Sunday, August 1, 2010

Merits and Demerits of Alexender Pope's Poetry

His poetry may not be of the highest class :
Pope is the most important, though not the greatest, poet of the eighteenth century. He exercised the greatest influence on the classical poetry of the century. His poetry was intellectual didactic and satiric and was almost all written in the heroic couplet. It is never of the highest class, but within its limits, it stands un­rivalled.

Controversy regarding his greatness:
There is a good deal of controversy among critics as regards his true place and position among the poets of England. They widely differ amongst themselves as regards his eminence as a poet. Some consider him as one of the masterpoets of England and assign to him a place near Shakespeare and Milton, there are others who would not be willing to assign him any place as a poet. Apprecia­tion of his poetry has partly received a set back on account of some defects in his character. He reeeived the highest praise in his own century. He was ranked with the poets of song by Swift, Addison and Warburton. In reply to a question whether Pope was a poet, Johnson sharply retorted by saying that "if Pope be not a poet where is poetry to be found." Joseph Warton once praised the poet by the remark that in that species of poetry wherein Pope excelled, he is superior to all mankind. Bowles placed him above Dryden and to Byron he was the greatest name in English poetry. Ruskin regarded him as the most perfect representative of the true English mind and Mr. Lowell is of the opinion that "in his own province he still stands unapproachably alone." He was not liked by Wordsworth and Coleridge and was even denounced by them. Matthew Arnold regarded him, with Dryden, the "classic of our Prose." There has been an unprecedented reversal of fortune in the twentieth century and his merits have come to be widely acknowledge on all hands. Whether you call his work poetry or prose, the fact is that it possesses certain qualities which demand our greatest respect and give us genuine pleasure.
His demerits:
His excellence is just technical, so it is rather of a superficial kind. He does not exhibit any depth of human nature nor any subtlety of human mind. He has no eye for the beauty of external nature, nor for the grandeur of human character. His poetry is lacking in originality of thought. The substance of his poetry con­sists mostly of conventional thought and commonplace maxims of morality and his merit is a matter of his expression. His expression is brilliant, because he polishes and refines it. He polishes and replenishes his thoughts and his language find the startling turns which emerge as a result thereof, evoke our admiration, but they do not warm our hearts as true poetry does. He is not a creative poet, he cannot sing as he has no ears for the subtlest melodies of verse. He is not a lyric poet, he lacked the intensity, spontaneity, music and melody of a lyric poet. He exalts reason over imagina­tion. Consequently imaginative lights as we find in Shelley, are conspicuous by their absence from his poetry. His poetry deals with library criticism, ethical philosophy, moral satire, which for their presentation have to depend upon cold and impassioned ana­lysis and scientific method, and not heights of the flights of imagi­nation. Much of his poetry is satirical, which is topical in its appeal, and lacks the element of universality. His poetry is of little interest to us to-day, full of allusions and references to contempo­rary personalities as it is. His poetry is limited in its range as it was poetry of society in the city—of fashionable and smart society-a poetry of satire and a philosophic poetry, which is dry and has no warmth of experience in it. He aims at the study of mankind but the man he studies is of the limited society of a city—man in London—and in literary London. “The vast range of humanity beyond London," says Stopford Brooke, "was left without sympa­thy, as if it did not exist. This was not insular, it was insolent." His studies relate only to the social life, manners and customs of a highly artificial society, where conventions impede the strong and smooth flow of elemental human passions and emotions. He could not rise upto epic and drama which constitute the grandest form of poetry. He lacked insight into eternal truths and to capture them in melody and metaphor, or some strain of harmony, is absolutely beyond him. As a metrist he is limited only to the heroic couplet, which shows in his hands only mechanical skill and not genuine art.
His merits-correctness:
"Correctness" is one of his highest claims to eminence and greatness. He was in early life admonised by William Walsh to be correct. "There was one way of excelling, for though we had several great poets we never had one great poet that was correct." The advice evoked response in Pope's heart and he assiduously applied himself to regular practice of polishing, refining and pruning. He achieved consequently correctness of the form of expression, and not of thoughts or emotions. We may not agree with what he says, but we all like the manner of his speech, for whatever he says he says in the best possible manner. He himself once stated :
"True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but never so well expressed."
He does not aim at originality of expressed thought and much of what he says is just commonplace and trite, but even this he adorns in a correct expression. He practises the art of selection and uses the most appropriate words and phrases, a quality in which he superbly excels. His language is orderly and balanced. His thought is logically developed and well-arranged. His style is clear, precise and deliberately careful. It is balanced and correct and free from the excess of the Elizabethan and the Romantics. Vagueness, obscurity and extra vaganec are carefully pruned and corrected. He follows the rules of composition as laid down by the ancients and interpreted for him by the writers and critics of Frame. He was a great artists, correct artist, one who shows "a meticulous sense of exact word in the exact place." (Albert). He perfected the heroic couplet, which is marked by lucidity, strength, wit aptness that cannot be gain said. His couplets are tighter and more compressed, and there are few of the "Alexandrines" or triplets in them.
His Epigrams and Aphorisms:
He is remarkable for his epigrams and aphorisms, which lends the gift of quotability to his poetry. "Probably no poet," says Edmunds, "with the exception of Shakespeare, has enriched our language so much with quotable and readily remembered sayings." "Foolish rush in where angels fear to tread," "to err is human, to forgive divine," are only two of his innumerable apho­risms, which have been forged with such final force as to have the accent of proverbs.
The Brilliance of his Satires:
Most of the poetry of Pope is satirical. He excels all other English poets as a satirist. "His careful workmanship often makes his satirical touches more attractive than Dryden's" (Joh Dennis). He has none to compare him in the gift of rapid rapier-thrusts, which confound and disarm an opponent. His satires are simply brilliant and the portraits of the people he detested are, indeed the best he could give. His peace of satire dealing with the character of Atticus is his masterpiece, consummate as it is in workmanship. When he rises above his personal hostilities and is guided, and inspired by his offended artistic conscience he is able to achieve universality.
His poetry is intellectual:
His poetry was of the age, and it reflected in full measure the spirit of the age. Being intellectual if appeals to the mind rather than to the heart. It is full of brilliart epigrams and polished wit. His lines of verse are quotable, being packed with meaning, neat­ness and brevity. Lack of passion and emotion is more than com­pensated in his poetry by intellectual clearness end neatness of expression. In the words of Lowell "Pope as a literary man represents precision and grace of expression,"
A Poet of wit and fancy:
"He was a poet of wit and fancy. His subjects are of the satiri­cal end the mock-heroic kind. He is a master of artificial poetry. The Rape of the Lock is a rare specimen of this class of poetry. It exhibits a rare combination of wit and fancy. His satire may not be having the largeness of Dryden, but he looked on society with an unclouded eye, and he express his views with a pen that never stumbled, never made slips of forms, and always said the right thing in the right way. (Saintsbury)
His reputation and true place and position:
Pope's reputation witnessed an unprecedented rise and fall through the ages ; it swung to the extremes of elevation, eminence and degradation. When it sank low and met with a heavy reversal to pull it back to the heights of original eminence from the quagmire of neglect and oblivion was difficult, if not impossible. The twentieth century, particularly the second quarter of the first half saw an unexpected reversal of taste and interest in him, which meant that both his theory and practice were once again brought within the intelligence and comprehension of men, who were by this gradual process led on to accept the same. Two excellent book viz., "The Poetical Career of Alexander Pope" by Robert Kilburn Root and "On the Poetry of Pope" by Geoffrey Tillotson were published on Pope towards the end of the first half of the century which showed the revival of deep interest in the poetry of Pope. Prof. Root knows that if he can get others to read Pope as he reads him with under­standing, the poet will not lack admirers and his end will be served. Prof. Root recognises Pope for the very considerable poet he is and says so in no uncertain terms. He completely repudiates the unbelievable straw figure, erected to the greater glory of Wordsworth, and he joins the younger critics in their reaction in favour of the real Pope. And he does not overstate (exaggerate) his case. Mr. Tillotson departs from the conventional and old-fashioned method of Mr. Root and adopts a device which permits him to concentrate on his special subject to the exclusion of all others. He expounds Pope's ideal of correctness as it applies to subject-matter and the standard of critical judgement, to design, language and metrics. Tillotson quite frankly writes as a partison, but he escapes the dangers of unduly depressing the Romantics in order to exalt Pope, or of trying to show that Pope himself was a Romantic, born out of time. While never forgetting that Pope was an Augustan, and indeed throwing not a little light on the Augustan tradition in poetry, he claims that by the standards of any age, or rather of all ages, Pope is a great poet. He has brought home to us by careful and sensitive analysis, the true nature of Pope's effects. He has increased our pleasure by making us conscious of the source of our pleasure. He has shown that Pope is akin to Wordsworth, Keats, and even to Mozart. The attitude of a modern critic is in favour of Pope ; he sees a perfect design in all his poems, he admires the use of his language and versification, and he praises the appropriateness of his diction. A modern critic sums up his achievement briefly and brilliantly thus : "Pope's merits are of a kind not likely to be affected by time, a lively fancy, a power of satire almost unrivalled, and a skill in using words so consummate that there is no poet, excepting Shakespeare, who has left his mark upon the language so strongly. He has said in the best words what we all know and feel, but cannot express and has made that classical which in weaker hands would be commonplace. His sensibility to the claims of his art is exquisite, the adaptation of his style to his subject shows the hand of a master. All these are gifts to which none but a great poet can lay claim." "Pope," says Lowell "was the chief founder of an artificial poetry which in his hands was living and powerful, because he used it to express artificial modes of thinking and an artificial state of society. Measured by any high standard of imagination, he will be found wanting ; tried by any high of wit, he is unrivailed." His true place can be measured well by quoting John Dennis, "Pope's sensibility to the claims of his art is exquisite, the adaptation of his style to his subject shows the hand of a master, and if these are not the highest gifts of a poet, they are gifts to which none but a poet can lay claim". He is not a Shakespeare but he has undoubtelly left an indelible impress on the English Language, which would make it certainly poorer, if taken away. He wrote for his age and as Dr. Johnson admits, he exhibits extra­ ordinary art in ministering to the tastes of his times.

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