The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753),Vol. V.
Part 4 out of 6
Gives vernal verdure, and autumnal crops.
 Preface to Remarks on Prince Arthur, octavo 1696.
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Mr. JAMES THOMSON.
This celebrated poet, from whom his country has derived the most
distinguished honour, was son of the revd. Mr. Thomson, a minister of
the church of Scotland, in the Presbytery of Jedburgh.
He was born in the place where his father was minister, about the
beginning of the present century, and received the rudiments of his
education at a private country school. Mr. Thomson, in the early part of
his life, so far from appearing to possess a sprightly genius, was
considered by his school master, and those which directed his education,
as being really without a common share of parts.
While he was improving himself in the Latin and Greek tongues at this
country school, he often visited a minister, whose charge lay in the
same presbytery with his father's, the revd. Mr. Rickerton, a man of
such amazing powers, that many persons of genius, as well as Mr.
Thomson, who conversed with him, have been astonished, that such great
merit should be buried in an obscure part of the country, where he had
no opportunity to display himself, and, except upon periodical meetings
of the ministers, seldom an opportunity of conversing with men of
Though Mr. Thomson's schoolmaster could not discover that he was endowed
with a common portion of understanding, yet Mr. Rickerton was not so
blind to his genius; he distinguished our author's early propension to
poetry, and had once in his hands some of the first attempts Mr. Thomson
ever made in that province.
It is not to be doubted but our young poet greatly improved while he
continued to converse with Mr. Rickerton, who, as he was a philosophical
man, inspired his mind with a love of the Sciences, nor were the revd.
gentleman's endeavours in vain, for Mr. Thomson has shewn in his works
how well he was acquainted with natural and moral philosophy, a
circumstance which, perhaps, is owing to the early impressions he
received from Mr. Rickerton.
Nature, which delights in diversifying her gifts, does not bestow upon
every one a power of displaying the abilities she herself has granted to
the best advantage. Though Mr. Rickerton could discover that Mr.
Thomson, so far from being without parts, really possessed a very fine
genius, yet he never could have imagined, as he often declared, that
there existed in his mind such powers, as even by the best cultivation
could have raised him to so high a degree of eminence amongst the poets.
When Mr. Rickerton first saw Mr. Thomson's Winter, which was in a
Bookseller's shop at Edinburgh, he stood amazed, and after he had read
the lines quoted below, he dropt the poem from his hand in the extasy of
admiration. The lines are his induction to Winter, than which few poets
ever rose to a more sublime height.
After spending the usual time at a country school in the acquisition of
the dead languages, Mr. Thomson was removed to the university of
Edinburgh, in order to finish his education, and be fitted for the
ministry. Here, as at the country school, he made no great figure: his
companions thought contemptuously of him, and the masters under whom he
studied, had not a higher opinion of our poet's abilities, than their
pupils. His course of attendance upon the classes of philosophy being
finished, he was entered in the Divinity Hall, as one of the candidates
for the ministry, where the students, before they are permitted to enter
on their probation, must yield six years attendance.
It was in the second year of Mr. Thomson's attendance upon this school
of divinity, whose professor at that time was the revd. and learned Mr.
William Hamilton, a person whom he always mentioned with respect, that
our author was appointed by the professor to write a discourse on the
Power of the Supreme Being. When his companions heard their task
assigned him, they could not but arraign the professor's judgment, for
assigning so copious a theme to a young man, from whom nothing equal to
the subject could be expected. But when Mr. Thomson delivered the
discourse, they had then reason to reproach themselves for want of
discernment, and for indulging a contempt of one superior to the
brightest genius amongst them. This discourse was so sublimely elevated,
that both the professor and the students who heard it delivered, were
astonished. It was written in blank verse, for which Mr. Hamilton
rebuked him, as being improper upon that occasion. Such of his
fellow-students as envied him the success of this discourse, and the
admiration it procured him, employed their industry to trace him as a
plagiary; for they could not be persuaded that a youth seemingly so much
removed from the appearance of genius, could compose a declamation, in
which learning, genius, and judgment had a very great share. Their
search, however, proved fruitless, and Mr. Thomson continued, while he
remained at the university, to possess the honour of that discourse,
without any diminution.
We are not certain upon what account it was that Mr. Thomson dropt the
notion of going into the ministry; perhaps he imagined it a way of life
too severe for the freedom of his disposition: probably he declined
becoming a presbyterian minister, from a consciousness of his own
genius, which gave him a right to entertain more ambitious views; for it
seldom happens, that a man of great parts can be content with obscurity,
or the low income of sixty pounds a year, in some retired corner of a
neglected country; which must have been the lot of Thomson, if he had
not extended his views beyond the sphere of a minister of the
established church of Scotland.
After he had dropt all thoughts of the clerical profession, he began to
be more sollicitous of distinguishing his genius, as he placed some
dependence upon it, and hoped to acquire such patronage as would enable
him to appear in life with advantage. But the part of the world where he
then was, could not be very auspicious to such hopes; for which reason
he began to turn his eyes towards the grand metropolis.
The first poem of Mr. Thomson's, which procured him any reputation from
the public, was his Winter, of which mention is already made, and
further notice will be taken; but he had private approbation for several
of his pieces, long before his Winter was published, or before he
quitted his native country. He wrote a Paraphrase on the 104th Psalm,
which, after it had received the approbation of Mr. Rickerton, he
permitted his friends to copy. By some means or other this Paraphrase
fell into the hands of Mr. Auditor Benson, who, expressing his
admiration of it, said, that he doubted not if the author was in London,
but he would meet with encouragement equal to his merit. This
observation of Benson's was communicated to Thomson by a letter, and, no
doubt, had its natural influence in inflaming his heart, and hastening
his journey to the metropolis. He soon set out for Newcastle, where he
took shipping, and landed at Billinsgate. When he arrived, it was his
immediate care to wait on Mr. Mallet, who then lived in
Hanover-Square in the character of tutor to his grace the duke of
Montrose, and his late brother lord G. Graham. Before Mr. Thomson
reached Hanover-Square, an accident happened to him, which, as it may
divert some of our readers, we shall here insert. He had received
letters of recommendation from a gentleman of rank in Scotland, to some
persons of distinction in London, which he had carefully tied up in his
pocket-handkerchief. As he sauntered along the streets, he could not
withhold his admiration of the magnitude, opulence, and various objects
this great metropolis continually presented to his view. These must
naturally have diverted the imagination of a man of less reflexion, and
it is not greatly to be wondered at, if Mr. Thomson's mind was so
ingrossed by these new presented scenes, as to be absent to the busy
crowds around him. He often stopped to gratify his curiosity, the
consequences of which he afterwards experienced. With an honest
simplicity of heart, unsuspecting, as unknowing of guilt, he was ten
times longer in reaching Hanover-Square, than one less sensible and
curious would have been. When he arrived, he found he had paid for his
curiosity; his pocket was picked of his handkerchief, and all the
letters that were wrapped up in it. This accident would have proved very
mortifying to a man less philosophical than Thomson; but he was of a
temper never to be agitated; he then smiled at it, and frequently made
his companions laugh at the relation.
It is natural to suppose, that as soon as Mr. Thomson arrived in town,
he shewed to some of his friends his poem on Winter. The approbation
it might meet with from them, was not, however, a sufficient
recommendation to introduce it to the world. He had the mortification of
offering it to several Booksellers without success, who, perhaps, not
being qualified themselves to judge of the merit of the performance,
refused to risque the necessary expences, on the work of an obscure
stranger, whose name could be no recommendation to it. These were severe
repulses; but, at last, the difficulty was surmounted. Mr. Mallet,
offered it to Mr. Millan, now Bookseller at Charing-Cross, who without
making any scruples, printed it. For some time Mr. Millan had reason to
believe, that he should be a loser by his frankness; for the impression
lay like as paper on his hands, few copies being sold, 'till by an
accident its merit was discovered. One Mr. Whatley, a man of some
taste in letters, but perfectly enthusiastic in the admiration of any
thing which pleased him, happened to cast his eye upon it, and finding
something which delighted him, perused the whole, not without growing
astonishment, that the poem should be unknown, and the author obscure.
He learned from the Bookseller the circumstances already mentioned, and,
in the extasy of his admiration of this poem, he went from Coffee-house
to Coffee house, pointing out its beauties, and calling upon all men of
taste, to exert themselves in rescuing one of the greatest geniuses that
ever appeared, from obscurity. This had a very happy effect, for, in a
short time, the impression was bought up, and they who read the poem,
had no reason to complain of Mr. Whatley's exaggeration; for they found
it so compleatly beautiful, that they could not but think themselves
happy in doing justice to a man of so much merit.
The poem of Winter is, perhaps, the most finished, as well as most
picturesque, of any of the Four Seasons. The scenes are grand and
lively. It is in that season that the creation appears in distress, and
nature assumes a melancholy air; and an imagination so poetical as
Thomson's, could not but furnish those awful and striking images, which
fill the soul with a solemn dread of _those Vapours, and Storms, and
Clouds_, he has so well painted. Description is the peculiar talent of
Thomson; we tremble at his thunder in summer, we shiver with his
winter's cold, and we rejoice at the renovation of nature, by the sweet
influence of spring. But the poem deserves a further illustration, and
we shall take an opportunity of pointing out some of its most striking
beauties; but before we speak of these, we beg leave to relate the
As soon as Winter was published, Mr. Thomson sent a copy of it as a
present to Mr. Joseph Mitchell, his countryman, and brother poet, who,
not liking many parts of it, inclosed to him the following couplet;
Beauties and faults so thick lye scattered here,
Those I could read, if these were not so near.
To this Mr. Thomson answered extempore.
Why all not faults, injurious Mitchell; why
Appears one beauty to thy blasted eye;
Damnation worse than thine, if worse can be,
Is all I ask, and all I want from thee.
Upon a friend's remonstrating to Mr. Thomson, that the expression of
blasted eye would look like a personal reflexion, as Mr. Mitchell had
really that misfortune, he changed the epithet blasted, into blasting.
But to return:
After our poet has represented the influence of Winter upon the face of
nature, and particularly described the severities of the frost, he has
the following beautiful transition;
--Our infant winter sinks,
Divested of its grandeur; should our eye
Astonish'd shoot into the frigid zone;
Where, for relentless months, continual night
Holds o'er the glitt'ring waste her starry reign:
There thro' the prison of unbounded wilds
Barr'd by the hand of nature from escape,
Wide roams the Russian exile. Nought around
Strikes his sad eye, but desarts lost in snow;
And heavy loaded groves; and solid floods,
That stretch athwart the solitary waste,
Their icy horrors to the frozen main;
And chearless towns far distant, never bless'd
Save when its annual course, the caravan
Bends to the golden coast of rich Cathay
With news of human-kind. Yet there life glows;
Yet cherished there, beneath the shining waste,
The furry nations harbour: tipt with jet
Fair ermines, spotless as the snows they press;
Sables of glossy black; and dark embrown'd
Or beauteous, streak'd with many a mingled hue,
Thousands besides, the costly pride of courts.
The description of a thaw is equally picturesque. The following lines
consequent upon it are excellent.
--Those sullen seas
That wash th'ungenial pole, will rest no more
Beneath the shackles of the mighty North;
But rousing all their waves resistless heave.--
And hark! the lengthen'd roar continuous runs
Athwart the rested deep: at once it bursts
And piles a thousand mountains to the clouds.
Ill fares the bark, with trembling wretches charg'd,
That tost amid the floating fragments, moors
Beneath the shelter of an icy isle,
While night o'erwhelms the sea, and horror looks
More horrible. Can human force endure
Th' assembled mischiefs that besiege 'em round!
