Item of the Day: The Works of Alexander Pope (1770)

Full Title:  The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. In Nine Volumes, Complete.  With His Last Corrections, Additions, And Improvements:  together With the Commentary and Notes of his Editor.  London:  Printed for C. Bathhurst, W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, R. Baldwin, W. Johnston, T. Caslon, T. Longman, B. Law,  Johnson and Davenport, T. Davies, T. Cadell, and W. and J. Richardson.  MDCCLXX.

P R E F A C E.

I am inclined to think that both the writers of books, and the readers of them, are generally not a little unreasonable in their expectations.  The first seem to fancy the world must approve whatever they produce, and the latter to imagine that authors are obliged to please them at any rate.   Methinks, as on the one hand, no single man is born with a right of controuling the opinions of all the rest; so on the other, the world has no title to demand, that the whole care and time of any particular person should be sacrificed to its entertainment.  Therefore I cannot but believe that writers and readers are under equal obligations, for as much fame, or pleasure, as each affords the other.

Every one acknowledges, it would be a wild notion to expect perfection in any work of man:  and yet one would think the contrary was taken for granted, by the judgment commonly past upon Poems.  A Critic supposes he has done his part, if he proves a writer to have failed in an expression, or erred in any particular point:  and can it then be wondered at, if the Poets in general seem resolved not to own themselves in any error?  For as long as one side will make no allowances, the other will be brought to no acknowledgments.

I am afraid this extreme zeal on both sides is ill-placed;  Poetry and Criticism being by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.

Yet sure, on the whole, a bad Author deserves better usage than a bad Critic:  for a Writer’s endeavour, for the most part, is to please his Readers, and he fails merely through the misfortune of an ill judgment; but such a critic’s is to put them out of humour; a design he could never go upon without both that and an ill temper.

I think  a good deal may be said to extenuate the fault of bad Poets.  What we call a Genius, is hard to be distinguished by a man himself, from a strong inclination:  and if his genius be ever so great, he cannot at first discover it any other way, than by giving way to that prevalent propensity which renders him the more liable to be mistaken.  The only method he has is to make the experiment by writing, and appealing to the judgment of others:  now if he happens to write ill (which is certainly no sin in itself) he is immediately made an object of ridicule.  I wish we had the humanity to reflect that even the worst authors might, in their endeavour to please us, deserve something at our hands.  We have no cause to quarrel with them but for their obstinacy in persisting to write; and this too may admit of alleviating circumstances.  Their particular friends may be either ignorant, or insincere; and the rest of the world in general is too well-bred to shock them with a truth, which generally their booksellers are the first that inform them of. This happens not till they have have spent too much of their time to apply to any profession which might better fit their talents; and till such talents as they have are so far discredited as to be but of small service to them.  For (what is the hardest case imaginable) the reputation of a man generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world; and people will establish their opinion of us, from what we do at that season when we have least judgment to direct us.

On the other hand, a good Poet no sooner communicates his works with the same desire of information, but it is imagined he is a vain young creature given up to the ambition of fame; when perhaps the poor man is all the while trembling with the fear of being ridiculous.  If he is made to hope he may please the world, he falls under very unlucky circumstances:  for, from the moment he prints, he must expect to hear no more truth, than if he were a Prince, or a Beauty.  If he has not very good sense (and indeed there are twenty men of wit, for one man of sense) his living thus in a course of flattery may put him in no small danger of becoming a Coxcomb: if he has, he will consequently have so much diffidence as to not to reap any great satisfaction from his praise; since, if it be given to his face, it can scarce be distinguished from flattery, and if in his absence, it is hard to be certain of it.  Were he sure to be commended by the best and most knowing, he is as sure of being envied by the worst and most ignorant, which are the majority; for it is with a fine Genius as with a fine fashion, all those are displeased at it who are not able to follow it:  and it is to be feared that esteem will seldom do any man so much good, as ill-will does him harm.  Then there is a third class of people, who make the largest part of mankind, those of ordinary or indifferent capacities; and these (to a man) will hate, or suspect him:  a hundred honest Gentlemen will dread him as a Wit, and a hundred innocent women as a Satirist.  In a word, whatever be his fate in Poetry, it is ten to one but he must give up all the reasonable aims of life for it.  There are indeed some advantages accruing from a Genius to Poetry, and they are all I can think of:  the agreeable power of self-amusement when a man is idle or alone; the privilege of being admitted into the best company; and the freedom of saying as many careless things as other people, without being so severely remarked upon.

I believe, if any one, early in his life, should contemplate the dangerous fate of authors, he would scarce be of their number on any consideration.  The life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth; and the present spirit of the learned world is such, that to attempt to serve it (any way) one must have the constancy of a martyr, and a resolution to suffer for its sake.  I would wish people would believe, what I am pretty certain they will not, that I have been much less concerned about Fame than I durst declare till this occasion, when methinks I should find more credit than I could heretofore:  since my writings have had their fate already, and it is too late to think of prepossessing the reader in their favour.  I would plead it as some merit in me, that the world has never been prepared for these Trifles by Prefaces, byassed by recommendation, dazzled with the names of great Patrons, wheedled with fine reasons and pretences, or troubled with excuses.   I confess it was want of consideration that made me an author; I writ because it amused me; I corrected because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write; and I published because I was told, I might please such as it was a credit to please.  To what degree I have done this, I am really ignorant; I had too much fondness for my productions to judge of them at first, and too much judgment to be pleased with them at last.  But I have reason to think they can have no reputation which will continue long, or which deserves to do so:  for they have always fallen short not only of what I read of others, but even of my own ideas of Poetry.

http://www.island-of-freedom.com/POPE.HTM

 

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Filed under 1770's, Criticism, Poetry, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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