Page images
PDF
EPUB

At the two last schools he used to represent himself as having lost part of what Taverner had taught him ; and on his master at Twyford he had already ex :rcised his poetry in a lampoon. Yet under those masters he translated inore than a fourth part of the “ Metainorphoses." If he kept the same proportion in his other exercises, it cannot be thought that his loss was great.

He tells of himself, in his poems, that he lisp'd in numbers;' and used to say that he could not remember the time when he began to make verses.

In the style of fiction it might have been said of him as of Pindar, that, when he lay in his cradle,“ the bees swarmed about his mouth."

About the time of the revolution, his father, who was undoubtedly disappointed by the sudden blast of popish prosperity, quitted his trade, and retired to Binfield in Windsor Forest, with about twenty thou. sand pounds; for which, being conscientiously determined not to intrust it to the government, he found no better use than that of locking it up in a chest, and tak. ing from it what his expenses required ; and his life was long enough to consume a great part of it before his son came to the inheritance.

To Binfield Pope was called by his father when he was about twelve years old ; and there he had for a few months the assistance of one Deane, another priest, of whom he learned only to construe a little of “ Tully's Offices.” How Mr. Deane could spend, with a boy who had translated so much of “ Ovid," some months over a amall part of “ Tully's Office," it is now vain to inquire.

Of a youth so successfully employed and so conspicuously improved, a minute account must be naturally desired; but curiosity must be contented with confused, imperfect, and sometimes improbable intelligence.

Pope, finding little advantage from external help, resolved thenceforward to direct himself, and at twelve formed a plan of study, which he completed with little other incitement than the desire of excellence,

His pri:nary and principal purpose was to be a poet, with which his father accidentally concurred, by proposing subjects, and obliging him to correct his performances by many revisals ; after which the old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would

say,

" these are good rhymes."

In his perusal of the English poets he soon distinguished the versification of Dryden, which he considered as the model to be studied, and was impressed with such veneration for his instructor, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him.

Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before Pope was twelve ; so early must he therefore have felt the power of harmony and the zeal of genius. Who does not wish that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young

admirer. The earliest of Pope's productions is his Ode on Solitude, written before he was twelve, in which there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's performances at the same age.

His time was now wholly spent in reading and writing. As he read the classics, he amused himself with translating them ; and at fourteen made a version of the first book of The Thebais, which, with some revision, he afterwards published. He must have been at this time, if he had no help, a considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.

By Dryden's Fables, which had then been not long published, and were much in the hands of poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appearance, and put January and May, and the Prologue of the Wife of Bath, into modern English. He translated likewise the epistle of Sappho to Phaon, from Ovid, to complete the version which was before imperfect; and wrote some other small pieces, which he afterwards printed.

He sometimes imitated the English poets, and professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon Silence after Rochester's “ Nothing." He had now formed his versification, and the smoothness of his numbers surpassed his original : but this is a small part of his praise; he discovers such acquaintance both with human life and public affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor forest. Next

year he was desirous of opening to himself new sources of knowledge, by making himself acquainted with modern languages; and removed for a time to London, that he might study French and Italian, which as he desired nothing more than to read them, where by diligent application soon despatched. Of taolian learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.

He then returned to Binfield, and delighted himself with his own poetry. He tried all styles and many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epic poem, with panegyrics on all the princes of Europe; and, as he confesses, “thought himself the greatest genius that ever was.” Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings. He, indeed who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, without knowing the powers of

other men, is very liable to error; but it was the felici. ty of Pope to rate himself at his real value.

Most of his puerile productions were, by his maturer judgment, afterwards destroyed; “ Alcander,the epic poem, was burnt by the persuasion of Atterbury. The tragedy was founded on the legend of St. Genevieve. Of the comedy there is no account.

Concerning his studies it is related, that he translated “ Tully on Old Age;" and that, besides his books of poetry and criticism, he read « Temple's Essays" and Locke on Human Understanding." His reading, though his favourite authors are not known, appears to have been sufficiently extensive and multifarious; for his early pieces shew, with sufficient evidence, his knowledge of books.

He that is pleased with himself easily imagines that he shall please others. Sir William Trumbull, who had been ambassador at Constantinople, and secretary of state, when he retired from business, fixed his residence in the neighbourhood of Binfield. Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced to the statesman of sixty, and so distinguished himself, that their interviews ended in friendship and correspondence. Pope was, through his whole life, ambitious of splendid acquaintance; and he seems to have wanted neither diligence nor success in attracting the notice of the great; for, from his first entrance into the world, and his entrance was very early, he was admitted to familiarity with those whose rank or station made them most conspicuous.

From the age of sixteen the life of Pope, as an author, may be properly computed. He now wrote his pastorals, which were shewn to the poets and critics of that time ; as they well deserved, they were read with admiration, and many praises were bestowed upon them and upon the preface, which is both elegant and learn

ed in a high degree; they were, however, not published till five years afterwards.

Cowley, Milton, and Pope, are distinguished among the English poets by the early exertion of their powers; but the works of Cowley alone were published in his childhood, and therefore of him only can it be certain that his puerile performances received no improvement from his maturer studies.

At this time began his acquaintance with Wycherley, a man who seems to have had among his contemporaries his full share of reputation, to have been esteemed without virtue, and caressed without good-humour. Pope was proud of his notice; Wycherley wrote verses in his praise, which he was charged by Dennis with writing to himself, and they agreed for a while to flatter one another. It is pleasant to remark how soon Pope learned the cant of an author, and began to treat critics with contempt, though he had yet suffered nothing from them.

But the fondness of Wycherley was too violent to last. His esteem of Pope was such, that he submitted some poems to his revision; and when Pope, perhaps proud of such confidence, was sufficiently bold in his criticisms and liberal in his alterations the old scribbler was angry to see his pages defaced, and felt more pain from the detection than content from the amendment of his faults. They parted; but Pope always considered him with kindness and visited him a little time before he died.

Another of his early correspondents was Mr. Cromwell, of whom I have learned nothing particular but that he used to ride a hunting in a tye-wig. He was fond, and perhaps vain, of amusing himself with poetry and criticism; and sometimes sent his performances to Pope, who did not forbear such remarks as were now

« PreviousContinue »