Heart-gnawing hunger, fainting weariness,
The roar of winds and waves, the crush of ice,
Now ceasing, now renew'd with louder rage,
And in dire ecchoes bellowing round the main.
As the induction of Mr. Thomson's Winter has been celebrated for its
sublimity, so the conclusion has likewise a claim to praise, for the
tenderness of the sentiments, and the pathetic force of the expression.
'Tis done!--Dread winter spreads her latest glooms,
And reigns tremendous o'er the conquer'd year.
How dead the vegetable kingdom lies!
How dumb the tuneful! horror wide extends
Her desolate domain. Behold, fond man!
See here thy pictur'd life; pass some few years,
Thy flow'ring spring, thy summer's ardent strength,
Thy sober autumn fading into age,
And page concluding winter comes at last,
And shuts the scene.--
He concludes the poem by enforcing a reliance on providence, which will
in proper compensate for all those seeming severities, with which good
men are often oppressed.
--Ye good distrest!
Ye noble few! who here unbending stand
Beneath life's pressure, yet bear up awhile,
And what your bounded view which only saw
A little part, deemed evil, is no more:
The storms of Wintry time will quickly pass,
And one unbounded Spring encircle all.
The poem of Winter meeting with such general applause, Mr. Thomson was
induced to write the other three seasons, which he finished with equal
success. His Autumn was next given to the public, and is the most
unfinished of the four; it is not however without its beauties, of which
many have considered the story of Lavinia, naturally and artfully
introduced, as the most affecting. The story is in itself moving and
tender. It is perhaps no diminution to the merit of this beautiful tale,
that the hint of it is taken from the book of Ruth in the Old Testament.
The author next published the Spring, the induction to which is very
poetical and beautiful.
Come gentle Spring, etherial mildness come,
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veil'd in a show'r
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend.
It is addressed to the countess of Hertford, with the following elegant
O Hertford! fitted, or to shine in courts
With unaffected grace, or walk the plains,
With innocence and meditation joined,
In soft assemblage; listen to the song,
Which thy own season paints; while nature all
Is blooming, and benevolent like thee.--
The descriptions in this poems are mild, like the season they paint; but
towards the end of it, the poet takes occasion to warn his countrymen
against indulging the wild and irregular passion of love. This
digression is one of the most affecting in the whole piece, and while he
paints the language of a lover's breast agitated with the pangs of
strong desire, and jealous transports, he at the same time dissuades the
ladies from being too credulous in the affairs of gallantry. He
represents the natural influence of spring, in giving a new glow to the
beauties of the fair creation, and firing their hearts with the passion
The shining moisture swells into her eyes,
In brighter flow; her wishing bosom heaves,
With palpitations wild; kind tumults seize
Her veins; and all her yielding soul is love.
From the keen gaze her lover turns away,
Full of the dear extatic power, and sick
With sighing languishment. Ah then, ye fair!
Be greatly cautious of your sliding hearts:
Dare not th'infectious sigh; the pleading look,
Down-cast, and low, in meek submission drest,
But full of guile. Let not the fervent tongue,
Prompt to deceive, with adulation smooth,
Gain on your purpos'd will. Nor in the bower,
Where woodbines flaunt, and roses shed a couch,
While evening draws her crimson curtains round,
Trust your soft minutes with betraying man.
Summer has many manly and striking beauties, of which the Hymn to the
Sun, is one of the sublimest and most masterly efforts of genius we have
ever seen.--There are some hints taken from Cowley's beautiful Hymn to
Light.--Mr. Thomson has subjoined a Hymn to the Seasons, which is not
inferior to the foregoing in poetical merit.
The Four Seasons considered separately, each Season as a distinct poem
has been judged defective in point of plan. There appears no particular
design; the parts are not subservient to one another; nor is there any
dependance or connection throughout; but this perhaps is a fault almost
inseparable from a subject in itself so diversified, as not to admit of
such limitation. He has not indeed been guilty of any incongruity; the
scenes described in spring, are all peculiar to that season, and the
digressions, which make up a fourth part of the poem, flow naturally. He
has observed the same regard to the appearances of nature in the other
seasons; but then what he has described in the beginning of any of the
seasons, might as well be placed in the middle, and that in the middle,
as naturally towards the close. So that each season may rather be called
an assemblage of poetical ideas, than a poem, as it seems written
without a plan.
Mr. Thomson's poetical diction in the Seasons is very peculiar to him:
His manner of writing is entirely his own: He has introduced a number of
compound words; converted substantives into verbs, and in short has
created a kind of new language for himself. His stile has been blamed
for its singularity and stiffness; but with submission to superior
judges, we cannot but be of opinion, that though this observation is
true, yet is it admirably fitted for description. The object he paints
stands full before the eye, we admire it in all its lustre, and who
would not rather enjoy a perfect inspection into a natural curiosity
through a microscope capable of discovering all the minute beauties,
though its exterior form should not be comely, than perceive an object
but faintly, through a microscope ill adapted for the purpose, however
its outside may be decorated. Thomson has a stiffness in his manner, but
then his manner is new; and there never yet arose a distinguished
genius, who had not an air peculiarly his own. 'Tis true indeed, the
tow'ring sublimity of Mr. Thomson's stile is ill adapted for the tender
passions, which will appear more fully when we consider him as a
dramatic writer, a sphere in which he is not so excellent as in other
species of poetry.
The merit of these poems introduced our author to the acquaintance and
esteem of several persons, distinguished by their rank, or eminent for
their talents:--Among the latter Dr. Rundle, afterwards bishop of Derry,
was so pleased with the spirit of benevolence and piety, which breathes
throughout the Seasons, that he recommended him to the friendship of the
late lord chancellor Talbot, who committed to him the care of his eldest
son, then preparing to set out on his travels into France and Italy.
With this young nobleman, Mr. Thomson performed (what is commonly
called) The Tour of Europe, and stay'd abroad about three years, where
no doubt he inriched his mind with the noble monuments of antiquity, and
the conversation of ingenious foreigners. 'Twas by comparing modern
Italy with the idea he had of the antient Romans, which furnished him
with the hint of writing his Liberty, in three parts. The first is
Antient and Modern Italy compared. The second Greece, and the third
Britain. The whole is addressed to the eldest son of lord Talbot, who
died in the year 1734, upon his travels.
Amongst Mr. Thomson's poems, is one to the memory of Sir Isaac Newton,
of which we shall say no more than this, that if he had never wrote any
thing besides, he deserved to enjoy a distinguished reputation amongst
the poets. Speaking of the amazing genius of Newton, he says,
Th'aerial flow of sound was known to him,
From whence it first in wavy circles breaks.
Nor could the darting beam of speed immense,
Escape his swift pursuit, and measuring eye.
Ev'n light itself, which every thing displays,
Shone undiscover'd, till his brighter mind
Untwisted all the shining robe of day;
And from the whitening undistinguished blaze,
Collecting every separated ray,
To the charm'd eye educ'd the gorgeous train
Of parent colours. First, the flaming red,
Sprung vivid forth, the tawny orange next,
And next refulgent yellow; by whose side
Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies,
AEtherial play'd; and then of sadder hue,
Emerg'd the deepen'd indico, as when
The heavy skirted evening droops with frost,
While the last gleamings of refracted light,
Died in the fainting violet away.
These when the clouds distil the rosy shower,
Shine out distinct along the watr'y bow;
While o'er our heads the dewy vision bends,
Delightful melting in the fields beneath.
Myriads of mingling dyes from these result,
And myriads still remain--Infinite source
Of beauty ever-flushing, ever new.
About the year 1728 Mr. Thomson wrote a piece called Britannia, the
purport of which was to rouse the nation to arms, and excite in the
spirit of the people a generous disposition to revenge the injuries done
them by the Spaniards: This is far from being one of his best poems.
Upon the death of his generous patron, lord chancellor Talbot, for whom
the nation joined with Mr. Thomson in the most sincere inward sorrow, he
wrote an elegiac poem, which does honour to the author, and to the
memory of that great man he meant to celebrate. He enjoyed, during lord
Talbot's life, a very profitable place, which that worthy patriot had
conferred upon him, in recompence of the care he had taken in forming
the mind of his son. Upon his death, his lordship's successor reserved
the place for Mr. Thomson, and always expected when he should wait upon
him, and by performing some formalities enter into the possession of it.
This, however, by an unaccountable indolence he neglected, and at last
the place, which he might have enjoyed with so little trouble, was
bestowed upon another.
Amongst the latest of Mr. Thomson's productions is his Castle of
Indolence, a poem of so extraordinary merit, that perhaps we are not
extravagant, when we declare, that this single performance discovers
more genius and poetical judgment, than all his other works put
together. We cannot here complain of want of plan, for it is artfully
laid, naturally conducted, and the descriptions rise in a beautiful
succession: It is written in imitation of Spenser's stile; and the
obsolete words, with the simplicity of diction in some of the lines,
which borders on the ludicrous, have been thought necessary to make the
imitation more perfect.
'The stile (says Mr. Thomson) of that admirable poet, as well as the
measure in which he wrote, are, as it were, appropriated by custom to
all allegorical poems written in our language; just as in French, the
stile of Marot, who lived under Francis the 1st, has been used in Tales
and familiar Epistles, by the politest writers of the age of Louis the
We shall not at present enquire how far Mr. Thomson is justifiable in
using the obsolete words of Spenser: As Sir Roger de Coverley observed
on another occasion, much may be said on both sides. One thing is
certain, Mr. Thomson's imitation is excellent, and he must have no
poetry in his imagination, who can read the picturesque descriptions in
his Castle of Indolence, without emotion. In his LXXXIst Stanza he has
the following picture of beauty:
Here languid beauty kept her pale-fac'd court,
Bevies of dainty dames, of high degree,
From every quarter hither made resort;
Where, from gross mortal care, and bus'ness free,
They lay, pour'd out in ease and luxury:
Or should they a vain shew of work assume,
Alas! and well-a-day! what can it be?
To knot, to twist, to range the vernal bloom;
But far is cast the distaff, spinning-wheel and loom.
He pursues the description in the subsequent Stanza.
Their only labour was to kill the time;
And labour dire it is, and weary woe.
They fit, they loll, turn o'er some idle rhime;
Then rising sudden, to the glass they go,
Or saunter forth, with tott'ring steps and slow:
This soon too rude an exercise they find;
Strait on the couch their limbs again they throw,
Where hours on hours they sighing lie reclin'd,
And court the vapoury God soft breathing in the wind.
In the two following Stanzas, the dropsy and hypochondria are
Of limbs enormous, but withal unsound,
Soft swoln and pale, here lay the Hydropsy:
Unwieldly man; with belly monstrous round,
For ever fed with watery supply;
For still he drank, and yet he still was dry.
And moping here did Hypochondria sit,
Mother of spleen, in robes of various die,
Who vexed was full oft with ugly fit;
And some her frantic deem'd, and some her deem'd a wit.
A lady proud she was, of antient blood,
Yet oft her fear, her pride made crouchen low:
She felt, or fancy'd in her fluttering mood,
All the diseases which the spitals know,
And sought all physic which the shops bestow;
And still new leaches, and new drugs would try,
Her humour ever wavering too and fro;
For sometimes she would laugh, and sometimes cry,
And sudden waxed wroth, and all she knew not why.
The speech of Sir Industry in the second Canto, when he enumerates the
various blessings which flow from action, is surely one of the highest
instances of genius which can be produced in poetry. In the second
stanza, before he enters upon the subject, the poet complains of the
decay of patronage, and the general depravity of taste; and in the third
breaks out into the following exclamation, which is so perfectly
beautiful, that it would be the greatest mortification not to transcribe
I care not, fortune, what you me deny:
You cannot rob me of free nature's grace;
You cannot shut the windows of the sky,
Through which Aurora shews her bright'ning face;
You cannot bar my constant feet to trace
The woods and lawns, by living stream at eve:
Let health my nerves, and finer fibres brace,
And I their toys to the great children leave;
Of fancy, reason, virtue, nought can me bereave.
