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Rereading Alexander Pope

ISSUE:  Winter 1985
Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense. By David B. Morris. Harvard. $2500. Pope and Bolingbroke: A Study of Friendship and Influence. By Brean S. Hammond. Missouri. $25.00. Pope’s “Essay on Man.” By A. D. Nuttall. Allen & Unwin. $24.50.

This is an exciting time in 18th-century studies, and especially for the study of Alexander Pope. The past two years have brought forth seven new books on Pope’s poetry, and three more are promised; not even Milton or Wordsworth has received such attention. Some of these books, of course, toe long-familiar lines; in an essay on Pope on Classic Ground (Ohio, 1983), appropriately dedicated to Maynard Mack, Geoffrey Plowden adds to our list of Pope’s borrowings from classical poets (especially Ovid), and in his long Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire (Princeton, 1982), Howard Weinbrot continues his learned, if sometimes overly rigid, sorting out of Pope’s uses of the Roman poets Horace, Juvenal, and Persius. Other, more venturesome studies reveal what are probably the two main reasons for this extraordinary burst of interest, reasons which have a bearing on our understanding not only of Pope and his age, but of English letters as a whole.

First there is the matter of Pope’s biography. Five decades after George Sherburn’s pathbreaking Early Career of Alexander Pope (Oxford, 1934), we still lack a full life of the poet. Sherburn devoted himself almost exclusively to Pope’s public career; the private Pope, the mind of the maker, though we have a great deal of information about him, remains deeply mysterious. Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that most of what we know about Pope personally (for he was the first great self-publicist in English literature) can be traced ultimately to the poet himself. Looking over The Portraits of Pope, collected by W.K. Wimsatt in 1965— mostly likenesses commissioned from and for friends—A.D. Nuttall claims to see a single psyche behind the masks, while for David Morris, the same collection “seems to find in Pope completely different men.” Morris begins his new study with a plea that we do what Pope himself often asked of his readers, see him whole; but to date the psychological center for any such vision has been missing. Irvin Ehrenpreis points the way to such an understanding in a brilliant exploration of the psychological springs of Pope’s creativity in his Acts of Implication (California, 1980, Ch. 3), and promises to follow this, now that he has completed the third volume of his standard life of Swift, with a biography of Pope, which we may hope will be conducted along the lines of his earlier Personality of Jonathan Swift. Meanwhile, we must learn what we can from studies such as Dustin Griffin’s Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems (Princeton, 1978), Wallace Jackson’s attempt to trace imaginative continuities throughout the poems in Vision and Re-vision in Alexander Pope (Wayne State, 1983), and Brean Hammond’s fine new look at Pope’s friendship with Bolingbroke.

Friendship in its widest sense—the philia of the Nicomachean Ethics—was a guiding principle as much in Pope’s life as in his poems, and nowhere did he so fully realize this ideal as in his 35-year association with Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. In Pope and Bolingbroke, through careful examination of evidence already available, Brean Hammond (a young lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool) opens important new ground in three areas: he shows that Pope’s relationship with Bolingbroke began earlier, and was in many respects deeper, than we have realized; he supplies the best outline to date of Bolingbroke’s political thought and traces to him much of the language and outlook of Pope’s political satires; and, most controversially, he provides new bearings by which to read Pope’s Essay on Man and later Epistle to Bolingbroke.

The two first met in about 1710, when Pope was in his early twenties; they were perhaps introduced by their common friend, the retired diplomat Sir William Trumbull. The young poet was captivated by the rising politician (soon to be secretary of state), ten years his senior; he found in Bolingbroke a model of urbane conversation, humanistic learning, and disinterested statesmanship, and quickly made of him a permanent addition to that circle of older men who served Pope as admirers and guides. During Bolingbroke’s sevenyear exile in France after Queen Anne’s death, the two could communicate only indirectly, but Pope remained loyal to the (justly) suspected Jacobite, and Bolingbroke kept up with Pope’s translation of Homer. From 1723 to 1735 (when Bolingbroke fled again to France)—the years of the Essay on Man, the Moral Essays, the Craftsman, and Pope’s unequivocal entry into the political arena with his Horatian imitations—they spent weeks and months together, talking of politics, philosophy, and gardening, trading manuscripts, and even keeping written notes of one another’s conversations. Back in England in 1744, the deist Bolingbroke was present to shed tears at Pope’s deathbed—along with his new rival for Pope’s affections, parson (not yet Bishop) Warburton, and a Catholic priest whom Pope had requested to administer the last sacrament.

