One is interested in Pope’s virtues as a poet and his vices as a man almost equally. It is his virtues as a man and his vices as a poet that are depressing. He is usually at his worst artistically when he is at his best morally. He achieves wit through malice: he achieves only rhetoric through virtue. It is not that one wishes he had been a bad son or a Uriah Heep in his friendships. It is pleasant to remember the pleasure he gave his mother by allowing her to copy out parts of his translation of the Iliad, and one respects him for refusing a pension of L300 a year out of the secret service money from his friend Craggs. But one wishes that he had put neither his filial piety nor his friendship into writing. Mr. Saintsbury, I see, admires “the masterly and delightful craftsmanship in words” of the tribute to Craggs; but then Mr. Saintsbury also admires the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady—a mere attitude in verse, as chill as a weeping angel in a graveyard.
Pope’s attractiveness is less that of a real man than of an inhabitant of Lilliput, where it is a matter of no importance whether or not one lives in obedience to the Ten Commandments. We can regard him with amusement as a liar, a forger, a glutton, and a slanderer of his kind. If his letters are the dullest letters ever written by a wit, it is because he reveals in them not his real vices but his imaginary virtues. They only become interesting when we know the secret history of his life and read them as the moralizings of a doll Pecksniff. Historians of literature often assert—mistakenly, I think—that Pliny’s letters are dull, because they are merely the literary exercises of a man over-conscious of his virtues. But Pliny’s virtues, however tip-tilted, were at least real. Pope’s letters are the literary exercises of a man platitudinizing about virtues he did not possess. They have an impersonality, like that of the leading articles in The Times. They have all the qualities of the essay except intimate confession. They are irrelevant scrawls which might as readily have been addressed to one correspondent as another. So much so is this, that when Pope published them, he altered the names of the recipients of some of them so as to make it appear that they were written to famous persons when, as a matter of fact, they were written to private and little-known friends.
The story of the way in which he tampered with his letters and arranged for their “unauthorized” publication by a pirate publisher is one of the most amazing in the history of forgery. It was in reference to this that Whitwell Elwin declared that Pope “displayed a complication of imposture, degradation, and effrontery which can only be paralleled in the lives of professional forgers and swindlers.” When he published his correspondence with Wycherley, his contemporaries were amazed that the boyish Pope should have written with such an air of patronage to the aged Wycherley