Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 13. His edition of Shakespeare

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

§ 13. His edition of Shakespeare

Pope’s treatment of his coadjutors figured prominently henceforward in the personalities of his opponents. But the Odyssey was also the occasion of his friendship with Joseph Spence, through the latter’s Essay on Pope’s Odyssey (1726–7). During this time, Pope had been engaged on his edition of Shakespeare, undertaken at Tonson’s invitation and published in March, 1725. His main disqualifications are patent. He had no intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan period and lacked some of the qualities—above all the patience—requisite for a thorough editing of the text. But a man of his genius could hardly devote himself to a literary subject without leaving some result. “Proofs of the time and toil he spent upon the text can be found on nearly every page.” His preface has, at least, the merit of a sincere recognition of Shakespeare’s greatness. The task of pointing out the errors in Pope’s edition was undertaken by Lewis Theobald, a man memorable for his high deserts among Shakespearean critics. This was the offence that gained him the laurel in The Dunciad. Pope’s labours as translator and commentator left him little leisure for original verse. Among the shorter pieces of this period is the Epistle to Robert Earl of Oxford, and Earl Mortimer (1721), dedicating Parnell’s Poems to him. Pope excels all other men, even Dryden, in the compliments he pays his friends; and, for variety of music and dignity of style, this Epistle is unsurpassed. Admirable, too, is the skill with which Harley’s indolence is elevated to the rank of a rare virtue. Whatever may be the historical verdict on Harley as a politician, Pope has cast an unfading halo about the memory of the man.