By the late 1730’s, Pope was chief poetic spokesman for the opposition to Walpole, and Bolingbroke, traveling back and forth from France (both to work for the opposition and to secure his estates), was in deepest disrepute. Yet Pope still valued his friend’s political opinions so highly as to have copies secretly printed, at his own expense, of Bolingbroke’s longest reform tract, The Idea of a Patriot King, the manuscript of which Bolingbroke had left in his keeping. Hammond reads this and Bolingbroke’s other political writings with unusual sympathy, finding in them if not a coherent system of political philosophy—indeed, Bolingbroke’s reduction of all problems of political reform to the problem of moral leadership is hopelessly utopian—at least a vision of the good state and quasi-satiric literary procedures which, Hammond persuasively argues, form a “common language” connecting his own prose with Pope’s verse. But since much of what Hammond has to say on these subjects confessedly builds upon Isaac Kramnick’s Bolingbroke and his Circle (Harvard, 1968)—though Hammond is a much more astute student of politics than is Kramnick—literary readers will find Pope and Bolingbroke most original in its treatment of other poems by Pope than the political satires.

In the 18th century, it was commonly understood that the Essay on Man began as a versification of the views of Pope’s “Guide, Philosopher, and Friend.” Pope composed most of the poem during a long convalescence at Bolingbroke’s Dawley Farm, and we are told by Lord Bathurst that Pope worked from some eight pages of manuscript notes which Bolingbroke provided. But modern scholarship—enshrined in Maynard Mack’s standard edition of the Essay and uncritically repeated in A.D. Nuttall’s new exegesis—has doubted Bolingbroke’s influence and even the existence of his manuscript notes, preferring instead to read the Essay in the broadest European context. Even Douglas White’s impressively argued reading of the poem in terms of specific contemporary moral and theological debates, Pope and the Context of Controversy (Chicago, 1970), has failed to keep source-hunters from rummaging Descartes and Leibniz, and (in the case of Mack) the entire classical canon from Aristotle and Augustine to Hierocles and Claudian on Manlius Theodorus. (Nuttall makes no use of White’s book, dismissing it in his bibliography with an unaccountable comment, “Sees Pope as playing with ideas.”) Marshaling both external evidence for the existence of Bolingbroke’s manuscript sources and the internal testimony of parallels between the Essay and prose works Bolingbroke was working on at the same time, Hammond mounts a strong defense of the 18th century’s approach to the poem. From this emerges as well an intriguing reading of Pope’s later Epistle to Bolingbroke (1738).

Notoriously, the Essay on Man nowhere mentions the central doctrine of Christianity (the doctrine abandoned by deists such as Bolingbroke), that of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ—unless Pope intended an oblique reference in Epistle I:

. . . the first Almighty Cause

Acts not by partial, but by gen’ral laws;

Th’exceptions few; some change since all began. . . .


By 1737, the Essay was under attack by Father Crousaz and others for its deist and fatalist tendency; partly as a result, Pope was in his later years genuinely anxious to reaffirm his orthodox (Catholic) faith. He thus writes the Epistle to Bolingbroke partly as a monument to their friendship, but partly too to put his spiritual house in order—to “lay up a harvest,” as he puts it, against his “last day”:

Let this be all my care—for this is All:
To lay this harvest up, and hoard with haste
What ev’ry day will want, and most, the last.
 But ask not, to what Doctors I apply?
Sworn to no Master, of no Sect am I:
As drives the storm, at any door I knock,
And house with Montagne now, or now with Lock.
Sometimes a Patriot, active in debate,
Mix with the World, and battle for the State. . .
Sometimes with Aristippus, or St. Paul,
Indulge my Candour, and grow all to all;
Back to my native Moderation slide,
And win my way by yielding to the tyde.  (20—34)

