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L I F E
ALEXANDER POPE, ESQ.
Alexander Pope was born, according to Mr. Spence, in Lombard-street, London, on May 22d, 1688, in the house of his father, who was so eminent a linen-draper, and traded so successfully, that he gained a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. His mother was daughter of William Turner, Esq. of York, two of whose sons died in the service of Charles the First, and the other became a general officer in Spain.
The feebleness and delicacy of his constitution naturally engaged the attention of his parents and relations; and he was still more endeared to them by the uncommon mildness and sweetness of temper, which he displayed in his childhood: And perhaps his father might say, as did the father of Boileau, “This child, if he lives, will never speak ill of any person.” His voice, too, was so marvellously melodious, that they used to call him the little nightingale. He was taught to read by an aunt that was particularly fond of him, and learnt to write by copying
printed books, which he did with exquisite skill and dexterity. He was placed, at eight years old, under the care of Taverner, a Romish priest (as his father and mother were rigid Catholics), who taught him the rudiments of the Greek and Latin languages at the same time. Perhaps it may be wished that, for the promotion of true taste and literature, Greek was always taught in great schools before Latin, according to a hint of Erasmus. Having made considerable improvements under Taverner, he was removed to a celebrated seminary of Catholics at Twyford, a pleasant village on the banks of the Itchin, near Winchester; a circumstance that used frequently to be mentioned by the scholars of the neighbouring college, in their youthful compositions. Having written a lampoon on his master at Twyford, one of his first efforts in poetry, he was removed from thence to a school kept near Hyde-park-corner. Before this removal, he had been delighted with a perusal of Ogilby's Homer, and Sandys's Ovid; he frequently spoke, in the latter part of his life, of the exquisite pleasure which the perusal of these two writers gave him. And having now an opportunity of sometimes frequenting the playhouses, our young bard was so delighted with theatrical performances, that he turned the chief events of the Iliad into a kind of drama, made up of a number of speeches from Ogilby's translation, connected with verses of his own. suaded some of the upper boys to act this piece, which, as an uncommon curiosity, one would have been glad to have beheld. The master's gardener represented the character of Ajax ; and the actors
He perwere dressed after the pictures of his favourite Ogilby; which were indeed designed and engraved by artists of note. At twelve years of age, our young bard retired with his father to Binfield, near Oakingham; who, unwilling to trust the money he had gained in trade to government security, lived on the principal, which gradually was consumed before he was aware. Another private tutor was now sought out for his son; this was another priest, named Dean; from whom his pupil deriving very little advantage, he at last determined to study on a plan of his own; which he did with great diligence and perseverance; devouring all books that he could procure, especially poetical works. To indulge this darling passion, he left no calling nor profession, as so many eminent poets and painters appear to have done : He was invariably and solely a poet, from the beginning of his life to the end. And it was now he first perused the writings of Waller, of Spenser, and of Dryden, in the order here mentioned. Spenser is said to have made a poet of Cowley ; that Ogilby should give our Author his first poetic pleasures, is a remarkable circumstance. But Dryden soon became his chief favourite, and his model. And as a desire to see eminent men is one of the first marks of a mind eager to excel, he entreated a friend to carry him to Button's coffee-house, which Dryden frequented, that he might gratify himself with the bare sight of a man whom he so much ad, mired.
I have heard, that, among works of prose, most fond of the second part of Sir William Temple's Miscellanies. How very early he becon to
write, cannot now be exactly ascertained; but his father frequently proposed familiar subjects to him, and after many corrections would say,
- These are now good rhymes.”
Though the Ode to Solitude, written at twelve years
age, is said to be his earliest production, yet Dodsley, who was honoured with his intimacy, had seen several pieces of a still earlier date. It is remarkable that, precisely at the same age, Voltaire produced his first copy of verses on record. They were written at the request of an old invalid, to be presented, in his name, to the only son of Louis XIV. If it should be urged, that too much is said of the childish performances of these two great men, let it be remembered, that it is amusing to trace the fountain of the Nile.
Cowley and Milton had written pieces of equal value at as early an age, and Tasso still earlier. Milton's Paraphrases of the 114th and 136th Psalms, made when he was only fifteen years old, are very poetical and spirited; and Metastasio was as young when he wrote Giustino, a tragedy.
At fourteen, he employed himself in translating the first book of the Thebais of Statius, and in modernising the January and May of Chaucer; the Prologue of the Wife of Bath; and also in translating the Epistle of Sappho to Phaon, in order to complete the careless version published under the name of Dryden, but very unequally performed. About the same time he gave imitations of many English poets; the best of which was, that of Lord Rochester on Silence; in which might be discovered the strong sense, and moral turn of thinking, for which he was afterward so justly celebrated. There was no imitation of Milton'.
After spending a few months in London, to be instructed in the Italian and French languages, he returned to Binfield, and prosecuted with fresh ardour his poetical studies. He wrote a Comedy; a Tragedy on the story of St. Genevieve, copied by Dodsley in his Cleone ; and an Epic Poem, called Alcander; all of them attempts that indicated an ardent and eager desire of future fame. If it be said, that these are marks of vanity and self-confidence, let it be remembered, that he who in youth has never grasped in his mind at more than he could perform, will never arrive at eminence and excellence in any art.
At sixteen he wrote his Pastorals; and as the first step in the literary, as well as in the political world is of the utmost consequence, these Pastorals introduced him to the acquaintance, and soon into the friendship, of Sir William Trumbal, who had formerly been much in public life, Ambassador at Constantinople, and Secretary of State ; and was then retired into Windsor-Forest, near Binfield. This amiable ex-minister, wearied with the intrigues and bustle of courts, was very naturally pleased to discover in his neighbourhood a youth of such abilities and taste as young Pope ; and was therefore happy in his company and conversation.
It was Trumbal who circulated his Pastorals among his friends, and first introduced him to Wy
* Mr. Harte informed me that Dryden gave Pope a shilling for translating, when a boy, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.