« AnteriorContinuar »
THE ESSAY ON MAN.
It is a relief to turn from this miserable record of Pope's petty or malicious deceptions to the history of his legitimate career.
I go back to the period when he was still in full power. Having finished the Dunciad, he was soon employed on a more ambitious task. Pope resembled one of the inferior bodies of the solar system, whose orbit is dependent upon that of some more massive planet ; and having been a satellite of Swift, he was now swept into the train of the more imposing Bolingbroke. He had been originally introduced to Bolingbroke by Swift, but had probably seen little of the brilliant minister who, in the first years of their acquaintance, had too many occupations to give much time to the rising poet. Bolingbroke, however, had been suffering a long eclipse, whilst Pope was gathering fresh splendour. In his exile, Bolingbroke, though never really weaned from political ambition, had amused himself with superficial philosophical studies. In political life it was his special glory to extemporize statesmanship without sacrificing pleasure. He could be at once the most reckless of rakes and the leading spirit in the Cabinet or the House of Commons. He seems to have thought that philosophical eminence was obtainable in the same offhand fashion, and that a brilliant style
would justify a man in laying down the law to metaphysicians as well as to diplomatists and politicians. His philosophical writings are equally superficial and arrogant, though they show here and there the practised debater's power of making a good point against his antagonist without really grasping the real problems at issue.
Boling broke received a pardon in 1723, and returned to England, crossing Atterbury, who had just been convicted of treasonable practices. In 1725 Bolingbroke settled at Dawley, near Uxbridge, and for the next ten years he was alternately amusing himself in playing the retired philosopher, and endeavouring, with more serious purpose, to animate the opposition to Walpole. Pope, who was his frequent guest, sympathized with his schemes, and was completely dazzled by his eminence. He spoke of him with bated breath, as a being almost superior to humanity. “ It looks,” said Pope once, “as if that great man had been placed here by mistake. When the comet appeared a month or two ago,” he added, “I sometimes fancied that it might be come to carry him home, as a coach comes to one's door for other visitors.” Of all the graceful compliments in Pope's poetry, none are more ardent or more obviously sincere than those addressed to this “guide, philosopher, and friend." He delighted to bask in the sunshine of the great man's presence. Writing to Swift in 1728, he (Pope) says that he is holding the pen “for my Lord Bolingbroke," who is reading your letter between two haycocks, with his attention occasionally distracted by a threatening shower. Bolingbroke is acting the temperate recluse, having nothing for dinner but muttonbroth, beans and bacon, and a barndoor fowl. Whilst his lordship is running after a cart, Pope snatches a moment to tell how the day before this noble farmer had engaged a painter for 2001. to give the correct agricultural air to his country hall by ornamenting it with trophies of spades, rakes, and prongs. Pope saw that the zeal for retirement was not free from affectation, but he sat at the teacher's feet with profound belief in the value of the lessons which flowed from his lips.
The connexion was to bear remarkable fruit. Under the direction of Boling broke, Pope resolved to compose a great philosophical poem. “Does Pope talk to you,” says Bolingbroke to Swift in 1731, “ of the noble work which, at my instigation, he has begun in such a manner that he must be convinced by this time I judged better of his talents than he did ?" And Bolingbroke proceeds to describe the Essay on Man, of which it seems that three (out of four) epistles were now finished. The first of these epistles appeared in 1733. Pope, being apparently nervous on his first appearance as
a philosopher, withheld his name. The other parts followed in the course of 1733 and 1734, and the authorship was soon avowed. The Essay on Man is Pope's most ambitious performance, and the one by which he was best known beyond his own country. It has been frequently translated, it was imitated both in France and Germany, and provoked a controversy, not like others in Pope's history of the purely personal kind.
The Essay on Man professes to be a theodicy. Pope, with an echo of the Miltonic phrase, proposes to
Vindicate the ways of God to man. He is thus attempting the greatest task to which poet or philosopher can devote himself—the exhibition of an organic and harmonious view of the universe. In a time when men's minds are dominated by a definite religious
creed, the poet may hope to achieve success in such an undertaking without departing from his legitimate method. His vision pierces to the world hidden from our senses, and realizes in the transitory present a scene in the slow development of a divine drama. To make us share his vision is to give his justification of Providence. When Milton told the story of the war in heaven and the fall of man, he gave implicitly his theory of the true relations of man to his Creator, but the abstract doctrine was clothed in the flesh and blood of a concrete mythology.
In Pope's day the traditional belief had lost its hold upon men's minds too completely to be used for imaginative purposes. The story of Adam and Eve would itself require to be justified or to be rationalized into thin allegory. Nothing was left possessed of any vitality but a bare skeleton of abstract theology, dependent upon argument instead of tradition, and which might use or might dispense with a Christian phraseology. Its deity was not a historical personage, but the name of a metaphysical conception. For a revelation was substituted a demonstration. To vindicate Providence meant no longer to stimulate imagination by pure and sublime rendering of accepted truths, but to solve certain philosophical problems, and especially the grand difficulty of reconciling the existence of evil with divine omnipotence and benevolence.
Pope might conceivably have written a really great poem on these terms, though deprived of the concrete imagery of a Dante or a Milton. If he had fairly grasped some definite conception of the universe, whether pantheistic or atheistic, optimist or pessimist, proclaiming a solution of the mystery, or declaring all solutions to be impossible, he might have given forcible expression to the
corresponding emotions. He might have uttered the melancholy resignation and the confident hope incited in different minds by a contemplation of the mysterious world. He might again conceivably have written an interesting work, though it would hardly have been a poem- if he had versified the arguments by which a coherent theory might be supported. Unluckily, he was quite unqualified for either undertaking, and, at the same time, he more or less aimed at both. Anything like sustained reasoning was beyond his reach. Pope felt and thought by shocks and electric flashes. He could only obtain a continuous effect when working clearly upon lines already provided for him, or simulate one by fitting together fragments struck out at intervals. The defect was aggravated or caused by the physical infirmities which put sustained intellectual labour out of the question. The laborious and patient meditation which brings a converging series of arguments to bear upon a single point, was to him as impossible as the power of devising an elaborate strategical combination to a dashing Prince Rupert. The reasonings in the Essay are confused, contradictory, and often childish. He was equally far from having assimilated any definite system of thought. Brought up as a Catholic, he had gradually swung into vague deistic belief. But he had never studied any philosophy or theology whatever, and he accepts in perfect unconsciousness fragments of the most heterogeneous systems.
Swift, in verses from which I have already quoted, describes his method of composition, which is characteristic of Pope's habits of work.
Now backs of letters, though design'd
For those who more will need 'em,
Himself can scarcely read 'em.