My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

IX. Pope

I infer, from the fact of this preference that I had already begun to read Pope, and that I must have read the “Deserted Village” of Goldsmith. I fancy, also, that I must by this time have read the Odyssey, for the “Battle of the Frogs and Mice” was in the second volume, and it took me so much that I paid it the tribute of a bald imitation in a mock-heroic epic of a cat fight, studied from the cat fights in our back yard, with the wonted invocation to the Muse, and the machinery of partisan gods and goddesses. It was in some hundreds of verses, which I did my best to balance as Pope did, with a caesura falling in the middle of the line, and a neat antithesis at the end.

The story of the Odyssey charmed me, of course, and I had moments of being intimate friends with Ulysses, but I was passing out of that phase, and was coming to read more with a sense of the author, and less with a sense of his characters as real persons; that is, I was growing more literary, and less human. I fell in love with Pope, whose life I read with an ardor of sympathy which I am afraid he hardly merited. I was of his side in all his quarrels, as far as I understood them, and if I did not understand them I was of his side anyway. When I found that he was a Catholic I was almost ready to abjure the Protestant religion for his sake; but I perceived that this was not necessary when I came to know that most of his friends were Protestants. If the truth must be told, I did not like his best things at first, but long remained chiefly attached to his rubbishing pastorals, which I was perpetually imitating, with a whole apparatus of swains and shepherdesses, purling brooks, enamelled meads, rolling years, and the like.

After my day’s work at the case I wore the evening away in my boyish literary attempts, forcing my poor invention in that unnatural kind, and rubbing and polishing at my wretched verses till they did sometimes take on an effect, which, if it was not like Pope’s, was like none of mine. With all my pains I do not think I ever managed to bring any of my pastorals to a satisfactory close. They all stopped somewhere about halfway. My swains could not think of anything more to say, and the merits of my shepherdesses remained undecided. To this day I do not know whether in any given instance it was the champion of Chloe or of Sylvia that carried off the prize for his fair, but I dare say it does not much matter. I am sure that I produced a rhetoric as artificial and treated of things as unreal as my master in the art, and I am rather glad that I acquainted myself so thoroughly with a mood of literature which, whatever we may say against it, seems to have expressed very perfectly a mood of civilization.

The severe schooling I gave myself was not without its immediate use. I learned how to choose between words after a study of their fitness, and though I often employed them decoratively and with no vital sense of their qualities, still in mere decoration they had to be chosen intelligently, and after some thought about their structure and meaning. I could not imitate Pope without imitating his methods, and his method was to the last degree intelligent. He certainly knew what he was doing, and although I did not always know what I was doing, he made me wish to know, and ashamed of not knowing. There are several truer poets who might not have done this; and after all the modern contempt of Pope, he seems to me to have been at least one of the great masters, if not one of the great poets. The poor man’s life was as weak and crooked as his frail, tormented body, but he had a dauntless spirit, and he fought his way against odds that might well have appalled a stronger nature. I suppose I must own that he was from time to time a snob, and from time to time a liar, but I believe that he loved the truth, and would have liked always to respect himself if he could. He violently revolted, now and again, from the abasement to which he forced himself, and he always bit the heel that trod on him, especially if it was a very high, narrow heel, with a clocked stocking and a hooped skirt above it. I loved him fondly at one time, and afterwards despised him, but now I am not sorry for the love, and I am very sorry for the despite. I humbly, own a vast debt to him, not the least part of which is the perception that he is a model of ever so much more to be shunned than to be followed in literature.

He was the first of the writers of great Anna’s time whom I knew, and he made me ready to understand, if he did not make me understand at once, the order of mind and life which he belonged to. Thanks to his pastorals, I could long afterwards enjoy with the double sense requisite for full pleasure in them, such divinely excellent artificialities at Tasso’s “Aminta” and Guarini’s “Pastor Fido”; things which you will thoroughly like only after you are in the joke of thinking how people once seriously liked them as high examples of poetry.

Of course I read other things of Pope’s besides his pastorals, even at the time I read these so much. I read, or not very easily or willingly read at, his ‘Essay on Man,’ which my father admired, and which he probably put Pope’s works into my hands to have me read; and I read the ‘Dunciad,’ with quite a furious ardor in the tiresome quarrels it celebrates, and an interest in its machinery, which it fatigues me to think of. But it was only a few years ago that I read the ‘Rape of the Lock,’ a thing perfect of its kind, whatever we may choose to think of the kind. Upon the whole I think much better of the kind than I once did, though still not so much as I should have thought if I had read the poem when the fever of my love for Pope was at the highest.

