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Aaron Hill ‘improves’ An Essay on Criticism
78 THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
the head of her squadrons, or pursuing the disarray of an enemy; and, in a
moment, it becomes elegant to say, she is scouring the plain; because military
rapidity, including ideas of insult and hostility, must be supposed to lay waste,
while it passes; so that what, in one case, is propriety, becomes but obstruction,
in the other, being mis-applied to velocity, independent of force; where it ought
to have been simply considered as swiftness. A writer of your rank, will never be
capable of condemning such instances as these, under the thin plausibility of
their being trifling, and verbal remarks; for, since your only design, in the place
this is drawn from, was to instruct, by an example, how to paint things in words;
such a word as defaces the very idea, you proposed to imprint, was an error, in
the actual foundation, and must, in consequence, throw down the building.
Besides, as the chief point here in view, was the structure or sound of your verse,
with purpose to make it, in your own fine expression, an echo to the sense; the
minutest exactness of choice, in the words, seems to have been of double demand
Be so good, therefore, to tell me (and believe I ask it sincerely, for the sake of
instruction) whether I am mistaken or not, when I think you rather contented
yourself with the general idea, than examined into the coherence of particular
parts, in one of the liveliest poetical pictures that ever was drawn; yet, additional
whereto, I am under an unlucky necessity of sending you some, still too faint and
imperfect new colourings; because, without taking that extraordinary liberty
(liable as it is, to the appearance of something the reverse of my modester
meaning), I know not, how to explain to you, within any reasonable compass of a
letter, in what parts of the piece I was of opinion, so much happier a hand as
your own, should have given it a more heightened resemblance than that glowing
one, you bestowed on it.
Soft, breathes the whisp’ring verse—if zephir plays:
Flows the stream smooth?—still smoother glide the lays,
Where high-swoln surges sweep the sounding shore,
Roll the rough verse, hoarse, like the torrent’s rore:
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too lab’ring, each dragg’d word moves slow.
Livelier, the light Camilla skims the plain,
Shoots o’er th’ unbending corn, nor shakes th’ unconscious grain.1
It would be offering an indignity to a temper and genius, like yours, to apprehend
(from a freedom I had but only the private curiosity to use) any danger of being
mistaken for coxcomb enough, to have thought of so empty a vanity, as that of
comparing my numbers. The simple truth is, I amused myself, at that time, for
my own satisfaction; but I now recommend to your reconsideration, one of your
most admired great master-pieces of poetical harmony, with the honest and
friendly intention of convincing you, by an instance, derived from yourself, that
there appears still too much room, for a more verbal exactness of propriety, even
in the works of our first class of writers.
I am afraid of growing tedious, if I should particularise all my reasons for
imagining, you could have carried much farther than you did, the above noble
likeness, between your verse and your images: Such as, that the word strain, in
your first line, requiring a stretch’d and impressive pronunciation, suits not the
softness of the epithet.—As also, that, both in sound and acceptation there arises,
from your expression blows, at the end of the verse, a kind of ruffling air of
windyness, too discomposing for the breath of a zephyr.2
Add to these, that as, in the fourth line, you seem to have designed, in the first
four words, a gloomy picture of high billows, rising, rolling, and swelling, while
they are yet in their approach to the strand, the fifth word (as it gives beginning to
the cadence of that verse) ought to have brought on a burst, like the hoarseness
of those billows in their breaking—The rushing of a watery sound—a kind of
hollow, washy murmur, like the workings of a surfy tide, repulsed and struggling
amongst pebbles. But, I hope, it may be enough, to acquit me of im-pertinence, if
I only say something more largely, concerning any one verse of the eight; for,
while I shall be busy in so doing, I am sure, your apprehension will preclude, and
run before my justification, so as to make needless either reasonings or apology.
The line too labours,—and the words move slow.
I have wondered very often, how it happened to be possible, to so cultivated an
ear as your own, not to distinguish, in the second division of this verse, a certain
declination to improper quickness, that runs down hill, too current, and
unincumbered, for the labour and resistance of the image. According to my poor
perception, three words, at least of the five (which, I am sure, you must have
meant, should move most slowly, because they convey both the rule and the
example) dance away upon the tongue, with a tripping and lyrical lightness. And
if such, in reality, is the case, then, from a want of that unpliant repugnance, that
obtundity, or bluntness of structure, which you thought, you had sufficiently
given them, and which would have kept them stubbornly distinct and inflexible,
they incorporate into a numerous fluidity, that expresses not the idea in your
[Hill’s revision of An Essay on Criticism, ll. 366–72]
[Ibid., l. 366]
Two contrasting views
(a) Sir Thomas Hanmer (?), extract from Some Remarks on the Tragedy of
Hamlet…(1736), pp. vi-vii (reprinted with an introduction by C.Thorpe,
Augustan Reprint Society, Series III, No. 3 [Los Angeles, 194?]).
