Alexander Pope: as A Classical Poet

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      Till the end of the nineteenth century, the question whether Pope was a poet was hotly debated. Wordsworth and Coleridge condemned him as the founder of the mechanical school of poetry and the originator of the artificial diction. Arnold bracketed him with Dryden as the classic of our prose. Mark Pattison described him as an unrivaled rhymer and no more. Even in the twentieth century, the voices denying Pope the title of the poet have not been completely silenced. Wherein lies the truth? He has been viewed from the standpoint of periods out of sympathy with his excellences and impatient of his defects, and his influence has been regarded as a monstrous barrier restraining all deep and natural emotions until swept away, by the torrent of the romantic revival. He has figured as one who left the free air of heaven for the atmosphere of the coffee house as the first to introduce a mechanical standard of poetry, owing its acceptance to the prosaic tone of the day. Is this the correct estimate of the poetical works of Pope?

      It is obvious that his achievements do not belong to the very highest forms of poetry. We do not breathe in his works the spirit of the broad beneficence and large humanity of Shakespeare, nor the high-toned grandeur of Milton's conceptions, nor do we hear the ineffable music of Shelly. But it is useless to condemn him because he was not somebody else. He is a great poet because of the following reasons:

      (i) Clear Thinking and Precise Expression. There is no doubt that as a literary man, Pope, represents precision and graceful expression, and as a poet (if his claim as a poet is recognized) he represents understanding as opposed to the imagination, which, according to Wordsworth, is the indispensable quality of poetry. There is in Pope's poetic work a happy union of clear thinking and understanding with clarity and accuracy of expression and the pleasure which the poetry of Pope gives us is primarily due to its intellectual quality rather than any genuine poetic substance.

      (ii) Pope the Poet of Artificial Life. Wordsworth did not find any poetry in Pope. Wordsworth, infact was not in a position to do justice to Pope. A man "brought up in sublime mountain solitudes and walking on earth quivering with the throes of French Revolution, could not be expected to appreciate the poet of artificial life. Among the great English poets who had preceded Pope, Chaucer was the painter of actual life, Spenser of imaginative life, Shakespeare of ideal life, and Milton of moral and spiritual life. It remained of Pope, says Lowell, to give rhythmical utterance to conventional life, and he was eminently fitted for the task, because he was gifted with the power of intellectual expression and perfect propriety of phrase. Poetry should not represent all aspects of life. There is indeed room for all kinds of poetry in the world of the Muses. One can enjoy both natural poetry and artificial poetry - natural poetry for its nature, artificial poetry for its artificiality - provided they be good of their kind.

      (iii) Poetry of The Age. The Rape of the Lock is a perfect work of its kind; for wit and fancy and intention, it has never been surpassed. It is true that there is no inspiration in it - one is not inspired and lifted by the poem. But for pure entertainment it is unmatched. There are, says, Lowell, two kinds of Poetry - one gives us the message of the eternal, i.e., tells us things which are true for all times; the other tells what the age wishes to hear. Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth give us message of the eternal; "Pope tells us of this in the one, and amusement and instruction in the other, and be honestly thankful for both."

      (iv) Pope's Felicity of Expression and Command of The Heroic Couplet. Warton said that the largest part of Pope's work "is of the didactic, moral and satiric kind and consequently not of the most poetic species of poetry." Lessing's opinion is that Pope's merit lay in "the mechanics of poetry." Byron admired Pope, but he admired his careful finish, which Byron himself lacked. There is no doubt that Pope's poetry does not "sing anywhere, but the abiding influence of fancy" in his poetry fully entitles him to the rank of a poet. He was undoubtedly a man of genius, a poet of fancy and he possessed two of the qualifications necessary for a poet - (i) vivid expression of his actual subjects and (ii) artistic use Of the meter employed by him. Of course, Pope cannot lay claim, says Sainlsbury, to "poetic transcendence", but his Extraordinary felicity of expression, and his wonderful command of the meter which he employed, cannot be challenged and, therefore, "it is absurd to deny poetry to Pope."

