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Much that is peculiar in the life and literary career of Pope is accounted for by the circumstances of his birth and education.
Alexander Pope was born on the twenty-first of May of the year 1688, in Lombard Street in the city of London. Of his father and namesake it is known with certainty that he realised in the linen-trade a fortune sufficient to enable him to retire from business at a comparatively early period in life, and at his death to leave behind him an income which has been variously estimated, but which at all events sensibly added to the worldly ease of his son. That the elder Pope was a devoted member of the Church of Rome, is equally undoubted; we find his son in his earlier letters referring to the pious habits prevailing in his family; and passages in the poetry of the son1 picture the father's life as spent in cheerful resignation to the lot in those days incumbent upon adherents to the persecuted ancient faith. That Pope's father was a convert to the Church in which he lived and brought up his son, is a mere piece of hearsay built upon another piece of hearsay to the effect that the poet's grandfather was a clergyman of the Church of England. Though antiquarian zeal has sought to identify this supposed Anglican clerical grandsire in the person of an Alexander Pope, rector of Thruxton in Hampshire, who died in the year 1645, there is nothing beyond a mere conjecture to justify the application of an intrinsically uninteresting discovery. The poet no doubt claimed kindred with the family bearing his name formerly ennobled as earls of Downe; but as the family in question was entirely extinct in the male line, it is at best possible that the two families had at some former period been more or less closely connected. There is just as much and as little reason to assume that the poet was descended from a Scotch branch of the Popes; the foundation of the claim resting chiefly on the two facts that there have been Catholic Popes in Scotland, and that an enthusiastic Presbyterian namesake of the poet vaguely asserted a kind of kinsmanship with the latter in his lifetime.
The maiden name of Pope's mother was Edith Turner. She was the daughter of William Turner, a Roman Catholic gentleman of good position, and lord of the manor of Towthorpe in Yorkshire. He was the father of no less than seventeen children, of whom Pope's mother survived all the rest. She died at the age of 93, in 1733, affectionately mourned in death as she had been tenderly cherished throughout his life by her son. On a monument which he erected to her he recorded her character as that of the best of mothers and most loving of women2. Dr Johnson, in whose large heart the sentiment of piety sat enthroned, generously observes of Pope under this aspect, that 'life has, among its soothing and quiet comforts, few things better to give than such a son.' Of William Turner's children some were
Epistle to Arbuthnot, vv. 394 ff. Imit. of Hor. bk. 11. Ep. 11. vv. 54 ff.
2 No attention need be paid to Mrs Piozzi's statement that Pope's mother was 'a poor
feebleminded thing, unworthy anyone's care or esteem." Hayward, Autobiography and Remains of Mrs Piozzi, 11. 154.
brought up as Protestants and some Catholics; but it cannot be doubted that Pope's mother was among the latter number. Her attachment to the Catholic faith seemed to her son a sufficient argument to outweigh all the inducements to conversion urged upon him, after his father's death, by Atterbury. Thus his attitude towards the church in which he was nurtured invariably remained that of a cheerful outward acquiescence, whatever at times may have been his views in regard to creeds and churches in general1.
On retiring from business, the elder Pope, after residing for a time at Kensington, finally took up his abode at Binfield, on the border of Windsor Forest, and about nine miles distant from the royal castle and town. Here he remained in modest but comfortable circumstances until the year 1716, when the family removed to Chiswick, little more than a year before his death. Whatever may have been his own earlier history, he was a kind and indulgent parent to his precocious only son, the development of whose tastes and tendencies the father seems at times to have been fain to moderate, but never to check. When the son affected the art of painting, his father placed no obstacles in his way; when he adopted literature as the calling of his life, his father with equal readiness acquiesced in this hazardous choice. He never appears to have intended that his son should engage in trade; and even had the delicate and sickly nature of the latter admitted of his following one of the learned professions, all were closed to him by the circumstance of his creed. With his father Pope shared the love of gardening, which, notwithstanding many absurd excrescences, was one of the healthiest tastes of the times, and in which he was afterwards, after a fashion of his own, to indulge in the fantastic laying-out of his Twickenham villa.
