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Pope’s Retort Upon Addison
by [?]

There is nothing extraordinary, or that could merit a special notice, in a simple case of oversight, or in a blunder, though emanating from the greatest of poets. But such a case challenges and forces our attention, when we know that the particular passage in which it occurs was wrought and burnished with excessive pains; or (which in this case is also known) when that particular passage is pushed into singular prominence as having obtained a singular success. In no part of his poetic mission did Pope so fascinate the gaze of his contemporaries as in his functions of satirist; which functions, in his latter years, absorbed all other functions. And one reason, I believe, why it was that the interest about Pope decayed so rapidly after his death (an accident somewhere noticed by Wordsworth), must be sought in the fact, that the most stinging of his personal allusions, by which he had given salt to his later writings, were continually losing their edge, and sometimes their intelligibility, as Pope’s own contemporary generation was dying off. Pope alleges it as a palliation of his satiric malice, that it had been forced from him in the way of retaliation; forgetting that such a plea wilfully abjures the grandest justification of a satirist, viz., the deliberate assumption of the character as something corresponding to the prophet’s mission amongst the Hebrews. It is no longer the facit indignatio versum. Pope’s satire, where even it was most effective, was personal and vindictive, and upon that argument alone could not he philosophic. Foremost in the order of his fulminations stood, and yet stands, the bloody castigation by which, according to his own pretence, he warned and menaced (but by which, in simple truth, he executed judgment upon) his false friend, Addison.

To say that this drew vast rounds of applause upon its author, and frightened its object into deep silence for the rest of his life, like the Quos ego of angry Neptune, sufficiently argues that the verses must have ploughed as deeply as the Russian knout. Vitriol could not scorch more fiercely. And yet the whole passage rests upon a blunder; and the blunder is so broad and palpable, that it implies instant forgetfulness both in the writer and the reader. The idea which furnishes the basis of the passage is this: that the conduct ascribed to Addison is in its own nature so despicable, as to extort laughter by its primary impulse; but that this laughter changes into weeping, when we come to understand that the person concerned in this delinquency is Addison. The change, the transfiguration, in our mood of contemplating the offence, is charged upon the discovery which we are supposed to make as to the person of the offender; that which by its baseness had been simply comic when imputed to some corresponding author, passes into a tragic coup-de-theatre, when it is suddenly traced back to a man of original genius. The whole, therefore, of this effect is made to depend upon the sudden scenical transition from a supposed petty criminal to one of high distinction. And, meantime, no such stage effect had been possible, since the knowledge that a man of genius was the offender had been what we started with from the beginning. ‘Our laughter is changed to tears,’ says Pope, ‘as soon as we discover that the base act had a noble author.’ And, behold! the initial feature in the whole description of the case is, that the libeller was one whom ‘true genius fired:’

‘Peace to all such! But were there one whose mind
True genius fires,’ etc.

Before the offence is described, the perpetrator is already characterized as a man of genius: and, in spite of that knowledge, we laugh. But suddenly our mood changes, and we weep, but why? I beseech you. Simply because we have ascertained the author to be a man of genius.