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Pope And Didactic Poetry
by [?]

The ‘Essay on Criticism’ illustrates the same profound misconception of the principle working at the root of Didactic Poetry as operated originally to disturb the conduct of the ‘Essay on Man’ by its author, and to disturb the judgments upon it by its critics. This ‘Essay on Criticism’ no more aims at unfolding the grounds and theory of critical rules applied to poetic composition, than does the Epistola ad Pisones of Horace. But what if Horace and Pope both believed themselves the professional expounders ex cathedra of these very grounds and this very theory? No matter if they did. Nobody was less likely to understand their own purposes than themselves. Their real purposes were immanent, hidden in their poems; and from the poems they must be sought, not from the poets; who, generally, in proportion as the problem is one of analysis and evolution, for which, simply as the authors of the work, Horace and Pope were no better qualified than other people, and, as authors having that particular constitution of intellect which notoriously they had, were much worse qualified than other people. We cannot possibly allow a man to argue upon the meaning or tendency of his own book, as against the evidence of the book itself. The book is unexceptionable authority: and, as against that, the author has no locus standi. Both Horace and Pope, however little they might be aware of it, were secretly governed by the same moving principle–viz., not to teach (which was impossible for two reasons)–but to use this very impossibility, this very want of flexibility in the subject to the ostensible purpose of the writers, as the resistance of the atmosphere from which they would derive the motion of their wings. That it was impossible in a poem seriously to teach the principles of criticism, we venture to affirm on a double argument: 1st, that the teaching, if in earnest, must be polemic: and how alien from the spirit of poetry to move eternally through controversial discussions! 2ndly, that the teaching, from the very necessities of metre, must be eclectic; innumerable things must be suppressed; and how alien from the spirit of science to move by discontinuous links according to the capricious bidding of poetic decorum! Divinity itself is not more entangled in the necessities of fighting for every step in advance, and maintaining the ground by eternal preparation for hostility, than is philosophic criticism; a discipline so little matured, that at this day we possess in any language nothing but fragments and hints towards its construction. To dispute in verse has been celebrated as the accomplishment of Lucretius, of Sir John Davies, of Dryden: but then this very disputation has always been eclectic; not exhausting even the essential arguments; but playing gracefully with those only which could promise a brilliant effect. Such a mimic disputation is like a histrionic fencing match, where the object of the actor is not in good earnest to put his antagonist to the sword, but to exhibit a few elegant passes in carte and tierce, not forgetting the secondary object of displaying to advantage any diamonds and rubies that may chance to scintillate upon his sword-hand.

Had Pope, or had Horace, been requested to explain the rationale of his own poem on Criticism, it is pretty certain that each (and from the same causes) would have talked nonsense. The very gifts so rare and so exquisite by which these extraordinary men were adorned–the graceful negligence, the delicacy of tact, the impassioned abandon[1] upon subjects suited to their modes of geniality, though not absolutely or irreversibly incompatible with the sterner gifts of energetic attention and powerful abstraction, were undoubtedly not in alliance with them. The two sets of gifts did not exert a reciprocal stimulation. As well might one expect from a man, because he was a capital shot, that he should write the best essay on the theory of projectiles. Horace and Pope, therefore, would have talked so absurdly in justifying or explaining their own works, that we–naturally impatient of nonsense on the subject of criticism, as our own metier–should have said, ‘Oh, dear gentlemen, stand aside for a moment, and we will right you in the eyes of posterity: at which bar, if either of you should undertake to be his own advocate, he will have a fool for his client.’