Analysis of Alexander Pope’s Imitations of Horace

The Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot offers an autobiographical image of the platform from which the critique of society in Epistles to Several Persons is launched; but in his poetry of the 1730s Pope increasingly utilised the Roman satirist Horace as mentor, sounding board and model. The series of poems published in the Horatian mode between 1733 and 1738 presents a great range of voice (there are lyrics, as well as epistles and satires), giving Pope the opportunity to try out in extended form the many tonal variants he had deployed in To Arbuthnot: domestic, filial, fraternal; witty, ironic, self-mocking; bitter, angry, cold. Imitations of Donne and Swift (and, in a double-bluff, of Pope himself) are woven into the sequence. Taken as a whole the series selects the values of retirement, friendship, independence,and poetry itself from Horace’s oeuvre, and conspicuously ditches Horace’s imperial panegyric and ‘insider’ status: the only patron Pope cancome up with to match Horace’s Maecenas is Bolingbroke, the ‘Patriot’ outsider in permanent internal exile. Horace’s Sabine farm, the place of his sober economy, is a gift from the noble patron Maecenas; Pope’s Twickenham is more hard-won, and less protected. [35–7]

The first poem in the series (The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated [35]) was occasioned, Pope tells us, ‘by the Clamour raised on some of my epistles. An answer from Horace was both more full,and of more Dignity, than any I could have made in my own person’ (TE IV: 3). But he goes on to make the point that both Horace and Donne (who had also imitated Horace) ‘were acceptable to the Princes and Ministers under whom they lived’, a condition which, he implies, has disappeared from the current literary scene; in presenting the Latin text opposite the English version (his habit throughout), Pope makes it immediately obvious that his poem is not far short of twice the length of Horace’s (heal so used typographical emphasis to show up particular deviations from his model). The additions greatly enrich the irony of the self-presentation:

There are (I scarce can think it, but am told)
There are to whom my Satire seems too bold,
Scarce to wise Peter complaisant enough,
And something said of Chartres much too rough. …
Tim’rous by Nature, of the Rich in awe,
I come to Council learned in the Law.
You’ll give me, like a Friend both sage and free,
Advice; and (as you use) without a Fee. (Sat. 2.i, 1–4, 7–10)

The pretend head-shaking, the conversational interjections, the casual naming of individuals satirised by Pope, the little dig at (most) lawyers’ appetite for fees – all these are extensions of Horace’s more direct scenario.The fake piety of ‘Tim’rous by Nature, of the Rich in awe’ sets up a seductively non-satiric persona, in need of professional help. Pope stresses the unofficial nature of the consultation (omitting Horace’s report that some have accused his satire of stretching ultra legem, beyond the law), for though it is part of his overall concern to distinguish satire from libel, and to establish satire as a quasi-legal sanction in itself, at this point the pose is one of engaging bemusement. There follows a series of exchanges between the prudential lawyer (Pope’s friend William Fortescue, a courtinsider and confidant of Walpole), who advises rest, sleep, drugs, sex –anything to take the mind off writing – and the wheedling poet, who, it seems, just can’t keep his mouth shut. This gradually mutates into a discussion of what poetry can be under a royal family who ‘scarce can bear their Laureate twice a Year’ (Sat. 2.i, 34); those who go down the route of patronage and panegyric produce noisy nonsense (23–8) while the king trusts to ‘History’ for ‘Praise’ – a somewhat ironic hope, Pope implies.


The central section of the poem (45–100) quietly shifts gear: Pope takes centre stage, initially defending poetry as no more than a personal amusement, like drinking or eating, then as a form of self-expression, before swivelling round to a startling revision of the standard metaphor of satire as social mirror:

In me what Spots (for Spots I have) appear,
Will prove at least the Medium must be clear.
In this impartial Glass, my Muse intends
Fair to expose myself, my Foes, my Friends … (Sat. 2.i, 55–8)

The self-deprecation is no longer ironic, but actually a guarantee of honesty: foes and friends are linked by the equations of alliteration in a‘glass’ which makes no distorting distinctions because it does not spare the‘self’ which writes. Self-criticism becomes self-celebration as the exigencies of the public’s obsession with Pope remind us (he contends) of his essential, and virtuous, centrality:

My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill,
Verse-man or Prose-man, term me which you will,
Papist or Protestant, or both between,
Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean,
In Moderation placing all my Glory,
While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory. (Sat. 2.i, 63–8)

