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LIFE OF POPE,
BY DR. JOHNSON.
ALEXANDER POPE was born in London', May 22, 1688, of parents whose rank or station was never ascertained : we are informed, that they were of “ gentle blood;" that his father was of a family of which the earl of Downe was the head; and that his mother was the daughter of William Turner, esquire, of York, who had likewise three sons, one of whom had the honour of being killed, and the other of dying, in the service of Charles the First; the third was made a general officer in Spain, from whom the sister inherited what sequestrations and forfeitures had left in the family.
This, and this only, is told by Pope: who is more willing, as I have heard observed, to show what his father was not, than what he was. It is allowed, that he grew rich by trade; but whether in a shop or on the Exchange was never discovered till Mr. Tyers told, on the authority of Mrs. Racket, that he was a linendraper in the Strand Both parents were papists. .
Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate ; but is said to have shown remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life”; but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with bis childhood. His voice, when he was young, was so pleasing, that he was called in fondness “ the little Nightingale."
Being not sent early to school, he was taught to read by an aunt; and when he was seren or eight years old, became a lover of books. He first learned to write by imitating printed books; a species of penmanship in which he retained great excellence through his whole life, though his ordinary hand was not elegant.
When he was about eight he was placed in Hampshire, under Taverner,
In Lombard-street, according to Dr. Warton. C. * This weakness was so great, that he constantly wore stays, as I have been assured by a waterman at Twickenham, who, in lifting him into his boat, had often felt them. His method of taking the ais on the water was to have a sedan chair in the boat, in which he sat with the glasses down. H.
a Romish priest, who, by a method very rarely practised, taught him the Greek and Latin rudiments together. He was now first regularly initiated in poetry by the perusal of Ogilby's Homer, and Sandys's Ovid. Ogilby's assistance he never repaid with any praise : but of Sandys, he declared, in his notes to the Iliad, that English poetry owed much of its beauty to his translations. Sandys very rarely attempted original composition.
From the care of 'Taverner, under whom his proficiency was considerable, he was removed to a school at Twyford, near Winchester, and again to another school about Hyde-park Corner; from which he used sometimes to stroll to the playhouse ; and was so delighted with theatrical exhibitions, that lie formed a kind of play from Ogilby's Iliad, with some verses of his own intermixed, which he persuaded his school-fellows to act, with the addition of his master's gardener, who personated Ajax.
At the two last schools he used to represent himself as having lost part of what Tuverner had taught him; and on his master at Twyford he bad already exercised his poetry in a lampoon. Yet under those masters he translated more than a fourth part of the Metamorphoses. If he kept the same proportion in his other exercises, it cannot be thought that his loss was great.
He tells of himself, in bis poems, that “ he lisp'd in numbers;" and used to say, that he could not reinenber the time when he began to make verses.
In the style of fiction it might have been said of him as of Pindar, that, when he lay in his cradle, “ the bees swarmed about his mouth.”
About the time of the Revolution, his father, who was undoubtedly disappointed by the sudden blast of Popish prosperity, quitted his trade, and retired to Binfield in Windsor Forest, with about twenty thousand pounds: for which, being conscientiously determined not to intrust it to the government, he found no better use than that of locking it up in a chest, and taking from it what his expenses required; and his life was long enough to consume a great part of it, before his son came to the inheritance.
To Binfield Pope was called by his father when he was about twelve years old; and there he had for a few months the assistance of one Deane, another priest, of whom lie learned only to construe a little of Tully's Offices. How Mr. Deane could spend, with a boy who had translated so niuch of Ovid, some months over a small part of Tully's Offices, it is now vain to inquire.
Of a youth so successfully employed, and so conspicuously improved, a minute account must be naturally desired; but curiosity must be contented with confused, imperfect, and sometimes improbable intelligence. Pope, finding little advantage from external help, resolved thence forward to direct himself, and at twelve formed a plan of study, which he completed with little other incitement than the desire of excellence.
His primary and principal purpose was to be a poet, with which his father accidentally concurred, by proposing subjects, and obliging him to correct his performances by many revisals; after which the old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would say, “ these are good rhymes.” ”
In his perusal of the English poets he soon distinguished the versification of Dryden, which he considered as the model to be studied, and was impressed with such veneration for his instructor, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him.
Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before Pope was twelve; so early must he therefore have felt the power of harmony, and the zeal of genius. Who does not wish that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer.
The earliest of Pope's productions is his Ode on Solitude, written before he was twelve, in which there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's performances at the same age.
