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Who Now Reads Pope? And Why?

ISSUE:  Summer 1989
The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope. By Leopold Damrosch, Jr. California. $35.

In 1985 Margaret Doody opened The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered with a challenge: “English poetry of the late 17th and the 18th century has attracted many faithful readers and a number of good critics, but it still seems, among college students and the public at large, to be at a disadvantage.” Despite the efforts of 50 years of critics, the 18th century remains for most readers, even (or especially) professionals, Matthew Arnold’s “age of prose and reason,” a silver age whose imaginative productions cannot stand beside those of the centuries before and after. (Never mind that in the 18th century itself the phrase “Age of Reason” conjured up an unholy brew of Voltaire, Tom Paine, and radical philosophy that most Englishmen deplored.) Doody excepted the novelists; perhaps Fielding and Richardson and Sterne at least had “by now been largely rescued from the opprobrium in which the whole period seemed sunk”; after all, even Augustan novelists “write about characters, about adventures and money and sex; they are entertaining, and [so] not really Augustan.” But by 1988 she retracts even this exception. The flyleaf of Doody’s splendid new critical biography of Fanny Burney announces her intent to treat Burney “with the seriousness usually reserved for later novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries,” and the book as a whole finds it persistently necessary to argue for the variety, complexity, and ambition of works which have been systematically under-read and under-valued; indeed, Doody finds that she must combat even the view that 18th-century people were somehow less complex and interesting than more modern folk, particularly writers.

The explanation of this state of affairs isn’t far to seek. Literary theory in general—that large and often vague body of assumptions that tells us what literature properly is, and so guides reading and evaluation of individual works—has since the end of the 18th century fundamentally meant Romantic literary theory; it has been a body of thought rooted in Romantic ideas about what is and is not literary art, about the imagination and the poet’s role and proper subjects, about organic unity and theories of mind. This conceptual apparatus could never be made to square with medieval literature, but most English departments have contentedly let medievalists alone to pursue what seem mere matters of history and philology anyway; it fits modern literature perfectly, of course, because in this instance theory and practice have grown up together. It has even seemed to fit the Renaissance (we are only now coming to understand with what distortions), but it remains—as it was designed to be—inimical to the Augustans. For half a century students of Augustan literature have chafed, but change will come—if it comes at all—only when our leading critics, Romanticists or Romantic theorists themselves, recognize and renounce their cultural imperialism. Recent works such as The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (Oxford, 1988), Clifford Siskin’s feisty indictment of such imperialism, will go a long way toward remedy. But even Siskin, a Romanticist himself, cannot shake all the lingering prejudices; he still seems to believe, for instance, that Augustan writers didactically tell their readers what to believe and so foster passive audiences, while the innovation of Romanticism was to engage readers more actively. (We might call this the sin of taking Wordsworth at his word.)

How, in the face of such initial disadvantages, are critics of 18th-century literature to approach their subject? Many, of course—and many of our best—proceed by ignoring the problem, sticking only to their own period; some, like Margaret Doody and the late Irvin Ehrenpreis, confront the foe directly. But most critics cannot resist the urge to rehabilitate their favored authors by bringing them, sometimes by violence, into the vanguard of current critical debate. For Marxists and New Historicists the gambit is almost too easy. Thus for instance in her brief Alexander Pope (1985), a contribution to Blackwell’s “new readings” series, Laura Brown finds in Pope a rich vein of predictable ideological conflicts and contradictions, of commodification and disguised hegemonies, of class interests masking themselves as “nature.” (As Damrosch says in The Imaginative World, “There is something incongruous in fiery Marxist accusations issued by comfortable academics who are building careers in departments of literature”; Brean Hammond’s Pope [1985], in Harvester’s similar series, presents a more subtle Marxian analysis, and so seems less like shooting capitalists in a barrel.) In an essay “On the Uses of Contradiction: Economics and Morality in the 18th-Century Long Poem,” John Barrell and Harriet Guest find in such contradictions (and the false consciousness that gives rise to them) the central strategy not only of Pope’s essays and epistles, but of Augustan non-narrative verse as a form.

Nor need bustling Pope into the vanguard proceed so negatively. Rooting out contradiction is also the stock-in-trade of deconstructionism—as it is also the chief method of satire; and so in Quests of Difference: Reading Pope’s Poems (Kentucky, 1986), G. Douglas Atkins discovers that Alexander Pope was in fact the First Deconstructionist. The same discovery might be made of any satirist from Juvenal onward. Indeed, one wonders in reading all these critics why they have chosen to exercise their ingenuity on Pope, when so many other authors would do as well. Why do they read him? Can it be only, as another critic shamefacedly admits after another scorching exposé of his ideological conflicts and contradictions, Pope’s mastery of the witty cadence and the well-turned line?