Among the many precocious children of whom we read in literary and artistic biography (and precocity is as frequent here as it is rare in the case of future great statesmen; for talents unfold themselves amidst tranquil surroundings, but to fashion a character are needed the storms of the world), Pope was assuredly one of the most precocious. At five years of age he had already displayed sufficient signs of promise to be chosen by an aunt as the reversionary legatee of all her books, pictures and medals. His education in its beginnings and progress corresponds very closely with its ultimate results. Pope was by necessity rather than choice a self-educated man; and he never became a scholar. Science may number self-taught geniuses among her chief luminaries; of scholarship, as the term implies, discipline is an indispensable element. Pope taught himself writing by copying from printed books, and hence acquired at least one external mark of scholarly habits, the practice of minute calligraphy crowded into nooks and corners of paper-a practice which afterwards in Pope's case almost developed itself into a mania and obtained for him from Swift the epithet of 'paper-sparing' Pope. And as he passed onward from the first rudiments,
The above summary is based on a comparison of Carruthers with various antiquarian tracts on the parentage and family of Pope by J. Hunter and R. Davies. 2 Goethe's Tasso.
his education remained very much a matter of chance. From the family priest (it is very touching to find how few of these Roman Catholic families lacked the ministration of one of the persecuted servants of their Church), whose name was Banister, he learnt the accidence of Latin and Greek, when eight years of age; and afterwards successively attended two small Catholic schools, one at Twyford near Winchester, which he is said to have left in disgrace after fleshing upon its master the youthful weapon of his satire, the other in London, kept by a convert of the name of Deane, whose principle of education seems to have been as far as possible removed from that of unremitting personal superintendence. About this time must be dated the famous incident of the boy Pope's visit to Will's Coffee-house, the sole occasion (according to his account to Spence) on which he ever beheld Dryden.
Quitting Mr Deane's seminary for his father's house at Binfield, Pope, now twelve or thirteen years of age, brought with him little or no accurate learning, but tastes already developed and a literary ambition already active. At about eight years of age he had translated part of Statius, who next to Virgil continued through life his favourite Latin poet; and at twelve he had composed a play founded on the Iliad. At Twyford he had prepared himself for this effort by the study of Ogilby's Homer, followed by that of Sandys' Ovid; and now that he was left to follow the bent of his own inclinations, his studies continued to pursue the same direction. 'Considering,' he told Spence, 'how very little I had when I came from school, I think I may be said to have taught myself Latin, as well as French, or Greek; and in all these my chief way of getting them was by translation.' Translation without guidance is the ruin of accurate scholarship; but it is not Pope or his father, it is the penal statutes against Catholic teachers which are to be held accountable for his having availed himself of the only method left open to his use.
It is to this period that we must ascribe the first of his preserved juvenile pieces. Though he had no public, the tonic of common sense appears to have been occasionally administered by his father; and the sense of rhythm was a gift which had been bestowed upon him by nature, together with a general correctness of taste in the choice of words and expressions which his preference for poetical over prose reading could not fail to heighten. To these causes must be ascribed the extraordinary and perhaps unparalleled fact that there is little vital difference, so far as form is concerned, between some of the earliest and some of the latest of Pope's productions. His early pieces lack the vigour of wit and the brilliancy of antithesis of his later works; but they have the same felicity of expression, and the same easy flow of versification. It is only in the management of rhymes that Pope's earliest productions are comparatively negligent. We have it on Pope's own authority, as related by Spence, that some of the couplets in an epic poem on the subject of Alcander, prince of Rhodes, which he begun soon after his twelfth birthday, were afterwards inserted by
1 Even the Latin scholarship of Pope accordingly appears to have been of a somewhat unsound description. See e.g. the strange quotation from
Horace among the 'Imitations,' noted by Pope in his Temple of Fame (p. 126 of the present edition).
him without alteration not only in the Essay on Criticism, but in the Dunciad. Alcander, after having progressed to the number of 4000 lines, and though uniting in itself specimens of every style admired by its author-Milton and Cowley and Spenser, Homer and Virgil, Ovid and Claudian and Statius-was left uncompleted and ultimately perished in the flames, to which this venile magnum opus seems to have been sentenced by the author himself, and not, as has been stated, by Bishop Atterbury1.
