Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Every Reader’s Pope

This is the fourth of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Alexander Pope is a very great poet, but one like Horace in whom many nonacademic readers find little pleasure today. Even to those with some acquaintance with literary history, the eighteenth century is a dull spot between the Metaphysicals and the Romantics. Yet his mastery of the music of words, what Pound called melopoeia, is outstanding, and the wit he exercised in both sententiae and satire remains a marvel. Hazlitt’s description of him as a master of “the artificial style of poetry” is just and need not in itself imply a lower rank in the poetic big leagues. A further hurdle is that many readers today think of poetry as necessarily lyric since narrative, philosophical, topographical, and a dozen other sorts have virtually vanished since the Romantic Era, and these days most everyone is one sort of Romantic or another. Pope wrote long poems, long enough that I present only excerpts here.

Pope’s Essay on Man is composed in the most well-wrought verse, its flow of heroic couplets an example (like tragic choruses) of literary form redeeming what might seem the cruel chaos of reality. It is unsurprising that the poet, who aimed, after all, for popular success, includes no distinctly Catholic dogma in his effort to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” but, in fact, he sounds little like a Christian. Many critics have concluded he was a deist as were many intellectuals of his era, but the point remains disputed. To me he sounds almost like a monist, even a Vedantist Hindu, in his explanation of the radical unity that underlies the Great Chain of Being.

IX. What if the foot, ordained the dust to tread,
Or hand, to toil, aspired to be the head?
What if the head, the eye, or ear repined
To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
Just as absurd for any part to claim
To be another, in this general frame:
Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains,
The great directing Mind of All ordains.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same;
Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart:
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
X. Cease, then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heaven bestows on thee.
Submit. In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

The explosion of duality in such lines as “changed through all, and yet in all the same,” the pantheism of the divine soul that “Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,” the universal wisdom of the single imperative “submit,” all lead toward the conclusion that soothed so many in Pope’s day and since: “whatever is, is right.” In spite of Dr. Johnson’s sniffing, "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised," the poem was widely read on the Continent as well as in Britain.

Pope has been suspected of the deism so popular among intellectuals of his day yet he never publically disclaimed his family’s Roman Catholicism which under the Test Acts of his day forbade Nonconformists of all sorts from university enrollment, voting, holding office, and even living in London. Since his adolescence he suffered from Pott’s disease which left him stunted, hunchbacked, and subject to numerous pains and problems. Still he made his way with his wit and his translations of Homer were successful enough for him to purchase his Twickenham property which he elaborated with gardens, grottoes, curious geological specimens, and a camera obscura, all as artfully planned as his poetry.

Apart from the masterful and self-conscious craftsmanship of his own poetry, Pope wrote one of the greatest works of criticism in his Essay on Criticism. His ingenuity is particularly evident in the passage discussing sound effects and clichés. A veritable primer of poetic effects, the passage exemplifies each effect while commenting on it -- the pedestrian sound of “ten low words” or the interminable twelve syllables of the Alexandrine. Too few modern writers can even attempt to make the sound “seem an Eccho to the Sense,” while Pope does it so deftly his words bring a feeling of discovery and delight at every reading.

These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

The heirs of Romantic “spontaneous overflow” including Ginsberg with his dictum of “first thought, best thought” have lost Pope’s faith in imitation of classic models and indeed in the premise that had seemed self-evident in all the arts and crafts, expressed here in a persuasive simile: “True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,/ As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.”

Pope was well-known for fierce and biting satire in works like The Dunciad. So many of his targets have faded into obscurity that the import of Pope’s lines is now evident only with rafts of footnotes. Indeed, those without a classical education will fail to appreciate much of the play in his mock-heroic narrative The Rape of the Lock, but other passages require less mediation and provide greater immediate reward. Pope compliments the courtly ladies of his day, imagining them to be attended by groups of sylphs, a thoroughly unclassical concept. The term arose in Paracelsus’ alchemy and was popularized by Pope who asserts the whimsical proposition that deceased women can by no means have given up due to mere death their fondness for such “Vanities” as fancy carriages and card games. He details the various fates of those who had erred though bad temper, excessive complaisance, or prudery, noting the “light Coquettes,” apparently those who played their social role by the rules, “aloft repair,/ And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.” From this vantage point they can defend the female against “the treach'rous Friend, and daring Spark,/ The Glance by Day, the Whisper in the Dark.” People, Pope says, may call their behavior “Honour,” but it is in fact due to the sylphs.

