Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 1. Pope’s Literary Consciousness, and his attitude towards Contemporary Literature

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

III. Pope

§ 1. Pope’s Literary Consciousness, and his attitude towards Contemporary Literature

THE GREAT writer of whom this chapter treats was a man of real poetic genius, the growth and direction of which were powerfully affected by his physical constitution, his circumstances and the character of the age. None of his achievements belong to the very highest forms of poetry. Where he excelled, his pre-eminence is beyond dispute; yet his deficiency in qualities more prized by a later generation has imperilled his very right to be regarded as a poet. On certain points, all are practically agreed. Pope is a memorable example of a conscious literary artist, the type in our country of the classical spirit; rarely has a poet shown himself a truer or more delicate representative of his own time. Even did his work no longer appeal to us by its enduring merit, he must escape neglect because of his part in England’s literary development.

Pope’s true position has not always been recognised. He has been viewed from the standpoint of periods out of sympathy with his excellences and impatient of his defects, and his influence has been regarded as a monstrous barrier restraining all deep and natural emotion until swept away by the torrent of the romantic revival. He has figured as one who left the free air of heaven for the atmosphere of the coffee-house, as the first to introduce a mechanical standard of poetry, owing its acceptance to the prosaic tone of his day. Attention to the historic side of literature has brought sounder views. It is urged that, far from making nature give way to art, he shared the reaction, not confined to England, against an artificial mode, and stood in a real sense for a return to nature. Rather than having been the originator of a movement, he represents its climax, as he carried to completion a work already begun.

Pope’s attitude was not one of revolt. His poetry did not disgust on its first appearance by deserting accepted models. His immediate success proves how closely he was in touch with his contemporaries. In the directness and lucidity of his style, he improved his inheritance from Waller, Denham and Dryden. In the skill with which he elaborated the heroic couplet, he was indebted to these poets, above all to Dryden, as well as to the translations of Sandys. In the striving after simplicity, in the rejection of the extravagance of the so-called metaphysical poets, he instinctively followed an existing movement, precisely as the justness of thought and clarify of expression in Swift and Addison had an immediate ancestry. But, in prose and poetry alike, the qualities greatly admired in that period, and valuable in any, were won at the cost of others whose loss must be deplored, and poetry suffered most.