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Pope And Didactic Poetry
by [?]

From this attempt to rectify the idea of didactic poetry, it will be seen at once why Pope failed utterly and inevitably in the ‘Essay on Man.’ The subject was too directly and commandingly interesting to furnish any opening to that secondary and playful interest which arises from the management by art and the subjugation of an intractable theme. The ordinary interest of didactic poetry is derived from the repellent qualities of the subject, and consequently from the dexterities of the conflict with what is doubtful, indifferent, unpromising. Not only was there no resistance in the subject to the grandeur of poetry, but, on the contrary, this subject offered so much grandeur, was so pathetic and the amplitude of range so vast as to overwhelm the powers of any poet and any audience, by its exactions. That was a fault in one direction. But a different fault was–that the subject allowed no power of selection. In ordinary didactic poetry, as we have just been insisting, you sustain the interest by ignoring all the parts which will not bear a steady gaze. Whatever fascinates the eye, or agitates the heart by mimicry of life is selected and emphasized, and what is felt to be intractable or repellent is authoritatively set aside. The poet has an unlimited discretion. But on a theme so great as man he has no discretion at all. This resource is denied. You can give the truth only by giving the whole truth. In treating a common didactic theme you may neglect merely transitional parts with as much ease as benefit, because they are familiar enough to be pre-supposed, and are besides essential only in the real process, but not at all in the mimic process of description; since A and C, that in the reality could reach one another only through B, may yet be intelligible as regards their beauty without any intermediation of B. The ellipsis withdraws a deformity, and does not generally create an obscurity: either the obscurity is none at all, or is irrelevant to the real purpose of beauty, or may be treated sufficiently by a line or two of adroit explanation. But in a poem treating so vast a theme as man’s relations to his own race, to his habitation the world, to God his maker, and to all the commands of the conscience, to the hopes of the believing heart, and to the eternal self-conflicts of the intellect, it is clear that the purely transitional parts, essential to the understanding of the whole, cannot be omitted or dispensed with at the beck of the fancy or the necessities of the metre and rhyme.

There is also an objection to Man (or any other theme of that grandeur) as the subject of a didactic poem, which is more subtle, and which for that reason we have reserved to the last. In the ordinary specimens of didactic poetry, the theme and its sub-divisions wear (as we have already observed) a double-faced or Janus aspect; one derived from the direct experience of life, the other from the reflex experience of it. And the very reason why one face does affect you is because the other does not. Thus a Morland farmyard, a Flemish tavern, or a clean kitchen in an unpretending house seen by ruddy firelight reflected from pewter ware, scarcely interests the eye at all in the reality; but for that very reason it does interest us all in the mimicry. The very fact of seeing an object framed as it were, insulated, suddenly relieved to the steady consciousness, which all one’s life has been seen unframed, not called into relief, but depressed into the universal level of subconsciousness, awakens a pleasurable sense of surprise. But now Man is too great a subject to allow of any unrelieved aspects. What the reader sees he must see directly and without insulation, else falseness and partiality are immediately apparent.


[1] We speak here of Horace in his lyrical character, and of Pope as he revealed himself in his tender and pathetic sincerities, not in his false, counterfeit scorn. Horace, a good-natured creature, that laughed eternally in his satire, was probably sincere. Pope, a benign one, could not have been sincere in the bitter and stinging personalities of his satires. Horace seems to be personal, but is not. Neither is Juvenal; the names he employs are mere allegoric names. Draco is any bloody fellow; Favonius is any sycophant: but Pope is very different.

[2] ‘His own chin,’ chin-chopping, as practised in our days, was not an original invention; it was simply a restoration from the days of Queen Anne.