Pope And Didactic Poetry by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

The ‘Essay on Criticism’ illustrates the same profound misconception of the principle working at the root of Didactic Poetry as operated originally to disturb the conduct of the ‘Essay on Man’ by its author, and to disturb the judgments upon it by its critics. This ‘Essay on Criticism’ no more aims at unfolding the grounds and theory of critical rules applied to poetic composition, than does the Epistola ad Pisones of Horace. But what if Horace and Pope both believed themselves the professional expounders ex cathedra of these very grounds and this very theory? No matter if they did. Nobody was less likely to understand their own purposes than themselves. Their real purposes were immanent, hidden in their poems; and from the poems they must be sought, not from the poets; who, generally, in proportion as the problem is one of analysis and evolution, for which, simply as the authors of the work, Horace and Pope were no better qualified than other people, and, as authors having that particular constitution of intellect which notoriously they had, were much worse qualified than other people. We cannot possibly allow a man to argue upon the meaning or tendency of his own book, as against the evidence of the book itself. The book is unexceptionable authority: and, as against that, the author has no locus standi. Both Horace and Pope, however little they might be aware of it, were secretly governed by the same moving principle–viz., not to teach (which was impossible for two reasons)–but to use this very impossibility, this very want of flexibility in the subject to the ostensible purpose of the writers, as the resistance of the atmosphere from which they would derive the motion of their wings. That it was impossible in a poem seriously to teach the principles of criticism, we venture to affirm on a double argument: 1st, that the teaching, if in earnest, must be polemic: and how alien from the spirit of poetry to move eternally through controversial discussions! 2ndly, that the teaching, from the very necessities of metre, must be eclectic; innumerable things must be suppressed; and how alien from the spirit of science to move by discontinuous links according to the capricious bidding of poetic decorum! Divinity itself is not more entangled in the necessities of fighting for every step in advance, and maintaining the ground by eternal preparation for hostility, than is philosophic criticism; a discipline so little matured, that at this day we possess in any language nothing but fragments and hints towards its construction. To dispute in verse has been celebrated as the accomplishment of Lucretius, of Sir John Davies, of Dryden: but then this very disputation has always been eclectic; not exhausting even the essential arguments; but playing gracefully with those only which could promise a brilliant effect. Such a mimic disputation is like a histrionic fencing match, where the object of the actor is not in good earnest to put his antagonist to the sword, but to exhibit a few elegant passes in carte and tierce, not forgetting the secondary object of displaying to advantage any diamonds and rubies that may chance to scintillate upon his sword-hand.

Had Pope, or had Horace, been requested to explain the rationale of his own poem on Criticism, it is pretty certain that each (and from the same causes) would have talked nonsense. The very gifts so rare and so exquisite by which these extraordinary men were adorned–the graceful negligence, the delicacy of tact, the impassioned abandon[1] upon subjects suited to their modes of geniality, though not absolutely or irreversibly incompatible with the sterner gifts of energetic attention and powerful abstraction, were undoubtedly not in alliance with them. The two sets of gifts did not exert a reciprocal stimulation. As well might one expect from a man, because he was a capital shot, that he should write the best essay on the theory of projectiles. Horace and Pope, therefore, would have talked so absurdly in justifying or explaining their own works, that we–naturally impatient of nonsense on the subject of criticism, as our own metier–should have said, ‘Oh, dear gentlemen, stand aside for a moment, and we will right you in the eyes of posterity: at which bar, if either of you should undertake to be his own advocate, he will have a fool for his client.’

We do and must concede consideration even to the one-sided pleadings of an advocate. But it is under the secret assumption of the concurrent pleadings equally exaggerated on the adverse side. Without this counterweight, how false would be our final summation of the evidence upon most of the great state trials! Nay, even with both sides of the equation before us, how perplexing would be that summation generally, unless under the moderating guidance of a neutral and indifferent eye; the eye of the judge in the first instance, and subsequently of the upright historian–whether watching the case from the station of a contemporary, or reviewing it from his place in some later generation.

Now what we wish to observe about Criticism is, that with just the same temptation to personal partiality and even injustice in extremity, it offers a much wider latitude to the distortion of things, facts, grounds, and inferences. In fact, with the very same motives to a personal bias swerving from the equatorial truth, it makes a much wider opening for giving effect to those motives. Insincerity in short, and every mode of contradicting the truth, is far more possible under a professed devotion to a general principle than any personal expression could possibly be.

