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Letters to Dead Poets: Epistle to Alexander Pope

by Andrew Lang

From mortal Gratitude, decide, my Pope,
Have Wits Immortal more to fear or hope?
Wits toil and travail round the Plant of Fame,
Their Works its Garden, and its Growth their Aim,
Then Commentators, in unwieldy Dance,
Break down the Barriers of the trim Pleasance,
Pursue the Poet, like Actæon’s Hounds,
Beyond the fences of his Garden Grounds,
Rend from the singing Robes each borrowed Gem,
Rend from the laurel’d Brows the Diadem,
And, if one Rag of Character they spare,
Comes the Biographer, and strips it bare!

Such, Pope, has been thy Fortune, such thy Doom.
Swift the Ghouls gathered at the Poet’s Tomb,
With Dust of Notes to clog each lordly Line,
Warburton, Warton, Croker, Bowles, combine!
Collecting Cackle, Johnson condescends
To interview the Drudges of your Friends.
Thus though your Courthope holds your merits high,
And still proclaims your Poems Poetry,
Biographers, un-Boswell-like, have sneered,
And Dunces edit him whom Dunces feared!

They say, “what say they?”  Not in vain You ask;
To tell you what they say, behold my Task!
“Methinks already I your Tears survey”
As I repeat “the horrid Things they say.” [48a]

Comes El-n first: I fancy you’ll agree
Not frenzied Dennis smote so fell as he;
For El-n’s Introduction, crabbed and dry,
Like Churchill’s Cudgel’s [48b] marked with Lie, and Lie!

“Too dull to know what his own System meant,
Pope yet was skilled new Treasons to invent;
A Snake that puffed himself and stung his Friends,
Few Lied so frequent, for such little Ends;
His mind, like Flesh inflamed, [49] was raw and sore,
And still, the more he writhed, he stung the more!
Oft in a Quarrel, never in the Right,
His Spirit sank when he was called to fight.
Pope, in the Darkness mining like a Mole,
Forged on Himself, as from Himself he stole,
And what for Caryll once he feigned to feel,
Transferred, in Letters never sent, to Steele!
Still he denied the Letters he had writ,
And still mistook Indecency for Wit.
His very Grammar, so De Quincey cries,
‘Detains the Reader, and at times defies!’”

Fierce El-n thus: no Line escapes his Rage,
And furious Foot-notes growl ’neath every Page:
See St-ph-n next take up the woful Tale,
Prolong the Preaching, and protract the Wail!
“Some forage Falsehoods from the North and South,
But Pope, poor D-l, lied from Hand to Mouth; [50]
Affected, hypocritical, and vain,
A Book in Breeches, and a Fop in Grain;
A Fox that found not the high Clusters sour,
The Fanfaron of Vice beyond his power,
Pope yet possessed”—(the Praise will make you start)—
“Mean, morbid, vain, he yet possessed a Heart!
And still we marvel at the Man, and still
Admire his Finish, and applaud his Skill:
Though, as that fabled Barque, a phantom Form,
Eternal strains, nor rounds the Cape of Storm,
Even so Pope strove, nor ever crossed the Line
That from the Noble separates the Fine!”

The Learned thus, and who can quite reply,
Reverse the Judgment, and Retort the Lie?
You reap, in armèd Hates that haunt your Name,
Reap what you sowed, the Dragon’s Teeth of Fame:
You could not write, and from unenvious Time
Expect the Wreath that crowns the lofty Rhyme,
You still must fight, retreat, attack, defend,
And oft, to snatch a Laurel, lose a Friend!

The Pity of it!  And the changing Taste
Of changing Time leaves half your Work a Waste!
My Childhood fled your Couplet’s clarion tone,
And sought for Homer in the Prose of Bohn.
Still through the Dust of that dim Prose appears
The Flight of Arrows and the Sheen of Spears;
Still we may trace what Hearts heroic feel,
And hear the Bronze that hurtles on the Steel!
But, ah, your Iliad seems a half-pretence,
Where Wits, not Heroes, prove their Skill in Fence,
And great Achilles’ Eloquence doth show
As if no Centaur trained him, but Boileau!

Again, your Verse is orderly,—and more,—
“The Waves behind impel the Waves before;”
Monotonously musical they glide,
Till Couplet unto Couplet hath replied.
But turn to Homer!  How his Verses sweep!
Surge answers Surge and Deep doth call on Deep;
This Line in Foam and Thunder issues forth,
Spurred by the West or smitten by the North,
Sombre in all its sullen Deeps, and all
Clear at the Crest, and foaming to the Fall,
The next with silver Murmur dies away,
Like Tides that falter to Calypso’s Bay!

Thus Time, with sordid Alchemy and dread,
Turns half the Glory of your Gold to Lead;
Thus Time,—at Ronsard’s wreath that vainly bit,—
Has marred the Poet to preserve the Wit,
Who almost left on Addison a stain,
Whose Knife cut cleanest with a poisoned pain,—
Yet Thou (strange Fate that clings to all of Thine!)
When most a Wit dost most a Poet shine.
In Poetry thy Dunciad expires,
When Wit has shot “her momentary Fires.”
’Tis Tragedy that watches by the Bed
“Where tawdry Yellow strove with dirty Red,”
And Men, remembering all, can scarce deny
To lay the Laurel where thine Ashes lie!