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This Ode was written, we find, at the desire of Steele ; and our Poet, in a letter to him on that occasion, says,—“ You have it, as Cowley calls it, just warm from the brain; it came to me the first moment I waked this morning; yet you'll see, it was not so absolutely inspiration, but that I had in my head, not only the verses of Hadrian, but the fine fragment of Sappho.”
It is possible, however, that our Author might have had another composition in his head, besides those he here refers to : for there is a close and surprising resemblance between this ode of Pope, and one of an obscure and forgotten rhymer of the age of Charles the Second, namely Thomas Flatman; from whose dunghill, as well as from the dregs of Crashawe, of Carew, of Herbert, and others (for it is well known he was a great reader of all those poets), Pope has very judiciously collected gold. And the following stanza is, perhaps, the only valuable one Flatman has produced :
When on my sick bed I languish;
Be not fearful, come away! The third and fourth lines are eminently good and pathetic, and the climax well preserved, the very turn of them is closely copied by Pope ; as is likewise the striking circumstance of the dying man's imagining he hears a voice calling him away:
Vital spark of heav'nly flame
Prior also translated this little Ode, but with manifest inferiority to Pope. Pope was certainly indebted to Flatman. The plagiarism is palpable. Dr. Warton speaks with too much contempt of Crashawe, Herbert, &c. Some of Crashawe's strains are of a “ higher mood;” and who can deny great merit to the author of that natural and pleasing effusion, of which Mr. Ellis, in his valuable specimens of English Poetry, has selected,
“ I made a Posy, as the day went by.” Herbert was Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and afterwards Rector of Bemerton, near Salisbury.
ELOISA TO ABELARD.
O Abelard, ill-fated youth !
In point of poetical excellence, the Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard has been more applauded than any of the works of Pope. Dr. Warton “ conceives it to be the most highly finished, and certainly the most interesting, of the pieces of our author;" and Mr. Bowles declares his conviction, that " it is infinitely superior to every thing of the kind, ancient or modern." This commendation has not however been suffered to pass without deductions of such a nature, as not only detract from its value, but, if justly founded, would render the poem undeserving a place in the works of Pope. “We must candidly own," says Warton, “ that the principal circumstance of distress is of so indelicate a nature, that it is with difficulty disguised by the exquisite art and address of the poet.” Mr. Bowles has ventured to advance a step further, and to represent the poem as being of an immoral tendency. “The inherent indelicacy of the subject,” says he, " is one objection to it; and who but must lament its immoral effect ?” On this head it may be observed, that different opinions will be formed, according to the light in which it is viewed, and the different characters of those who decide. Such persons as are susceptible of those impressions which works of genius are intended to communicate, who comprehend the whole of the subject, and can enter into the feelings, and perceive the intentions of the poet or the artist, will view it as a true connoisseur views an ancient statue, and will find no disposition to attend to remarks that can only interfere with or destroy such impressions; whilst they who are disposed to consider a subject in parts, rather than in the whole, and to look for causes of objection, may doubtless discover in the Epistle of Eloisa, passages which will be considered by them as licentious or immoral. It must however be observed, that if this construction be put upon the poem, it is what the author never intended. On the contrary, his object is to shew the fatal consequences of an ungovernable passion; and if he has done this in natural and even glowing language, it must be remembered that such are not his own sentiments, but those of the person he has undertaken to represent, and are in general given in nearly her own words. That many expressions and passages may be pointed out, which are inconsistent with the established order and just regulations of society, may fully admitted. Such for instance as the lines
How oft when press'd to marriage have I said,