Before we quit this poem, permit us, reader, to give you two more
stanzas from it: the first shews Mr. Thomson's opinion of Mr. Quin as an
actor; of their friendship we may say more hereafter.
Of the CASTLE of INDOLENCE.
Here whilom ligg'd th'Aesopus of the age;
But called by fame, in foul ypricked deep,
A noble pride restor'd him to the stage,
And rous'd him like a giant from his sleep.
Even from his slumbers we advantage reap:
With double force th'enliven'd scene he wakes,
Yet quits not nature's bounds. He knows to keep
Each due decorum: now the heart he shakes,
And now with well-urg'd sense th'enlighten'd judgment takes.
The next stanza (wrote by a friend of the author's, as the note
mentions) is a friendly, though familiar, compliment; it gives us an
image of our bard himself, at once entertaining, striking, and just.
A bard here dwelt, more fat than bard beseems,
Who void of envy, guile, and lust of gain,
On virtue still, and nature's pleasing themes,
Pour'd forth his unpremeditated strain:
The world forsaking with a calm disdain.
Here laugh'd he, careless in his easy seat;
Here quaff'd, encircl'd with the joyous train,
Oft moralizing sage: his ditty sweet
He loathed much to write, ne cared to repeat.
We shall now consider Mr. Thomson as a dramatic writer.
In the year 1730, about six years after he had been in London, he
brought a Tragedy upon the stage, called Sophonisba, built upon the
Carthaginian history of that princess, and upon which the famous
Nathaniel Lee has likewise written a Tragedy. This play met with a
favourable reception from the public. Mrs. Oldfield greatly
distinguished herself in the character of Sophonisba, which Mr. Thomson
acknowledges in his preface.--'I cannot conclude, says he, without
owning my obligations to those concerned in the representation. They
have indeed done me more than justice; Whatever was designed as amiable
and engageing in Masinessa shines out in Mr. Wilks's action. Mrs.
Oldfield, in the character of Sophonisba, has excelled what even in the
fondness of an author I could either wish or imagine. The grace, dignity
and happy variety of her action, have been universally applauded, and
are truly admirable.'
Before we quit this play, we must not omit two anecdotes which happened
the first night of the representation. Mr. Thomson makes one of his
characters address Sophonisba in a line, which some critics reckoned the
O! Sophonisba, Sophonisba Oh!
Upon which a smart from the pit cried out,
Oh! Jamey Thomson, Jamey Thomson Oh!
However ill-natured this critic might be in interrupting the action of
the play for sake of a joke; yet it is certain that the line ridiculed
does partake of the false pathetic, and should be a warning to tragic
poets to guard against the swelling stile; for by aiming at the sublime,
they are often betrayed into the bombast.--Mr. Thomson who could not but
feel all the emotions and sollicitudes of a young author the first night
of his play, wanted to place himself in some obscure part of the house,
in order to see the representation to the best advantage, without being
known as the poet.--He accordingly placed himself in the upper gallery;
but such was the power of nature in him, that he could not help
repeating the parts along with the players, and would sometimes whisper
to himself, 'now such a scene is to open,' by which he was soon
discovered to be the author, by some gentlemen who could not, on account
of the great crowd, be situated in any other part of the house.
After an interval of four years, Mr. Thomson exhibited to the public his
second Tragedy called Agamemnon. Mr. Pope gave an instance of his great
affection to Mr. Thomson on this occasion: he wrote two letters in its
favour to the managers, and honoured the representation on the first
night with his presence. As he had not been for some time at a play,
this was considered as a very great instance of esteem. Mr. Thomson
submitted to have this play considerably shortened in the action, as
some parts were too long, other unnecessary, in which not the character
but the poet spoke; and though not brought on the stage till the month
of April, it continued to be acted with applause for several nights.
Many have remark'd that his characters in his plays are more frequently
descriptive, than expressive, of the passions; but they all abound with
uncommon beauties, with fire, and depth of thought, with noble
sentiments and nervous writing. His speeches are often too long,
especially for an English audience; perhaps sometimes they are
unnaturally lengthened: and 'tis certainly a greater relief to the ear
to have the dialogue more broken; yet our attention is well rewarded,
and in no passages, perhaps, in his tragedies, more so, than in the
affecting account Melisander  gives of his being betrayed, and left
on the desolate island.
--'Tis thus my friend.
Whilst sunk in unsuspecting sleep I lay,
Some midnight ruffians rush'd into my chamber,
Sent by Egisthus, who my presence deem'd
Obstructive (so I solve it) to his views,
Black views, I fear, as you perhaps may know,
Sudden they seiz'd, and muffled up in darkness,
Strait bore me to the sea, whose instant prey
I did conclude myself, when first around
The ship unmoor'd, I heard the chiding wave.
But these fel tools of cruel power, it seems,
Had orders in a desart isle to leave me;
There hopeless, helpless, comfortless, to prove
The utmost gall and bitterness of death.
Thus malice often overshoots itself,
And some unguarded accident betrays
The man of blood.--Next night--a dreary night!
Cast on the wildest of the Cyclad Isles,
Where never human foot had mark'd the shore,
These ruffians left me.--Yet believe me, Arcas,
Such is the rooted love we bear mankind,
All ruffians as they were, I never heard
A sound so dismal as their parting oars.--
Then horrid silence follow'd, broke alone
By the low murmurs of the restless deep,
Mixt with the doubtful breeze that now and then
Sigh'd thro' the mournful woods. Beneath a shade
I sat me down, more heavily oppress'd,
More desolate at heart, than e'er I felt
Before. When, Philomela, o'er my head
Began to tune her melancholy strain,
As piteous of my woes, 'till, by degrees,
Composing sleep on wounded nature shed
A kind but short relief. At early morn,
Wak'd by the chant of birds, I look'd around
For usual objects: objects found I none,
Except before me stretch'd the toiling main,
And rocks and woods in savage view behind.
Wrapt for a moment in amaz'd confusion,
My thought turn'd giddy round; when all at once,
To memory full my dire condition rush'd--
In the year 1736 Mr. Thomson offered to the stage a Tragedy called
Edward and Eleonora, which was forbid to be acted, for some political
reason, which it is not in our power to guess.
The play of Tancred and Sigismunda was acted in the year 1744; this
succeeded beyond any other of Thomson's plays, and is now in possesion
of the stage. The plot is borrowed from a story in the celebrated
romance of Gil Blas: The fable is very interesting, the characters are
few, but active; and the attention in this play is never suffered to
wander. The character of Seffredi has been justly censured as
inconsistent, forced, and unnatural.
By the command of his royal highness the prince of Wales, Mr. Thomson,
in conjunction with Mr. Mallet, wrote the Masque of Alfred, which was
performed twice in his royal highness's gardens at Cliffden. Since Mr.
Thomson's death, this piece has been almost entirely new modelled by Mr.
Mallet, and brought on the stage in the year 1751, its success being
fresh in the memory of its frequent auditors, 'tis needless to say more
Mr. Thomson's last Tragedy, called Coriolanus, was not acted till after
his death; the profits of it were given to his sisters in Scotland, one
of whom is married to a minister there, and the other to a man of low
circumstances in the city of Edinburgh. This play, which is certainly
the least excellent of any of Thomson's, was first offered to Mr.
Garrick, but he did not think proper to accept it. The prologue was
written by Sir George Lyttleton, and spoken by Mr. Quin, which had a
very happy effect upon the audience. Mr. Quin was the particular friend
of Thomson, and when he spoke the following lines, which are in
themselves very tender, all the endearments of a long acquaintance, rose
at once to his imagination, while the tears gushed from his eyes.
He lov'd his friends (forgive this gushing tear:
Alas! I feel I am no actor here)
He lov'd his friends with such a warmth of heart,
So clear of int'rest, so devoid of art,
Such generous freedom, such unshaken real,
No words can speak it, but our tears may tell.
The beautiful break in these lines had a fine effect in speaking. Mr.
Quin here excelled himself; he never appeared a greater actor than at
this instant, when he declared himself none: 'twas an exquisite stroke
to nature; art alone could hardly reach it. Pardon the digression,
reader, but, we feel a desire to say somewhat more on this head. The
poet and the actor were friends, it cannot then be quite foreign to the
purpose to proceed. A deep fetch'd sigh filled up the heart felt pause;
grief spread o'er all the countenance; the tear started to the eye, the
muscles fell, and,
'The whiteness of his cheek
Was apter than his tongue to speak his tale.'
They all expressed the tender feelings of a manly heart, becoming a
Thomson's friend. His pause, his recovery were masterly; and he
delivered the whole with an emphasis and pathos, worthy the excellent
lines he spoke; worthy the great poet and good man, whose merits they
painted, and whose loss they deplored.
The epilogue too, which was spoken by Mrs. Woffington, with an exquisite
humour, greatly pleased. These circumstances, added to the consideration
of the author's being no more, procured this play a run of nine nights,
which without these assistances 'tis likely it could not have had; for,
without playing the critic, it is not a piece of equal merit to many
other of his works. It was his misfortune as a dramatist, that he never
knew when to have done; he makes every character speak while there is
any thing to be said; and during these long interviews, the action too
stands still, and the story languishes. His Tancred and Sigismunda may
be excepted from this general censure: But his characters are too little
distinguished; they seldom vary from one another in their manner of
speaking. In short, Thomson was born a descriptive poet; he only wrote
for the stage, from a motive too obvious to be mentioned, and too strong
to be refilled. He is indeed the eldest born of Spenser, and he has
often confessed that if he had any thing excellent in poetry, he owed it
to the inspiration he first received from reading the Fairy Queen, in
the very early part of his life.
In August 1748 the world was deprived of this great ornament of poetry
and genius, by a violent fever, which carried him off in the 48th year
of his age. Before his death he was provided for by Sir George
Littleton, in the profitable place of comptroller of America, which he
lived not long to enjoy. Mr. Thomson was extremely beloved by his
acquaintance. He was of an open generous disposition; and was sometimes
tempted to an excessive indulgence of the social pleasures: A failing
too frequently inseparable from men of genius. His exterior appearance
was not very engaging, but he grew more and more agreeable, as he
entered into conversation: He had a grateful heart, ready to acknowledge
every favour he received, and he never forgot his old benefactors,
notwithstanding a long absence, new acquaintance, and additional
eminence; of which the following instance cannot be unacceptable to the
Some time before Mr. Thomson's fatal illness, a gentleman enquired for
him at his house in Kew-Lane, near Richmond, where he then lived. This
gentleman had been his acquaintance when very young, and proved to be
Dr. Gustard, the son of a revd. minister in the city of Edinburgh. Mr.
Gustard had been Mr. Thomson's patron in the early part of his life, and
contributed from his own purse (Mr. Thomson's father not being in very
affluent circumstances) to enable him to prosecute his studies. The
visitor sent not in his name, but only intimated to the servant that an
old acquaintance desired to see Mr. Thomson. Mr. Thomson came forward to
receive him, and looking stedfastly at him (for they had not seen one
another for many years) said, Troth Sir, I cannot say I ken your
countenance well--Let me therefore crave your name. Which the gentleman
no sooner mentioned but the tears gushed from Mr. Thomson's eyes. He
could only reply, good God! are you the son of my dear friend, my old
benefactor; and then rushing to his arms, he tenderly embraced him;
rejoicing at so unexpected a meeting.
