Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pope, on Why He Wrote)

“Why did I write? what sin to me unknown
D’ipp'd me in ink, my parents', or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobey'd.
The Muse but serv'd to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life.”—Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “An Epistle to Arbuthnot” (1735)

Alexander Pope was born on this date 325 years ago today. Perhaps the greatest of English public poets—unafraid to get into a controversy, no matter what the occasion—he wrote this poem, containing some of his greatest comic lines, out of a spirit of tragedy. His longtime friend, Dr. John Arbuthnot, had just written to inform him he was dying—and indeed, the physician passed away only two months after this memoir-in-verse was published.

Perhaps a man given to greater fellowship might have hesitated to write Pope’s wickedly devastating rhyming heroic couplets. Such a man, if he weren’t embarrassed to encounter his targets on social occasions, might have gotten involved in something far worse for someone of Pope’s short stature: fisticuffs. 

But when he wrote of “this long disease, my life,” he was not being metaphorically melancholic—he suffered from a form of tuberculosis that left him a hunchback and stunted his growth at four feet six inches, while also enduring respiratory problems, high fevers, inflamed eyes, and abdominal pain. He never married.

Even before his physical afflictions, Pope began life with a significant strike against him: a Catholic from birth, he was disqualified from attending university, teaching, voting, and holding office. Nor, because of the faith, could his parents inherit or buy land, or even send him abroad for school. He was, ideologically, an odd man out, as he confessed in one of his “Imitations of Horace”:

"My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill,
            Verse-man or Prose-man, term me what you will,
            Papist or Protestant, or both between,
            Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean,
            In Moderation placing all my Glory,
            While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory."

Pope, perhaps the greatest English poet of the 18th century, is also one of my favorite poets. You only get the slightest sense of his mastery of the heroic couplet in the passages quoted above. Over the course of his entire work, they enabled him to round on his many peevish and carping enemies (who only became immortal as targets of his satire). The couplets, miracles of compression, end with some of the most quoted lines in the English language—including, in the “Epistle to Arbuthnot,” “damn with faint praise” and "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" (a barbed reference to one of his critics, John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, an effeminate courtier).

Arbuthnot had sometimes pleaded with his friend to be careful about the powerful enemies he made. There was not a chance that would happen. The quarrels of Pope's time have faded, but his verse remains packed with explosive wit.

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