In this passage Pope is defending the questionable orthodoxy of some of his earlier works by appealing to a laudable irenism, but he is doing more than this as well. “Aristippus” was Bolingbroke’s nickname among his closest friends, Montaigne one of his favorite philosophers; Bolingbroke argued long and often against Locke’s political views and religious “credulity,” and he despised St. Paul. By balancing St. Paul and the author of The Reasonableness of Christianity (Locke) against Montaigne and Bolingbroke himself, Pope means at once to distance himself from Bolingbroke’s religious views (though not from his friendship or his politics), and to assert beneath the various appearances he gives the world a fundamental Christian orthodoxy. In doing so, he even flirts with blasphemy: “I am made all things to all men” said St. Paul, defending his own irenist tactics; “I please all men in all things. . .that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 9:22, 10:33). Bolingbroke’s way of “growing all to all,” of course, is not spiritual but sexual, and the very word candor was in Pope’s time a common sexual pun; yet candor, like sincerity-—both words owe their currency in the 17th and 18th centuries in large part to their use in the King James translation of Paul’s epistles—was also the name for that fundamental integrity of self amidst all its roles which Pope is claiming.

The fruitfulness of biographical inquiries such as Hammond’s points to a second, larger reason for so much current rereading of Pope (and of other 18th-century poets): such rereading is part of a quiet but pervasive revolution taking place in our conceptions of the Augustan period and of its place in literary history, a shift in which our understanding of Pope is crucial. We have, of course, long ago disposed of such misleading characterizations of the Augustan period as an “Age of Reason”; in his recent examination of Pope’s Iliad (Princeton, 1983), in the course of showing how much more accurately Pope renders Homer’s passionate heroes than had Chapman, Steven Shankman goes so far as to rechristen the 18th century an “Age of Passion,” while David Morris finds in Pope’s a generation, bounded by Restoration “wit” and later Augustan “sensibility,” devoted to an ideal not of reason but of “sense.” In these and other books we may detect fragments of what, seen as a whole, constitutes a searching re-examination of fundamental critical commitments. For most of the 20th century, the prevailing models and assumptions which critics of all theoretical persuasions have brought to literature have been essentially those of the Romantics— Romantic notions of (organic) unity, of the imagination, of literature as fundamentally “aesthetic” in purpose and effect. These were the guiding assumptions of the Yale New Critics, who did the most early in this century to revive the Augustans generally and Pope in particular; they are the commitments underpinning the many contributions of Walter Jackson Bate, and of his student James Engell, whose massively researched study of The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (Harvard, 1981), following Cassirer and M.H. Abrams, reads the 18th century as teleologically aiming at the 19th. We still lack a literary history such as Ralph Cohen has called for, one which, unlike Engell’s work or the romanticist Abrams’ Mirror and the Lamp, will recount the transition from classic to romantic not a tergo but a fronte, and which develops the Augustan theory of literature in its own terms. (I have attempted part of such an account of the Augustans in my own Probability and Literary Form: Philosophic Theory and Literary Practice in the Augustan Age [Cambridge, 1984]). For many of the same reasons, the transition from Renaissance to Augustan is strikingly neglected—a critical defect which can perhaps only be made good once we have finally disembarrassed ourselves of Romantic approaches to Milton and placed the author of Paradise Lost, as does Richard Helgerson in his illuminating Self-Crowned Laureates (California, 1983), squarely among his Restoration contemporaries.