Criticism in general, is what few of our Countrymen have succeeded in: In
that respect, our Neighbours have got the better of us; altho’ we can justly boast
of the compleatest Essay on that Subject that has been publish’d in any
Language, in which almost every Line, and every Word, convey such Images,
and such Beauties, as were never before found in so small a Compass, and of
whose Author it may properly be said, in that respect,
He is himself that great Sublime he draws.
(b) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, remark made to Rev. Joseph Spence,
January–February 1741, Anecdotes, i. 304. Lady Mary (1689– 1762) and Pope
had been on particularly close terms when they first met, but by 1725 their
relationship cooled. For the causes of their enmity, see Twickenham, iv. pp. xv–
xvi, Robert Halsband, Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1956), pp. 113–14,
129–32, and Peter Quennell, Alexander Pope (1968), pp. 136–8, 171–3, 232–4.
See also Nos 77, 88b.
I admired Mr Pope’s Essay on Criticism at first very much, because I had not
then read any of the ancient critics and did not know that it was all stolen.
MESSIAH, A SACRED ECLOGUE
14 May 1712
Sir Richard Steele, extract from letter to Pope, 1 June 1712,
Corresp., i. 146.
Steele (1672–1729), essayist and pamphleteer, was friendly
towards Pope, and the ‘Messiah’ first appeared in The Spectator, no.
378, which was written by Steele. In response to Steele’s comments,
Pope revised the couplet,
Before him Death, the grisly Tyrant flies;
He wipes the Tears for ever from our Eyes.
It reads as follows in 1717,
No Sigh, no Murmur the wide World shall hear,
From ev’ry Face he wipes off ev’ry Tear.
In adamantine Chains shall Death be bound,
And Hell’s grim Tyrant feel th’eternal Wound. (ll. 45–8)
See Twickenham, i. 99–100, 117.
... I have turn’d to every verse and chapter, and think you have preserv’d the
sublime and heavenly spirit throughout the whole, especially at—Hark a glad
voice [l. 29]—and—the lamb with wolves shall graze [l. 77]—There is but one
line which I think below the original,
He wipes the tears for ever from our eyes.
You have express’d it with a good and pious, but not with so exalted and
poetical a spirit as the prophet. The Lord God will wipe away tears from off all
faces. If you agree with me in this, alter it by way of paraphrase or otherwise, that
when it comes into a volume it may be amended. Your poem is already better
than the Pollio [of Virgil].
7 March 1713
John Dennis, a letter to Barton Booth, dated 18 December 1714,
which Dennis did not print until he attacked Pope in Remarks upon
Mr. Pope’s… Homer (1717), Critical Works, ii. 135–7.
You are in the right of it: Windsor Forest is a wretched Rhapsody, not worthy the
Observation of a Man of Sense. I shall only take Occasion from it to display the
Beauties of Cooper’s-Hill, in Emulation of which it was impudently writ. The
Cooper’s-Hill of Sir JOHN DENHAM is a Poem upon the Prospect which that Hill
affords us. Cooper’s-Hill, is a Hill in Windsor-Forest, about a Mile from Egham
in Surrey, about Half a Mile from the Thames, and Three Miles from Windsor.
The Conduct of Sir JOHN DENHAM in his Cooper’ s-Hill, is as admirable, as
that of the Author of Windsor Forest, is despicable. Sir JOHN DENHAM
presents no Object to his Reader, but what is truly in the Compass of his Subject.
Whereas Half the Poem of Windsor Forest has nothing in it, that is peculiar to
Windsor Forest. The Objects that are presented to the Reader in this latter Poem,
are for the most part trivial and trifling, as Hunting, Fishing, Setting, Shooting,
and a thousand common Landskips. Whereas of a thousand Objects that
Cooper’s-Hill presents to the View, Sir JOHN DENHAM chuses only the most
Instructive, the most Noble, and the most Magnificent; and which, at the same
time, are the most Noble, and most Magnificent, which Great Britain can show:
As St. Paul’s, London, Windsor, Thames, the Side of Cooper’s-Hill that is next
to the Thames, and Runny-Mead between them, ennobled by the Grant of the
Great Charter there to the People of England.