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 inclos'd in Woman's beauteous Mold;
Thence, by a soft Transition, we repair
From earthly Vehicles to these of Air. [1.50]
Think not, when Woman's transient Breath is fled,
That all her Vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho' she plays no more, o'erlooks the Cards.
Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive,
And Love of Ombre, after Death survive.
For when the Fair in all their Pride expire,
To their first Elements the Souls retire:
The Sprights of fiery Termagants in Flame
Mount up, and take a Salamander's Name. [1.60]
Soft yielding Minds to Water glide away,
And sip with Nymphs, their Elemental Tea.
The graver Prude sinks downward to a Gnome,
In search of Mischief still on Earth to roam.
The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,
And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.
Know farther yet; Whoever fair and chaste
Rejects Mankind, is by some Sylph embrac'd:
For Spirits, freed from mortal Laws, with ease
Assume what Sexes and what Shapes they please. [1.70]
What guards the Purity of melting Maids,
In Courtly Balls, and Midnight Masquerades,
Safe from the treach'rous Friend, and daring Spark,
The Glance by Day, the Whisper in the Dark;
When kind Occasion prompts their warm Desires,
When Musick softens, and when Dancing fires?
'Tis but their Sylph, the wise Celestials know,
Tho' Honour is the Word with Men below.

Not only, it seems, is the credit given women for chaste behavior really due to their sylphs, the same aery creatures are equally the cause of infidelity. At their prompting, the ladies drift from one beau to another, as though all society were constantly changing partners in some grand dance figure, and Pope manages in his description at the same time to parody the well-known lines from his own version of Homer that Dr. Johnson had quoted in his Dictionary. The same acceptance the “Essay on Man” had recommended quite seriously (“Whatever is, is right.”) here reappears in comic restatement: “with Heav'n who can contest?”

So naturally that the reader scarcely notices, Pope turns then to a wide-ranging satire on the theme of the moon’s inventory of lost objects. The sophisticated society of the beau monde which could appreciate The Rape of the Lock is also capable of manifold foolishness, and Pope sprays out a scattergun attack. In a single line the poet devastates heroic literature and the modern effete beaux of lesser wit than he. He proceeds to targets such as “Death-bed Alms” (presumably less meritorious than earlier donations) and “Sick Man's Pray'rs” which mean no more than the “Smiles of Harlots.” He then takes a rather metaphysical leap to conclude the list with “Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea” and “Dry'd Butterflies” before coming in for a heavy landing with “Tomes of Casuistry.” The thorough cynicism is levitated by his humor and delight, and the rueful and the ridiculous become one.

There Heroe's Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,
And Beau's in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with Ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man's Pray'rs,
There Heroe's Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,
And Beau's in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with Ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man's Pray'rs,
The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs, [5.120]
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry'd Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry., and the Tears of Heirs, [5.120]
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry'd Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.
Oft when the World imagine Women stray,
The Sylphs thro' mystick Mazes guide their Way,
Thro' all the giddy Circle they pursue,
And old Impertinence expel by new.
What tender Maid but must a Victim fall
To one Man's Treat, but for another's Ball?
When Florio speaks, what Virgin could withstand,
If gentle Damon did not squeeze her Hand?
With varying Vanities, from ev'ry Part,
They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart; [1.100]
Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots strive,
Beaus banish Beaus, and Coaches Coaches drive.
This erring Mortals Levity may call,
Oh blind to Truth! the Sylphs contrive it all.
With such a Prize no Mortal must be blest,
So Heav'n decrees! with Heav'n who can contest?
Some thought it mounted to the Lunar Sphere,
Since all things lost on Earth, are treasur'd there.
There Heroe's Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,
And Beau's in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with Ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man's Pray'rs,
The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs, [5.120]
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry'd Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.
But trust the Muse — she saw it upward rise,
Tho' mark'd by none but quick Poetic Eyes:
(So Rome's great Founder to the Heav'ns withdrew,
To Proculus alone confess'd in view.)
A sudden Star, it shot thro' liquid Air,
And drew behind a radiant Trail of Hair.
Not Berenice's Locks first rose so bright,
The heav'ns bespangling with dishevel'd light. [5.130]
The Sylphs behold it kindling as it flies,
And pleas'd pursue its Progress thro' the Skies.

The piece concludes then as a summer concert on some holiday shore might with pyrotechnics as Belinda’s lock soars aloft, a miraculous comet of hair, an elegant and fanciful compliment that must have made the lady smile. The author was obliged to use an iron frame to sit upright in his last years, gamely joking about the picture he presented, and he jokes for us all, though we may be at present less discomfited. Pope indeed redeemed himself with taste and wit and language, proving not just his intelligence but his spirit as well, borne on high by imagination and force of will. His words may be so smooth as to seem glib or second-hand, but inscribed within Pope’s wonderful verses is the steady conviction that the stakes are high because the stakes are always high even while whiling away the day with pastimes such as the fooling with words called poetry.

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