The Pope Controversy: Romantic Poetics and the English Canon

Critical Inquiry 10 (3):481-509 (1984)

To see what might be at stake in the question of Pope’s place in the poetic canon—in the question as such, before anything is said of critical theory—we must understand that late eighteenth-century England was developing a different sort of canon from the one which Pope and the Augustans had in view. As everyone knows, Pope’s classics were, well, classical. His pantheon was populated with poets of another place and time whose stature was globally recognized. One recalls the tribute to these “Bards triumphant” in An Essay on Criticism : Still green with Bays each ancient Altar stands, Above the reach of Sacrilegious Hands, Secure from Flames, from Envy’s fiercer Rage, Destructive War, and all-involving Age. See, from each Climes the Learn’d their Incense bring; Hear, in all Tongues consenting Paeans ring! In Praise so just, let ev’ry Voice be join’d, And fill the Gen’ral Chorus of Mankind!14Pope’s song of praise here forms just a part of mankind’s “Gen’ral Chorus.” These are poets for all climates and languages, and for all nations, even “Nations unborn” and “Worlds…that must not yet be found” . Although I want to place adequate stress on Pope’s deep commitment to this universalized canon, it would be misleading to suggest that he was completely uninterested in the poetry of his own nation. He studied it an imitated it. He even sketched a plan for a possible history of poetry in England. It is to the point here, however, that this project remained only a sketch and that England would have no major overview of its national accomplishment until the 1770s and 1780s, when Thomas Warton issued the first three volumes of his pioneering History of English Poetry, and Johnson, his Lives of the English Poets.Building on the scholarship of René Wellek, Lawrence Lipking has offered a compelling account of the emergence of these great works at that time, buy reference to the “interested and demanding public” that called for them.15 What the public wanted and got, Lipking explains, “was a history of English poetry, or a survey of English poets, that would provide a basis for criticism by reviewing the entire range of the art. Warton and Johnson responded to a national desire for an evaluation of what English poets had achieved” . Such terms are most useful, although “evaluation” connotes a greater degree of neutrality than even Lipking’s own subsequent analysis permits. For example, among the public needs served by such work as Johnson’s and Warton’s, Lipking lists the “patriotic” and the “political” as primary. These needs are obviously related. The patriotic need expresses itself as a hunger for “a glorious national poetic pantheon” ; that is, for a specifically national rather than a global canon of classics. Such a canon would in turn serve political purposes that Lipking sees motivating “the poets” of mid-century, Thomson and Akenside and Collins and Gray and Mason and Smart,” who all “wrote variations on the mythopolitical them of Milton: sweet Liberty, the nymph who had freed English pens to outstrip the cloistered conservative rule-bound verses of less favored nations.” Politically, in other words, and this is the crucial point, “English literary history was shaped by the need for a definition of the superiority of the national character” . James Chandler, assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, is the author of Wordsworth’s Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics . His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry was “Romantic Allusiveness”
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DOI 10.1086/448259
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