Moderation gets you called an extremist only by extremists: honest, uncorrupted expression is bound to issue in an unmediated truth unaffected by ties of any literary or political form. It is not quite straight-faced, and Pope goes on to evince some characteristic sharp practice. Arguing that heis ‘too discreet’ to wield satire against all and sundry, he claims ‘I only wear it in a Land of Hectors,/Thieves, Supercargoes, Sharpers, and Directors’(Sat. 2.i, 71–2), lines replete with the kind of ready irony Pope was already famous for: while thieves and sharpers (cheats) are sitting targets,proscribed by law, supercargoes are officers who embezzle the cargo in their trust and the supposedly neutral word ‘Directors’ conjures in actuality the whole litany of abuse against the South Sea Directors of 1720 [25] and the ensuing sense that to be that high up the professional tree was to be automatically corrupt. That it is made to rhyme with ‘Hectors’, a cantname for bullies ironically derived from the most stalwart of the Trojan heroes, indicates something of the allusive stimulus embedded in apparently off-the-cuff remarks.

This off-setting of absolute moral positions by covert displays of skilful insinuation continues through the poem. The satire which pickles the enemy for ever is likened to the unforgiving manoeuvres of politicians –one of whom, Walpole, is Pope’s major target (‘But touch me, and no Minister so sore’, Sat. 2.i, 76). The lawyer can only respond to the poet’s defiance by a resigned shrug and a warning to watch out for assassins (101–4), which the poet takes as an opportunity to recast the whole sense of what‘law’ is. If the law fails to regulate the state, the poet can become a vigilante, not so much ultra legem as supra legem, above the law,dispensing a satiric justice which is every bit as rough as circumstance requires: ‘arm’d for Virtue when I point the Pen,/Brand the Front of shameless, guilty Men’ (Sat. 2.i, 105–6). Suddenly poetry is a Jove-like assault on the world, carried out by an untainted satirist who outstrips his models (Horace, Boileau, even Dryden, 111–14) by being ‘Un-plac’d, un-pension’d, no Man’s Heir, or Slave?’ (Sat. 2.i, 116). At a high rhetorical moment, the position of satirist is all but dehumanised, principle so high that it can hardly attain syntactic connection with the world:

The World beside may murmur, or commend. (Sat. 2.i, 121–2)

Having claimed this highest of moral grounds (which Horace actually ascribes to his lawyer friend Trebatius), Pope climbs down from it a little,sketching his retirement from the ‘distant Din’ of the world among some other ‘friends of virtue’, grafting satiric honesty onto the homely pleasures of gardening and feasting in a glorified echo of his previous argument about the innocence of pleasure (125–32). The request for advice has become a speech in defence (‘This is my Plea, on this I rest my Cause-’, Sat. 2.i, 141), approved by the lawyer, albeit with the caution that ‘Laws are explain’d by Men – so have a care’ (Sat. 2.i, 144). With an engagingly comic imitation of a lawyer’s fussy exactitude, Pope has his lawyer show him the statute book and remind him of the law which might be cited against his own independent satiric ‘law’ (145–8). This brings us down to earth. But Pope’s parting shot is poised between a hopeful innocence about satire and a devious bamboozling of his lawyer:

P. Libels and Satires! lawless Things indeed!
But grave Epistles, bringing Vice to light,
Such as a King might read, a Bishop write,
Such as Sir Robert would approve –
F. Indeed The Case is alter’d – you may then proceed.
In such a Cause the Plaintiff will be hiss’d,
My Lords the Judges laugh, and you’re dismiss’d. (Sat. 2.i, 151–6)

We know that Pope preferred to think of his work in this light; writing to Swift, who (ever the provocateur) was happy to think of his satires as‘libels’, Pope says ‘I would rather call my satires, epistles. They will consist more of morality than of wit, and grow graver, which you will call duller’ (Letters III: 366). But he can hardly have thought that ‘Sir Robert’ [Walpole] would approve of anything he was about to write, or that the King would read it, and the close of the poem seems close to ironising the lawyer friend – as if in invoking Sir Robert, however ironically, the lawyer’s canny carefulness simply evaporates. It is possible that the lawyer is also acting ironically, participating in Pope’s knowing wink about the foibles of great men: but the end of the poem sets up a sort of reading problem for the series, between ‘open’ statements and ‘closed’ ones,requiring the key of irony to decode them.

