Tuesday, December 02, 2014

`He Wits Me Eternally'

“I once met someone who said that Alexander Pope was the greatest poet in the English language (once the habitual obeisance had been made to Shakespeare, of course).” 

As did I, more than forty years ago. I was taking his class in English Romantic Poetry, which we marched through like Sherman taking Georgia, and we had arrived at Lord Byron. His poems seemed fluffy and his life, scandalous in its day, little more than narcissistic posturing. Then we came to Don Juan, which at least was amusing, and the professor told us of Byron’s admiration for Pope. In a well-known letter to John Fletcher written in 1817, Byron judged his work and that of his contemporaries against Pope’s: 

“I took [Thomas] Moore’s poems and my own and some others, and went over them side by side with Pope’s, and I was really astonished (I ought not to have been so) and mortified at the ineffable distance in point of sense, harmony, effect, and even Imagination, passion, and Invention, between the little Queen Anne’s man, and us of the Lower Empire. Depend upon it, it is all Horace then, and Claudian now, among us; and if I had to begin again, I would model myself accordingly.” 

I was already advancing into the eighteenth century and leaving the nineteenth behind when the professor declared Pope the greatest poet in the language (without, as I recall, the obligatory Shakespeare qualification). The words of a teacher I didn’t especially like or admire germinated and took root on the spot. Without being aware of it, he encouraged my latent literary bent. To Pope I soon added Swift, Sterne, Johnson, Boswell, Burke and Gibbon. Byron’s description of the crippled Pope as “the little Queen Anne’s man” loses its sting when we recall that Byron had a gimpy right foot. The passage quoted at the top is from Theodore Dalrymple’s “Warmth is Cool,” which begins with a look at another eighteen-century man, David Hume, before he writes this of Pope: 

“There is no doubt that he was one of the wittiest persons who ever lived. His wit, if I may so put it, is deep: it infuses everything he does. It is not the wit of witticism alone; it is the wit of a world outlook.” 

The distinction is important. Style, witty or otherwise, is not filigree, inessential gingerbread hammered on after the house is standing. Pope, like his contemporaneous confrères listed above, looked at the world wittily. There is something of the verb about wit (the OED gives fourteen gradations of meaning for “wit” as a verb, none current. Among the citations is one from a 1778 letter by Fanny Burney in which she says of Dr. Johnson: “In this sort of ridiculous manner he Wits me eternally.”). Here is Pope in a letter to Swift dated Dec. 8, 1713:      

“The person I mean is Dr. Swift; a dignified clergyman, but one, who, by his own confession, has composed more libels than sermons. If it be true, what I have heard often affirmed by innocent people, `That too much wit is dangerous to salvation;’ this unfortunate gentleman must certainly be damned to all eternity. But I hope his long experience in the world, and frequent conversation with great men, will cause him (as it has some others) to have less and less wit every day.” 

Pope knew his friend and could poke at him satirically. Dalrymple gives us the greater Pope, the one who was a colossal wit but never merely a wit: 

“Pope was not just a satirist, a good deal deeper than many give him credit for having been; his descriptions of nature were precise, the fruit of close observation (and no one observes closely what he neither values nor thinks important). Anyone who has lain in grass will recognise the aptness of this line: `The green myriads in the peopled grass…’” 

That lovely line is from the seventh section of “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”: 

“Far as creation’s ample range extends,
The scale of sensual, mental pow’rs ascends:
Mark how it mounts, to man’s imperial race,
From the green myriads in the peopled grass:
What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme,
The mole’s dim curtain, and the lynx’s beam…”


Subbuteo said...

Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly,
The light Militia of the lower Sky

from The Rape of the Lock. That second line so lovely.

The Sanity Inspector said...

I wonder if anyone ever proved or disproved his authorship of the anonymous collection of epigrams, Characters And Observations?