It is a true observation, that whenever gratitude is absent from a
heart, it is generally capable of the most consummate baseness; and on
the other hand, where that generous virtue has a powerful prevalence in
the soul, the heart of such a man is fraught with all those other
endearing and tender qualities, which constitute goodness. Such was the
heart of this amiable poet, whose life was as inoffensive as his page
was moral: For of all our poets he is the farthest removed from whatever
has the appearance of indecency; and, as Sir George Lyttleton happily
expresses it, in the prologue to Mr. Thomson's Coriolanus,
--His chaste muse employ'd her heav'n-taught lyre
None but the noblest passions to inspire,
Not one immoral, one corrupted thought,
One line, which dying he could wish to blot.
See winter comes to rule the varied year,
Sullen and sad, with all his rising train!
Vapours, and storms, and clouds; be these my theme;
These that exalt the soul to solemn thought,
And heav'nly musing; welcome kindred glooms.
Congenial horrors hail!--with frequent foot
Oft have I in my pleasing calm of life,
When nurs'd by careless solitude I liv'd,
Oft have I wander'd thro' your rough domain;
Trod the pure virgin snows; my self as pure;
Heard the winds blow, or the big torrents burst,
Or seen the deep fermenting tempest brew'd
In the red evening sky. Thus pass'd the time,
'Till from the lucid chambers of the south
Look'd out the joyous spring, look'd out and smil'd.
 Mr. Mallet was his quondam schoolfellow (but much his junior) they
contracted an early intimacy, which improved with their years, nor
was it ever once disturbed by any casual mistake, envy, or jealousy
on either side: a proof that two writers of merit may agree, in
spite of the common observation to the contrary.
 The Winter was first wrote in detached pieces, or occasional
descriptions; it was by the advice of Mr. Mallet they were collected
and made into one connected piece. This was finished the first of
all the seasons, and was the first poem he published. By the farther
advice, and at the earnest request, of Mr. Mallet, he wrote the
other three seasons.
 Though 'tis possible this piece might be offered to more Printers
who could read, than could taste, nor is it very surprizing, that an
unknown author might meet with a difficulty of this sort; since an
eager desire to peruse a new piece, with a fashionable name to it,
shall, in one day, occasion the sale of thousands of what may never
reach a second edition: while a work, that has only its intrinsic
merit to depend on, may lie long dormant in a Bookseller's shop,
'till some person, eminent for taste, points out its worth to the
many, declares the bullion sterling, stamps its value with his name,
and makes it pass current with the world. Such was the fate of
Thomson at this juncture: Such heretofore was Milton's, whose works
were only found in the libraries of the curious, or judicious few,
'till Addison's remarks spread a taste for them; and, at length, it
became even unfashionable not to have read them.
 The old name of China.
 Mr. Quin.
 The mention of this name reminds me of an obligation I had to Mr.
Thomson; and, at once, an opportunity offers, of gratefully
acknowledging the favour, and doing myself justice.
I had the pleasure of perusing the play of Agamemnon, before it was
introduced to the manager. Mr. Thomson was so thoroughly satisfied
(I might say more) with my reading of it; he said, he was confirmed
in his design of giving to me the part of Melisander. When I
expressed my sentiments of the favour, he told me, he thought it
none; that my old acquaintance Savage knew, he had not forgot my
taste in reading the poem of Winter some years before: he added,
that when (before this meeting) he had expressed his doubt, to which
of the actors he should give this part (as he had seen but few plays
since his return from abroad) Savage warmly urged, I was the fittest
person, and, with an oath affirmed, that Theo. Cibber would taste
it, feel it, and act it; perhaps he might extravagantly add, 'beyond
any one else.' 'Tis likely, Mr. Savage might be then more vehement
in this assertion, as some of his friends had been more used to see
me in a comic, than a serious light; and which was, indeed, more
frequently my choice. But to go on. When I read the play to the
manager, Mr. Quin, &c. (at which several gentlemen, intimate friends
of the author, were present) I was complimented by them all; Mr.
Quin particularly declared, he never heard a play done so much
justice to, in reading, through all its various parts, Mrs. Porter
also (who on this occasion was to appear in the character of
Clytemnestra) so much approved my entering into the taste, sense,
and spirit of the piece, that she was pleased to desire me to repeat
a reading of it, which, at her request, and that of other principal
performers, I often did; they all confessed their approbation, with
When this play was to come forward into rehearsal, Mr. Thomson told
me, another actor had been recommended to him for this part in
private, by the manager (who, by the way) our author, or any one
else, never esteemed as the best judge, of either play, or player.
But money may purchase, and interest procure, a patent, though they
cannot purchase taste, or parts, the person proposed was, possibly,
some favoured flatterer, the partner of his private pleasures, or
humble admirer of his table talk: These little monarchs have their
little courtiers. Mr. Thomson insisted on my keeping the part. He
said, 'Twas his opinion, none but myself, or Mr. Quin, could do it
any justice; and, as that excellent actor could not be spared from
the part of Agamemnon (in the performance of which character he
added to his reputation, though before justly rated as the first
actor of that time) he was peremptory for my appearing in it; I did
so, and acquitted myself to the satisfaction of the author and his
friends (men eminent in rank, in taste, and knowledge) and received
testimonies of approbation from the audience, by their attention and
By this time the reader may be ready to cry out, 'to what purpose is
all this?' Have patience, sir. As I gained reputation in the
forementioned character, is there any crime in acknowledging my
obligation to Mr. Thomson? or, am I unpardonable, though I should
pride myself on his good opinion and friendship? may not gratitude,
as well as vanity, be concerned in this relation? but there is
another reason that may stand as an excuse, for my being led into
this long narrative; which, as it is only an annotation, not made
part of our author's life, the reader, at his option, may peruse, or
pass it over, without being interrupted in his attention to what
more immediately concerns Mr. Thomson. As what I have related is a
truth, which living men of worth can testify; and as it evidently
shows that Mr. Savage's opinion of me as an actor was, in this
latter part of his life, far from contemptible, of which, perhaps,
in his earlier days he had too lavishly spoke; I thought this no
improper (nor ill-timed) contradiction to a remark the writer of[7A]
Mr. Savage's Life has been pleased, in his Gaite de Coeur, to make,
which almost amounts to an unhandsome innuendo, that Mr. Savage, and
some of his friends, thought me no actor at all.
I accidentally met with the book some years ago, and dipt into that
part where the author says, 'The preface (to Sir Thomas Overbury)
contains a very liberal encomium on the blooming excellences of Mr.
Theophilus Cibber, which Mr. Savage could not, in the latter part of
his life, see his friends about to read, without snatching the play
out of their hands.' As poor Savage was well remembered to have been
as inconsiderate, inconsistent, and inconstant a mortal as ever
existed, what he might have said carried but little weight; and, as
he would blow both hot and cold, nay, too frequently, to gratify the
company present, would sacrifice the absent, though his best friend,
I disregarded this invidious hint, 'till I was lately informed, a
person of distinction in the learned world, had condescended to
become the biographer of this unhappy man's unimportant life: as the
sanction of such a name might prove of prejudice to me, I have since
thought it worth my notice.
The truth is, I met Savage one summer, in a condition too melancholy
for description. He was starving; I supported him, and my father
cloathed him, 'till his tragedy was brought on the stage, where it
met with success in the representation, tho' acted by the young part
of the company, in the summer season; whatever might be the merit of
his play, his necessities were too pressing to wait 'till winter for
its performance. When it was just going to be published (as I met
with uncommon encouragement in my young attempt in the part of
Somerset) he repeated to me a most extraordinary compliment, as he
might then think it, which, he said, he intended to make me in his
preface. Neither my youth (for I was then but 18) or vanity, was so
devoid of judgment, as to prevent my objecting to it. I told him, I
imagined this extravagancy would have so contrary an effect to his
intention, that what he kindly meant for praise, might be
misinterpreted, or render him liable to censure, and me to ridicule;
I insisted on his omitting it: contrary to his usual obstinacy, he
consented, and sent his orders to the Printer to leave it out; it
was too late; the sheets were all work'd off, and the play was
advertised to come out (as it did) the next day. T.C.
[7A] _Published about the year_ 1743.
* * * * *
ALEXANDER POPE, Esq;
This illustrious poet was born at London, in 1688, and was descended
from a good family of that name, in Oxfordshire, the head of which was
the earl of Downe, whose sole heiress married the earl of Lindsey. His
father, a man of primitive simplicity, and integrity of manners, was a
merchant of London, who upon the Revolution quitted trade, and converted
his effects into money, amounting to near 10,000 l. with which he
retired into the country; and died in 1717, at the age of 75.
Our poet's mother, who lived to a very advanced age, being 93 years old
when she died, in 1733, was the daughter of William Turner, Esq; of
York. She had three brothers, one of whom was killed, another died in
the service of king Charles; and the eldest following his fortunes, and
becoming a general officer in Spain, left her what estate remained after
sequestration, and forfeitures of her family. To these circumstances our
poet alludes in his epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, in which he mentions his
Of gentle blood (part shed in honour's cause,
While yet in Britain, honour had applause)
Each parent sprang,--What fortune pray?--their own,
And better got than Bestia's from the throne.
Born to no pride, inheriting no strife,
Nor marrying discord in a noble wife;
Stranger to civil and religious rage,
The good man walked innoxious thro' his age:
No courts he saw; no suits would ever try;
Nor dar'd an oath, nor hazarded a lye:
Unlearn'd, he knew no schoolmen's subtle art,
No language, but the language of the heart:
By nature honest, by experience wise,
Healthy by temp'rance, and by exercise;
His life though long, to sickness past unknown,
His death was instant and without a groan.
The education of our great author was attended with circumstances very
singular; and some of them extremely unfavourable; but the amazing force
of his genius fully compensated the want of any advantage in his
earliest instruction. He owed the knowledge of his letters to an aunt;
and having learned very early to read, took great delight in it, and
taught himself to write by copying after printed books, the characters
of which he could imitate to great perfection. He began to compose
verses, farther back than he could well remember; and at eight years of
age, when he was put under one Taverner a priest, who taught him the
rudiments of the Latin and Greek tongues at the same time, he met with
Ogilby's Homer, which gave him great delight; and this was encreased by
Sandys's Ovid: The raptures which these authors, even in the disguise of
such translations, then yielded him, were so strong, that he spoke of
them with pleasure ever after. From Mr. Taverner's tuition he was sent
to a private school at Twiford, near Winchester, where he continued
about a year, and was then removed to another near Hyde Park Corner; but
was so unfortunate as to lose under his two last masters, what he had
acquired under the first.
While he remained at this school, being permitted to go to the
play-house, with some of his school fellows of a more advanced age, he
was so charmed with dramatic representations, that he formed the
translation of the Iliad into a play, from several of the speeches in
Ogilby's translation, connected with verses of his own; and the several
parts were performed by the upper boys of the school, except that of
Ajax by the master's gardener. At the age of 12 our young poet, went
with his father to reside at his house at Binfield, in Windsor forest,
where he was for a few months under the tuition of another priest, with
as little success as before; so that he resolved now to become his own
master, by reading those Classic Writers which gave him most
entertainment; and by this method, at fifteen he gained a ready habit in
the learned languages, to which he soon after added the French and
Italian. Upon his retreat to the forest, he became first acquainted with
the writings of Waller, Spenser and Dryden; in the last of which he
immediately found what he wanted; and the poems of that excellent writer
were never out of his hands; they became his model, and from them alone
he learned the whole magic of his versification.
