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Alexander Pope
by [?]

With such prospects, what need of an elaborate education? And where was such an education to be sought? At the petty establishments of the suffering Catholics, the instruction, as he had found experimentally, was poor. At the great national establishments his son would be a degraded person; one who was permanently repelled from every arena of honor, and sometimes, as in cases of public danger, was banished from the capital, deprived of his house, left defenceless against common ruffians, and rendered liable to the control of every village magistrate. To one in these circumstances solitude was the wisest position, and the best qualification, for that was an education that would furnish aids to solitary thought. No need for brilliant accomplishments to him who must never display them; forensic arts, pulpit erudition, senatorial eloquence, academical accomplishments–these would be lost to one against whom the courts, the pulpit, the senate, the universities, were closed. Nay, by possibility worse than lost; they might prove so many snares or positive bribes to apostasy. Plain English, therefore, and the high thinking of his compatriot authors, might prove the best provision for the mind of an English Papist destined to seclusion.

Such are the considerations under which we read and interpret the conduct of Pope’s parents; and they lead us to regard as wise and conscientious a scheme which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been pitiably foolish. And be it remembered, that to these considerations, derived exclusively from the civil circumstances of the family, were superadded others derived from the astonishing prematurity of the individual. That boy who could write at twelve years of age the beautiful and touching stanzas on Solitude, might well be trusted with the superintendence of his own studies. And the stripling of sixteen, who could so far transcend in good sense the accomplished statesmen or men of the world with whom he afterwards corresponded, might challenge confidence for such a choice of books as would best promote the development of his own faculties.

In reality, one so finely endowed as Alexander Pope, could not easily lose his way in the most extensive or ill-digested library. And though he tells Atterbury, that at one time he abused his opportunities by reading controversial divinity, we may be sure that his own native activities, and the elasticity of his mind, would speedily recoil into a just equilibrium of study, under wider and happier opportunities. Reading, indeed, for a person like Pope, is rather valuable as a means of exciting his own energies, and of feeding his own sensibilities, than for any direct acquisitions of knowledge, or for any trains of systematic research. All men are destined to devour much rubbish between the cradle and the grave; and doubtless the man who is wisest in the choice of his books, will have read many a page before he dies that a thoughtful review would pronounce worthless. This is the fate of all men. But the reading of Pope, as a general result or measure of his judicious choice, is best justified in his writings. They show him well furnished with whatsoever he wanted for matter or for embellishment, for argument or illustration, for example and model, or for direct and explicit imitation.

Possibly, as we have already suggested, within the range of English literature Pope might have found all that he wanted. But variety the widest has its uses; and, for the extension of his influence with the polished classes amongst whom he lived, he did wisely to add other languages; and a question has thus arisen with regard to the extent of Pope’s attainments as a self-taught linguist. A man, or even a boy, of great originality, may happen to succeed best, in working his own native mines of thought, by his unassisted energies. Here it is granted that a tutor, a guide, or even a companion, may be dispensed with, and even beneficially. But in the case of foreign languages, in attaining this machinery of literature, though anomalies even here do arise, and men there are, like Joseph Scaliger, who form their own dictionaries and grammars in the mere process of reading an unknown language, by far the major part of students will lose their time by rejecting the aid of tutors. As there has been much difference of opinion with regard to Pope’s skill in languages, we shall briefly collate and bring into one focus the stray notices.