Alexander Pope - English Men of Letters Series
by Leslie Stephen
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To such accusations Pope had a general answer. He described the type, not the individual. The fault was with the public, who chose to fit the cap. His friend remonstrates in the Epilogue against his personal satire. "Come on, then, Satire, general, unconfined," exclaims the poet,

Spread thy broad wing and souse on all the kind

* * * * *

Ye reverend atheists. (Friend) Scandal! name them! who? (Pope) Why, that's the thing you bade me not to do. Who starved a sister, who forswore a debt, I never named; the town's inquiring yet. The pois'ning dame— (F.) You mean— (P.) I don't. (F.) You do. (P.) See, now, I keep the secret, and not you!

It must in fact be admitted that from the purely artistic point of view, Pope is right. Prosaic commentators are always asking, Who is meant by a poet, as though a poem were a legal document. It may be interesting, for various purposes, to know who was in the writer's mind, or what fact suggested the general picture. But we have no right to look outside the poem itself, or to infer anything not within the four corners of the statement. It matters not for such purposes whether there was, or was not, any real person corresponding to Sir Balaam, to whom his wife said, when he was enriched by Cornish wreckers, "live like yourself,"

When lo! two puddings smoked upon the board,

in place of the previous one on Sabbath days. Nor does it even matter whether Atticus meant Addison, or Sappho Lady Mary. The satire is equally good, whether its objects are mere names or realities.

But the moral question is quite distinct. In that case we must ask whether Pope used words calculated or intended to fix an imputation upon particular people. Whether he did it in prose or verse, the offence was the same. In many cases he gives real names, and in many others gives unmistakable indications, which must have fixed his satire to particular people. If he had written Addison for Atticus (as he did at first), or Lady Mary for Sappho, or Halifax for Bufo, the insinuation could not have been clearer. His attempt to evade his responsibility was a mere equivocation—a device which he seems to have preferred to direct lying. The character of Bufo might be equally suitable to others; but no reasonable man could doubt that every one would fix it upon Halifax. In some cases—possibly in that of Chandos—he may have thought that his language was too general to apply, and occasionally it seems that he sometimes tried to evade consequences by adding some inconsistent characteristic to his portraits.

I say this, because I am here forced to notice the worst of all the imputations upon Pope's character. The epistle on the characters of women now includes the famous lines on Atossa, which did not appear till after Pope's death.[27] They were (in 1746) at once applied to the famous Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough; and a story immediately became current that the duchess had paid Pope 1000l. to suppress them, but that he preserved them, with a view to their ultimate publication. This story was repeated by Warton and by Walpole; it has been accepted by Mr. Carruthers, who suggests, by way of palliation, that Pope was desirous at the time of providing for Martha Blount, and probably took the sum in order to buy an annuity for her. Now, if the story were proved, it must be admitted that it would reveal a baseness in Pope which would be worthy only of the lowest and most venal literary marauders. No more disgraceful imputation could have been made upon Curll, or Curll's miserable dependents. A man who could so prostitute his talents must have been utterly vile. Pope has sins enough to answer for; but his other meannesses were either sacrifices to his morbid vanity, or (like his offence against Swift, or his lies to Aaron Hill and Chandos) collateral results of spasmodic attempts to escape from humiliation. In money-matters he seems to have been generally independent. He refused gifts from his rich friends, and confuted the rather similar calumny that he had received 500l. from the Duke of Chandos. If the account rested upon mere contemporary scandal, we might reject it on the ground of its inconsistency with his known character, and its likeness to other fabrications of his enemies. There is, however, further evidence. It is such evidence as would, at most, justify a verdict of "not proven" in a court of justice. But the critic is not bound by legal rules, and has to say what is the most probable solution, without fear or favour.