The first of our author's compositions now extant in print, is an Ode on
Solitude, written before he was twelve years old: Which, consider'd as
the production of so early an age, is a perfect master piece; nor need
he have been ashamed of it, had it been written in the meridian of his
genius. While it breathes the most delicate spirit of poetry, it at the
same time demonstrates his love of solitude, and the rational pleasures
which attend the retreats of a contented country life.
Two years after this he translated the first Book of Statius' Thebais,
and wrote a copy of verses on Silence, in imitation of the Earl of
Rochester's poem on Nothing. Thus we find him no sooner capable of
holding the pen, than he employed it in writing verses,
"_He lisp'd [Transcriber's note: 'lips'd' in original] in Numbers, for
the Numbers came_."
Though we have had frequent opportunity to observe, that poets have
given early displays of genius, yet we cannot recollect, that among the
inspired tribe, one can be found who at the age of twelve could produce
so animated an Ode; or at the age of fourteen translate from the Latin.
It has been reported indeed, concerning Mr. Dryden, that when he was at
Westminster-School, the master who had assigned a poetical task to some
of the boys, of writing a Paraphrase on our Saviour's Miracle, of
turning Water into Wine, was perfectly astonished when young Dryden
presented him with the following line, which he asserted was the best
comment could be written upon it.
The conscious water saw its God, and blush'd.
This was the only instance of an early appearance of genius in this
great man, for he was turn'd of 30 before he acquired any reputation; an
age in which Mr. Pope's was in its full distinction.
The year following that in which Mr. Pope wrote his poem on Silence, he
began an Epic Poem, intitled Alcander, which he afterwards very
judiciously committed to the flames, as he did likewise a Comedy, and a
Tragedy; the latter taken from a story in the legend of St. Genevieve;
both of these being the product of those early days. But his Pastorals,
which were written in 1704, when he was only 16 years of age, were
esteemed by Sir William Trumbull, Mr. Granville, Mr. Wycherley, Mr.
Walsh and others of his friends, too valuable to be condemned to the
Mr. Pope's Pastorals are four, viz.
Spring, address'd to Sir William Trumbull,
Summer, to Dr. Garth.
Autumn, to Mr. Wycherley.
Winter, in memory of Mrs. Tempest.
The three great writers of Pastoral Dialogue, which Mr. Pope in some
measure seems to imitate, are Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser. Mr. Pope
is of opinion, that Theocritus excells all others in nature and
That Virgil, who copies Theocritus, refines on his original; and in all
points in which judgment has the principal part is much superior to his
That among the moderns, their success has been, greatest who have most
endeavoured to make these antients their pattern. The most considerable
genius appears in the famous Tasso, and our Spenser. Tasso in his Aminta
has far excelled all the pastoral writers, as in his Gierusalemme he has
outdone the Epic Poets of his own country. But as this piece seems to
have been the original of a new sort of poem, the Pastoral Comedy, in
Italy, it cannot so well be considered as a copy of the antients.
Spenser's Calendar, in Mr. Dryden's opinion, is the most compleat work
of this kind, which any nation has produced ever since the time of
Virgil. But this he said before Mr. Pope's Pastorals appeared.
Mr. Walsh pronounces on our Shepherd's Boy (as Mr. Pope called himself)
the following judgment, in a letter to Mr. Wycherly.
'The verses are very tender and easy. The author seems to have a
particular genius for that kind of poetry, and a judgment that much
exceeds the years, you told me he was of. It is no flattery at all to
say, that Virgil had written nothing so good at his age. I shall take it
as a favour if you will bring me acquainted with him; and if he will
give himself the trouble, any morning, to call at my house, I shall be
very glad to read the verses with him, and give him him my opinion of
the particulars more largely than I can well do in this letter.'
Thus early was Mr. Pope introduced to the acquaintance of men of genius,
and so improved every advantage, that he made a more rapid progress
towards a consummation in fame, than any of our former English poets.
His Messiah; his Windsor-Forest, the first part of which was written at
the same time with his pastorals; his Essay on Criticism in 1709, and
his Rape of the Lock in 1712, established his poetical character in such
a manner, that he was called upon by the public voice, to enrich our
language with the translation of the Iliad; which he began at 25, and
executed in five years. This was published for his own benefit, by
subscription, the only kind of reward, which he received for his
writings, which do honour to our age and country: His religion rendering
him incapable of a place, which the lord treasurer Oxford used to
express his concern for, but without offering him a pension, as the earl
of Halifax, and Mr. Secretary Craggs afterwards did, though Mr. Pope
The reputation of Mr. Pope gaining every day upon the world, he was
caressed, flattered, and railed at; according as he was feared, or loved
by different persons. Mr. Wycherley was amongst the first authors of
established reputation, who contributed to advance his fame, and with
whom he for some time lived in the most unreserved intimacy. This poet,
in his old age, conceived a design of publishing his poems, and as he
was but a very imperfect master of numbers, he entrusted his manuscripts
to Mr. Pope, and submitted them to his correction. The freedom which our
young bard was under a necessity to use, in order to polish and refine
what was in the original, rough, unharmonious, and indelicate, proved
disgustful to the old gentleman, then near 70, who, perhaps, was a
little ashamed, that a boy at 16 should so severely correct his works.
Letters of dissatisfaction were written by Mr. Wycherley, and at last he
informed him, in few words, that he was going out of town, without
mentioning to what place, and did not expect to hear from him 'till he
came back. This cold indifference extorted from Mr. Pope a protestation,
that nothing should induce him ever to write to him again.
Notwithstanding this peevish behaviour of Mr. Wycherley, occasioned by
jealousy and infirmities, Mr. Pope preserved a constant respect and
reverence for him while he lived, and after his death lamented him. In a
letter to Edward Blount, esq; written immediately upon the death of this
poet, he has there related some anecdotes of Wycherly, which we shall
insert here, especially as they are not taken notice of in his life.
'I know of nothing that will be so interesting to you, at present, as
some circumstances of the last act of that eminent comic poet, and our
friend, Wycherley. He had often told me, as, I doubt not, he did all his
acquaintance, that he would marry, as soon as his life was despaired of:
accordingly, a few days before his death, he underwent the ceremony, and
joined together those two sacraments, which, wise men say, should be the
last we receive; for, if you observe, matrimony is placed after extreme
unction in our catechism, as a kind of hint of the order of time in
which they are to be taken. The old man then lay down, satisfied in the
conscience of having, by this one act, paid his just debts, obliged a
woman, who, he was told, had merit, and shewn a heroic resentment of
the ill usage of his next heir. Some hundred pounds which he had with
the lady, discharged those debts; a jointure of four hundred a year made
her a recompence; and the nephew he left to comfort himself, as well as
he could, with the miserable remains of a mortgaged estate. I saw our
friend twice after this was done, less peevish in his sickness, than he
used to be in his health, neither much afraid of dying, nor (which in
him had been more likely) much ashamed of marrying. The evening before
he expired, he called his young wife to the bed side, and earnestly
entreated her not to deny him one request, the last he should ever make.
Upon her assurance of consenting to it, he told her, my dear, it is only
this, that you will never marry an old man again. I cannot help
remarking, that sickness, which often destroys both wit and wisdom, yet
seldom has power to remove that talent we call humour. Mr. Wycherley
shewed this even in this last compliment, though, I think, his request a
little hard; for why should he bar her from doubling her jointure on the
same easy terms.'
One of the most affecting and tender compositions of Mr. Pope, is, his
Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, built on a true story. We
are informed in the Life of Pope, for which Curl obtained a patent, that
this young lady was a particular favourite of the poet, though it is not
ascertained whether he himself was the person from whom she was removed.
This young lady was of very high birth, possessed an opulent fortune,
and under the tutorage of an uncle, who gave her an education suitable
to her titles and pretensions. She was esteemed a match for the greatest
peer in the realm, but, in her early years, she suffered her heart to be
engaged by a young gentleman, and in consequence of this attachment,
rejected offers made to her by persons of quality, seconded by the
sollicitations of her uncle. Her guardian being surprized at this
behaviour, set spies upon her, to find out the real cause of her
indifference. Her correspondence with her lover was soon discovered,
and, when urged upon that topic, she had too much truth and honour to
deny it. The uncle finding, that she would make no efforts to disengage
her affection, after a little time forced her abroad, where she was
received with a ceremony due to her quality, but restricted from the
conversation of every one, but the spies of this severe guardian, so
that it was impossible for her lover even to have a letter delivered to
her hands. She languished in this place a considerable time, bore an
infinite deal of sickness, and was overwhelmed with the profoundest
sorrow. Nature being wearied out with continual distress, and being
driven at last to despair, the unfortunate lady, as Mr. Pope justly
calls her, put an end to her own life, having bribed a maid servant to
procure her a sword. She was found upon the ground weltering in her
blood. The severity of the laws of the place, where this fair
unfortunate perished, denied her Christian burial, and she was interred
without solemnity, or even any attendants to perform the last offices of
the dead, except some young people of the neighbourhood, who saw her put
into common ground, and strewed the grave with flowers.
The poet in the elegy takes occasion to mingle with the tears of sorrow,
just reproaches upon her cruel uncle, who drove her to this violation.
But thou, false guardian of a charge too good,
Thou base betrayer of a brother's blood!
See on those ruby lips the trembling breath,
Those cheeks now fading at the blast of death:
Lifeless the breast, which warm'd the world before,
And those love-darting eyes must roll no more.
The conclusion of this elegy is irresistably affecting.
So peaceful rests, without a stone, a name,
Which once had beauty, titles, wealth and fame,
How lov'd, how honoured once, avails thee not,
To whom related, or by whom begot;
A heap of dust alone remains of thee;
'Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be!
No poem of our author's more deservedly obtained him reputation, than
his Essay on Criticism. Mr. Addison, in his Spectator, No. 253, has
celebrated it with such profuse terms of admiration, that it is really
astonishing, to find the same man endeavouring afterwards to diminish
that fame he had contributed to raise so high.
The art of criticism (says he) which was published some months ago, is a
master-piece in its kind. The observations follow one another, like
those in Horace's Art of Poetry, without that methodical regularity,
which would have been requisite in a prose writer. They are some of them
uncommon, but such as the reader must assent to, when he sees them
explained with that elegance and perspicuity in which they are
delivered. As for those which are the most known, and the most received,
they are placed in so beautiful a light, and illustrated with such apt
allusions, that they have in them all the graces of novelty, and make
the reader, who was before acquainted with them, still more convinced of
their truth and solidity. And here give me leave to mention, what
Monsieur Boileau has so well enlarged upon, in the preface to his works;
that wit and fine writing do not consist so much in advancing things
that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn. It
is impossible for us, who live in the latter ages of the world, to make
observations in criticism, morality, or any art and science, which have
not been touched upon by others. We have little else left us, but to
represent the common sense of mankind in more strong, more beautiful, or
more uncommon lights. If a reader examines Horace's Art of Poetry, he
will find but few precepts in it, which he may not meet with in
Aristotle, and which were not commonly known by all the poets of the
Augustan age. His way of expressing, and applying them, not his
invention of them, is what we are chiefly to admire.--
"Longinus, in his Reflexions, has given us the same kind of sublime,
which he observes in the several passages which occasioned them. I
cannot but take notice, that our English author has, after the same
manner, exemplified several of his precepts, in the very precepts
themselves." He then produces some instances of a particular kind of
beauty in the numbers, and concludes with saying, that "we have three
poems in our tongue of the same nature, and each a master-piece in its
kind: The Essay on Translated Verse, the Essay on the Art of Poetry, and
the Essay on Criticism." [Transcriber's note: Opening quotes missing in
In the Lives of Addison and Tickell, we have thrown out some general
hints concerning the quarrel which subsisted between our poet and the
former of these gentlemen; here it will not be improper to give a more
particular account of it.
