his victor. To raise the unkind laughter of the world against an enemy was the great thing to be aimed at. Added to this, too, the age was one of common sense. All this does not make for poetry, yet in this age there was one poet, who, although he does not rank among our greatest poets, was still great, and perhaps had he lived in a less artificial age he might have been greater still.
This poet was Alexander Pope, the son of a
Alexander was an only son. He had one
As Pope was a delicate boy he got little regular schooling. He learned to write by copying the printed letters in books, and was first taught to read by an aunt, and later by a priest, but still at home. After a time he was at school for a few years, but he went from one school to another, never staying long at any, and so never learning much. He says indeed that he unlearned at two of his schools all that he had learned at another. By the time he was twelve he was once more at home reading what he liked and learning what he liked, and he read and studied so greedily that he made himself ill.
Pope loved the stories of the Greek and Roman heroes, but he did not care for the hard work needed to learn to read them in the original with ease, and contented himself with translations. He was so fond of these stories that while still a little boy he made a play from the Iliad which was acted by the boys of one of his schools.
Very early Pope began to write poetry. He read a great deal, and two of his favorite poets were Spenser and Dryden. His great idea was to become a poet also, and in this his father encouraged him. Although no poet himself he would set his little son to make verses upon different subjects. "He was pretty difficult in being pleased," says Pope's mother, "and used often to send him back to new turn them; 'These are not good rhymes,' he would say."
There is a story told that Pope admired Dryden's poetry so much
that he persuaded a friend to take him one day to London, to the
Pope saw Dryden only once, even if the story is true; but with another old poet, a dramatist, he struck up a great friendship. This poet was named Wycherley, but by the time that Pope came to know him Wycherley had grown old and feeble, all his best work was done, and people were perhaps beginning to forget him. So he was pleased with the admiration of the boy poet fifty years younger than himself, and glad to accept his help. At first this flattered Pope's vanity, but after a little he quarreled with his old friend and left him. This was the first of Pope's literary quarrels, of which he had many.
Already, as a boy, Pope was becoming known. He had published a few short poems, and others were handed about in manuscript among his friends. "That young fellow will either be a madman or make a very great poet," said one man after meeting him when he was about fourteen. All the praise and attention which Pope received pleased him much. But he took it only as his due, and his great ambition was to make people believe that he had been a wonderfully clever child, and that he had begun to write when he was very young. He says of himself with something of pompousness, "I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came."
Pope's keenest desire was to be a poet, and few poets have rushed so quickly into fame. He received few of the buffets which young authors have as a rule to bear. Instead, many a kindly helping hand was stretched out to him by the great men of the day, for there was much in this young genius to draw out the pity of others. He was fragile and sickly. As a full grown man he stood only four feet six inches high. His body was bent and deformed, and so frail that he had to be strapped in canvas to give him some support. His fine face was lined by pain, for he suffered from racking headaches, and indeed his life was one long disease. Yet in spite of constant pain this little crooked boy, with his "little, tender, crazy carcass," as Wycherley called it, wrote the most astonishing poetry in a style which in his own day was considered the finest that could be written.
It is not surprising then that his poems were greeted with kindly wonder, mixed it may be with a little envy. Unhappily Pope saw only the envy and overlooked the kindliness. Perhaps it was that his crooked little body had warped the great mind it held, but certain it is, as Pope grew to manhood his thirst for praise and glory increased, and with it his distrust and envy of others. And many of the ways he took to add to his own fame, and take away from that of others, were mean and tortuous to the last degree. Deceit and crooked ways seemed necessary to him. It has been said that he hardly drank tea without a stratagem, and that he played the politician about cabbages and turnips.
He begged his own letters back from the friends to whom they were written. He altered them, changed the dates, and published them. Then he raised a great outcry pretending that they had been stolen from him and published without his knowledge. Such ways led to quarrels and strife while he was alive, and since his death they have puzzled every one who has tried to write about him. All his life through he was hardly ever without a literary quarrel of some sort, some of his poems indeed being called forth merely by these quarrels.