In Windsor Forest, though a Poem of above Four hundred Lines, there is no
manner of Design, nor any Artful and Beautiful Disposition of Parts.1 Whereas
Sir JOHN has both an Admirable Design, and a Beautiful Disposition of Parts….
Thus have I endeavour’d to set before you, in a full Light, the admirable Art
and Contrivance that are to be found in the Cooper’s-Hill, in order to make the
Rhapsody call’d Windsor Forest, appear the more contemptible. I have already
exceeded the Bounds which I prescrib’d to my self. Otherwise, I should set
several of the Parts of these Two Poems in Parallel against one another; by which
it would appear, that the Knight has more the Advantage of this little ’Squire of
Parnassus, in the Beauty of the Parts, than he has in the Admirable Contrivance
of the Whole. I would say something likewise of the Expression and the
Harmony, and would pretend to show, that as Sir JOHN DENHAM perpetually
thinks clearly, he always expresses himself perspicuously; that the Language in his
boldest Flights, is almost always sacred to him; that he is Bold, without
Rashness; Plain, without Meanness; High, without Pride; and Charming, without
Meretricious Arts: But that the Author of Windsor Forest has almost every
Absurd Expressions, crude, abortive Thoughts,
All the lewd Legion of exploded Faults.2
That he is Obscure, Ambiguous, Affected, Temerarious, Barbarous: And, lastly,
That there is as much Difference between the Harmony of one Poem, and that of
the other Piece, as there is between a Piece of Musick, which is Dead and Flat,
and barely Mathematical; and one in which to the Truth of Composition, is added
a Fine and a Charming Air. I know not but that I may prevail upon my self to do
this another time, provided that you are entertained by what I at present send you.
[See Johnson’s reply to this point, p. 492 below]
Roscommon on Translated Verse.
Another comparison with Cooper’s Hill
William Bond (‘Henry Stanhope’), extract from The Progress of
Dulness. By an Eminent Hand. Which will Serve for an Explanation
of the Dunciad (1728), pp. 5–7. This pamphlet, advertised on 11 June
1728, was a Curll publication occasioned by The Dunciad. In the
same volume appeared Dennis’s attacks upon Windsor Forest and
The Temple of Fame. All three pieces had been written much earlier,
and The Progress of Dulness bears the date 6 June 1720.
Who hopes to Please, shall strive to Please by Pains,
Shall gaining Fame, earn hard whatever he gains,
And DENHAM’S Morals, join to DENHAM’S Strains.
Here Paint the Thames1 When running to the Sea
Like Mortal Life to meet Eternity.
There show both Kings and Subjects one excess,
Makes both, by striving to be Greater, Less.
Shall climb, and sweat, and falling, climb up still,
Before he gains the height of Cooper’s Hill.
In Windsor-Forest,2 if some trifling Grace,
Gives, at first Blush, the whole a pleasing Face,
’Tis Wit, ’tis true; but then ’tis Common Place.
The Landscape-Writer, branches out a Wood,
Then digging hard for’t, finds a Silver Flood.
Here paints the Woodcock quiv’ring in the Air,
And there, the bounding Stag and quaking Hare.
Describes the Pheasant’s Scarlet-circled Eye,
And next the slaught’ring-Gun, that makes him Die.
From common Epithets that Fame derives,
By which his most uncommon Merit lives.
’Tis true! if finest Notes alone could show,
(Tun’d justly high, or regularly low,)
That we should Fame to these mere Vocals give,
POPE more, than we can offer, should receive.
For, when some gliding River is his Theme,
His Lines run smoother, than the smoothest Stream;
Not so, when thro’ the Trees fierce Boreas blows,
The Period blustring with the Tempest grows.
But what Fools Periods read, for Periods sake?
Such Chimes improve not Heads, but make ‘em Ach;
Tho’ strict in Cadence on the Numbers rub,
Their frothy Substance is Whip-Syllabub;
With most Seraphic Emptiness they roll,
Sound without Sense, and Body without Soul.
See Cooper’s Hill
See, Pope’s String of Verses, upon this Subject, without any Connection.
THE RAPE OF THE LOCK
2 March 1714
The first version of The Rape of the Lock which appeared in 1712 consisted of
only two cantos and lacked the ‘machinery’ of the sylphs. It attracted little
attention. The publication of the enlarged version in 1714 is treated here as the
first appearance of the poem.