Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 11. Pope’s Workmanship and Style

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

§ 11. Pope’s Workmanship and Style

Pope’s literary activity in this first stretch of his career was singularly varied. Any dramatic work was confined to a share in Gay and Arbuthnot’s Three Hours after Marriage. His Ode for Music on Saint Cecilia’s Day marks the absence of the lyrical gift. His other attempts to sing were of the slightest; but there is enough variety in the rest to show the directions in which he could turn his extraordinary technical skill. We miss any indication of what was to be the main subject of his matured art. And, just when we might have expected him to plan a great original work, he binds himself to years of translation, and, this task over, we find him in a new field. Pope has been described, at this stage, as a potential romanticist, and we are conscious, in more than one of his poems, of feelings that faded away and a promise that was never fulfilled. Something must be allowed to the spirit of the times, something to his long term of hard labour on his Homer, something to advancing years. For Pope aged early: to his gayer youth succeeded a more or less invalid middle age, which might itself account for a change of tone and a restriction in his choice of subject. The psychology of poetic creation is a perilous topic; but it would that his fervour was frequently kindled, not so much by the theme itself as by the consciousness of literary effort in treating it; that, in short, his inspiration grew in the course of composition. The main features of his style were now formed. Change of taste has done its worst with them; but it is unfair to construct an idea of the essential from the accidents of his art. At his best, he is signally direct, free from artificial balance, otiose epithets and pseudo-classical periphrasis. The nature of many of his winged words is responsible for the belief that Pope’s qualities were hard and prosaic. But the exact matching of thought with speech, making any other mode of expression inconceivable, is not less remarkable in passages where the idea is more poetical. Pope did not restrict himself to conversational language: his style is exceptionally rich in apt reminiscences of other writers. But his acquaintance with men of the world, at a time when literature held little aloof from everyday life, made him sensitively aware what his audience demanded. In this respect, the age of Anne may be called Augustan. Its chief men wrote primarily for the few. Pope has been compared to Horace, from whom he widely differs in much else. But the curiosa felicitas of both was connected with the same instinct. One of the conditions of Pope’s correctness was that no extravagance or solecism should offend his reader’s taste. His early devotion to books has been described. “I had rather,” he confided to Spence, “be employed in reading than in the most agreeable conversation”; and, in all that he read, his tenacious memory and sense for apt expression never slumbered. Individual as his style remains, his fabric is many a time woven with threads drawn from another’s web. But he was no plagiarist. The form of words is borrowed or adapted to fit a thought of his own that already asked for utterance. We are reminded again and again of the advantage to which he had studied Milton and Waller and Dryden, and many another predecessor, besides taking hints from contemporaries. Many passages of this kind were noted by Warton and Wakefield and later editors, and a closer search will bring more to light. Pope is not one of those writers who are never at a loss for a word, still less for ten. His style rests on his oriental patience in elaborating his art. “I corrected,” he observes in his preface of 1717, “because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write,” and a study of their gradual growth proves that, in many of his lines, the finest touches are due to second intentions. Thus

  • And strike to dust th’ imperial tow’rs of Troy
  • owes its full effectiveness to an afterthought, and the inevitable couplet that tells of fit instruments of ill is an improvement on an earlier attempt. Autographs, proof-sheets and revised editions all attest his passion for retouching. “I will make my enemy do me a kindness when he meant an injury,” he writes to Caryll, “and so serve instead of a friend”; and he blotted lines that Dennis had condemned. In minute care of workmanship, he has not been outdone by Tennyson. The sense of the supreme importance of polish was a legacy from Augustan Rome. The endeavour for compactness makes Pope, at times, ungrammatical or obscure. Austin Dobson has characterised his age:
  • When Phoebus touch’d the Poet’s trembling ear
  • With one supreme commandment, Be thou Clear.
  • But, in An Essay on Criticism, where there is need above all to be lucid, Pope, more than once, sins by ambiguity, as, again, in An Essay on Man. The metrical principles which he followed from an early period were expounded in a letter to Cromwell. He excepts against hiatus, the use of expletives, monosyllabic lines—unless very artfully managed—the repetition of the same rimes within four or six lines and the too frequent use of alexandrines; and recommends that the same pause in the verse should not to be continued for more than three lines in succession.

    Pope has been charged with monotony in his management of the heroic couplet. The surprising thing is that he should have achieved so much variety. He was extraordinarily dexterous in varying the music of his verse within the limits he had set himself. The effect is due to change in pause and beat, a judicious attention to the number of syllables in his words, with an unobtrusive employment of every degree of alliteration and of what may be called the opposite of alliteration, as in

  • Eyes the calm sunset of the various days.
  • The charge that, with Pope, the couplet is almost exclusively the unit of composition requires qualification. At his best, we find him working with the larger unit of the paragraph. As the ideas of a prose-writer using short independent sentences are not necessarily less consecutive than those developed in lengthy periods, so Pope, by avoiding enjambement, is not compelled to express a series of disconnected thoughts. A study of his more careful paragraphs shows, too, with what art he extended alliteration over the boundaries of the couplet and studied the music of the larger division. The most serious fault which can be detected is that his ear for rime was not so delicate as his sense of rhythm. When all allowance has been made for the pronunciation of his day, there still remain a large number of unsatisfactory rimes. Weakness, too, is shown in the repetition of the same set of rimes after too short an interval, and the employment of others too close in sound to those immediately preceding.