As Sappho’s diamonds
with her dirty smock;
Or Sappho at her toilet’s greasy task
With Sappho fragrant at an evening mask;
So morning insects, that in muck begun,
Shine, buzz, and fly-blow in the evening sun.
His relations with his contemporaries were too often begun in compliments only to end in abuse of this kind. Even while he was on good terms with them, he was frequently doing them ill turns. Thus, he persuaded a publisher to get Dennis to write abusively of Addison’s Cato in order that he might have an excuse in his turn for writing abusively of Dennis, apparently vindicating Addison but secretly taking a revenge of his own. Addison was more embarrassed than pleased by so savage a defence, and hastened to assure Dennis that he had had nothing to do with it. Addison also gave offence to Pope by his too judicious praise of The Rape of the Lock and the translation of the Iliad. Thus began the maniacal suspicion of Addison, which was expressed with the genius of venom in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.
There was never a poet whose finest work needs such a running commentary of discredit as Pope’s. He may be said, indeed, to be the only great poet in reading whom the commentary is as necessary as the text. One can enjoy Shakespeare or Shelley without a note: one is inclined even to resent the intrusion of the commentator into the upper regions of poetry. But Pope’s verse is a guide to his age and the incidents of his waspish existence, lacking a key to which one misses three-fourths of the entertainment. The Danciad without footnotes is one of the obscurest poems in existence: with footnotes it becomes a perfect epic of literary entomology. And it is the same with at least half of his work. Thus, in the Imitations of Horace, a reference to Russell tells us little till we read in a delightful footnote:
There was a Lord Russell who, by living too luxuriously, had quite spoiled his constitution. He did not love sport, but used to go out with his dogs every day only to hunt for an appetite. If he felt anything of that, he would cry out, “Oh, I have found it!” turn short round and ride home again, though they were in the midst of the finest chase. It was this lord who, when he met a beggar, and was entreated by him to give him something because he was almost famished with hunger, called him a “happy dog.”
There may have been a case for neglecting Pope before Mr. Elwin and Mr. Courthope edited and annotated him—though he had been edited well before—but their monumental edition has made him of all English poets one of the most incessantly entertaining.
Pope, however, is a charmer in himself. His venom has graces. He is a stinging insect, but of how brilliant a hue! There are few satires in literature richer in the daintiness of malice than the Epistle to Martha Blount and the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. The “characters” of women in the former are among the most precious of those railleries of sex in which mankind has always loved to indulge. The summing-up of the perfect woman: