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ROBERT EARL OF OXFORD, AND EARL OF MORTIMER.
Epifle to Robert Earl of Oxford.] This Epittle was fent to the Earl of Oxford with Dr. Parnelle's Poems published by our Author, after the said Earl's imprisonment in the Tower, and retreat into the country, in the Year 1721. POPE.
VER. 1. Such were the notes] The notes were charming indeed! We have few pieces of Poetry superior to Parnelle's Rife of Woman; the Fairy Tale; the Hymn to Contentment; Health, an Eclogue; the Vigil of Venus; the Night piece on Death; the Allegory on Man; and the Hermit. The beft account of the ori. ginal of this laft exquifite poem is given in the third volume of the Hiftory of English Poetry, p. 31.; from whence it appears that it was taken from the eightieth chapter of that curious repofitory of ancient tales, the Gefta Romanorum. The ftory is related in the fourth volume of Howel's Letters, who fays he found it in Sir Philip Herbert's Conceptions; but this fine Apologue was much better related in the Divine Dialogues of Dr. Henry More, Dial. ii. part 1.; and Parnelle feems to have copied it chiefly from this Platonic Theologist, who had not lefs imagination than learning. Pope used to say that it was originally written in Spanish :
Bleft in each science, bleft in ev'ry strain!
Abfent or dead, ftill let a friend be dear,
And fure, if aught below the feats divine
from the early connection between the Spaniards and Arabians it may be fufpected that it was an Oriental tale. Voltaire has in. serted it in his Zadig, without mentioning a fyllable of the place whence he borrowed it. WAKTON.
VER. 21. And fure, if aught] Strength of mind appears to have been the predominant characteristic of Lord Oxford; of which he gave the moft ftriking proofs when he was ftabbed, difplaced, imprisoned. These noble and nervous lines allude to these circumftances; of his fortitude and firmness another striking proof remains, in a letter which the Earl wrote from the Tower to a friend, who advised him to meditate an efcape, and which is worthy of the greatest hero of antiquity. This extraordinary letter I had
A Soul fupreme, in each hard inftance try'd,
In vain to Deferts thy retreat is made;
the pleasure of reading, by the favour of the Earl's excellent grand-daughter, the late Dutchefs Dowager of Portland, who inherited that love of literature and fcience, fo peculiar to her anceftors and family.
I am well informed that Bolingbroke was greatly mortified at Pope's bestowing thefe praifes on his old antagonist, whom he mortally hated; yet I have seen two original letters in the hands of the fame Dutchefs of Portland, of Lord Bolingbroke to Lord Oxford, full of the moft fulfome flattery of the man whom he affected to defpife, and of very idle and profane applications of Scripture.
The Vifions of Parnelle, at the end of his Poems, published in the Guardian, are in a rugged inharmonious ftyle; as indeed is the Life of Zoilus, printed 1717; and alfo the Effay on the Life of Homer, prefixed to our Author's tranflation: and his Essay on the Different Styles in Poetry is rather a mean performance.
ER. 24. Above all Pain, &c.] This alludes to the excruciating pains he fuffered from the ftone; "all Paffion," means his general equanimity.
VER. 24. all pride,] He was fo amiable and condefcending, that one of the accufations against him by the Whigs was, that he treated the black-coats (clergy) like gentlemen!
She waits, or to the scaffold, or the cell,
When the last ling'ring friend has bid farewell.
THERE are few verses in Pope, more correct, more musical, more dignified, and affecting, than thefe to Lord Oxford; and such a teftimony to his merit in the hour of misfortune, muft have been as grateful to Lord Oxford, as it was honourable to Pope.
In private life, no one was more amiable or more beloved than Lord Oxford; whatever may be thought of his public character, (particularly that part of it which has been moft obnoxious to cenfure, on account of his fuppofed views in favouring the fucceffion of James,) the violent ftate of parties at the latter end of the reign. of queen Anne, fhould be always kept in mind, and the over-bearing conduct of the leading Whigs, who, before the admiffion of Harley to her private confidence, had kept the Queen, from the commencement of her reign, in a state of humiliation and fubjection.
That, of Harley it might be faid, he had truly the murus aheneus, "nil confcire fibi, nullá pallefcere culpâ," I am willing to believe, and his fubfequent conduct goes a great way to prove it.— Upon George the Firft's arrival in England, he went to pay his refpects to him, among the reft of the nobility, at Greenwich. The exultation Bolingbroke expreffed at the cold reception he met with, is well known (fee his Letter to Sir William Wyndham); but could Lord Oxford have expofed himfelf to fuch treatment had he been confcious of being, in his heart, the king's enemy? Mr. Coxe, to whofe opinion I highly defer, acknowledges, that "Harley never appeared to wish to frustrate the act of fettle ment." He has been called in common language "a Trimmer,”
because having been a distinguished Whig, he afterwards joined the Tories; and endeavoured to ingratiate himself with the Elector of Hanover, when affairs took a different turn: but I confefs, setting party afide, I fee nothing inconfiftent in his conduct; at leaft, I fee nothing that could warrant the judgment that he was actuated by felf-interest alone.
No one can fay, but that the conduct he pursued was fuch as a real lover of his country might have pursued; and it is fuch as, for that reafon, would make him obnoxious to the violent of both factions. On the one hand, he faw the Queen a cypher, and places, command, authority, power, and government in the hands of an imperious junto; on the other fide, he faw a rooted antipathy, at least among the Jacobite Tories, to all but the family of James. He was a Whig, as far as was confiftent with supporting the power, and authority, and dignity of the CROWN; a Tory, but without entering into the defigns of those who saw with a malignant eye the profpect of the proteftant fucceffion. From the state of parties at the time, one might conclude, that to be a Whig, it was necessary to submit to the "imperium in imperio" of the Duke of Marlborough, or rather of the Duchefs; and that a Tory muft neceffarily be in league with the Pretender; that is, to be a Jacobite. Oxford courted, indeed, men of abilities and integrity on both fides, but he avoided either extreme.
His conduct, when impeached, was worthy fuch a character. He neither meanly fled, like Bolingbroke, although he was well aware of the odium excited against him, and the pains and penalties which an exasperated party might inflict; nor, when he had loft the favour of one party, did he basely fly to the other, avowing at once his connections, or his profligacy.
He endured his imprisonment without complaint, and waited the event of his trial with refigned fubmiffion, but with the intrepidity of unfhaken and confcious integrity. These lines of Pope, which feem to me truly to characterise Lord Oxford, are therefore particularly interefting, and they have a melancholy flow, yet a dignified force of expreffion, fuitable to the character and occafion.