The author of Mist's Journal positively asserts, 'that Mr. Addison
raised Pope from obscurity, obtained him the acquaintance and friendship
of the whole body of our nobility, and transferred his powerful
influence with those great men to this rising bard, who frequently
levied by that means, unusual contributions on the public.[Transcriber's
note: 'pubic' in original.] No sooner was his body lifeless, but this
author reviving his resentment, libelled the memory of his departed
friend, and what was still more heinous, made the scandal public.'
When this charge of ingratitude and dishonour was published against Mr.
Pope, to acquit himself of it, he called upon any nobleman, whose
friendship, or any one gentleman, whose subscription Mr. Addison had
procured to our author, to stand forth, and declare it, that truth might
appear. But the whole libel was proved a malicious story, by many
persons of distinction, who, several years before Mr. Addison's decease,
approved those verses denominated a libel, but which were, 'tis said, a
friendly rebuke, sent privately in our author's own hand, to Mr. Addison
himself, and never made public, 'till by Curl in his Miscellanies, 12mo.
1727. The lines indeed are elegantly satirical, and, in the opinion of
many unprejudiced judges, who had opportunities of knowing the character
of Mr. Addison, are no ill representation of him. Speaking of the
poetical triflers of the times, who had declared against him, he makes a
sudden transition to Addison.
Peace to all such! But were there one whose fires
True genius kindles, and fair fame inspires,
Blest with each talent, and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease;
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no rival near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts, that caus'd himself to rise;
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, others teach to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserv'd to blame or to commend,
A tim'rous foe, and a suspicious friend;
Dreading even fools; by flatt'rers besieg'd;
And so obliging, that he ne'er oblig'd.
Like Cato give his little senate laws,
[Transcriber's note: 'litttle' in original]
And sit attentive to his own applause;
While Wits and Templars ev'ry sentence raise,
And wonder with a foolish face of praise.
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be!
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he!
Some readers may think these lines severe, but the treatment he received
from Mr. Addison, was more than sufficient to justify them, which will
appear when we particularize an interview between these two poetical
antagonists, procured by the warm sollicitations of Sir Richard Steele,
who was present at it, as well as Mr. Gay.
Mr. Jervas being one day in company with Mr. Addison, the conversation
turned upon Mr. Pope, for whom Addison, at that time, expressed the
highest regard, and assured Mr. Jervas, that he would make use not only
of his interest, but of his art likewise, to do Mr. Pope service; he
then said, he did not mean his art of poetry, but his art at court, and
protested, notwithstanding many insinuations were spread, that it shall
not be his fault, if there was not the best understanding and
intelligence between them. He observed, that Dr. Swift might have
carried him too far among the enemy, during the animosity, but now all
was safe, and Mr. Pope, in his opinion, was escaped. When Mr. Jervas
communicated this conversation to Mr. Pope, he made this reply: 'The
friendly office you endeavour to do between Mr. Addison and me deserves
acknowledgments on my part. You thoroughly know my regard to his
character, and my readiness to testify it by all ways in my power; you
also thoroughly knew the meanness of that proceeding of Mr. Phillips, to
make a man I so highly value suspect my disposition towards him. But as,
after all, Mr. Addison must be judge in what regards himself, and as he
has seemed not to be a very just one to me, so I must own to you, I
expect nothing but civility from him, how much soever I wish for his
friendship; and as for any offers of real kindness or service which it
is in his power to do me, I should be ashamed to receive them from a
man, who has no better opinion of my morals, than to think me a party
man, nor of my temper, than to believe me capable of maligning, or
envying another's reputation as a poet. In a word, Mr. Addison is sure
of my respect at all times, and of my real friendship, whenever he shall
think fit to know me for what I am.'
Some years after this conversation, at the desire of Sir Richard Steele,
they met. At first, a very cold civility, and nothing else appeared on
either side, for Mr. Addison had a natural reserve and gloom at the
beginning of an evening, which, by conversation and a glass, brightened
into an easy chearfulness. Sir Richard Steele, who was a most social
benevolent man, begged of him to fulfill his promise, in dropping all
animosity against Mr. Pope. Mr. Pope then desired to be made sensible
how he had offended; and observed, that the translation of Homer, if
that was the great crime, was undertaken at the request, and almost at
the command of Sir Richard Steele. He entreated Mr. Addison to speak
candidly and freely, though it might be with ever so much severity,
rather than by keeping up forms of complaisance, conceal any of his
faults. This Mr. Pope spoke in such a manner as plainly indicated he
thought Mr. Addison the aggressor, and expected him to condescend, and
own himself the cause of the breach between them. But he was
disappointed; for Mr. Addison, without appearing to be angry, was quite
overcome with it. He began with declaring, that he always had wished him
well, had often endeavoured to be his friend, and in that light advised
him, if his nature was capable of it, to divert himself of part of his
vanity, which was too great for his merit; that he had not arrived yet
to that pitch of excellence he might imagine, or think his most partial
readers imagined; that when he and Sir Richard Steele corrected his
verses, they had a different air; reminding Mr. Pope of the amendment
(by Sir Richard) of a line, in the poem called The MESSIAH.
He wipes the tears for ever from our eyes.
Which is taken from the prophet Isaiah,
The Lord God will wipe all tears from off all faces.
From every face he wipes off ev'ry tear.
And it stands so altered in the newer editions of Mr. Pope's works. He
proceeded to lay before him all the mistakes and inaccuracies hinted at
by the writers, who had attacked Mr. Pope, and added many things, which
he himself objected to. Speaking of his translation in general, he said,
that he was not to be blamed for endeavouring to get so large a sum of
money, but that it was an ill-executed thing, and not equal to Tickell,
which had all the spirit of Homer. Mr. Addison concluded, in a low
hollow voice of feigned temper, that he was not sollicitous about his
own fame as a poet; that he had quitted the muses to enter into the
business of the public, and that all he spoke was through friendship to
Mr. Pope, whom he advised to have a less exalted sense of his own merit.
Mr. Pope could not well bear such repeated reproaches, but boldly told
Mr. Addison, that he appealed from his judgment to the public, and that
he had long known him too well to expect any friendship from him;
upbraided him with being a pensioner from his youth, sacrificing the
very learning purchased by the public money, to a mean thirst of power;
that he was sent abroad to encourage literature, in place of which he
had always endeavoured to suppress merit. At last, the contest grew so
warm, that they parted without any ceremony, and Mr. Pope upon this
wrote the foregoing verses, which are esteemed too true a picture of Mr.
In this account, and, indeed, in all other accounts, which have been
given concerning this quarrel, it does not appear that Mr. Pope was the
aggressor. If Mr. Addison entertained suspicions of Mr. Pope's being
carried too far among the enemy, the danger was certainly Mr. Pope's,
and not Mr. Addison's. It was his misfortune, and not his crime. If Mr.
Addison should think himself capable of becoming a rival to Mr. Pope,
and, in consequence of this opinion, publish a translation of part of
Homer; at the same time with Mr. Pope's, and if the public should decide
in favour of the latter by reading his translation, and neglecting the
other, can any fault be imputed to Mr. Pope? could he be blamed for
exerting all his abilities in so arduous a province? and was it his
fault that Mr. Addison (for the first book of Homer was undoubtedly his)
could not translate to please the public? Besides, was it not somewhat
presumptuous to insinuate to Mr. Pope, that his verses bore another face
when he corrected them, while, at the same time, the translation of
Homer, which he had never seen in manuscript, bore away the palm from
that very translation, he himself asserted was done in the true spirit
of Homer? In matters of genius the public judgment seldom errs, and in
this case posterity has confirmed the sentence of that age, which gave
the preference to Mr. Pope; for his translation is in the hands of all
readers of taste, while the other is seldom regarded but as a soil to
It would appear as if Mr. Addison were himself so immersed in party
business, as to contrast his benevolence to the limits of a faction:
Which was infinitely beneath the views of a philosopher, and the rules
which that excellent writer himself established. If this was the failing
of Mr. Addison, it was not the error of Pope, for he kept the strictest
correspondence with some persons, whose affections to the Whig-interest
were suspected, yet was his name never called in question. While he was
in favour with the duke of Buckingham, the lords Bolingbroke, Oxford,
and Harcourt, Dr. Swift, and Mr. Prior, he did not drop his
correspondence with the lord Hallifax, Mr. Craggs, and most of those who
were at the head of the Whig interest. A professed Jacobite one day
remonstrated to Mr. Pope, that the people of his party took it ill that
he should write with Mr. Steele upon ever so indifferent a subject; at
which he could not help smiling, and observed, that he hated narrowness
of soul in any party; and that if he renounced his reason in religious
matters, he should hardly do it on any other, and that he could pray not
only for opposite parties, but even for opposite religions. Mr. Pope
considered himself as a citizen of the world, and was therefore obliged
to pray for the prosperity of mankind in general. As a son of Britain he
wished those councils might be suffered by providence to prevail, which
were most for the interest of his native country: But as politics was
not his study, he could not always determine, at least, with any degree
of certainty, whose councils were best; and had charity enough to
believe, that contending parties might mean well. As taste and science
are confined to no country, so ought they not to be excluded from any
party, and Mr. Pope had an unexceptionable right to live upon terms of
the strictest friendship with every man of parts, to which party soever
he might belong. Mr. Pope's uprightness in his conduct towards
contending politicians, is demonstrated by his living independent of
either faction. He accepted no place, and had too high a spirit to
become a pensioner.
Many effects however were made to proselyte him from the Popish faith,
which all proved ineffectual. His friends conceived hopes from the
moderation which he on all occasions expressed, that he was really a
Protestant in his heart, and that upon the death of his mother, he would
not scruple to declare his sentiments, notwithstanding the reproaches he
might incur from the Popish party, and the public observation it would
draw upon him. The bishop of Rochester strongly advised him to read the
controverted points between the Protestant and the Catholic church, to
suffer his unprejudiced reason to determine for him, and he made no
doubt, but a separation from the Romish communion would soon ensue. To
this Mr. Pope very candidly answered, 'Whether the change would be to my
spiritual advantage, God only knows: This I know, that I mean as well in
the religion I now profess, as ever I can do in any other. Can a man who
thinks so, justify a change, even if he thought both equally good? To
such an one, the part of joining with any one body of Christians might
perhaps be easy, but I think it would not be so to renounce the other.
'Your lordship has formerly advised me to read the best controversies
between the churches. Shall I tell you a secret? I did so at 14 years
old (for I loved reading, and my father had no other books) there was a
collection of all that had been written on both sides, in the reign of
King James II. I warmed my head with them, and the consequence was, I
found myself a Papist, or a Protestant by turns, according to the last
book I read. I am afraid most seekers are in the same case, and when
they stop, they are not so properly converted, as outwitted. You see how
little glory you would gain by my conversion: and after all, I verily
believe, your lordship and I are both of the same religion, if we were
thoroughly understood by one another, and that all honest and reasonable
Christians would be so, if they did but talk enough together every day,
and had nothing to do together but to serve God, and live in peace with
"As to the temporal side of the question, I can have no dispute with
you; it is certain, all the beneficial circumstances of life, and all
the shining ones, lie on the part you would invite me to. But if I could
bring myself to fancy, what I think you do but fancy, that I have any
talents for active life, I want health for it; and besides it is a real
truth. I have, if possible, less inclination, than ability.