Current biographical interest in Pope—in the interanimation of his poetry and his life, and in the “referential” (as opposed to the “autonomous”) qualities of that poetry—thus signals more than a (long-awaited) departure from New Critical principles, its proscription of biographical interpretation and consequent reading of Pope’s satires as the utterances of various dramatic speakers or personae rather than of the poet himself. It is part of a growing realization that the very concept of literary art itself underwent in the later 18th and early 19th centuries a sea change whose effects we still feel, and which we must overcome if we are really to understand earlier writers, particularly the Augustans. Baldly put, Dryden and Milton, Swift and Pope had no concept of the “aesthetic.” Historians have long pointed out that the term “fine arts” is a 17th-century coinage, as in the separation off of a new category of “belles lettres” from the older humanist body of “bonnes lettres.” The word “aesthetics” was coined only in 1735 (by Alexander Baumgarten), and, as Paul Kristeller showed more than 30 years ago, the conceptual category it was invented to name is very little older. For the author of the Essay on Criticism, “art” still meant, as it had for the ancients, rule-governed production, whether the making be of poems or chemical compounds, military strategies or soups; criticism provides a “technology” of poetry in the pre-19th-century sense of that word, a lexicon of the rules of any art (tekne). Thus, as Rene Wellek has often pointed out, it is only in the early 19th century that we begin to find the word “literature” used in its modern, restrictive sense (as “imaginative” literature, what is studied in English classes). We are now seeing a reinterpretation conducted by Joseph Levine and others of the celebrated “battle between the ancients and the moderns” and may confidently predict (again following Kristeller) that at the center of that dispute will prove to be these very changes in concepts of art: the chief enemy for ancients such as Pope was precisely the modern notion of the “aesthetic,” with its attendant separation of literature from the rest of life. But we have yet to bring this knowledge fully to bear in our readings of 18th-century texts, as the new studies of Pope by Nuttall and Morris make clear.

A philosopher as well as a critic, Nuttall supplies a scrupulous (and wholly traditional) reading of the philosophic argument of the Essay on Man; read in this way Pope’s theodicy must remain an impressive failure, for its author was, as Nuttall everywhere suggests, out of his depth. As a reader of Pope, Nuttall is firmly in the camp of Joseph Warton: only “for a few moments,” he finds, was Pope “writing not versified metaphysics but philosophical poetry”; in these inspired passages, “Pope’s poetry, his instinct for the mysteriously fruitful and persuasive ambiguity, leads him farther in philosophy than his powers of ordinary conceptual analysis could ever have brought him.” (Nuttall actually cites approvingly the deplorable essay on The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope by James Reeves, Warton’s modern epigone [Heinemann, 1976].) Nuttall’s critical presuppositions thus prevent him from raising questions about the relations of the Essay to Pope’s other poems or to its literary context (he conveniently gets matters of the poem’s “art” out of the way in a brief opening chapter). Much important thinking about the Essay on Man remains to be done—for instance, along the lines suggested by John Barrell in his remarkable survey of 18th-century georgics, English Literature in History, 1730—80 (St. Martin’s, 1984)—but to proceed we must shed aesthetic compartmentalizations in the manner of Warton.

Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense, a collection of essays written over ten years, contains far more promise, Morris lays the groundwork for a sophisticated reading of Pope, and has much to say on such matters as the occasional nature of many Augustan poems, Pope’s habits of revision, and his concept of imitation as a procedure not merely of refinement but in a deeper sense as “a mode of learning—a source of knowledge.” He draws useful connections between Pope’s understanding of satire and contemporary legal doctrines (particularly in the way both call upon the same language of punishment and pain). But when he comes to treat particular poems, Morris disappoints; the best parts of his book are its programmatic introduction and conclusion. In essay after essay—with the exception of an important discussion of the probabilistic structure of Pope’s argument in the Essay on Criticism—Morris evades rather than engages works, failing to translate his theoretical insights into useful interpretations. Thus in a chapter on Eloisa to Abelard—where, in an unusual lapse into 19th-century critical approaches, Morris argues that Eloisa’s “tragic” plight raises her above mere considerations of “moral judgment”—he evades what is perhaps the greatest crux in interpretations of the poem: “The disagreement over Eloisa’s final state of mind cannot be settled here.” Nevertheless, in his larger program for criticism, Morris, like Hammond—in their reaching beyond anachronistic critical assumptions to a more historically informed understanding of Augustan “art” and its manifold relations to literary tradition and to social and political life— participates in what is a highly salutary project of rereading Pope and his age.


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