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great epic was the greatest work that a poet could accomplish ; why, then, when he was free to choose, did he not undertake such a work ?
To answer this we have to look both to Pope's character and to his circumstances. He toyed with the idea of writing a great epic. He told Spence that he had it all in his head, and gave him a vague sketch of the subject and plan of it, but he never put any of it on paper. This indecision was partly due to his character and partly to his circumstances. Partly he shrank from the labor, and partly he was turned aside by circumstances to other labors which fully occupied his energies. One reason why great epics are rare is that the composition of them, in addition to imaginative genius and genius for rhythmical expression, demands an intellectual staying power and energy of will such as are rarely found in human beings with or without the poet's special gifts. Reflect for a moment on the intellectual force that a poet must exert in writing a tragedy. To give moving expression to a single tragic situation, to imagine and body forth in language that all men feel to be true to nature the changes of passion in the heart of one character in one of the scenes in “Macbeth,” or “Hamlet,” or “Othello," so that not a line shall ring false, requires no ordinary intellectual concentration ; but to exhibit in a succession of scenes, each profoundly wrought out, a progression of events toward a tragic catastrophe, bringing many agencies to bear, and assigning to each its right influence, giving voice to many and various passionate emotions, sustaining at every moment and gradually deepening the interest of the hearer, observing the hundred conditions of tragic effect—this puts an immensely greater strain on the strength of intellect and will. Unless the poet goes right by a sort of instinct, borne along in a rapturous delight with each triumphant step, he must collapse ; but instinct in this case is only another name for intellect,
one, however, that can hold in its grasp at once and satisfy at once the conflicting claims of a multitude of conditions which a weaker intellect can grasp only one by one, and can never fully reconcile, because it can never bring them all together. It may be doubted whether the strain is equally great in epic, because the difficulties do not occur with the same cumulative importunity; they admit of being vanquished, if not singly, at least in smaller detachments. Still, even in epic, the strain is such as few men in the history of literature have proved equal to, though multitudes have tried. Now, Pope, as you know, was not constitutionally a strong man. I am not here speaking of muscular strength, but of constitutional strength. His life, as he said in the prologue to his “Satires,” was one long disease. It has always been a matter of wonder that, to use Mr. Leslie Stephen's phrase, he got as much work out of his frail body as he did. One of the secrets of his endurance was that he worked in comparative tranquillity. He avoided the stress and strain of complicated designs, and applied himself to designs that could be accomplished in detail- works of which the parts could be separately labored and put together with patient care, into which happy thoughts could be fitted, struck out at odd moments, and in ordinary levels of feeling. Even the work of translating the “Iliad,” a very different work from creating an epic, weighed very heavily on his spirits. After he was fairly committed to it he told Spence he was often under great pain and apprehension. “I dreamed often," he said, "of being engaged in a long journey, and that I should never get to the end of it.”
This shrinking from sustained intellectual strain, to be prolonged day after day for weeks or months or years,— for a great epic cannot be written in a day,—was probably one of the reasons why Pope did not attempt an epic, though he liked to think over subjects. The hero
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of the one that he had planned was the legendary Brutus, the Trojan colonizer and name-father of Britain, the invention of the fertile romancers of the twelfth century. Pope proposed to describe how he established civil and ecclesiastical order in England-a theme, you will observe, that could have been treated in cold blood. We have probably not lost much from his never having carried out this design. It may be doubted whether he had the intellectual strength for a great epic, though in the" Eloisa and Abelard ” he showed himself capable of dealing powerfully with a single tragical situation.
But now to consider the circumstances that diverted him from attempting such an epic as he was capable of, and led him into the walks of satire, in which for keenness and brilliancy of point he has never been surpassed. Imitating the epic style, we must ask our Muse of Literary History : “ Tell me, O Muse, what dire offence moved the great Pope to make war upon the little dunces. Who were the dunces, and what had they done to provoke his ire, so that he spent some years in composing an elaborate poem designed to subject them to everlasting ridicule ? »
“The history of the 'Dunciad,”” Johnson says in his “Life of Pope," " is minutely related by Pope himself, in a dedication which he wrote to Lord Middlesex in the name of Savage.” According to this account, the origin of the poem was very simple. Pope and one or two of his intimate friends, notably Swift and Arbuthnot, were great connoisseurs of good poetry, and one of their favorite amusements,—they had formed a little club for the purpose in the reign of Anne, fifteen years before the publication of the “ Dunciad,”—was to make fun of bad poetry. With this view the intimates had together composed a “Treatise on Bathos, or the Art of Sinking," in which they collected and invented superlative specimens of mixed metaphors, preposterous similes, and generally of the bombast and extravagance and inanity
of bad poetry, and classified bad poets according to their eminence in the various arts of debasing instead of elevating their subjects. These specimens of the bad they ascribed to various letters of the alphabet, most of them taken at random. Well, no sooner was the treatise published than the infatuated scribblers proceeded to take the letters to themselves, and in revenge to fill the newspapers with the most abusive falsehoods and scurrilities they could possibly devise. “This gave Mr. Pope the thought that he had now some opportunity of doing good by detecting and dragging into light these common enemies of mankind,” who for years had been anonymously aspersing almost all the great characters of the age. Their persistent attacks upon himself had given him a peculiar right to their names and so he wrote the “ Dunciad.”
In might seem, then, that the Muse of History had nothing to tell, but she is an inquisitive Muse, and she has not remained satisfied with Mr. Pope's account. If the letters of the alphabet were distributed at random among imaginary bad poets, it is the most singular chance on record that they happened so often to correspond with the initials of poets and poetasters of the time. The gods of the literary Olympus, playing at the Art of Sinking, were not quite so innocent in their amusements as Pope pretended ; they were rather like the little boys in the fable throwing stones at the frogs, and they had no right to assume virtuous airs when the frogs protested and retaliated. It is, besides, fatal to the strict accuracy of Pope's account that the book of
Miscellanies containing the treatise on the Bathos was published in 1727, while Pope, from his letters to Swift, is known to have been engaged on the “ Dunciad”in 1726, and from internal evidence is conjectured to have begun it several years earlier. In extreme opposition to Pope's account is another history of the affair, adopted by those who take the worst view of his
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character, and will have it that he was essentially vindictive and malignant. This view is that Pope's motives for writing the “ Dunciad” were purely spiteful and personal ; that as soon as his hands were free from his translation of Homer, and his independence secured by the profits of that work, he proceeded to settle old scores with those who had not spoken as favorably as he liked about his poetry. There is strong justification for this view in the fact that the most prominent persons ridiculed in the “Dunciad” can be shown to have given him offence. Theobald or Tibbald, the original hero of the poem, had criticised his edition of Shakespeare, as he thought, insolently. Cibber, in whose favor Tibbald was subsequently deposed, -the “Dunciad” received
,—the many alterations and additions after its first issue,-had ridiculed a play in which Pope in his earlier days had some share, and had retaliated on the first mention of his name in the “ Dunciad." Dennis was an old enemy. Lintot, the publisher, had accused him of unfair practices in the division of the profits of the “ Odyssey," which proved less successful than the “Iliad.” And so
You will find the details in any edition of the “Dunciad,” most fully in the recent edition by Mr. Courthope, who has succeeded Mr. Elwin in the task begun by Croker. Indeed, it was not denied by Pope that the men satirized had previously attacked him ; it was openly avowed, and specimens of their attacks were prefixed to his own complete edition; it was these attacks, he said, that had given him a right to make use of the names of his assailants.
Was it, then, personal spite, the vindictiveness of wounded vanity, as some critics think, or was it, as he professed himself, “ the thought that he had now some opportunity of doing good,” that moved Pope to write the "Dunciad”? The truth probably lies between the two views. Both motives may have operated, as well as a third not so obvious—an unscrupulous love of fun, and