Page images
PDF
EPUB
[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

well-known epitaph which ends with observing that his honour consisted not in being entombed among kings and heroes, but

That the worthy and the good shall say,

Striking their pensive bosoms, "Here lies Gay."*

Gay's best poem was his 'Trivia;' but his was rather the sort of genius that would suit an album, or an annual, or a monthly magazine, than such as would destine a man for immortality. He wrote,' remarks Dr. Warton, 'with neatness and terseness æquali quâdam mediocritate, but certainly without any elevation, frequently without any spirit.'

His Trivia' is curious as a humorous and graphic picture of that London life, which is so completely changed since the time of the Augustan poets.

Whilst Gay was thus languishing in disappointment, Pope had attained the climax of his reputation; and was also in the enjoyment of ease and competency.

That production of Pope's which comes decidedly under the head of 'Literature of Society,' is his 'Rape of the Lock;' and although his satires may also be comprehended under the same head, it is here impossible to do more than analyze the poem which arose out of the foibles of the world of fashion, and which satirizes most especially the customs and vagaries of that world, so differing in various ages in externals, so alike in all ages in essential characteristics. It is difficult in the present day to conceive that a serious feud could arise in the polite world from a gentleman's cutting off a favourite lock of a lady's hair. Yet the finest, as many critics have considered it, of our modern satires was written on this incident.

Among the descendants of that Sir William Petre, who figured in several state employments in the reign of Henry the Eighth, was Robert Lord Petre, eighth baron of that name; at the time of the Rape of the Lock' he was a bachelor.

[ocr errors]

MISTRESS FERMOR.

221

Although the greater part of the large inheritance which he had received from his ancestors was derived from the spoil of the monasteries, this nobleman was still a Roman Catholic.

It was in a party of pleasure that the venial act was performed, on which Pope based his exquisite poem. Mistress Arabella Fermor, one of the family of the Earl of Pomfret, appears from Pope's description to have had all the loveliness which might attract a young man's admiration. The act, however, was haughtily resented, and parties ran so high in the exclusive sphere in which the belligerents moved, that Pope was asked by Mr. Caryl, who had been Master of the Horse to Mary of Modena, and who was himself an author, to write something to stop the quarrel. All the party were acquaintance of Pope's; the Fermor family, like that of Lord Petre, were then Catholics, so that Pope's intimacy gave him a sort of claim to quell the wrath which so slight an incident had produced. The first sketch of the Rape of the Lock' was written in a fortnight, thus justifying Pope's remark: What I wrote fastest, always pleased most.' So great was the success of the poem, that, in the following year, Pope enriched it with the 'Machinery of the Sylphs,' the idea of which he borrowed from a French book, the Comte de Gabalis,' by the Abbé Villars; but the rest of the charming production is all Pope's own, and we cordially agree with Dr. Warton in pronouncing it to be 'the best satire extant.' It contains the truest and liveliest picture of modern life, and the 'subject is of a more elegant nature, as well as more artfully conducted, than that of any other heroi-comic poem.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Pope had the advantage of being a man of the world, as well as a poet. He availed himself wisely of Boileau's

advice:

'Que les vers ne soient pas votre éternel emploi.'

We can fancy the sparkle of his wonderful eyes, the musical

222

LORD PETRE'S OFFENCE.

laugh, the terse expression, the formal gallantry, which were elicited by Mistress Fermor's virtuous indignation at a liberty taken with her tresses. For women were stately beings in those days; their hoops indicated their position; so far may ye come, no farther. Except in full dress they were never visible; a man might slip out a double entendre, and the pretty creatures put up their fans, and laughed behind them; but if he presumed to touch more than the tip of a fourth finger in handing a lady from one room to another, he was distanced by a rustle of the silk dress, and almost annihilated by the sweep of a train.

True, the formal kiss went round among family parties— ladies and gentlemen alike: but then it was so slight an observance and performed in so rapid and respectful a manner that it scarcely discomposed a patch.

Thus Lord Petre's offence was grave. We have always wished, nevertheless, with all due horror of his crime, that it had been followed by marriage. But no, he married-perhaps from pique-during the heat of the controversy, and just when the sylphs and gnomes had made their début; and died, in the March of the following year, 1712-13, of small-pox, a posthumous son succeeding him. The country ought to raise a monument in Mayfair, for the act which produced Pope's poem.

'Say what strange motive, Ġoddess, could compel
A well-bred lord t' assault a gentle belle?
O say what stranger cause, yet unexplored,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?
In tasks so bold can little men engage?
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?
Sol through white curtains shot a tim'rous ray,
And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day.
Now lapdogs gave themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake;
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the ground,
And the pressed watch returned a silver sound.'

BELINDA AT HER TOILET.

223

The machinery of the sylphs in proper places has not the slightest appearance, as Warton observes, of being awkwardly stitched in, but seems to belong to the original plan of the poem. Belinda is warned by the guardian sylph, upon the opening of the poem, of some impending danger; but Ariel fancifully and beautifully portrays the inhabitants of the air who are charged with Belinda's safety :—

'Know, then, unnumbered spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky;

These, tho' unseen, are ever on the wing,
Hang o'er the box, and hover round the ring;

Think what an equipage thou hast in air,

And view with scorn two pages and a chair.

As now your own, our beings were of old,

And once enclosed in woman's beauteous mould,
Thence, by a soft transition, we repair

From earthly vehicles to these of air.'

His description of Belinda at her toilet keeps up the illusion of the invisible world around the lady. The sylphs are still at their work :

The busy sylphs surround their darling care,
These set the head, and those divide the hair;
Some fold the sleeve, while others plait the gown;
While Betty's praised for labours not her own.'

Then comes Belinda forth to join the party of pleasure on the Thames :

'Fair nymphs and well-dressed youths around her shone;
But every eye was fix't on her alone.

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore,
Her lively looks a sprightly mind disclose,
Quick as her eyes, and as unfix'd as those.

This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourish'd two locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspired to deck,
With shining ringlets the smooth iv'ry neck;

224

THE GAME OF OMBRE.

Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains;
With hairy springes we the birds betray,
Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey;
Fair tresses man's imperial race ensnare,

And beauty draws us with a single hair.'

The party was wafted down to Hampton Court. Evening coming on:-

'Belinda, now, whom thirst of fame invites,
Burns to encounter two advent'rous knights,
At ombre singly to decide their doom,

And swells her breast with conquests yet to come.'

Then follows the famous game of ombre; next is the teatable described; and then the Rape of the Lock is perpetrated. In vain is Belinda warned. In vain

Swift to the lock a thousand sprites repair,

A thousand wings, by turns, blow back the hair,
And thrice they twitch'd the diamond in her ear;
Thrice she look'd back, and thrice the foe drew near.
Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close recesses of the virgin's thought;
As on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden he view'd, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amaz'd, confus'd, he found his power expir'd;
Resign'd to fate, and, with a sigh, retired.'

Among the less visible perfections of this poem are the parodies, we are told by Warton, on 'serious and solemn passages of Homer and Virgil.' What a mastery of language! What a perfection of memory and judgment must the man who composed this poem in a fortnight have possessed!

As Virgil in describing the death of Dido had prefaced it by omens, so is the Rape of the Lock' attended with suitable prodigies.

« PreviousContinue »