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Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate; but is said to have shewn remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life*; but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood. His voice when he was young was so pleasing, that he was called in fondness "the little Nightingale."
Being not sent early to school, he was taught to read by an aunt; and when he was seven or eight years old, became a lover of books. He first learned to write by imitating printed books; a species of penmanship in which he retained great excellence through his whole life, though his ordinary hand was not elegant.t
When he was about eight, he was placed in Hampshire under Taverner, a Romish priest, who, by a method very rarely practised, taught him the Greek and Latin rudiments together. He was now first regularly initiated in poetry by the perusal of "Ogilby's Homer," and "Sandys' Ovid." Ogilby's assistance he never repaid with any praise; but of Sandys he declared, in his notes to the "Iliad," that English poetry owed much of its beauty to his translations. Sandys very rarely attempted original composition.
* This weakness was so great that he constantly wore stays, as I have been assured by a waterman at Twickenham, who, in lifting him into his boat, had often felt them. His method of
taking the air on the water was to have a sedan chair in the boat, in which he sat with the glasses down. H.
This is incorrect: his ordinary hand was certainly neat and elegant. I have some of it now before me. M.
From the care of Taverner, under whom his proficiency was considerable, he was removed to a school at Twyford near Winchester, and again to another school about Hyde-park Corner; from which he used sometimes to stroll to the playhouse; and was so delighted with theatrical exhibitions, that he formed a kind of a play from " Ogilby's Iliad," with some verses of his own intermixed, which he persuaded his school-fellows to act, with the addition of his master's gardener, who personated Ajax.
At the two last schools he used to represent himself as having lost part of what Taverner had taught him; and on his master at Twyford he had already exercised his poetry in a lampoon. Yet under those masters he translated more than a fourth part of the Metamorphoses." If he kept the same proportion in his other exercises, it cannot be thought that his loss was great.
He tells of himself, in his poems, that "he lisp'd " in numbers ;" and used to say that he could not remember the time when he began to make verses. In the style of fiction it might have been said of him as of Pindar, that when he lay in his cradle, "the "bees swarmed about his mouth."
About the time of the Revolution, his father, who was undoubtedly disappointed by the sudden blast of Popish prosperity, quitted his trade, and retired to Binfield in Windsor Forest, with about twenty thousand pounds; for which, being conscientiously determined not to entrust it to the government, he found no better use than that of locking it up in a chest, and taking from it what his expences required; and his life was long enough to
consume a great part of it, before his son came to the inheritance.
To Binfield Pope was called by his father when he was about twelve years old; and there he had for a few months the assistance of one Deane, another priest, of whom he learned only to construe a little of" Tully's Offices." How Mr. Deane could spend with a boy who had translated so much of " Ovid," some months over a small part of Tully's Offices," it is now vain to enquire.
Of a youth so successfully employed, and so conspicuously improved, a minute account must be naturally desired; but curiosity must be contented with confused, imperfect, and sometimes improbable intelligence. Pope, finding little advantage from external help, resolved thenceforward to direct himself, and at twelve formed a plan of study, which he completed with little other incitement than the desire of excellence.
His primary and principal purpose was to be a poet, with which his father accidentally concurred, by proposing subjects, and obliging him to correct his performances by many revisals; after which the old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would say, "these are good rhymes."
In his perusal of the English poets he soon distinguished the versification of Dryden, which he considered as the model to be studied, and was impressed with such veneration for his instructor, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him.
Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before
Pope was twelve *; so early must he therefore have felt the power of harmony, and the zeal of genius. Who does not wish that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer?
The earliest of Pope's productions is his " Ode "on Solitude," written before he was twelve, in which there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's performances at the same age.
His time was now wholly spent in reading and writing. As he read the Classicks, he amused himself with translating them; and at fourteen made a version of the first book of the "Thebais," which, with some revision, he afterwards published. He must have been at this time, if he had no help, á considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.
By Dryden's Fables, which had then been not long published, and were much in the hands of poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appearance, and put" January and May," and the " Prologue of "the Wife of Bath," into modern English. He translated likewise the Epistle of "Sappho to "Phaon" from Ovid, to complete the version which was before imperfect; and wrote some other small pieces, which he afterwards printed.
He sometimes imitated the English poets, and professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon "Silence," after Rochester's "Nothing." He had now formed his versification, and the smoothness of
* Dryden died May 1, 1700, a year earlier than Johnson supposed. M.
his numbers surpassed his original: but this is a small part of his praise; he discovers such acquaintance both with human life and publick affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor Forest.
Next year he was desirous of opening to himself new sources of knowledge, by making himself acquainted with modern languages; and removed for a time to London, that he might study French and Italian, which, as he desired nothing more than to read them, were by diligent application soon dispatched. Of Italian learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.
He then returned to Binfield, and delighted himself with his own poetry. He tried all styles, and many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epick poem, with panegyricks on all the princes of Europe; and, as he confesses, " thought himself "the greatest genius that ever was." Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings. He, indeed, who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, without knowing the powers of other men, is very liable to errour: but it was the felicity of Pope to rate himself at his real value.
Most of his puerile productions were, by his maturer judgment, afterwards destroyed; "Alcander," the epick poem, was burnt by the persuasion of Atterbury. The tragedy was founded on the legend of St. Genevieve. Of the comedy there is no account.
Concerning his studies it is related, that he translated "Tully on Old Age;" and that, besides his books of poetry and criticism, he read "Temple's Essays" and "Locke on Human Understanding."