If the logic of the case be steadily examined, a definition of didactic poetry will emerge the very opposite to that popularly held: it will appear that in didactic poetry the teaching is not the power, but the resistance. It is difficult to teach even playfully or mimically in reconciliation with poetic effect: and the object is to wrestle with this difficulty. It is as when a man selects an absurd or nearly impracticable subject, his own chin,[2] suppose, for the organ of a new music: he does not select it as being naturally allied to music, but for the very opposite reason–as being eminently alien from music, that his own art will have the greater triumph in taming this reluctancy into any sort of obedience to a musical purpose. It is a wrestle with all but physical impossibility. Many arts and mechanic processes in human life present intermitting aspects of beauty, scattered amongst others that are utterly without interest of that sort. For instance, in husbandry, where many essential processes are too mean to allow of any poetic treatment or transfiguration, others are picturesque, and recommended by remembrances of childhood to most hearts. How beautiful, for instance, taken in all its variety of circumstances, the gorgeous summer, the gay noontide repast, the hiding of children in the hay, the little toy of a rake in the hands of infancy, is the hay-harvest from first to last! Such cases wear a Janus aspect, one face connecting them with gross uses of necessity, another connecting them with the gay or tender sentiments that accidents of association, or some purpose of Providence, may have thrown about them as a robe of beauty. Selecting therefore what meets his own purpose, the poet proceeds by resisting and rejecting all those parts of the subject which would tend to defeat it. But at least, it will be said, he does not resist those parts of the subject which he selects. Yes, he does; even those parts he resists utterly in their real and primary character, viz., as uses indispensable to the machinery of man’s animal life; and adopts them only for a collateral beauty attached to the accidents of their evolution; a beauty oftentimes not even guessed by those who are most familiar with them as practical operations. It is as if a man, having a learned eye, should follow the track of armies–careless of the political changes which they created, or of the interests (all neutral as regarded any opinion of his) which they disturbed–but alive to every form of beauty connected with these else unmeaning hostilities–alive to the beauty of their battle-array, to the pomp of their manoeuvres, to the awning of smoke-wreaths surging above the artilleries, to the gleaming of sabres and bayonets at intervals through loopholes in these gathering smoky masses. This man would abstract from the politics and doctrines of the hostile armies, as much as the didactic poet from the doctrinal part of his theme.

From this attempt to rectify the idea of didactic poetry, it will be seen at once why Pope failed utterly and inevitably in the ‘Essay on Man.’ The subject was too directly and commandingly interesting to furnish any opening to that secondary and playful interest which arises from the management by art and the subjugation of an intractable theme. The ordinary interest of didactic poetry is derived from the repellent qualities of the subject, and consequently from the dexterities of the conflict with what is doubtful, indifferent, unpromising. Not only was there no resistance in the subject to the grandeur of poetry, but, on the contrary, this subject offered so much grandeur, was so pathetic and the amplitude of range so vast as to overwhelm the powers of any poet and any audience, by its exactions. That was a fault in one direction. But a different fault was–that the subject allowed no power of selection. In ordinary didactic poetry, as we have just been insisting, you sustain the interest by ignoring all the parts which will not bear a steady gaze. Whatever fascinates the eye, or agitates the heart by mimicry of life is selected and emphasized, and what is felt to be intractable or repellent is authoritatively set aside. The poet has an unlimited discretion. But on a theme so great as man he has no discretion at all. This resource is denied. You can give the truth only by giving the whole truth. In treating a common didactic theme you may neglect merely transitional parts with as much ease as benefit, because they are familiar enough to be pre-supposed, and are besides essential only in the real process, but not at all in the mimic process of description; since A and C, that in the reality could reach one another only through B, may yet be intelligible as regards their beauty without any intermediation of B. The ellipsis withdraws a deformity, and does not generally create an obscurity: either the obscurity is none at all, or is irrelevant to the real purpose of beauty, or may be treated sufficiently by a line or two of adroit explanation. But in a poem treating so vast a theme as man’s relations to his own race, to his habitation the world, to God his maker, and to all the commands of the conscience, to the hopes of the believing heart, and to the eternal self-conflicts of the intellect, it is clear that the purely transitional parts, essential to the understanding of the whole, cannot be omitted or dispensed with at the beck of the fancy or the necessities of the metre and rhyme.

There is also an objection to Man (or any other theme of that grandeur) as the subject of a didactic poem, which is more subtle, and which for that reason we have reserved to the last. In the ordinary specimens of didactic poetry, the theme and its sub-divisions wear (as we have already observed) a double-faced or Janus aspect; one derived from the direct experience of life, the other from the reflex experience of it. And the very reason why one face does affect you is because the other does not. Thus a Morland farmyard, a Flemish tavern, or a clean kitchen in an unpretending house seen by ruddy firelight reflected from pewter ware, scarcely interests the eye at all in the reality; but for that very reason it does interest us all in the mimicry. The very fact of seeing an object framed as it were, insulated, suddenly relieved to the steady consciousness, which all one’s life has been seen unframed, not called into relief, but depressed into the universal level of subconsciousness, awakens a pleasurable sense of surprise. But now Man is too great a subject to allow of any unrelieved aspects. What the reader sees he must see directly and without insulation, else falseness and partiality are immediately apparent.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] We speak here of Horace in his lyrical character, and of Pope as he revealed himself in his tender and pathetic sincerities, not in his false, counterfeit scorn. Horace, a good-natured creature, that laughed eternally in his satire, was probably sincere. Pope, a benign one, could not have been sincere in the bitter and stinging personalities of his satires. Horace seems to be personal, but is not. Neither is Juvenal; the names he employs are mere allegoric names. Draco is any bloody fellow; Favonius is any sycophant: but Pope is very different.

[2] ‘His own chin,’ chin-chopping, as practised in our days, was not an original invention; it was simply a restoration from the days of Queen Anne.

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