I cannot here go into the minute details. This much, however, may be taken as established. Pope was printing a new edition of his works at the time of his death. He had just distributed to his friends some copies of the Ethic Epistles, and in those copies the Atossa appeared. Bolingbroke, to whom Pope had left his unpublished papers, discovered it, and immediately identified it with the duchess, who (it must be noticed) was still alive. He wrote to Marchmont, one of Pope's executors, that there could be "no excuse for Pope's design of publishing it after the favour you and I know." This is further explained by a note added in pencil by Marchmont's executor, "1000l.;" and the son of this executor, who published the Marchmont papers, says that this was the favour received by Pope from the duchess. This, however, is far from proving a direct bribe. It is, in fact, hardly conceivable that the duchess and Pope should have made such a bargain in direct black and white, and equally inconceivable that two men like Bolingbroke and Marchmont should have been privy to such a transaction, and spoken of it in such terms. Bolingbroke thinks that the favour received laid Pope under an obligation, but evidently does not think that it implied a contract. Mr. Dilke has further pointed out that there are many touches in the character which distinctly apply to the Duchess of Buckingham, with whom Pope had certainly quarrelled, and which will not apply to the Duchess of Marlborough, who had undoubtedly made friends with him during the last years of his life. Walpole again tells a story, partly confirmed by Warton, that Pope had shown the character to each duchess (Warton says only to Marlborough), saying that it was meant for the other. The Duchess of Buckingham, he says, believed him; the other had more sense and paid him 1000l. to suppress it. Walpole is no trustworthy authority; but the coincidence implies at least that such a story was soon current.

The most probable solution must conform to these data. Pope's Atossa was a portrait which would fit either lady, though it would be naturally applied to the most famous. It seems certain also that Pope had received some favours (possibly the 1000l. on some occasion unknown) from the Duchess of Marlborough, which was felt by his friends to make any attack upon her unjustifiable. We can scarcely believe that there should have been a direct compact of the kind described. If Pope had been a person of duly sensitive conscience he would have suppressed his work. But to suppress anything that he had written, and especially a passage so carefully laboured, was always agony to him. He preferred, as we may perhaps conjecture, to settle in his own mind that it would fit the Duchess of Buckingham, and possibly introduced some of the touches to which Mr. Dilke refers. He thought it sufficiently disguised to be willing to publish it whilst the person with whom it was naturally identified was still alive. Had she complained, he would have relied upon those touches, and have equivocated as he equivocated to Hill and Chandos. He always seems to have fancied that he could conceal himself by very thin disguises. But he ought to have known, and perhaps did know, that it would be immediately applied to the person who had conferred an obligation. From that guilt no hypothesis can relieve him; but it is certainly not proved, and seems, on the whole, improbable that he was so base as the concessions of his biographers would indicate.


[24] Spence, pp. 16, 48, 137, 315.

[25] To take an obviously uncertain test, I find that in Bartlett's dictionary of familiar quotations, Shakspeare fills 70 pages; Milton, 23; Pope, 18; Wordsworth, 16; and Byron, 15. The rest are nowhere.

[26] Roscoe's attempt at a denial was conclusively answered by Bowles in one of his pamphlets.

[27] On this subject Mr. Dilke's Papers of a Critic.



The last satires were published in 1738. Six years of life still remained to Pope; his intellectual powers were still vigorous, and his pleasure in their exercise had not ceased. The only fruit, however, of his labours during this period was the fourth book of the Dunciad. He spent much time upon bringing out new editions of his works, and upon the various intrigues connected with the Swift correspondence. But his health was beginning to fail. The ricketty framework was giving way, and failing to answer the demands of the fretful and excitable brain. In the spring of 1744 the poet was visibly breaking up; he suffered from dropsical asthma, and seems to have made matters worse by putting himself in the hands of a notorious quack—a Dr. Thomson. The end was evidently near as he completed his fifty-sixth year. Friends, old and new, were often in attendance. Above all, Bolingbroke, the venerated friend of thirty years' standing; Patty Blount, the woman whom he loved best; and the excellent Spence, who preserved some of the last words of the dying man. The scene, as he saw it, was pathetic; perhaps it is not less pathetic to us, for whom it has another side as of grim tragic humour.

