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Pope’s writings were the epitome of what the Augustan Age is meant to represent, elegance and wit and learning worn lightly. Yet Pope seemed in himself to come from a very different world, for he was physically deformed and his upbringing seemed at odds with the world of inherited privilege which he celebrated. But that tension may have been what contributed to a strikingly independent outlook, and an acidity that perhaps contributed significantly to the brilliance of his writing.

The subtlety with which he wielded his pen sometimes makes Dryden’s satire seem more like a blunderbuss. Pope’s rapier wit can be seen at its best in the portrait of Sporus, though the use of the catamite the Emperor Nero married was not something the object of the satire, Lord Hervey, would have taken lightly –

Let Sporus tremble — “What? that thing of silk, [305]
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass’s milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?”
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings; [310]
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne’er tastes, and Beauty ne’er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray, [315]
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid Impotence he speaks,
And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks;
Or at the Ear of Eve, familiar Toad,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad, [320]
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
His Wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis. [325]
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt’rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.
Eve‘s Tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest, [330]
A Cherub’s face, a Reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust.

More serious was Pope’s attack on the great essayist and leader of intellectual discourse, Addison, who could bear no rival. Again, it is worth highlighting the couplets where Pope succinctly assesses notable aspects of human nature and human relationships –

Peace to all such! but were there one whose fires
True Genius kindles, and fair fame inspires,
Blest with each talent and each art to please,

And born to write, converse, and live with ease:
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caus’d himself to rise;

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserv’d to blame, or to commend,
A tim’rous foe, and a suspicious friend;
Dreading ev’n fools, by flatterers besieg’d,
And so obliging, that he ne’er oblig’d;
Like Cato, give his little Senate laws,
And sit attentive to his own applause;
While Wits and Templers ev’ry sentence raise,
And wonder with a foolish face of praise.
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?

But, while such poems have lasted best over the years, some of the more reflective poems suggest a more private personality, as expressed in the Ode to Solitude

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose heards with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

Pope was also the master of the epigraph, short and sharp observations, all the more memorable for being in rhyme

A little learning is a dangerous thing

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,

The proper study of mankind is Man

For forms of government let fools contest;

Whate’er is best administered is best.

These are well known, but there are other perceptions that should also have greater currency. Following the above reflection on politics is a similar idea about religious controversy, that is particularly relevant to us in Sri Lanka today

For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;

He can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.

In faith and hope the world will disagree,

But all mankind’s concern is charity.

Other insights include

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace

That perception is from the Essay on Man, as is this also vital truth –

Self-love and reason to one end aspire,

Pain their aversion, pleasure their desire;

But greedy that its object would devour,

This taste the honey, and not wound the flow’r:

Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,

Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.

Sadly however, at least to my mind, whereas Milton had written Paradise Lost and Dryden had translated the Aeneid, Pope wrote The Rape of the Lock as his contribution to epic poetry. This was of course a game, and gave his sharp wit opportunities for gentle satire, about the actual nature of feminine beauty. In the very first canto he describes a fashionable young lady being prepared for the world, suggesting gently the artifice that lies behind a ‘purer blush’ and the ‘keener lightnings’ of her eyes –

And now, unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d,

Each silver vase in mystic order laid.

First, rob’d in white, the nymph intent adores

With head uncover’d, the cosmetic pow’rs.

A heav’nly image in the glass appears,

To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;

Th’ inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,

Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride.

Unnumber’d treasures ope at once, and here

The various off’rings of the world appear;

From each she nicely culls with curious toil,

And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil.

This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks,

And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.

The tortoise here and elephant unite,

Transform’d to combs, the speckled and the white.

Here files of pins extend their shining rows,

Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.

Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;

The fair each moment rises in her charms,

Repairs her smiles, awakens ev’ry grace,

And calls forth all the wonders of her face;

Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,

And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes.

The busy Sylphs surround their darling care;

These set the head, and those divide the hair,

Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown;

And Betty’s prais’d for labours not her own.

Such a subject may have won him a large audience, at a time when, as we see in Sri Lanka now, the entry of a much larger segment of the population into advanced economic activity gave greater weight to how leisure was enjoyed. But I cannot but regret the energy that this perceptive and witty writer poured into a subject that can be of little interest now, in a poem that can command only academic concern.

Still, it was perhaps because of his immense popularity in society that Pope’s more bitter satires also gained a wide audience. Certainly I can think of no poet since Juvenal who had such an impact on the manner in which future generations looked on the public figures they wrote about. And Pope himself had no doubt that his own peers also took notice of what he wrote

Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see

Men, not afraid of God, afraid of me:

Safe from the bar the pulpit and the throne,

Yet touched and shamed by ridicule alone.

 

Ceylon Today 2015-02-01 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-83637-news-detail-alexander-pope.html

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