      (v) Pope's Limitations and Achievements. The great deficiencies of Pope as poet are his lack of warmth and flight - the warmth of emotion and flight of imagination. These are serious deficiencies in his poetry and in spite of its rationality, good sense and intellectual clarity; it can never claim to be real genuine poetry But a great deal may be allowed to Pope in view of the age in which he lived. In his one province, he still stands unapproachably alone. "He is the greatest satirist of individual men." He has given the finest expression to the life of the court or the ballroom; he has added more phrases to the language than any other poet but Shakespeare, if all these achievements make a man poet, Pope is certainly one. He is the founder of the artificial style of writing which in his hands became living and powerful. Measured by any high standard. of imagination, Pope will certainly be found wanting, but by any test of wit, Pope sands unrivaled.

      (vi) Pope's Originality. It is sometimes complained that Pope did not give a single new thought to the world. But originality does not always mean giving new thoughts to the world; it also means expressing a thought which we might have had vaguely, but which we had not (in the words of Emerson), "art or courage to clothe with form and utterance." Pope may not have given a new thought to the world, but he clothed common thoughts with form, and gave them a vivid and forceful expression. Therein lies a source of the pleasure which we derive from Pope's poetry.

      (vii) Pope's Concept of Nature. What does Pope mean by the word 'nature'? Pope's view of nature is very different from what we ordinarily understand by it. Wordsworth who killed the Popean school of poetry, called for a 'return to Nature.' And Pope also said, 'follow nature.' Where is the difference between the two poet's point of view? For Wordsworth, 'nature' meant the external face of the universe, and those elements of human nature, which are uncorrupted by artificial civilization. For Pope, 'nature meant that which was rational and was approved by tradition.' Wordsworth, influenced by Rosseau, wanted man to go back to nature and to live in harmony with nature freed from all the insincerities and artificialities of so-called civilization. Pope, the poet of the artificial society, wanted men to live properly in civilized society, following the rational principles of human conduct. Wordsworth was the apostle of nature which is untouched by human civilization, Pope speaks of "nature still, but nature methodized" - not wild free nature, but nature properly manipulated and "to advantage dressed." For Wordsworth, poetry must be natural spontaneous overflow of emotion. For Pope poetry must be rational, and avoid extremes. Thus, Pope and Wordsworth both followed 'nature', but their conceptions of 'nature' were poles apart.

      Pope was the poet of correctness, and sought to curb the wildness and disorder of unbridled imagination. The Romantic and the Metaphysical poets had corrupted poetry by indulging in extravagances and eccentricities. Pope therefore raised a theory of 'return to Nature.'

First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.

      Conclusion. It would be incorrect to say that he was not a poet at all. He brought the form of poetry to perfection and thereby made his own contribution to poetry. His scope was extremely limited but within these narrow limits how much has he done. He perfected the heroic couplet. His jeweled phrases have become current expressions of our everyday speech. His poetry does not have anything which may ennoble our thoughts and feelings but it gives us a great deal of pleasure. It may be "a miniature painting on two inches of ivory" but such a painting also has its own value. His poetry is the conventional poetry of a conventional age but it is poetry all the same. He can say what he wants to say in the best possible words, so that his commonplace thoughts and sentiments acquire unexpected beauty and grace. He completely achieves his own ideal of poetry - "What oft was thought but never so well expressed."

      There are occasional flashes of real poetry - like the description of the sylphs - in his works, which show that he would have been a different poet in a different age. We should not judge an author for what he has not done but for what he has done. We cannot, for example, deny Jane Austen the title of a great novelist because she has not written about anything outside the drawing-room. In the same way, we cannot deny the title of a poet to Pope because his subject is nothing outside the artificial life of his time. We can enjoy classical poetry and romantic poetry. There is no reason why we should not enjoy the conventional poetry of Pope. He has done so well, what he has attempted to do, that "in his own province, he stands unapproachably alone."


Discuss Arnold's dictum that Tope is the classic of our prose.'
Pope was really a great poet, the last great poet of civilization.' Elucidate this statement.
Pope's poetry is not a mountain— like that of Wordsworth's, it is not in sympathy with the higher moods of the mind. "It was mirror in a drawing room, but it gives back a faithful picture of society." Comment.
Pope is sometimes spoken of as a poet, "without atmosphere, without suggestion." What justification, if any; is there for such a view?
"Ever since the Romantic Movement of the early 19th century, people have asked 'was Pope a poet?" What have you to say in answer to this question?
Pope for the most part, abides by what oft was thought, and his task is to express it never so well.' Examine in the light of this remark, the scope and themes of Pope's poetry.
Pope and Wordsworth both claimed to follow 'Nature.' How do they differ?

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