Contemplative life is not only my scene, but is my habit too. I begun my
life where most people end theirs, with all that the world calls
ambition. I don't know why it is called so, for, to me, it always seemed
to be stooping, or climbing. I'll tell you my politic and religious
sentiments in a few words. In my politics, I think no farther, than how
to preserve my peace of life, in any government under which I live; nor
in my religion, than to preserve the peace of my conscience, in any
church with which I communicate. I hope all churches, and all
governments are so far of God, as they are rightly understood, and
rightly administered; and where they are, or may be wrong, I leave it to
God alone to mend, or reform them, which, whenever he does, it must be
by greater instruments than I am. I am not a Papist, for I renounce the
temporal invasions of the papal power, and detest their arrogated
authority over Princes and States. I am a Catholic in the strictest
sense of the word. If I was born under an absolute Prince, I would be a
quiet subject; but, I thank God, I was not. I have a due sense of the
excellence of the British constitution. In a word, the things I have
always wished to see, are not a Roman Catholic, or a French Catholic, or
a Spanish Catholic, but a True Catholic; and not a King of Whigs, or
[Transcriber's note: repeated 'or' removed] a King of Tories, but a King
These are the peaceful maxims upon which we find Mr. Pope conducted his
life, and if they cannot in some respects be justified, yet it must be
owned, that his religion and his politics were well enough adapted for a
poet, which entitled him to a kind of universal patronage, and to make
every good man his friend.
Dean Swift sometimes wrote to Mr. Pope on the topic of changing his
religion, and once humorously offered him twenty pounds for that
purpose. Mr. Pope's answer to this, lord Orrery has obliged the world by
preserving in the life of Swift. It is a perfect master-piece of wit and
We have already taken notice, that Mr. Pope was called upon by the
public voice to translate the Iliad, which he performed with so much
applause, and at the same time, with so much profit to himself, that he
was envied by many writers, whose vanity perhaps induced them to believe
themselves equal to so great a design. A combination of inferior wits
were employed to write The Popiad, in which his translation is
characterized, as unjust to the original, without beauty of language, or
variety of numbers. Instead of the justness of the original, they say
there is absurdity and extravagance. Instead of the beautiful language
of the original, there is solecism and barbarous English. A candid
reader may easily discern from this furious introduction, that the
critics were actuated rather by malice than truth, and that they must
judge with their eyes shut, who can see no beauty of language, no
harmony of numbers in this translation.
But the most formidable critic against Mr. Pope in this great
undertaking, was the celebrated Madam Dacier, whom Mr. Pope treated with
less ceremony in his Notes on the Iliad, than, in the opinion of some
people, was due to her sex. This learned lady was not without a sense of
the injury, and took an opportunity of discovering her resentment.
"Upon finishing (says she) the second edition of my translation of
Homer, a particular friend sent me a translation of part of Mr. Pope's
preface to his Version of the Iliad. As I do not understand English, I
cannot form any judgment of his performance, though I have heard much of
it. I am indeed willing to believe, that the praises it has met with are
not unmerited, because whatever work is approved by the English nation,
cannot be bad; but yet I hope I may be permitted to judge of that part
of the preface, which has been transmitted to me, and I here take the
liberty of giving my sentiments concerning it. I must freely acknowledge
that Mr. Pope's invention is very lively, though he seems to have been
guilty of the same fault into which he owns we are often precipitated by
our invention, when we depend too much upon the strength of it; as
magnanimity (says he) may run up to confusion and extravagance, so may
great invention to redundancy and wildness.
"This has been the very case of Mr. Pope himself; nothing is more
overstrained, or more false than the images in which his fancy has
represented Homer; sometimes he tells us, that the Iliad is a wild
paradise, where, if we cannot see all the beauties, as in an ordered
garden, it is only because the number of them is infinitely greater.
Sometimes he compares him to a copious nursery, which contains the seeds
and first productions of every kind; and, lastly, he represents him
under the notion of a mighty tree, which rises from the most vigorous
seed, is improved with industry, flourishes and produces the finest
fruit, but bears too many branches, which might be lopped into form, to
give it a more regular appearance.
"What! is Homer's poem then, according to Mr. Pope, a confused heap of
beauties, without order or symmetry, and a plot whereon nothing but
seeds, nor nothing perfect or formed is to be found; and a production
loaded with many unprofitable things which ought to be retrenched, and
which choak and disfigure those which deserve to be preserved? Mr. Pope
will pardon me if I here oppose those comparisons, which to me appear
very false, and entirely contrary to what the greatest of ancient, and
modern critics ever thought.
"The Iliad is so far from being a wild paradise, that it is the most
regular garden, and laid out with more symmetry than any ever was. Every
thing herein is not only in the place it ought to have been, but every
thing is fitted for the place it hath. He presents you at first with
that which ought to be first seen; he places in the middle what ought to
be in the middle, and what would be improperly placed at the beginning
or end, and he removes what ought to be at a greater distance, to create
the more agreeable surprize; and, to use a comparison drawn from
painting, he places that in the greatest light which cannot be too
visible, and sinks in the obscurity of the shade, what does not require
a full view; so that it may be said, that Homer is the Painter who best
knew how to employ the shades and lights. The second comparison is
equally unjust; how could Mr. Pope say, 'that one can only discover
seeds, and the first productions of every kind in the Iliad?' every
beauty is there to such an amazing perfection, that the following ages
could add nothing to those of any kind; and the ancients have always
proposed Homer, as the most perfect model in every kind of poetry.
"The third comparison is composed of the errors of the two former; Homer
had certainly an incomparable fertility of invention, but his fertility
is always checked by that just sense, which made him reject every
superfluous thing which his vast imagination could offer, and to retain
only what was necessary and useful. Judgment guided the hand of this
admirable gardener, and was the pruning hook he employed to lop off
every useless branch."
Thus far Madam Dacier differs in her opinion from Mr. Pope concerning
Homer; but these remarks which we have just quoted, partake not at all
of the nature of criticism; they are meer assertion. Pope had declared
Homer to abound with irregular beauties. Dacier has contradicted him,
and asserted, that all his beauties are regular, but no reason is
assigned by either of these mighty geniuses in support of their
opinions, and the reader is left in the dark, as to the real truth. If
he is to be guided by the authority of a name only, no doubt the
argument will preponderate in favour of our countryman. The French lady
then proceeds to answer some observations, which Mr. Pope made upon her
Remarks on the Iliad, which she performs with a warmth that generally
attends writers of her sex. Mr. Pope, however, paid more regard to this
fair antagonist, than any other critic upon his works. He confessed that
he had received great helps from her, and only thought she had (through
a prodigious, and almost superstitious, fondness for Homer) endeavoured
to make him appear without any fault, or weakness, and stamp a
perfection on his works, which is no where to be found. He wrote her a
very obliging letter, in which he confessed himself exceedingly sorry
that he ever should have displeased so excellent a wit, and she, on the
other hand, with a goodness and frankness peculiar to her, protested to
forgive it, so that there remained no animosities between those two
great admirers and translators of Homer.
Mr. Pope, by his successful translation of the Iliad, as we have before
remarked, drew upon him the envy and raillery of a whole tribe of
writers. Though he did not esteem any particular man amongst his enemies
of consequence enough to provoke an answer, yet when they were
considered collectively, they offered excellent materials for a general
satire. This satire he planned and executed with so extraordinary a
mastery, that it is by far the most compleat poem of our author's; it
discovers more invention, and a higher effort of genius, than any other
production of his. The hint was taken from Mr. Dryden's Mac Flecknoe,
but as it is more general, so it is more pleasing. The Dunciad is so
universally read, that we reckon it superfluous to give any further
account of it here; and it would be an unpleasing task to trace all the
provocations and resentments, which were mutually discovered upon this
occasion. Mr. Pope was of opinion, that next to praising good writers,
there was a merit in exposing bad ones, though it does not hold
infallibly true, that each person stigmatized as a dunce, was genuinely
so. Something must be allowed to personal resentment; Mr. Pope was a man
of keen passions; he felt an injury strongly, retained a long
remembrance of it, and could very pungently repay it. Some of the
gentlemen, however, who had been more severely lashed than the rest,
meditated a revenge, which redounds but little to their honour. They
either intended to chastize him corporally, or gave it out that they had
really done so, in order to bring shame upon Mr. Pope, which, if true,
could only bring shame upon themselves.
While Mr. Pope enjoyed any leisure from severer applications to study,
his friends were continually solliciting him to turn his thoughts
towards something that might be of lasting use to the world, and engage
no more in a war with dunces who were now effectually humbled. Our great
dramatic poet Shakespear had pass'd through several hands, some of whom
were very reasonably judged not to have understood any part of him
tolerably, much less were capable to correct or revise him.
The friends of Mr. Pope therefore strongly importuned him, to undertake
the whole of Shakespear's plays, and, if possible, by comparing all the
different copies now to be procured, restore him to his ancient purity.
To which our poet made this modest reply, that not having attempted any
thing in the Drama, it might in him be deemed too much presumption. To
which he was answered, that this did not require great knowledge of the
foundation and disposition of the drama, as that must stand as it was,
and Shakespear [Transcriber's note: 'Skakespear' in original] himself
had not always paid strict regard to the rules of it; but this was to
clear the scenes from the rubbish with which ignorant editors had filled
His proper business in this work was to render the text so clear as to
be generally understood, to free it from obscurities, and sometimes
gross absurdities, which now seem to appear in it, and to explain
doubtful and difficult passages of which there are great numbers. This
however was an arduous province, and how Mr. Pope has acquitted himself
in it has been differently determined: It is certain he never valued
himself upon that performance, nor was it a task in the least adapted to
his genius; for it seldom happens that a man of lively parts can undergo
the servile drudgery of collecting passages, in which more industry and
labour are necessary than persons of quick penetration generally have to
It has been the opinion of some critics, that Mr. Pope's talents were
not adapted for the drama, otherwise we cannot well account for his
neglecting the most gainful way of writing which poetry affords,
especially as his reputation was so high, that without much ceremony or
mortification, he might have had any piece of his brought upon the
stage. Mr. Pope was attentive to his own interest, and if he had not
either been conscious of his inability in that province, or too timid to
wish the popular approbation, he would certainly have attempted the
drama. Neither was he esteemed a very competent judge of what plays were
proper or improper for representation. He wrote several letters to the
manager of Drury-Lane Theatre, in favour of Thomson's Agamemnon, which
notwithstanding his approbation, Thomson's friends were obliged to
mutulate and shorten; and after all it proved a heavy play.--Though it
was generally allowed to have been one of the best acted plays that had
appeared for some years.
He was certainly concerned in the Comedy, which was published in Mr.
Gay's name, called Three Hours after Marriage, as well as Dr. Arbuthnot.
This illustrious triumvirate, though men of the most various parts, and
extensive understanding, yet were not able it seems to please the
people, tho' the principal parts were supported by the best actors in
that way on the stage. Dr. Arbuthnot and Mr. Pope were no doubt
solicitous to conceal their concern in it; but by a letter which Gay
wrote to Pope, published in Ayre's Memoirs, it appears evident (if
Ayre's authority may be depended on) that they, both assisted in the
'Too late I see, and confess myself mistaken in relation to the Comedy;
yet I do not think, had I followed your advice, and only introduced the
mummy, that the absence of the crocodile had saved it. I can't help
laughing myself (though the vulgar do not consider it was designed to
look ridiculous) to think how the poor monster and mummy were dashed at
their reception, and when the cry was loudest, I thought that if the
thing had been written by another, I should have deemed the town in some
measure mistaken; and as to your apprehension that this may do us future
injury, do not think of it; the Dr. has a more valuable name than can be
hurt by any thing of this nature; and your's is doubly safe. I will, if
any shame there be, take it all to myself, and indeed I ought, the
motion being first mine, and never heartily approved by you.'
