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Alexander Smith And Alexander Pope
by [?]

In Pope’s writings, whatsoever he may not find, he will find the very excellences after which our young poets strive in vain, produced by their seeming opposites, which are now despised and discarded; naturalness produced by studious art; sublimity by strict self- restraint; depth by clear simplicity; pathos by easy grace; and a morality infinitely more merciful, as well as more righteous, than the one now in vogue among the poetasters, by honest faith in God. If he be shocked by certain peculiarities of diction, and by the fondness for perpetual antitheses, let him remember, that what seems strange to our day was natural and habitual in Pope’s; and that, in the eyes of our grandchildren, Keats’s and Shelley’s peculiarities will seem as monstrous as Pope’s or Johnson’s do in ours. But if, misled by the popular contempt for Pope, be should he inclined to answer this advice with a shrug and a smile, we entreat him and all young poets, to consider, line by line, word by word, sound by sound, only those once well-known lines, which many a brave and wise man of fifty years ago would have been unable to read without honourable tears:

In the worst inn’s worst room, with mat half-hung,
The floor of plaster, and the walls of dung,
On once a flock-bed, but repaired with straw,
With tape-tied curtains never meant to draw,
The George and Garter, dangling from that bed,
Where tawdry yellow strove with dirty red,
Great Villiers lies. Alas! how changed from him,
That life of pleasure, and that soul of whim!
Gallant and gay, in Cliveden’s proud alcove,
The bower of wanton Shrewsbury and love;
Or just as gay, at Council, in a ring
Of mimic statesmen, and their merry king,
No wit to flatter, left of all his store!
No fool to laugh at, which he valued more.
There, victor of his health, of fortune, friends,
And fame, this lord of useless thousands ends.

Yes; Pope knew, as well as Wordsworth and our “Naturalisti,” that no physical fact was so mean or coarse as to be below the dignity of poetry–when in its right place. He could draw a pathos and sublimity out of the dirty inn chamber, such as Wordsworth never elicited from tubs and daffodils–because he could use them according to the rules of art, which are the rules of sound reason and of true taste.

The answer to all this is ready nowadays. We are told that Pope could easily be great in what he attempted, because he never attempted any but small matters; easily self-restraining, because his paces were naturally so slow; above all, easily clear, because he is always shallow; easily full of faith in what he did believe, because he believed so very little. On the two former counts we may have something to say hereafter. On the two latter, we will say at once, that if it be argued, as it often is, that the reason of our modern poetical obscurity and vagueness lies in the greater depth of the questions which are now agitating thoughtful minds, we do utterly deny it. Human nature, human temptations, human problems, are radically the same in every age, by whatsoever outward difference of words they may seem distinguished. Where is deeper philosophic thought, true or false, expressed in verse, than in Dante, or in Spenser’s two cantos of “Mutabilities”? Yet if they are difficult to understand, their darkness is that of the deep blue sea. Vague they never are, obscure they never are, because they see clearly what they want to say, and how to say it. There is always a sound and coherent meaning in them, to be found if it be searched for.

The real cause of this modern vagueness is rather to be found in shallow and unsound culture, and in that inability, or carelessness about seeing any object clearly, which besets our poets just now; as the cause of antique clearness lies in the nobler and healthier manhood, in the severer and more methodic habits of thought, the sounder philosophic and critical training, which enabled Spenser and Milton to draw up a state paper, or to discourse deep metaphysics, with the same manful possession of their subject which gives grace and completeness to the “Penseroso” or the “Epithalamion.” And if our poets have their doubts, they should remember, that those to whom doubt and inquiry are real and stern, are not inclined to sing about them till they can sing poems of triumph over them. There has no temptation taken our modern poets save that which is common to man– the temptation of wishing to make the laws of the universe and of art fit them, as they do not feel inclined to make themselves fit the laws, or care to find them out.