His time was now wholly spent in reading and writing. As he read the Classics, he amused himself with translating them; and at fourteen made a version of the first book of the Thebais, which, with some revision, he afterwards published. He must have been at this time, if he had no help, a considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.
By Dryden's Fables, which had then been not long published, and were much in the hands of poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appearance, and put January and May, and the Prologue of the Wife of Bath, into modern English. He translated likewise the Epistle of Sappho to Phaon from Ovid, to complete the version which was before imperfect; and wrote some other small piecess which he afterwards printed.
He sometimes imitated the English poets, and professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon Silence, after Rochester's Nothing. He had now formed his versification, and the smoothness of his numbers surpassed his original : but this is a small part of his praise; he discovers such acquaintance both with human life and public affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor Forest.
Next year he was desirous of opening to himself new sources of knowledge, by making himself acquainted with modern languages; and removed for a time to London, that he might study French and Italian, which, as he desired nothing more than to read them, were by diligent application soon dispatched. Of Italian learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.
He then returned to Binfield, and delighted himself with his own poetry. He tried all styles, and many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epic poem, with panegyrics on all the princes of Europe; and, as he confesses, “ thought himself the greatest genius that ever was.” Self-confidence is the first requisite to 'great undertakings. He, indeed, who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, without knowing the powers of other men, is very liable to errour: but it was the felicity of Pope to rate himself at his real value.
Most of his puerile productions were, by his maturer judgment, afterwards destroyed; Alcander, the epic poem, was burnt by the persuasion of Atterbury. The tragedy was founded on the legend of St. Genevieve. Of the comedy there is no account.
Concerning his studies it is related, that lie translated Tully on Old Age; and that, besides his books of poetry and criticism, he read Temple's Essays, and Locke on Humau Understanding. His reading, though his favourite authors are not known, appears to have been sufficiently extensive and multifarious ; for his early pieces show, with sufficient evidence, his knowledge of books.
He that is pleased with himself easily imagines that he shall please others. Sir William Trumbull, who had been ambassador at Constantinople, and secretary of state, when he retired from business, fixed his residence in the neighbourhood of Binfield. Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced to the statesman of sixty, and so distinguished himself, that their interviews ended in friendsbip and correspondence. Pope was, through his whole life, ambitious of splendid acquaintance; and he seems to have wanted neither diligence nor success in attracting the notice of the great; for, from his first entrance into the world, and his entrance was very early, he was admitted to familiarity with those whose rank or station made them most conspicuous.
From the age of sixteen the life of Pope, as an author, may be properly computed. He now wrote his pastorals, which were shown to the poets and critics of that time : as they well deserved, they were read with admiration, and many praises were bestowed upon them and upon the Preface, which is both elegant and learned in a high degree; they were, however, not published till five years afterwards.
Cowley, Milton, and Pope, are distinguished among the English poets by the early exertion of their powers; but the works of Cowley alone were published in his childhood, and therefore of him only can it be certain, that his puerile performances received no improvement from his maturer studies.
At this time began his acquaintance with Wycherley, a man who seems to have had among his contemporaries his full share of reputation, to have been esteemed without virtue, and caressed without good-humour. Pope was proud of his notice; Wycherley wrote verzes in his praise, which he was charged by Dennis with writing to himself, and they agreed for a while to flatter one another. It is pleasant to remark how 'soon Pope learned the cant of an author, and began to treat critics with contempt, though he had yet suffered nothing from them.
But the fondness of Wycherley was too violent to last. His esteem of Pope was such, that he submitted some poems to his revision; and when Pope, perhaps proud of such confidence, was sufficiently bold in his criticisms, and liberal in his aiterations, the old scribbler was angry to see his pages defaced, and felt more pain from the detection, than content from the amendment of his faults. They parted; but Pope always considered him with kindness, and visited him a little time before he. died.
Another of his early correspondents was Mr. Cromwell, of whom I have learned nothing particular, but that he used to ride a hunting in a tye-wig. He was fond, and perhaps vain, of amusing himself with poetry and criticism; and sometimes sent his performances to Pope, who did not forbear such remarks as were now-and-then unwelcome. Pope, in his turn, put the juenile version of Siatius into his hands for correction.
Their correspondence afforded the public its first knowlege of Pope's epistolary powers; for his letters were given by Cromwell to one Mrs. Thomas ; and she, many years afterwards, sold them to Curll, who inserted them in a volume of his Miša cellanies.
Walh, a name yet preserved among the minor poets, was one of his first cn