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ALEXANDER POPE. THIS illustrious poet was born at London, in 1688, and was descended from a family in Oxfordshire, the head of which was the earl of Downe, whose sole heiress married the earl of Lindsey. His father, a man of primitive simplicity and integrity of manners, was a merchant of London ; who, upon the Revolution, quitted trade, and converted his effects into money, amounting to near 10,000). with which he retired into the country; and died in 1717, at the age of seventy-five.
Our poet's mother, who lived to a very advanced age, being ninety-three years old when she died in 1733, was the daughter of William Turner, Esq. of York. She bad three brothers; one of whom was killed; another died in the service of king Charles; and the eldest, following his fortunes, and becoming a general officer in Spain, left her what estate remained after sequestration and forfeitures of her family. To these circumstances our Poet alludes in his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, in which he mentions his parents.
Of gentle blood (part shed in Honour's cause,
His death was instant, and without a groan.
The education of our great author was attended with circumstances very singular, and some of them extremely unfavourable; but the amazing force of his
genius fully compensated the want of any advantage in his earliest instruction. He owed the knowledge of his letters to an aunt; and having learned very early to read, took great delight in it, and taught himself to write by copying after printed books, the characters of which he would imitate to great perfection. He began to compose verses farther back than he could well remember; and at eight years of age, when he was put under one Taverner, a priest, who taught him the rudiments of the Latin and Greek
ongues at the same time, he met with Ogilby's Homer, which gave him great delight; and this was increased by Sandy's Ovid. The raptures which these authors, even in the disguise of such translations, then yielded him, were so strong, that he spoke of them with pleasure ever after.
From Mr. Taverner's tuition he was sent to a private school at Twiford, near Winchester, where he continued about a year, and was then removed to another near Hyde-Park Corner; but was so unfortunate as to lose under his two last masters what he had acquired under the first.
While he remained at this school, being permitted to go to the playhouse with some of his schoolfellows of a more advanced age, he was so charmed with dramatic representations, that he formed the translation of the siad into a play, from several of the speeches in Ogilby's translation connected with verses of his own; and the several parts were performed by the upper boys of the school, except that of Ajax by the master's gardener. At the age of twelve our young poet went with his father to reside at his house at Binfield, in Windsor Forest, where he was, for a few months, under the tuition of another priest, with as little success as before; so that he resolved now to l ecome his own master, by reading those classic writers which gave him most entertainment; and by this method, at fifteen, he gained a ready habit in the learned languages, to which he soon after added the French and Italian. Upon his retreat to the
Forest he became first acquainted with the writings of Waller, Spenser, and Dryden; in the last of which he immediately found what he wanted; and the poems of that excellent writer were never out of his hands : they became his model, and from them alone he learned the whole magic of his versification.
The first of our author's compositions now extant in print, is an • (de on Solitude,' written before he was twelve years old; which, considered as the production of so early an age, is a perfect master-piece; nor need he have been ashamed of it, had it been written in the meridian of his genius: while it breathes the most delicate spirit of poetry; it at the same time demonstrates his love of solitude, and the rational pleasures which attend the retreats of a contented country life.
Two years after this he translated the First Book of Statius's • Thebais,' and wrote a copy of verses on Silence, in imitation of the Earl of Rochester's poem on Nothing. Thus we find him no sooner capable of holding the pen than he employed it in writing verses:
He lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came. Though we have had frequent opportunities to observe that poets have given early displays of genius, yet we cannot recollect that, amongst the inspired tribe, one can be found who, at the age of twelve, could produce so animated an ode, or, at the age of fourteen, translate froin the Latin. It has been reported, indeed, concerning Mr. Dryden, that when he was at Westininster school, the inaster, who had assigned a poetical task to some of the boys, of writing a paraphrase on our Saviour's miracle of turning water into wine, was perfectly astonished when young Dryden presented him with the following line, which he asserted was the best coinment that could be written upon it;
The conscious water saw its God, and blush'd. This was the only instance of an early appearance of genius in this great man, for he was turned of thirty before he acquired any reputation; an age in which Mr. Pope's was in its full distinction.
The year following that in which Mr. Pope wrote his poem on · Silence,' he began an epic poem, entitled 'Alcander,' which he afterwards coinmitted to the flames, as he did likewise a comedy and a tragedy, the latter taken from a story in the legend of St. Genevieve, both of these being the product of those early days : but his Pastorals, which were written when he was only sixteen years of age, were esteemed by Sir William Trumball, Mr. Granville, Mr. Wycherley, Mr. Walsh, and others of his friends, too valuable to be condemned to the same fate.
During this period of his life he was indefatigably diligent, and insatiably curious. Wanting l:ealth for violent, and money for expensive pleasures, and having excited in himself very strong desires of intellectual eminence, he spent much of his time over his books; but he read only to store his mind with facts and images, seizing all that his authors presented with undistinguishing voracity, and with an appetite for knowledge too eager to be nice. In a mind like his, however, all the faculties were at once involuntarily improving. Judgment is forced upon us by experience. He that reads many books must compare one opinion or one style with another; and, when he compares, must necessarily distinguish, reject, and prefer. But the account given by himself of his studies was, that from fourteen to twenty he read only for amusement, from twenty to twentyseven for improvement and instruction; that in the first part of this time he desired only to know, and in the second he endeavoured to judge.
The three great writers of pastoral dialogue, which Mr. Pope in some measure seems to imitate. are Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser. Mr. Pope is of opinion that Theocritus excels all others in nature and simplicity.
That Virgil, who copies Theocritus, refines on his original; and in all points, in which judgment has the principal part, is much superior to his master.
That among the moderns, their success has been greatest who have most endeavoured to make these Ancients their pattern. The most considerable genius appears in the famous Tasso, and our Spenser. Tasso, in his Aminta, has far excelled all the pastoral writers, as in his Gierusalemme he has outdone tbe epic poets of his own country. But as this piece seems to have been the original of a new sort of poem, the pastoral comedy, in Italy, it cannot so well be considered as a copy of the Ancients. Spenser's Calendar, in Mr. Dryden's opinion, is the most complete work of this kind which any nation has produced ever since the time of Virgil; but this he said before Mr. Pope's Pastorals appeared.
Mr. Walsh pronounces on our Shepherd's Boy (as Mr. Pope called himself) the following judgment, in a letter to Mr. Wycherley,
“ The verses are very tender and easy. The Author seems to have a particular genius for this kind of poetry, and a judgment that much exceeds the years you told me he was of. It is no flattery to say, that Virgil had not written any thing so good at his age. I shall take it as a favour if you will make me acquainted with him; and if he will give himself the trouble any morning to call at my house, I shall be very glad to read the verses with him, and give him my opinion of the particulars more largely than I can well do in this letter."
Thus early was Mr. Pope introduced to the acquaintance of men of genius, and so improved every advantage, that he made a more rapid progress towards a consummation in fame than any of our English poets. His Messiah, his Windsor Forest (the first part of which was written at the same time with his Pastorals), and his Essay on Criticism in 1709, were highly received.
In 1712 he wrote the “Rape of the Lock,' occasioned by a frolic of gallantry, rather too fan.iliar, in