This variation in tone, in which moral urgency is protected from overbalancing into pomposity by a comic sense of self, pervades the Horatian poems, though the balance is different in each instance. Contrast between excesses and artifices at court, and natural appetites of country life, inform The Second Satire of the Second Book of Horace Paraphrased [37], which also contains a charmingly downbeat self-portrait encapsulating much of Pope’s sense of moral place at this time:

In South-sea days not happier, when surmis’d
The Lord of thousands, than if now Excis’d;
In Forest planted by a Father’s hand,
Than in five acres now of rented land.
Content with little, I can piddle here
On Broccoli and mutton, round the year;
But ancient friends, (tho’ poor, or out of play)
That touch my Bell, I cannot turn away. (Sat. 2.ii, 133–40)

Pope indicates an indifference to the vagaries of the money market; to be deemed ‘Lord of thousands’ by a spurious stock-market is no happier state than to ‘piddle … On Broccoli’ under Walpole’s punitive tax regime:the important thing is the simple exchange of friendship. Even the loss of paternal acres is not a problem for the man of inner self-mastery. Pope jokes about property’s tendency to ‘slide’ (no matter how architecturally stable) into the hands of ‘a Scrivn’ner or a City Knight’ through fraud or law, and counsels staunchly ‘Let us be fix’d, and our own Masters still’ (Sat. 2.ii, 167–80).

As the series progresses, moving away from the satires to the epistles,this fixed self becomes increasingly autobiographical. The Second Epistle of the Second Book of Horace [40] is unusually poignant in tone and contains a rare and very carefully moderated account of Pope’s upbringing and tribulations under anti-Catholic legislation:

Bred up at home, full early I begun
To read in Greek, the Wrath of Peleus’s Son.
Besides, my Father taught me from a Lad,
The better Art to know the good from bad: …
But knottier Points we knew not half so well,
Depriv’d us soon of our Paternal Cell;
And certain Laws, by Suff’rers thought unjust,
Deny’d all Posts of Profit or of Trust: …
For Right Hereditary tax’d and fin’d,
He [Pope’s father] stuck to Poverty with Peace of Mind;
And me, the Muses help’d to undergo it;
Convict a Papist He, and I a Poet. (Ep. 2.ii, 52–5, 58–61, 64–7)

Poetry has here become the equivalent of the paternal religion for which the true patriot suffers – though it is also a main economic resource, as Pope in a rare confession signals: ‘But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive’ (Ep. 2.ii, 68– 9). Where Horace had been educated at Athens, Pope has a more literary nurturing; Homer had been primarily a text of moral learning, associated with the father (in a section very close to the Horatian source), but in translation the fathering author (or Popean text) has become the very source of equanimity, a self-education in ‘the equal Measure of the Soul’ (205). But apparent poise comes tinged with the knowledge of the duncely, bathetic jostle of history,as Horace’s advice ‘Learn to live well’ becomes framed by the metaphor of play-acting:

Walk sober off; before a sprightlier Age
Comes titt’ring on, and shoves you from the stage:
Leave such to trifle with more grace and ease,
Whom Folly pleases, and whose Follies please. (Ep. 2.ii, 324–7)

The trace of Macbeth’s ‘poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more’, casts an ominous shadow across this most inward of the Horatian poems.

In The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated [40], Pope returns to his grand manner with the fiercest irony of the series. Horace’s poem is addressed to the Emperor Augustus, writing with what Pope calls‘a decent Freedom’ to him, ‘with a just Contempt of his low Flatterers, and with a manly Regard to his own Character’ (TE IV: 192), in defence of the utility of poetry to society. Pope shares many of these aims. But while Horace was genuinely in contact with the court of Augustus, and could celebrate a ruler whose powers included literary appreciation, Pope had no chance at all of addressing George II, who was notoriously dismissive of literary culture. Though George’s second name was Augustus, in a rather hopeful tribute to the imperial ideal which plays directly into Pope’s irony,he had very little of Augustus’s political abilities, and all the compliments to princely qualities which Pope translates from Horace become flagrantly ironic when ascribed to George. The opening of the poem is a ringingly false panegyric:

While You, great Patron of Mankind, sustain
The balanc’d World, and open all the Main;
Your Country, chief, in Arms abroad defend,
At home, with Morals, Arts, and Laws amend;
How shall the Muse, from such a Monarch, steal
An hour, and not defraud the Publick Weal (Ep. 2.i, 1–6)

Embedded in this we can see standard opposition claims: that Walpole’s government failed to protect British interests abroad through military means, that the only form of ‘patronage’ it knew was systematic bribery and corruption, and that this corruption extended itself through the whole cultural and moral landscape. It is irony on a grand scale, compounded in the ensuing potted history of the British monarchy and its martial achievements (7–30).

