Page images
PDF
EPUB

explained it; yet their authority, joined to the knowledge of my own imperfectness in the language, overruled me. However, Sir, you may be confident I think you in the right, because you happen to be of my opinion; for men (let them say what they will) never approve any other's sense, but as it squares with their own. But you have made me much more proud of, and positive in my judgment, since it is strengthened by yours. I think your criticisms which regard the expression very just, and shall make my profit of them; to give you some proof that I am in earnest, I will alter three verses on your bare objection, though I have Mr. Dryden's example for each of them. And this, I hope, you will account no small piece of obedience from one who values the authority of one true poet above that of twenty critics or commentators. But, though I speak thus of commentators, I will continue to read carefully all I can procure, to make up, that

way, for my own want of critical understanding in the original beauties of Homer. Though the greatest of them are certainly those of invention and design, which are not at all confined to the language; for the distinguishing excellences of Homer are (by the consent of the best critics of all nations) first in the manners (which include all the speeches, as being no other than the representations of each person's manners by his words;) and then in that rapture and fire which carries you away with him, with that wonderful force, that no man who has a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him. Homer makes you interested and concerned before you are aware, all at once, whereas Virgil does it by soft degrees. This, I believe, is what a translator of Homer ought principally to imitate; and it is very hard for any translator to come up to it, because the chief reason why all translations fall short of their originals is, that the very constraint they are obliged to renders them heavy and dispirited.

“The great beauty of Homer's language, as I take it, consists in that noble simplicity which runs through all his works; (and yet his diction, contrary to what one would imagine consistent with simplicity, is at the same time very, copious.) I don't know how I have run into this pedantry in a letter, but I find I have said too much, as well as spoken too inconsiderately: what farther thoughts I have upon this subject I shall be glad to communicate to you(for my own improvement) when we meet; which is a happiness I very earnestly desire, as

I do likewise some opportunity of proving how much I think
myself obliged to your friendship, and how truly I am, Sir,
* Your most faithful, humble servant,

"A. POPE."

The criticism upon Pope's Epitaphs, which was printed in “The Universal Visitor," is placed here, being too minute and particular to be inserted in the Life.

EVERY art is best taught by example. Nothing contributes more to the cultivation of propriety than remarks on the works of those who have most excelled. I shall therefore endeavour, at this visit, to entertain the young students in poetry with an examination of Pope's Epitaphs.

To define an epitaph is useless; every one knows that it is an inscription on a tomb. An epitaph, therefore, implies no particular character of writing, but may be composed in verse or prose. It is indeed commonly panegyrical; because we are seldom distinguished with a stone but by our friends; but it has no rule to restrain or modify it, except this, that it ought not to be longer than common beholders may be expected to have leisure and patience to peruse.

I.
On CHARLES Earl of DORSET, in the Church of Wythyham in Sussex.
Dorset, the grace of courts, the muse's pride,

BAR
Patron of arts, and judge of nature, died,
The scourge of pride, though sanctify'd or great;
Of fops in learning, and of knaves in state;
Yet soft in nature, though severe his lay,
His anger moral, and his wisdom gay.
Blest satirist! who touch'd the means so true,
As shew'd, Vice had his hate and pity too.
Blest courtier! who could king and country please,
Yet sacred kept his friendships and his ease.
Blest peer! his great forefather's every grace
Reflecting, and reflected on his race;
Where other Buckhursts, other Dorsets shine,

And patriots still, or poets, deck the line.
The first distich of this epitaph contains a kind of informa-
tion which few would want, that the man for whom the tomb
was erected died. There are indeed some qualities worthy of
praise ascribed to the dead, but none that were likely to

exempt him from the lot of man, or incline us much to wonder that he should die. What is meant by “judge of nature, " is not easy to say. Nature is not the object of human judgment; for it is vain to judge where we cannot alter. If by nature is meant what is commonly called nature by the critics, a just representation of things really existing and actions really performed, nature cannot be properly opposed to art; nature being, in this sense, only the best effect of art.

The scourge of pride Of this couplet, the second line is not, what is intended, an illustration of the former. Pride in the great is indeed well enough connected with knaves in state, though knaves is a word rather too ludicrous and light; but the mention of sanctified pride will not lead the thoughts to fops in learning, but rather to some species of tyranny or oppression, something more gloomy and more formidable than foppery.

[ocr errors]

Yet soft his nature

This is a high compliment, but was not first bestowed on Dorset by Pope. The next verse is extremely beautiful.