Three weeks before his death Pope was sending off copies of the Ethic Epistles—apparently with the Atossa lines—to his friends. "Here I am, like Socrates," he said, "dispensing my morality amongst my friends just as I am dying." Spence watched him as anxiously as his disciples watched Socrates. He was still sensible to kindness. Whenever Miss Blount came in, the failing spirits rallied for a moment. He was always saying something kindly of his friends, "as if his humanity had outlasted his understanding." Bolingbroke, when Spence made the remark, said that he had never known a man with so tender a heart for his own friends or for mankind. "I have known him," he added, "these thirty years, and value myself more for that man's love than—" and his voice was lost in tears. At moments Pope could still be playful. "Here I am, dying of a hundred good symptoms," he replied to some flattering report, but his mind was beginning to wander. He complained of seeing things as through a curtain. "What's that?" he said, pointing to the air, and then, with a smile of great pleasure, added softly, "'twas a vision." His religious sentiments still edified his hearers. "I am so certain," he said, "of the soul's being immortal, that I seem to feel it within me, as it were by intuition;" and early one morning he rose from bed and tried to begin an essay upon immortality, apparently in a state of semi-delirium. On his last day he sacrificed, as Chesterfield rather cynically observes, his cock to AEsculapius. Hooke, a zealous Catholic friend, asked him whether he would not send for a priest. "I do not suppose that it is essential," said Pope, "but it will look right, and I heartily thank you for putting me in mind of it." A priest was brought, and Pope received the last sacraments with great fervour and resignation. Next day, on May 30th, 1744, he died so peacefully that his friends could not determine the exact moment of death.

It was a soft and touching end; and yet we must once more look at the other side. Warburton and Bolingbroke both appear to have been at the side of the dying man, and before very long they were to be quarrelling over his grave. Pope's will showed at once that his quarrels were hardly to end with his death. He had quarrelled, though the quarrel had been made up, with the generous Allen, for some cause not ascertainable, except that it arose from the mutual displeasure of Mrs. Allen and Miss Blount. It is pleasant to notice that, in the course of the quarrel, Pope mentioned Warburton, in a letter to Miss Blount, as a sneaking parson; but Warburton was not aware of the flash of sarcasm. Pope, as Johnson puts it, "polluted his will with female resentment." He left a legacy of 150l. to Allen, being, as he added, the amount received from his friend—for himself or for charitable purposes; and requested Allen, if he should refuse the legacy for himself, to pay it to the Bath Hospital. Allen adopted this suggestion, saying quietly that Pope had always been a bad accountant, and would have come nearer the truth if he had added a cypher to the figures.

Another fact came to light, which produced a fiercer outburst. Pope, it was found, had printed a whole edition (1500 copies) of the Patriot King, Bolingbroke's most polished work. The motive could have been nothing but a desire to preserve to posterity what Pope considered to be a monument worthy of the highest genius, and was so far complimentary to Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke, however, considered it as an act of gross treachery. Pope had received the work on condition of keeping it strictly private, and showing it to only a few friends. Moreover, he had corrected it, arranged it, and altered or omitted passages according to his own taste, which naturally did not suit the author's. In 1749 Bolingbroke gave a copy to Mallet for publication, and prefixed an angry statement to expose the breach of trust of "a man on whom the author thought he could entirely depend." Warburton rushed to the defence of Pope and the demolition of Bolingbroke. A savage controversy followed, which survives only in the title of one of Bolingbroke's pamphlets, A Familiar Epistle to the most Impudent Man living—a transparent paraphrase for Warburton. Pope's behaviour is too much of a piece with previous underhand transactions, but scarcely deserves further condemnation.