But though many of Pope's poems led to quarrels, and some were written with the desire to provoke them, one of his most famous poems was, on the other hand, written to bring peace between two angry families. This poem is called the Rape of the Lock—rape meaning theft, and the lock not the lock of a door, but a lock of hair.
A gay young lord had stolen a lock of a beautiful young lady's
hair, and she was so angry about it that there was a coolness
between the two families. A friend then came to Pope to ask him
if he could not do something to appease the angry lady. So Pope
took up his pen and wrote a
But the poem remains one of the most delightful of airy trifles in our language. And that it should be so airy is a triumph of Pope's genius, for it is written in the heroic couplet, one of the most mechanical forms of English verse.
Addison called it "a delicious little thing" and the very salt of wit.
Another and later writer says of it—"It is the most exquisite
specimen of filigree work ever invented. It is made of gauze and
silver spangles. . . . Airs, languid airs, breathe around, the
atmosphere is perfumed with affectation. A toilet is described
with the solemnity of an altar raised to the goddess of vanity,
and the history of a silver bodkin is given with all the pomp of
heraldry. No pains are spared, no profusion of ornament, no
splendour of poetic diction to set off the meanest
Pope begins the poem by describing Belinda, the heroine, awaking
from sleep. He tells how her guardian sylph brings a morning
dream to warn her of coming danger. In the dream she is told
that all around her unnumbered fairy spirits fly guarding her
Then Shock, Belinda's dog,
So Belinda rises and is dressed. While her maid seems to do the work,
Next Belinda set out upon the Thames to go by boat to Hampton
Court, and as she sat in her gayly decorated boat she looked so
beautiful that every eye was turned to gaze upon
She was so beautiful and graceful that it seemed as if she could
have no faults,
The "Adventurous Baron" next appears upon the scene. He, greatly admiring Belinda's shining locks, longs to possess one, and makes up his mind that he will. And, as the painted vessel glided down the Thames, Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay, only Ariel alone was sad and disturbed, for he felt some evil, he knew not what, was hanging over his mistress. So he gathered all his company and bade them watch more warily than before over their charge. Some must guard the watch, some the fan, "And thou Crispissa, tend her fav'rite lock," he says. And woe betide that sprite who shall be careless or neglectful!
So the watchful sprites flew off to their
The day went on, Belinda sat down to play cards. After the game
coffee was brought, and "while frequent cups prolong the rich
repast," Belinda unthinkingly gave the Baron a pair of scissors.
Then indeed the hour of fate struck. The Baron standing behind
Belinda found the temptation too great. He opened the scissors
But at last "the fatal engine" closed upon the lock. Even to the last, one wretched sylph struggling to save the lock clung to it. It was in vain, "Fate urged the shears, and cut the sylph in twain." Then, while Belinda cried aloud in anger, the Baron shouted in triumph and rejoiced over his spoil.
The poem goes on to tell how Umbriel, a dusky melancholy sprite,
in order to make the quarrel worse, flew off
to the witch Spleen,
and returned with a bag full of "sighs, sobs, and passions, and
the war of tongues," "soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing
tears," and emptied it over Belinda's head.
Sir Plume, not famous for brains, put on a very bold, determined
air, and fiercely attacked the Baron—"My Lord," he cried, "why,
what! you must return the lock! You must be civil. Plague on
't! 'tis past a jest—nay prithee, give her the hair." And as he
spoke he tapped his
But in spite of this valiant champion of fair ladies in distress,
the Baron would not return the lock. So a deadly battle followed
in which the ladies fought against the gentlemen, and in which
the sprites also took part. The weapons were only frowns and
Belinda, however, at length disarmed the Baron with a pinch of
snuff, and threatened his life with a hair pin. And so the
battle ends. But
During the fight it has been caught up to the
Thus, says the poet, Belinda has no longer need to mourn her lost
lock, for it will be famous to the end of time as a bright star
When Pope first published this poem there was nothing about fairies in it. Afterwards he thought of the fairies, but Addison advised him not to alter the poem, as it was so delightful as it was. Pope, however, did not take the advice, but added the fairy part, thereby greatly improving the poem. This caused a quarrel with Addison, for Pope thought he had given him bad advice through jealousy. A little later this quarrel was made much worse. Pope translated and published a version of the Iliad, and at the same time a friend of Addison did so too. This made Pope bitterly angry, for he believed that the translation was Addison's own and that he had published it to injure the sale of his. From this you see how easily Pope's anger and jealousy were aroused, and will not wonder that his life was a long record of quarrels.