It is a nice question how far one is helped or hurt by one’s idealizations of historical or imaginary characters, and I shall not try to answer it fully. I suppose that if I once cherished such a passion for Pope personally that I would willingly have done the things that he did, and told the lies, and vented the malice, and inflicted the cruelties that the poor soul was full of, it was for the reason, partly, that I did not see these things as they were, and that in the glamour of his talent I was blind to all but the virtues of his defects, which he certainly had, and partly that in my love of him I could not take sides against him, even when I knew him to be wrong. After all, I fancy not much harm comes to the devoted boy from his enthusiasms for this imperfect hero or that. In my own case I am sure that I distinguished as to certain sins in my idols. I could not cast them down or cease to worship them, but some of their frailties grieved me and put me to secret shame for them. I did not excuse these things in them, or try to believe that they were less evil for them than they would have been for less people. This was after I came more or less to the knowledge of good and evil. While I remained in the innocence of childhood I did not even understand the wrong. When I realized what lives some of my poets had led, how they were drunkards, and swindlers, and unchaste, and untrue, I lamented over them with a sense of personal disgrace in them, and to this day I have no patience with that code of the world which relaxes itself in behalf of the brilliant and gifted offender; rather he should suffer more blame. The worst of the literature of past times, before an ethical conscience began to inform it, or the advance of the race compelled it to decency, is that it leaves the mind foul with filthy images and base thoughts; but what I have been trying to say is that the boy, unless he is exceptionally depraved beforehand, is saved from these through his ignorance. Still I wish they were not there, and I hope the time will come when the beast-man will be so far subdued and tamed in us that the memory of him in literature shall be left to perish; that what is lewd and ribald in the great poets shall be kept out of such editions as are meant for general reading, and that the pedant-pride which now perpetuates it as an essential part of those poets shall no longer have its way. At the end of the ends such things do defile, they do corrupt. We may palliate them or excuse them for this reason or that, but that is the truth, and I do not see why they should not be dropped from literature, as they were long ago dropped from the talk of decent people. The literary histories might keep record of them, but it is loath some to think of those heaps of ordure, accumulated from generation to generation, and carefully passed down from age to age as something precious and vital, and not justly regarded as the moral offal which they are.

During the winter we passed at Columbus I suppose that my father read things aloud to us after his old habit, and that I listened with the rest. I have a dim notion of first knowing Thomson’s ‘Castle of Indolence’ in this way, but I was getting more and more impatient of having things read to me. The trouble was that I caught some thought or image from the text, and that my fancy remained playing with that while the reading went on, and I lost the rest. But I think the reading was less in every way than it had been, because his work was exhausting and his leisure less. My own hours in the printing-office began at seven and ended at six, with an hour at noon for dinner, which I often used for putting down such verses as had come to me during the morning. As soon as supper was over at night I got out my manuscripts, which I kept in great disorder, and written in several different hands on several different kinds of paper, and sawed, and filed, and hammered away at my blessed Popean heroics till nine, when I went regularly to bed, to rise again at five. Sometimes the foreman gave me an afternoon off on Saturdays, and though the days were long the work was not always constant, and was never very severe. I suspect now the office was not so prosperous as might have been wished. I was shifted from place to place in it, and there was plenty of time for my day-dreams over the distribution of my case. I was very fond of my work, though, and proud of my swiftness and skill in it. Once when the perplexed foreman could not think of any task to set me he offered me a holiday, but I would not take it, so I fancy that at this time I was not more interested in my art of poetry than in my trade of printing. What went on in the office interested me as much as the quarrels of the Augustan age of English letters, and I made much more record of it in the crude and shapeless diary which I kept, partly in verse and partly in prose, but always of a distinctly lower literary kind than that I was trying otherwise to write. There must have been some mention in it of the tremendous combat with wet sponges I saw there one day between two of the boys who hurled them back and forth at each other. This amiable fray, carried on during the foreman’s absence, forced upon my notice for the first time the boy who has come to be a name well-known in literature. I admired his vigor as a combatant, but I never spoke to him at that time, and I never dreamed that he, too, was effervescing with verse, probably as fiercely as myself. Six or seven years later we met again, when we had both become journalists, and had both had poems accepted by Mr. Lowell for the Atlantic Monthly, and then we formed a literary friendship which eventuated in the joint publication of a volume of verse. ‘The Poems of Two Friends’ became instantly and lastingly unknown to fame; the West waited, as it always does, to hear what the East should say; the East said nothing, and two-thirds of the small edition of five hundred came back upon the publisher’s hands. I imagine these copies were “ground up” in the manner of worthless stock, for I saw a single example of the book quoted the other day in a book-seller’s catalogue at ten dollars, and I infer that it is so rare as to be prized at least for its rarity. It was a very pretty little book, printed on tinted paper then called “blush,” in the trade, and it was manufactured in the same office where we had once been boys together, unknown to each other. Another boy of that time had by this time become foreman in the office, and he was very severe with us about the proofs, and sent us hurting messages on the margin. Perhaps he thought we might be going to take on airs, and perhaps we might have taken on airs if the fate of our book had been different. As it was I really think we behaved with sufficient meekness, and after thirty four or five years for reflection I am still of a very modest mind about my share of the book, in spite of the price it bears in the book~seller’s catalogue. But I have steadily grown in liking for my friend’s share in it, and I think that there is at present no American of twenty~three writing verse of so good a quality, with an ideal so pure and high, and from an impulse so authentic as John J. Piatt’s were then. He already knew how to breathe into his glowing rhyme the very spirit of the region where we were both native, and in him the Middle West has its true poet, who was much more than its poet, who had a rich and tender imagination, a lovely sense of color, and a touch even then securely and fully his own. I was reading over his poems in that poor little book a few days ago, and wondering with shame and contrition that I had not at once known their incomparable superiority to mine. But I used then and for long afterwards to tax him with obscurity, not knowing that my own want of simplicity and directness was to blame for that effect. My reading from the first was such as to enamour me of clearness, of definiteness; anything left in the vague was intolerable to me; but my long subjection to Pope, while it was useful in other ways, made me so strictly literary in my point of view that sometimes I could not see what was, if more naturally approached and without any technical preoccupation, perfectly transparent. It remained for another great passion, perhaps the greatest of my life, to fuse these gyves in which I was trying so hard to dance, and free me forever from the bonds which I had spent so much time and trouble to involve myself in. But I was not to know that passion for five or six years yet, and in the mean time I kept on as I had been going, and worked out my deliverance in the predestined way. What I liked then was regularity, uniformity, exactness. I did not conceive of literature as the expression of life, and I could not imagine that it ought to be desultory, mutable, and unfixed, even if at the risk of some vagueness.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38