48 Pages


Pope was right enough to declare with studied casualness that ‘The life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth’ (PW I: 292), for there was little in contemporary criticism of his poetry which was not motivated by opposition and envy. Nonetheless, Pope’s actual publishing career was immensely successful and he was unquestionably the leading poet of his day: Warburton’s edition of his works (1751) accorded him the status of a classic. But it was not long before depreciation began to set in, partly because Pope’s hard-won facility in verse produced many imitators, and partly because his complete dominance of the poetic scene was intimidating for successors who would do more than imitate. Cowper claimed that Pope had corrupted poetry by making it easy: he ‘Made poetry a mere mechanic art,/And every warbler has his tune by heart’ (Bateson and Joukovsky 1971: 121-2). The poet and scholar Joseph Warton produced the first major critical work on Pope in 1756, revising it through several versions and adding a second volume in 1782 (Barnard 1973: 379407, 508-21); and though he paid due tribute to Pope’s abilities, he advanced the fatal case that Pope was in effect a moralist rather than a poet, that he lacked ‘a creative and glowing IMAGINATION’: ‘the Sublime and the Pathetic are the two chief nerves of all genuine poesy. What is there very sublime or very Pathetic in POPE’ . It was a damaging question, despite the fact that Warton kept (almost by accident) finding examples of exactly that which he claimed that Pope lacked. In The Rape of the Lock, according to Warton, ‘POPE principally appears a POET; in which he has displayed more imagination than in all his other works taken together’ (Barnard 1973: 399); the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady he found ‘as it came from the heart, is very tender and pathetic’ (400); Eloisa to Abelard was ‘truly poetical, and contains ... strong painting’ (404). The Essay on Man almost made him change his mind: ‘I feel myself almost tempted to retract an assertion in the beginning of this work, that there is nothing transcendently sublime in POPE. These lines have all the energy and harmony that can be given to rhyme’ (513). But in his conclusion, Warton argued that basically Pope’s work was didactic, moral, and satiric, ‘and consequently, not of the most poetic species of poetry’; ‘He gradually became one of the most correct, even, and exact poets that ever wrote’, but ‘Whatever poetical enthusiasm he actually possessed, he withheld and stifled’ (520).