And mistress of herself, though china fall,
is itself perfect in its wit. And the fickle lady, Narcissa, is a portrait in porcelain:
Narcissa’s nature, tolerably
To make a wash, would hardly stew a child;
Has even been proved to grant a lover’s prayer.
And paid a tradesman once, to make him stare;...
Now deep in Taylor and the Book of Martyrs,
Now drinking citron with his Grace and Chartres;
Now conscience chills her and now passion burns;
And atheism and religion take their turns;
A very heathen in the carnal part,
Yet still a sad, good Christian at the heart.
The study of Chloe, who “wants a heart,” is equally delicate and witty:
Virtue she finds too painful
Content to dwell in decencies for ever—
So very reasonable, so unmoved,
As never yet to love, or to be loved.
She, while her lover pants upon her breast,
Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
And when she sees her friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a chintz exceeds mohair!...
Would Chloe know if you’re alive or dead?
She bids her footman put it in her head.
Chloe is prudent—would you too be wise?
Then never break your heart when Chloe dies.
The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot is still more dazzling. The venom is passionate without ever ceasing to be witty. Pope has composed a masterpiece of his vanities and hatreds. The characterizations of Addison as Atticus, and of Lord Hervey as Sporus:
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass’s milk—
Sporus, “the bug with gilded wings”—are portraits one may almost call beautiful in their bitter phrasing. There is nothing make-believe here as there is in the virtue of the letters. This is Pope’s confession, the image of his soul. Elsewhere in Pope the accomplishment is too often rhetorical, though The Rape of the Lock is as delicate in artifice as a French fairy-tale, the Dunciad an amusing assault of a major Lilliputian on minor Lilliputians, and the Essay on Criticism—what a regiment of witty lines to be written by a youth of twenty or twenty-one!—much nearer being a great essay in verse than is generally admitted nowadays. As for the Essay on Man, one can read! it more than once only out of a sense of duty. Pope has nothing to tell us that we want to know about man except in so far as he dislikes him. We praise him as the poet who makes remarks—as the poet, one might almost say, who makes faces. It is when he sits in the scorner’s chair, whether in good humour or in bad, that he is the little lord of versifiers.
JAMES ELROY FLECKER