In his fifteenth year Pope went to London to learn French and Italian; but there is no evidence, either in his letters or in his works, that he ever attained to any real familiarity with either of these languages. French he seems to have learnt to read with ease; whether he conversed in it may be doubted, and his invariable habit in his poetry of accentuating French words according to the English rule would seem to lead to a contrary conclusion. As to Italian, he is said to have preferred Ariosto to Tasso; but translations existed of both; and the circumstance that in his Essay on Criticism he unjustifiably singles out Vida for an unmerited eminence among the Italian writers of the renaissance proves less than nothing as to Pope's knowledge either of that language or its literature; inasmuch as the work of Vida to which special allusions are made in the Essay was written in Latin. After a few months in London we find him once more returned to the retirement of Binfield; and hereupon ensues a period of five or six years' close application to study. As with Pope everything was precocious, so during this early period of his life he is overtaken by that phase of despondency and seemingly uncontrollable melancholy which work engenders in those of sedentary, as it cures in those of active habits of life, but which has tried few at so premature a point of their careers. In Pope's case the friendly advice of a priest named Southcote prescribed the obvious remedy, moderation in study combined with regular bodily exercise, and it is touching to find the poet in the days of his prosperity mindful of the inestimable service rendered him by the good father, and obtaining for the latter, at the hands of the obnoxious Walpole, a comfortable abbacy in France.
It was not till a much later period of his life, that under the influence of minds foreign in their constitution to his own, Pope's studies ever seriously deviated from the narrow course which they had taken in his boyhood. Ancient and English poets nearly monopolised his attention; translation and imitation helping him to familiarise himself by practice with the styles of his favourite authors. He translated that part of Statius which he subsequently published with the corrections of his friend and adviser Walsh; as well as Cicero's De Senectute, an isolated juvenile effort in prose which chance has continued to hide from the eyes of posterity. Among English writers he was attracted in a far higher degree by the poets than by the prosaists. Yet he read Locke's Essay, though not without effort; and Sir William Temple's Varia, though without sympathy. His own prose style can hardly be said to have
1 See Roscoe's Life, pp. 19-20.
suffered from his study of the latter author; and from his earlier letters, as well as from his Discourse on Pastoral Poetry, it is manifest that as a prose-writer he only lost the art of writing naturally by slow degrees. Of his appreciation of the distinctive styles of several English poets his Imitations offer sufficient proofs; that the genius of Chaucer only in part, and that of Spenser hardly at all, revealed itself to him, seems equally clear, if equally natural. His brief apprenticeship was already drawing towards its close; and he became an author before he had found time or opportunity to exchange dilettantism for scholarship.
A kindly remembrance will ever be due to the friendly circle whose encouragement first launched Pope upon his literary life. Yet it required no extraordinary penetration to recognise in the gifted and studious boy the promise of brilliant original workmanship, even when he was most intent upon reproducing in juvenile clay of his own such monuments of past masters as had attracted his attention. Pope's parental home was far enough removed from the busy city to enable him to become one of the wonders of his vicinity; and at East Hamstead near Binfield dwelt an old gentleman well qualified by shrewdness and experience to become the earliest patron of youthful merit. The retirement of diplomatists has frequently been of service to literature; and Sir William Trumball, as his letters prove, well merited the encomium which Pope bestowed upon him in his Epitaph, that he was at once 'fill'd with the sense of age' and 'the fire of youth.' 'Give me leave to tell you,' he wrote to Pope as early as 1705, 'that I know nobody so likely to equal' Milton as the author of his earlier poems 'even at the age he wrote most of them, as yourself.' It was Trumball who introduced his protégé to Wycherley, the veteran of many a literary campaign. 'Manly' Wycherley, though he could look back upon a series of comedies unsurpassed in brutal vigour, was now in his old age collecting and revising the more innocent, if less powerful, efforts of his lyric moments. To Pope, however, he could at first hardly fail to be a literary hero, until at a rather later period familiarity with the old man's poems (submitted by him for the correction of the tiro) bred its inevitable consequence, and a too literal interpretation on Pope's part of a proverbially delicate request caused a coolness which prevented a continuance of friendly intercourse on the old terms. To Trumball in the first instance, and then to Wycherley, Pope had communicated a copy of his first completed effort, the Pastorals. Wycherley in his turn sent them to Walsh, who was himself not unknown as a poet, but enjoyed a still higher reputation as a critic. He received the juvenile poems favourably and returned a gratifying verdict upon them: 'It is not flattery at all to say that Vergil had written nothing so good at his age1.' He then extended
1 Referring of course to the 'juvenile poems' The first of his Eclogues were certainly written at of Vergil now universally regarded as spurious, a later age than the Pastorals of Pope.