It is from a frank recognition of just this state of affairs in modern Pope studies that Leopold Damrosch’s Imaginative World of Alexander Pope begins. Damrosch identifies two generations of Pope critics: an older generation (mainly New Critics) who expounded and celebrated Pope the poet of order, harmony, and concordia discors—of what Damrosch calls the Augustan World Picture—and a younger generation who see in Pope mainly tensions, discontinuities, contradictions (and so also false consciousness or downright lying). Much of his book self-consciously attempts to mediate these extremes:

In historical hindsight Pope’s assertions of objective order look like a defensive campaign against modern subjectivity and ad hoc value systems. Hindsight, however, should not blind us to the earnestness of the effort; it would be a massive distortion to pose an “official” Pope who defends order against a “real” Pope who subverts it.

[Pope’s effort to construct a personality, a self] could not, of course, be wholly successful, and some very interesting energies and contradictions are revealed at the points of slippage. But it would be wrong to grant the contradictions a privileged status, to imagine that they are more authentic than the harmonious structure he worked so hard to build.

Here as in his other books, one of Damrosch’s greatest strengths is the hard-headed common sense that permits him, while knowing the worst, still to listen charitably to what an author has to say for himself. But Damrosch is himself a member of the younger generation, and so the balance tips; the first passage quoted above continues, “But I shall argue that the order Pope seeks is less fully achieved than he hoped, or than many of his modern interpreters believe.” Nor has he enough sympathy with the older view to give it full hearing. He does not, for instance, grasp the complex significance of the notion of concordia discors—a dynamic equipoise of contrary energies central to much Augustan thinking about the natural and human worlds—but instead reduces it merely to moderation, a mean between extremes; thus though he often hears Pope echoing Denham’s “though deep, yet clear,” he can find in such passages little more than a verbal flourish: “any order Pope achieved was more rhetorical than structural.” (The same lack of sympathy mars Damrosch’s fine study of the Augustan novel, God’s Plots and Mans Stories [Chicago, 1985], where immensely useful discussions of the tradition from Bunyan to Richardson are followed by a weak chapter on that most Popean of novelists, Henry Fielding.) Still and all, Damrosch’s carefulness and honesty lead to passages in which he seems to be debating with himself, moving back and forth between generations. Here he is on the Epistle to Bathurst, on a passage which according to Barrell and Guest deliberately uses inconsistency to mask the contradictions of nascent capitalism. Pope has just argued both that the rich are obligated to correct gross inequalities of wealth through charity, and that God distributes the goods of this world according to a just providential design:

It is certainly true that the rich, in this conception, have the right to pick and choose in enacting the will of heaven: “To want or worth well-weighed, be bounty giv’n.” But it is also true that they are morally obligated to do it. Few modern people give an eighth of their income to charity as Pope did. Still, Warburton’s paraphrase of the lines in To Bathurst brings out their complacency . . . .

(The problem Pope faces here is not, of course, that of capitalism—it is not an economic problem at all, but the hoary theological problem of evil.)

Damrosch frames his book as a study of Pope’s discontinuities not merely to resolve a persistent critical dispute but because for him they are of a special kind: they mark out Pope as among the first “modern” authors. The Imaginative World is part of a larger project, a four-volume history of the transition in England from Renaissance to modern, from “symbolic” to “secular” world-views, in the years from the Restoration to William Blake. The project is now three-quarters done: it opens with God’s Plots and Man’s Stories (1985) and closes with Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth (Princeton, 1980); with the publication of the present book on Pope, all that remains is a projected study of Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson. The Imaginative World must be in many ways the crucial volume in the sequence, for in Pope, Damrosch argues, we find an especially revealing instance of “the problems of representing experience at the beginning of the modern age, when traditional religious, philosophical, and aesthetic systems were breaking down” and of “the modern poet, who claims to speak for his culture but lacks a secure institutional or cultural basis for doing so.”

Despite its many merits, The Imaginative World disappoints when read in the context of this extraordinarily ambitious project. Perhaps because he has not written the volumes of his history in sequence, Damrosch has yet to make fully clear his larger historical theory. But for whatever reason, The Imaginative World soon leaves the grand design behind to become yet another general book on Pope. The dust-jacket justly proclaims this “a well-informed, critical account of the “present state” of Pope studies”—a laudable accomplishment, but not the grander volume Damrosch’s Introduction leads us to expect. And once the grand design begins to fade, Damrosch loses clear focus on what kind of book he is writing, and for whom. Part of him wants to write a general introductory study for undergraduates, a book that must explain to beginning students that in Pope’s time decent and clown did not mean what they do now, that by “St. John” Pope means Bolingbroke and that mob is short for the Latin mobile vulgus; another part of him leaves such students behind with erudite references and sophisticated literary and sociological speculation. Like all the works of this very productive scholar, The Imaginative World brims with a kind of higher common sense; like them, it is the product of a balanced mind that has pondered important questions long and usefully, and that finds its natural expression in a clear and elegant prose. But throughout there is the promise of more; we must await the Aufhebung of the two generations of Pope scholars in a rehabilitation of Pope and his age as valued harbingers of modernity.

1 In The New Eighteenth Century, ed. Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum (Methuen, 1987); revised as “The Uses of Contradiction: Pope’s “Epistle to Bathurst,”” in John Barrell, Poetry, Language, and Politics (Manchester, 1988).

2 See Carole Fabricant on “Pope’s Moral, Political, and Cultural Conflict,” in a recent number of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation given over wholly to Pope (29: 2, 1988).


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