A single touch remains. Pope was buried, by his own directions, in a vault in Twickenham church, near the monument erected to his parents. It contained a simple inscription ending with the words "Parentibus bene merentibus filius fecit." To this, as he directed in his will, was to be added simply "et sibi." This was done; but seventeen years afterwards the clumsy Warburton erected in the same church another monument to Pope himself, with this stupid inscription. Poeta loquitur.

For one who would not lie buried in Westminster Abbey.

Heroes and kings, your distance keep! In peace let one poor poet sleep Who never flatter'd folks like you; Let Horace blush and Virgil too.

Most of us can tell from experience how grievously our posthumous ceremonials often jar upon the tenderest feelings of survivors. Pope's valued friends seem to have done their best to surround the last scene of his life with painful associations; and Pope, alas! was an unconscious accomplice. To us of a later generation it is impossible to close this strange history without a singular mixture of feelings. Admiration for the extraordinary literary talents, respect for the energy which, under all disadvantages of health and position, turned these talents to the best account; love of the real tender-heartedness which formed the basis of the man's character; pity for the many sufferings to which his morbid sensitiveness exposed him; contempt for the meannesses into which he was hurried; ridicule for the insatiable vanity which prompted his most degrading subterfuges; horror for the bitter animosities which must have tortured the man who cherished them even more than his victims—are suggested simultaneously by the name of Pope. As we look at him in one or other aspect, each feeling may come uppermost in turn. The most abiding sentiment—when we think of him as a literary phenomenon—is admiration for the exquisite skill which enabled him to discharge a function, not of the highest kind, with a perfection rare in any department of literature. It is more difficult to say what will be the final element in our feeling about the man. Let us hope that it may be the pity which, after a certain lapse of years, we may be excused for conceding to the victim of moral as well as physical diseases.



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Variant spellings of William Shakspeare's name have been standardized in the text, but not in the advertisements at the end of the book.

The following words use an oe ligature in the original:

Boeotian Breboeuf manoeuvre manoeuvres Phoebus

The following corrections have been made to the text:

page 6: Like so many other poets, he took[original has comma] infinite delight in

page 14: his companions could practice[original has practise] with comparative impunity

page 17: we have already[original has aleady] reached

page 25: refine as the reasoning faculties develop[original has develope]

page 50: Addison gave to Lady M. W. Montagu[original has Montague]

page 51: Ib., March[original has comma] 25

page 54: when dying in distress[original has distres]

page 55: Addison recognizes[original has recognises] his true character

page 66: philologists and antiquarians in the background[original has back-ground]

page 73: He allows Teucer to call Hector a dog, but apologizes[original has apologises] in a note.

page 84: for his neglect of Popish superstition[original has supersition]

page 86: he was familiar[original has familar] with Bridgeman and Kent

page 125: what the authors would have suppressed[original has suppresed]

page 125: he was like a civilised[original has civilized] commander

page 126: either to shirk responsibility[original has reponsibility]

page 127: and how successive[original has sucessive] editions

page 135: installed Cibber in[original has in in] his place

page 146: was simply a reproduction of[original has comma] Curll's publication

page 156: —-4[original has 3 spaces preceding the numeral]

page 166: manuscripts seen by Mallet may probably[original has probable] have been a commonplace book

page 169: But errs not nature from this gracious end,[original is missing comma]

page 175: more outspoken than himself[original has himseif]

page 192: And fame, the lord of useless thousands ends.[original is missing period]

page 193: Brand the bold front of shameless guilty men,[comma missing in original]

page 198: any collection of British poets innumerable pages of versification[original has verification]

page 199: by the brilliance of his conversation.[original has comma]

Footnote 19: Pope's Works, vol. i. p.[period missing in original] cxxi.

Advertising at end of the book:

HUME. By Professor[original has Pofessor] HUXLEY

Burns' [original has Burn's] poetry

SOUTHEY. By Professor[original has Pofessor] DOWDEN.

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