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Alexander Pope
by [?]

As to the French, Voltaire, who knew Pope personally, declared that he “could hardly read it, and spoke not one syllable of the language.” But perhaps Voltaire might dislike Pope? On the contrary, he was acquainted with his works, and admired them to the very level of their merits. Speaking of him after death to Frederick of Prussia, he prefers him to Horace and Boileau, asserting that, by comparison with them,

“Pope approfondit ce qu’ils ont effleura.
D’un esprit plus hardi, d’un pas plus assure,
Il porta le flambeau dans l’abeme de l’otre;
Et l’homme avec lui seul apprit a se connoetre.
L’art quelquefois frivole, et quelquefois divine,
L’art des vers est dans Pope utile au genre humain.”

This is not a wise account of Pope, for it does not abstract the characteristic feature of his power; but it is a very kind one. And of course Voltaire could not have meant any unkindness in denying his knowledge of French. But he was certainly wrong. Pope, in his presence, would decline to speak or to read a language of which the pronunciation was confessedly beyond him. Or, if he did, the impression left would be still worse. In fact, no man ever will pronounce or talk a language which he does not use, for some part of every day, in the real intercourse of life. But that Pope read French of an ordinary cast with fluency enough, is evident from the extensive use which he made of Madame Dacier’s labors on the Iliad, and still more of La Valterie’s prose translation of the Iliad. Already in the year 1718, and long before his personal knowledge of Voltaire, Pope had shown his accurate acquaintance with some voluminous French authors, in a way which, we suspect, was equally surprising and offensive to his noble correspondent. The Duke of Buckingham [Endnote: 5] had addressed to Pope a letter, containing some account of the controversy about Homer, which had then been recently carried on in France between La Motte and Madame Dacier. This account was delivered with an air of teaching, which was very little in harmony with its excessive shallowness. Pope, who sustained the part of pupil in this interlude, replied in a manner that exhibited a knowledge of the parties concerned in the controversy much superior to that of the duke. In particular, he characterized the excellent notes upon Horace of M. Dacier, the husband, in very just terms, as distinguished from those of his conceited and half-learned wife; and the whole reply of Pope seems very much as though he had been playing off a mystification on his grace. Undoubtedly the pompous duke felt that he had caught a Tartar. Now M. Dacier’s Horace, which, with the text, fills nine volumes, Pope could not have read except in French; for they are not even yet translated into English. Besides, Pope read critically the French translations of his own Essay on Man, Essay on Criticism, Rape of the Lock, etc. He spoke of them as a critic; and it was at no time a fault of Pope’s to make false pretensions. All readers of Pope’s Satires must also recollect numerous proofs, that he had read Boileau with so much feeling of his peculiar merit, that he has appropriated and naturalized in English some of his best passages. Voltaire was, therefore, certainly wrong.

Of Italian literature, meantime, Pope knew little or nothing; and simply because he knew nothing of the language. Tasso, indeed, he admired; and, which is singular, more than Ariosto. But we believe that he had read him only in English; and it is certain that he could not take up an Italian author, either in prose or verse, for the unaffected amusement of his leisure.

Greek, we all know has been denied to Pope, ever since he translated Homer, and chiefly in consequence of that translation. This seems at first sight unfair, because criticism has not succeeded in fixing upon Pope any errors of ignorance. His deviations from Homer were uniformly the result of imperfect sympathy with the naked simplicity of the antique, and therefore wilful deviations, not (like those of his more pretending competitors, Addison and Tickell) pure blunders of misapprehension. But yet it is not inconsistent with this concession to Pope’s merits, that we must avow our belief in his thorough ignorance of Greek when he first commenced his task. And to us it seems astonishing that nobody should have adverted to that fact as a sufficient solution, and in fact the only plausible solution, of Pope’s excessive depression of spirits in the earliest stage of his labors. This depression, after he had once pledged himself to his subscribers for the fulfilment of his task, arose from, and could have arisen from nothing else than, his conscious ignorance of Greek in connection with the solemn responsibilities he had assumed in the face of a great nation. Nay, even countries as presumptuously disdainful of tramontane literature as Italy took an interest in this memorable undertaking. Bishop Berkeley found Salvini reading it at Florence; and Madame Dacier even, who read little but Greek, and certainly no English until then, condescended to study it. Pope’s dejection, therefore, or rather agitation (for it impressed by sympathy a tumultuous character upon his dreams, which lasted for years after the cause had ceased to operate) was perfectly natural under the explanation we have given, but not otherwise. And how did he surmount this unhappy self-distrust? Paradoxical as it may sound, we will venture to say, that, with the innumerable aids for interpreting Homer which even then existed, a man sufficiently acquainted with Latin might make a translation even critically exact. This Pope was not long in discovering. Other alleviations of his labor concurred, and in a ratio daily increasing.