Pope need not have been jealous of Addison's friend, for his own translation of Homer was a great success, and people soon forgot the other. He translated not only the Iliad, but with the help of two lesser poets the Odyssey also. Both poems were done in the fashionable heroic couplet, and Pope made so much money by them that he was able to live in comfort ever after. And it is interesting to remember that Pope was the first poet who was able to live in comfort entirely on what he made by his writing.
Pope now took a house at Twickenham, and there he spent many
happy hours planning and laying out his garden, and building a
grotto with shells and stones and bits of
It has been said that to write in the heroic couplet "is an art
as mechanical as that of mending a kettle or shoeing a horse, and
may be learned by any human being who has sense enough to learn
And although this is not all true, it is so far true
that it is almost impossible to tell which books of the Odyssey
were written by Pope, and which by the men who helped him. But,
taken as a whole, the Odyssey is not so good as the Iliad.
Scholars tell us that in neither the one nor the other is the
feeling of the original poetry kept. Pope did not know enough
Greek to enter into the spirit of it, and he worked mostly from
translation. Even had he been able to enter into the true spirit
he would have found it hard to keep that spirit in his
translation, using as he did the artificial heroic couplet. For
Homer's poetry is not artificial, but simple and natural like our
own early poetry. "A pretty poem,
It was after he had finished the Odyssey that Pope wrote his most famous satire, called the Dunciad. In this he insulted and held up to ridicule all stupid or dull authors, all dunces, and all those whom he considered his enemies. It is very clever, but a poem full of malice and hatred does not make very pleasant reading. For most of us, too, the interest it had has vanished, as many of the people at whom Pope levied his malice are forgotten, or only remembered because he made them famous by adding their names to his roll of dunces. But in Pope's own day the Dunciad called forth cries of anger and revenge from the victims, and involved the author in still more quarrels.
Pope wrote many more poems, the chief being the Essay on Criticism and the Essay on Man. But his translations of Homer and the Rape of the Lock are those you will like best in the meantime. As a whole Pope is perhaps not much read now, yet many of his lines have become household words, and when you come to read him you will be surprised to find how many familiar quotations are taken from his poems. Perhaps no one of our poets except Shakespeare is more quoted. And yet he seldom says anything which touches the heart. When we enjoy his poetry we enjoy it with the brain. It gives us pleasure rather as the glitter of a diamond than as the perfume of a rose.
In spite of his crooked, sickly little body Pope lived to be
There is so much disagreeable and mean in Pope that we are apt to
lose sight of what was good in him altogether. We have to remind
ourselves that he was a good and affectionate son, and that he
was loving to the friends with whom he did not quarrel. Yet
these can hardly be counted as great merits. Perhaps his
greatest merit is that he kept his independence in an age when
writers fawned upon patrons or accepted bribes from Whig or Tory.
Pope held on his own way, looking for favors neither from one
side nor from the other. And when we think of his frail little
body, this sturdy
independence of mind is all the more wonderful.
From Pope we date the beginning of the time when a writer could
live honorable by his pen, and had not need to flatter a patron,
or sell his genius to politics or party. But Pope stood alone in
this independence, and he never had to fight for it. A happy
chance, we might say, made him free. For while his brother
writers all around him were still held in the chains of
patronage, Pope having more money than some did not need to bow
to it, and having less greed than others did not choose to bow to
it, in order to add to his wealth. And in the following chapter
we come to another man who in the next generation fought for
freedom, won it, and thereby helped to free others. This man was
Books To Read
Pope's Iliad, edited by
Pope's Odyssey, edited by
NOTE.—As an introduction to Pope's Homer the following books may
Stories from the Iliad Told to the Children, by Jeanie Lang.
Stories from the Odyssey Told to the Children, by Jeanie Lang.
The Children's Iliad, by
The Children's Odyssey, by