Of all our poet's writings none were read with more general approbation
than his Ethic Epistles, or multiplied into more editions. Mr. Pope who
was a perfect oeconomist, secured to himself the profits arising from
his own works; he was never subjected to necessity, and therefore was
not to be imposed upon by the art or fraud of publishers.
But now approaches the period in which as he himself expressed it, he
stood in need of the generous tear he paid,
Posts themselves must fall like those they sung,
Deaf the prais'd ear, and mute the tuneful tongue.
Ev'n he whose soul now melts in mournful lays,
Shall shortly want the generous tear he pays.
Mr. Pope who had been always subjected to a variety of bodily
infirmities, finding his strength give way, began to think that his
days, which had been prolonged past his expectation, were drawing
towards a conclusion. However, he visited the Hot-Wells at Bristol,
where for some time there were small hopes of his recovery; but making
too free with purges he grew worse, and seemed desirous to draw nearer
home. A dropsy in the breast at last put a period to his life, at the
age of 56, on the 30th of May 1744, at his house at Twickenham, where he
was interred in the same grave with his father and mother.
Mr. Pope's behaviour in his last illness has been variously represented
to the world: Some have affirmed that it was timid and peevish; that
having been fixed in no particular system of faith, his mind was
wavering, and his temper broken and disturb'd. Others have asserted that
he was all chearfulness and resignation to the divine will: Which of
these opinions is true we cannot now determine; but if the former, it
must be regretted, that he, who had taught philosophy to others, should
himself be destitute of its assistance in the most critical moments of
The bulk of his fortune he bequeath'd to Mrs. Blount, with whom he lived
in the strictest friendship, and for whom he is said to have entertained
the warmest affection. His works, which are in the hands of every person
of true taste, and will last as long as our language will be understood,
render unnecessary all further remarks on his writings. He was equally
admired for the dignity and sublimity of his moral and philosophical
works, the vivacity of his satirical, the clearness and propriety of his
didactic, the richness and variety of his descriptive, and the elegance
of all, added to an harmony of versification and correctness of
sentiment and language, unknown to our former poets, and of which he has
set an example which will be an example or a reproach to his successors.
His prose-stile is as perfect in its kind as his poetic, and has all the
beauties proper for it, joined to an uncommon force and perspicuity.
Under the profession of the Roman-Catholic religion, to which he adhered
to the last, he maintained all the moderation and charity becoming the
most thorough and confident Protestant. His conversation was natural,
easy and agreeable, without any affectation of displaying his wit, or
obtruding his own judgment, even upon subjects of which he was so
eminently a master.
The moral character of our author, as it did not escape the lash of his
calumniators in his life; so have there been attempts since his death to
diminish his reputation. Lord Bolingbroke, whom Mr. Pope esteemed to
almost an enthusiastic degree of admiration, was the first to make this
attack. Not many years ago, the public were entertained with this
controversy immediately upon the publication of his lordship's Letters
on the Spirit of Patriotism, and the Idea of a Patriot King. Different
opinions have been offered, some to extenuate the fault of Mr. Pope, for
printing and mutilating these letters, without his lordship's knowledge;
others to blame him for it as the highest breach of friendship, and the
greatest mark of dishonour. It would exceed our proposed bounds to enter
into the merits of this controversy; the reader, no doubt, will find it
amply discussed in that account of the life of this great author, which
Mr. Warburton has promised the public.
This great man is allowed to have been one of the first rank amongst the
poets of our nation, and to acknowledge the superiority of none but
Shakespear, Milton, and Dryden. With the two former, it is unnatural to
compare him, as their province in writing is so very different. Pope has
never attempted the drama, nor published an Epic Poem, in which these
two distinguished genius's have so wonderfully succeeded. Though Pope's
genius was great, it was yet of so different a cast from Shakespear's,
and Milton's, that no comparison can be justly formed. But if this may
be said of the former two, it will by no means hold with respect to the
later, for between him and Dryden, there is a great similarity of
writing, and a very striking coincidence of genius. It will not perhaps
be unpleasing to our readers, if we pursue this comparison, and
endeavour to discover to whom the superiority is justly to be
attributed, and to which of them poetry owes the highest obligations.
When Dryden came into the world, he found poetry in a very imperfect
state; its numbers were unpolished; its cadences rough, and there was
nothing of harmony or mellifluence to give it a graceful of flow. In
this harsh, unmusical situation, Dryden found it (for the refinements of
Waller were but puerile and unsubstantial) he polished the rough
diamond, he taught it to shine, and connected beauty, elegance, and
strength, in all his poetical compositions. Though Dryden thus polished
our English numbers, and thus harmonized versification, it cannot be
said, that he carried his art to perfection. Much was yet left undone;
his lines with all their smoothness were often rambling, and expletives
were frequently introduced to compleat his measures. It was apparent
therefore that an additional harmony might still be given to our
numbers, and that cadences were yet capable of a more musical
modulation. To effect this purpose Mr. Pope arose, who with an ear
elegantly delicate, and the advantage of the finest genius, so
harmonized the English numbers, as to make them compleatly musical. His
numbers are likewise so minutely correct, that it would be difficult to
conceive how any of his lines can be altered to to advantage. He has
created a kind of mechanical versification; every line is alike; and
though they are sweetly musical, they want diversity, for he has not
studied so great a variety of pauses, and where the accents may be laid
gracefully. The structure of his verse is the best, and a line of his is
more musical than any other line can be made, by placing the accents
elsewhere; but we are not quite certain, whether the ear is not apt to
be soon cloy'd with this uniformity of elegance, this sameness of
harmony. It must be acknowledged however, that he has much improved upon
Dryden in the article of versification, and in that part of poetry is
greatly his superior. But though this must be acknowledged, perhaps it
will not necessarily follow that his genius was therefore superior.
The grand characteristic of a poet is his invention, the surest
distinction of a great genius. In Mr. Pope, nothing is so truly original
as his Rape of the Lock, nor discovers so much invention. In this kind
of mock-heroic, he is without a rival in our language, for Dryden has
written nothing of the kind. His other work which discovers invention,
fine designing, and admirable execution, is his Dunciad; which, tho'
built on Dryden's Mac Flecknoe, is yet so much superior, that in satiric
writing, the Palm must justly be yielded to him. In Mr. Dryden's Absalom
and Achitophel, there are indeed the most poignant strokes of satire,
and characters drawn with the most masterly touches; but this poem with
all its excellencies is much inferior to the Dunciad, though Dryden had
advantages which Mr. Pope had not; for Dryden's characters are men of
great eminence and figure in the state, while Pope has to expose men of
obscure birth and unimportant lives only distinguished from the herd of
mankind, by a glimmering of genius, which rendered the greatest part of
them more emphatically contemptible. Pope's was the hardest task, and he
has executed it with the greatest success. As Mr. Dryden must
undoubtedly have yielded to Pope in satyric writing, it is incumbent on
the partizans of Dryden to name another species of composition, in which
the former excells so as to throw the ballance again upon the side of
Dryden. This species is the Lyric, in which the warmest votaries of Pope
must certainly acknowledge, that he is much inferior; as an irrefutable
proof of this we need only compare Mr. Dryden's Ode on St. Cecilia's
Day, with Mr. Pope's; in which the disparity is so apparent, that we
know not if the most finished of Pope's compositions has discovered such
a variety and command of numbers.
It hath been generally acknowledged, that the Lyric is a more excellent
kind of writing than the Satiric; and consequently he who excells in the
most excellent species, must undoubtedly be esteemed the greatest poet.
--Mr. Pope has very happily succeeded in many of his occasional pieces,
such as Eloisa to Abelard, his Elegy on an unfortunate young Lady, and a
variety of other performances deservedly celebrated. To these may be
opposed Mr. Dryden's Fables, which though written in a very advanced
age, are yet the most perfect of his works. In these Fables there is
perhaps a greater variety than in Pope's occasional pieces: Many of them
indeed are translations, but such as are original shew a great extent of
invention, and a large compass of genius.
There are not in Pope's works such poignant discoveries of wit, or such
a general knowledge of the humours and characters of men, as in the
Prologues and Epilogues of Dryden, which are the best records of the
whims and capricious oddities of the times in which they are written.
When these two great genius's are considered in the light of
translators, it will indeed be difficult to determine into whose scale
the ballance should be thrown: That Mr. Pope had a more arduous province
in doing justice to Homer, than Dryden with regard to Virgil is
certainly true; as Homer is a more various and diffuse poet than Virgil;
and it is likewise true, that Pope has even exceeded Dryden in the
execution, and none will deny, that Pope's Homer's Iliad, is a finer
poem than Dryden's Aeneis of Virgil: Making a proper allowance for the
disproportion of the original authors. But then a candid critic should
reflect, that as Dryden was prior in the great attempt of rendering
Virgil into English, so did he perform the task under many
disadvantages, which Pope, by a happier situation in life, was enabled
to avoid; and could not but improve upon Dryden's errors, though the
authors translated were not the same: And it is much to be doubted, if
Dryden were to translate the Aeneid now, with that attention which the
correctness of the present age would force upon him, whether the
preference would be due to Pope's Homer.
But supposing it to be yielded (as it certainly must) that the latter
bard was the greatest translator; we are now to throw into Mr. Dryden's
scale all his dramatic works; which though not the most excellent of his
writings, yet as nothing of Mr. Pope's can be opposed to them, they have
an undoubted right to turn the ballance greatly in favour of Mr.
Dryden.--When the two poets are considered as critics, the comparison
will very imperfectly hold. Dryden's Dedications and Prefaces, besides
that they are more numerous, and are the best models for courtly
panegyric, shew that he understood poetry as an art, beyond any man that
ever lived. And he explained this art so well, that he taught his
antagonists to turn the tables against himself; for he so illuminated
the mind by his clear and perspicuous reasoning, that dullness itself
became capable of discerning; and when at any time his performances fell
short of his own ideas of excellence; his enemies tried him by rules of
his own establishing; and though they owed to him the ability of
judging, they seldom had candour enough to spare him.
Perhaps it may be true that Pope's works are read with more appetite, as
there is a greater evenness and correctness in them; but in perusing the
works of Dryden the mind will take a wider range, and be more fraught
with poetical ideas: We admire Dryden as the greater genius, and Pope as
the most pleasing versifier.
ERRATA in the foregoing life, viz.
P. 237. l. 27. for with all that the world calls ambition, read with _a
disgust of_ all, &c. And l. 29. for 'stooping or climbing' read,
_rather_ stooping _than_ climbing.
 See a Note in Warburton's Edition of Pope's Works.
* * * * *
AARON HILL, Esq;
Was the son of George Hill, esq; of Malmsbury-Abbey in Wiltshire; a
gentleman possessed of an estate of about 2000 l. a year, which was
entailed upon him, and the eldest son, and to his heirs for many
descents. But the unhappy misconduct of Mr. George Hill, and the
weakness of the trustees, entangled it in such a manner as hitherto has
rendered it of no advantage to his family; for, without any legal title
so to do, he sold it all, at different times, for sums greatly beneath
the value of it, and left his children to their mother's care, and her
mother's (Mrs. Ann Gregory) who took great pains with her grandson's
education. At nine years old she put him to school to Mr. Rayner at
Barnstable in Devonshire, from whence, he went to Westminster school;
where soon (under the care of Dr. Knipe) his genius shewed itself in a
distinguished light, and often made him some amends for his hard
fortune, which denied him such supplies of pocket-money as his spirit
wished, by enabling him to perform the tasks of many who had not his
Mr. Aaron Hill, was born in Beaufort-Buildings in the Strand, on
February 10, 1684-5. At fourteen years of age he left Westminster
school; and, shortly after, hearing his grandmother make mention of a
relation much esteemed (lord Paget, then ambassador at Constantinople)
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