The history of poetry, and the history of the state, are closely interwoven in the poem: Pope views poetry from the point of view of history, and then overlays this with history viewed in the eyes of poetry, searching for a stable basis for status in authorship, power in verse (69–160). His position,like Augustus’s, is always hedged about with irony; he derides the ‘Poetick Itch’ which has seized the nation: ‘Sons, Sires, and Grandsires, all will wear the Bays,/Our Wives read Milton, and our Daughters plays’ (Ep. 2.i,169–72), but specifically includes himself (as Horace did) in this comic malaise (175–80). Pope advises Augustus to pay no attention to this harmless hobby-horse on the ironic grounds that it keeps everyone quiet and politically inactive (179–200). But the last hundred lines of the poem have a further contrast to offer. The theatre is seen as a literary space particularly prone to fickle changes of taste and absurd pandering to the mob. Where money is all, morality is irrelevant: ‘But fill their purse, our Poet’s work is done,/Alike to them, by Pathos or by Pun’ (Ep. 2.i, 294–5);and the ‘many-headed Monster of the Pit’, that is the crowds in the cheap seats, takes on an ominous ability to run the show, calling for farce, cheap spectacle, bawdy jokes, the appropriation of martial costume into the easy heroics of actors. Against this, Pope offers to ‘instruct the times,/To know the Poet from the Man of Rymes’ (Ep. 2.i, 340–1), suggesting (still with the bounds of theatrical poetry) the power of real literary skill – the ‘pathos’ to which the rhymester is indifferent:

’Tis He, who gives my breast a thousand pains,
Can make me feel each Passion that he feigns,
In rage, compose, with more than magic Art,
With Pity, and with Terror, tear my heart;
And snatch me, o’er the earth, or thro’ the air,
To Thebes, to Athens, when he will, and where. (Ep. 2.i, 342–7)

Pope renounces this dramatic ground (as Horace had), but claims its emotional force. Teasingly pointing out the foibles of non-dramatic poets (going on too long, moaning about lack of appreciation, writing epistles to the King, and so on, 356–71), Pope amuses himself by casting himself as potential (but impossible) poet laureate, ‘T’ enroll your triumphs o’er the seas and land’ (Ep. 2.i, 373). Reminding Augustus that Kings depend on poets for the transmission of their image to posterity, Pope for a moment does a very good impersonation (with help from Horace) of straight forward royal panegyric:

Oh! could I mount on the Maeonian wing,
Your Arms, your Actions, your Repose to sing! …
How barb’rous rage subsided at your word,
And Nations wonder’d while they dropp’d the sword!
How, when you nodded, o’er the land and deep,
Peace stole her wing, and wrapt the world in sleep… (Ep. 2.i, 394–5, 398–401)

But compared with the eulogy of Anne in Windsor-Forest [62–3], the irony is impudently plain: Pope had mounted on the Maeonian (Homeric) wing, by translating Homer for his own purposes rather than panegyric,and George had done (according to those of Pope’s persuasion) nothing whatsoever in Arms or Action (though ‘Repose’ was appropriate enough);when Augustus nods it is not the imperial nod of Zeus, which signifies assent or command, but nodding off, asleep, while the rest of Europe goes onto a war footing. Small wonder then that Pope acknowledges in a way that Horace cannot, ‘Besides, a fate attends on all I write,/That when I aim at praise, they say I bite [satirise]’ (Ep. 2.i, 408–9). With perfect aplomb masquerading as humility, Pope concludes his letter to the king with a refusal to flatter, and a reminder that ‘A vile Encomium doubly ridicules;/There’s nothing blackens like the ink of fools’ (Ep. 2.i, 410–11).

Subsequent Horatian essays retreated slightly from this daring mode;the series explores the mutability and strangeness of mental life in order to comment on the wayward trajectories of the court, money, property, and desire. But Pope rounded off the series with a pair of dialogues, in Horatian manner but not tied to particular poems, which first appeared under the title One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight and were later rechristened as Epilogue to the Satires [40]. In these we return to the dialogue form of the first Imitation, and there is a similar progression from low-key, comic man oeuvring to high-powered satiric denunciation. The Friend who talks with Pope opens with an ironic challenge: ‘Not twice in twelve month you appear in Print,/And when it comes, the Court see nothing in’t’ (Epil. i, 1–2). This is Pope wrong-footing criticism, since there was everything for the Court to ‘see’ if it looked hard enough. But the ‘impertinent Censurer’ (Pope’s note to line 1) has another axe to grind about the whole concept of Horatian imitation, which is that Horace’s stance was essentially palliative:

But Horace, Sir, was delicate, was nice;
Bubo observes, he lash’d no sort of Vice:
Horace would say, Sir Billy serv’d the Crown,
Blunt could do Bus’ness, H-ggins knew the Town,
In Sappho touch the Failing of the Sex,
In rev’rend Bishops note some small Neglects,
And own, the Spaniard did a waggish thing,
Who cropt our Ears, and sent them to the King. (Epil. i, 11–18)

The Friend recasts in miniature the whole of Pope’s enterprise,rewriting it in a supposedly more ingratiating style which he takes to be truer of Horace. For Pope of course this renders Horace no more than a sort of Court puppet, of the kind the whole series denounces, and the Pope-figure does not really respond to the actual point at hand, leaving it an open question how far Pope has departed from his model.

‘Pope’ enters the poem in response to the key-word, ‘Sir ROBERT’ (Epil. i, 27), picking up a suggestion that he go and see him with a backhanded compliment precisely drawn from Walpole’s private life,where he is ‘uncumber’d with the Venal tribe’ and can ‘win without a Bribe’ (Epil. i, 31–2). Coolly setting himself up as the Top Bard who knows all there is to know about the First Minister, Pope listens unmoved to the Friend’s bland catalogue of those he may satirise without danger (including in a characteristic manoeuvre some ‘honest’ Whigs, who voted against Walpole, 39), only to unleash a tirade of objects (people, crimes,vices) which require the satiric opposition which readers of the series will know Pope has evinced. In an impressive tirade which silences the mealy-mouthed Friend, Vice is imagined as a triumphant, destructive empress, not unlike Dulness, adored by the whole of British society with the exception of its uncrowned laureate poet (141–72).

The second dialogue momentarily inverts the relation between Friend and Pope by making the Friend more earnest and giving Pope comic-defensive lines in which satiric imagination, often accused of being libellous, cannot outstrip social actuality:

Vice with such Giant-strides comes on a main,
Invention strives to be before in vain;
Feign what I will, and paint it e’er so strong,
Some rising Genius sins up to my Song. (Epil. ii, 6–9)

In a more agitated, if still comic, vein of debate, the hapless Friend tries to allot Pope an acceptable level of target, without success (10– 62). Pope points out (with a customary barb) that his satire is not all negative: ‘Godknows, I praise a Courtier where I can’ (Epil. ii, 63); ‘Ev’n in a Bishop I can spy Desert’ (Epil. ii, 70). But praise is confessedly directed towards Opposition heroes: ‘But does the court a worthy Man remove/That instant, I declare, he has my Love’ (Epil. ii, 74–5), and Pope resists the courtly requirement for ‘random Praise’ (Epil. ii, 106) as much as he berates the‘spur-gall’d Hackney’ and ‘new-pension’d Sycophant’ who write indefence of Walpole (Epil. ii, 140–2) and whose Courtly ‘Perfume’ smells only too disgusting to the honest poet (Epil. ii, 182–4) [186].

Pope seems to be seeking an object for anger, which eventually resolves itself into something which is hardly personal at all: ‘Ask you what Provocation I have had/The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad’ (Epil. ii,197–8). Pope internalises the charge, implicit in the bold black/ white opposition, that the claim is too large, in the last and least comic of the self-presentations:

Fr. You’re strangely proud. P. So proud, I am no Slave:
So impudent, I own myself no Knave:
So odd, my Country’s Ruin makes me grave.
Yes I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me: (Epil. ii, 205–9)

In a further apocalyptic vision, Pope addresses ‘Ye tinsel Insects! whom a Court maintains’ and pledges ‘The Muse’s wing shall brush you all away’(Epil. ii, 220–3). We have moved a long way from the interdependence of satirist and victim proposed in Pope’s opening lines (6–9), where satiric invention seemed almost to conjure social enactment; Pope now claims a kind of Noah-like status against a flood of ‘insuperable corruption and depravity of manners’ (his note to line 255). A saving irony is still precariously preserved, as the Friend, despairing of bringing Pope to heel, counsels him to go on with further ‘Essays on Man’, as more politically innocuous than satire (255). But the last poem of all (1740. A Poem), a thorough-going political diatribe which Pope did not publish and which he wrote partially in hieroglyphics to resist the scrutiny of government spies,indicates something of the desperate climate in which Pope saw himselfprior to revision of The Dunciad [169].

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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