Blest satirist!

In this distich is another line of which Pope was not the author. I do not mean to blame these imitations with much harshness; in long performances they are scarcely to be avoided, and in shorter they may be indulged, because the train of the composition may naturally involve them, or the scantiness of the subject allow little choice. However, what is borrowed is not to be enjoyed as our own; and it is the business of critical justice to give every bird of the muses his

proper feather.

Blest courtier!

Whether a courtier can properly be commended for keeping his ease sacred, may perhaps be disputable. To please king and country, without sacrificing friendship to any change of times, was a very uncommon instance of prudence or felicity, and deserved to be kept separate from so poor a commendation as care of his ease. I wish our poets would attend a little more accurately to the use of the word sacred, which surely should never be applied in a serious composition but where some reference may be made to a higher Being, or where some duty is exacted or implied. A man may keep his friendship sacred, because promises of friendship are very awful ties; but methinks he cannot, but in a burlesque sense, be said to keep his ease sacred.

Blest peer! The blessing ascribed to the peer has no connexion with his peerage; they might happen to any other man whose ancestors were remembered, or whose posterity are likely to be regarded.

I know not whether this epitaph be worthy either of the writer or the man entombed.

II.

On Sir WILLIAM TRUMBULL, one of the principal Secretaries of State to King WILLIAM III. who, having resigned his place, died in his retirement at Easthamstead in Berkshire, 1716.

A pleasing form; a firm, yet cautious mind;
Sincere, though prudent, constant, yet resign'd;
Honour unchang'd, a principle profest,
Fix'd to one side, but moderate to the rest;
An honest courtier, yet a patriot too;
Just to his prince, and to his country true;
Fill'd with the sense of age, the fire of youth,
A scorn of wrangling, yet a zeal for truth;
A generous faith, from superstition free;
A love to peace, and hate of tyranny;
Such this man was; who, now from earth remov'd,

At length enjoys that liberty he lov'd. In this epitaph, as in many others, there appears, at the first view, a fault which I think scarcely any beauty can compensate. The name is omitted. The end of an epitaph is to convey some account of the dead; and to what purpose is any thing told of him whose name is concealed? An epitaph, and a history of a nameless hero, are equally absurd, since the virtues and qualities so recounted in either are scattered at the mercy

of fortune to be appropriated by guess. The name, it is true, may be read upon the stone; but what obligation has it to the poet, whose verses wander over the earth and leave their subject behind them, and who is forced, like an unskilful painter, to make his purpose known by adventitious help?

This epitaph is wholly without elevation, and contains nothing striking or particular; but the poet is not to be

are,

blamed for the defects of his subject. He said, perhaps, the best that could be said. There however, some defects which were not made necessary by the character in which he was employed. There is no opposition between an honest courtier and a patriot; for, an honest courtier cannot but be a patriot.

It was unsuitable to the nicety required in short compositions to close his verse with the word too: every me should be a word of emphasis; nor can this rule be safely neglected, except where the length of the poem makes slight inaccuracies excusable, or allows room for beauties sufficient to overpower the effects of petty faults.

At the beginning of the seventh line the word filled is weak and prosaic, having no particular adaptation to any of the words that follow it.

The thought in the last line is impertinent, having no connexion with the foregoing character, nor with the condition of the man described. Had the epitaph been written on the poor conspirator who died lately in prison, after a confinement of more than forty years, without any crime proved against him, the sentiment had been just and pathetical; but why should Trumbull be congratulated upon his liberty, who had never known restraint?

III.

On the Hon. Simon HARCOURT, only Son of the Lord Chancellor HARCOURT, at the Church of Stanton-Harcourt in Oxfordshire, 1720.

To this sad shrine, whoe'er thou art, draw ncar;
Here lies the friend most lov'd, the son most dear:
Who ne'er knew joy, but friendship might divide,
Or gave his father grief but when he died.

How vain is reason! eloquence how weak!
If Pope must tell what Harcourt cannot speak.
Oh! let thy once-lov'd friend inscribe thy stone,

And with a father's sorrows mix his own! This epitaph is principally remarkable for the artful introduction of the name, which is inserted with a peculiar felicity, to which chance must concur with genius, which no man can hope to attain twice, and which cannot be copied but with servile imitation.

I cannot but wish that of this inscription the two last lines had been omitted, as they take away from the energy what they do not add to the sense.

« PreviousContinue »