Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 23. Pope’s Genius and Influence upon 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

§ 23. Pope’s Genius and Influence upon Literature

With Pope, the classical spirit in English poetry reached its acme. That the life of so supreme a genius for style coincided with the period when the social interest in man had dwarfed the feeling for nature, and when knowledge of the town was more prized than romance or pathos, gave double strength to the reaction when it came. His immediate influence, however, was immense and extended across the sea to Germany, France and other parts of Europe. Before his death, the first traces of the coming change were seen; but the effect of his language and numbers prevailed for long when the tone and subject of poetry were changing. When the dust of the long controversy had been laid that raged during the first quarter of the next century, it came to be recognised that Pope’s claim to rank among the very greatest poets could no longer be allowed; but that, in his own class and kind, he need not yield to any one. He has suffered most, in general repute, from a distaste for the period which he faithfully reflected, from the narrowness of devotees of nature and from the comparative rarity of a true sense of form in the average reader of poetry. With the professional student, his permanence is secure; but heaven forbid that Pope should ever become a mere subject for research! Important for the history of English poetry and taste, he is important, also, as the writer of lines that live. Critics may attempt to define his limitations and point him to his place in the great company of poets; but, within the pale of literary orthodoxy, there is room for difference. The survival of poets other than the very highest must depend not on their historical value, but on their finding in each generation a body of admirers. It has been said that admiration for Pope comes with years. If so, it is among the kindliest provisions of Providence against old age. The question is essentially one of temperament. Those who, while not responding readily to violent emotions, are keenly interested in men and manners, with but a chastened passion for green fields, who can appreciate satire and epigram and have a nice sense of finish, will, in every age, enjoy the poetry of Pope for its own sake.