54. (Alexander Pope)

Among the etchings on display at the MFA’s recent Goya exhibit, one from the series of Caprichos depicts an old woman, sat before a mirror, assuming the airs and accessories of youth. The lines might have been etched beneath:


As hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spight,

So these their merry, miserable night;

Still round and round the ghosts of beauty glide,

And haunt the places where their honor dyed.  


Several rooms later, the same lines from “Epistle to a Lady” might have been set beneath another of the Caprichos. And looking through the series, there are others yet, where Goya shares with Pope a horror for what women might be or become.

There is, in all of these, a degree of misogyny; but his ferocious horror extends to men, and especially old, or aged, men. Likewise with Pope, whose “Moral Essays,” “Epistle to Arbuthnot,” and “Imitations” survey the self-deluding, self-defeating deformities of the entire race.

Pope can be read as an heir to Horace, upholding the virtues and ideals of a civilization under siege; he can be read as a (second-rate?) philosopher-poet justifying the ways of God to Man; he can be read as a an agent of the vituperative and scatological sublime, turning these in satire against the folly of the public, dying his hands, and implicating himself, in the process; but alongside these, he can be read as kin to Goya:

An engraver of the warped visages and attitudes of those possessed too long by habits of self-presentation, by rituals of display, by appetites and ambitions, and by vanity.

In some of the most insightful criticism of Goya, Baudelaire wrote of the Spaniard’s eye for “human countenances weirdly animalized by circumstance.” “Goya’s great merit,” says Baudelaire, “consists in his having created a credible form of the monstrous. His monsters are born viable, harmonious.”

(One of my friends, who would I think rather be unnamed here, deserves what credit there is for alerting me to Baudelaire’s criticism and also for providing me with some of the terms to help to explain the resemblance between the figures in Pope’s poetry and Goya’s paintings.)

Baudelaire’s lines seem to me apt also for describing Pope’s portraiture; there is something in such art to which Baudelaire was peculiarly attuned. Robert Lowell, when translating his poetry, sought after an English analogy. The nearest he could find was Pope’s lines on the Death of Arbuthnot. Lowell was speaking not only of Pope’s classicism, but of what that classical poise affords him: the creation of “harmonious” monsters, viable in the same chiming couplets that can wittily expand a lady’s dressing table to epic proportions. In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop of 1948, Lowell writes: “I have been reading masses of Pope and Faulkner–a wonderful pair to have together.” The pairing might be intended as a contrast; but Lowell, I imagine, saw also that Pope’s decayed, diminished aristocrats resembled also the decrepitude that Faulkner saw on faces shrouded in shuttered Southern mansions.

Here then, three artists to read off and against one another: Goya, Pope, Baudelaire.

No other English poet, not even Byron, could be set in the tradition that brings Goya and Baudelaire into conversation (though British satirical cartoonists of the eighteenth century might fit the bill); looking for Pope in Goya’s etchings, and looking for Goya in Pope, recovers something that habits of reading and viewing might otherwise lose: that Goya, like Pope, was a man of enlightenment, that his nightmares are classical in their composition, in their allusions to the Renaissance depictions of the human form, and that they are not levied against the fact of power and wealth per se, so much as what has become of it (Goya, like Pope, could praise up the hierarchy, without grave irony); that Pope’s imagination is as haunted by the ease with which the human might become the animal, the bestial, that Pope is not a poet of society or manners alone, but a poet concerned with the ways in which the aspirations, ambitions, and desires, that circulate throughout a (to his eyes) well-ordered civilized society, that are essential for its life, are capable not only of granting to the fop and fool a false esteem, but threaten to, as time passes, overwhelm, corrupt and “animalize” the same men and women who depend on them for their early growth and sense of self.

Maybe even the “Essay on Man” can come to be seen as a more anxious poem than it seems to be, with man’s place above the beasts in the chain of nature in doubt.

Pope does not only or always belong to the tradition: it flickers into the poetry, set off and guarded against by a genial Horatian cordiality and generosity. The vituperative and vitiating comprehension is made, in the Horatian circumstances of its utterance, to seem itself a bauble of the imagination–a sketch or caprice. (Swift achieves something similar, his hate set in the rhyming octets; but Swift does not sketch people, as Pope does).

Not is the tradition the scatological that runs from Dryden into Pope, notably Pope of The Dunciad. That strand of Pope ironically adopts the tone of urbanity and the style of epic; it’s effect often depends on the subject matter seeming at odds with time and style. This strand of Pope that I am discussing, the Goya strand, is at home in an urbane voice, finding comfortable expression in its chilly precision and aloof candor, which both permit and contain it.

The containment, and the potential for savage absurdity, is felt in the lines from the “Epistle to Bathurst”:


Poor Avarice one torment more would find;

Nor could Profusion squander all in  kind.

Astride his cheese Sir Morgan might we meet,

And Worldly crying coals from street to street,

(Whom with a wig so wild, and mien so maz’d,

Pity mistakes for some poor tradesman craz’d).

Had Colepepper’s whole wealth been hops and hogs,

Could he himself have sent it to the dogs?

His Grace will game: to White’s a Bill be led,

With spurning heels and with a butting head.

To White’s be carried, as to ancient games,

Fair Coursers, Vases, and alluring Dames.

Shall then Uxorio, if the stakes he sweep,

Bear home six Whores, and make his Lady weep?

Or soft Adonish, so perfum’d and fine,

Drive to St. James’s a whole herd of swine?

Oh filthy check on all industrious skill,

To spoil the nation’s last great trade, Quadrille!


Hardly the stuff of Goya—or even the stuff of Pope when he writes of Sporus or Buckingham. But, having seen Goya’s Caprichos, and recognizing that this is a caprice of Pope’s, it is possible to imagine what Goya would have seen in the lines. Granting that reading an author represents the fusion of horizons, my understanding with that authors, each act a novel interpretative dialogue, there are occasions perhaps when it becomes necessary to adjust our own horizon by an encounter with another, a third figure, before the second can be fruitfully met. Lacking the imagination to read Pope for myself, I find it easier to imagine Goya reading him.

Look, in these lines, how Pope progresses: the initial thought, of a man with a wheel of cheese, is light, more the stuff of Lewis Carroll than a satirical cartoonist. The darker purpose of the lines is released slowly, in parentheses, where the face comes into view—but the bestial potential the craz’d visage, at first hidden away in those rounded brackets, is brought to light slowly, at first, in the lines that follow, as animals are introduced as a form of currency to be driven through the street. Then the leap is taken: instead of animals through the street, Uxorio bearing home whores, like cattle, to his weeping wife. Here we are much nearer to Goya’s imagination, and in the background of the sketch, even Sir Morgan upon his cheese is unsettling–the cheese fitting into the pattern (an animal product, before the animals are introduced; the smell of cheese consorting with the smell of cattle; “astride” a word of conquest that speaks to Uxorio’s). And from the pack of whores, a herd of swine—legion—driven by a man perfum’d, the perfume of course from civet. And this, Tory Pope says, is what underlies the transactions of wealth among the nation’s merchants and commercial classes. And were it so, the last lines exclaim in mock-despair, the skill of a card-game (quadrille) would be checked; the irony is true because the source of the wealth that drives the game is indeed “filthy,” derived from the commerce of cattle and women-as-cattle.

Elsewhere, the instinct for caprice is less pronounced, more contained, as in the “Epistle to Burlington,” which, despite taking aim at the vanity of Timon, nonetheless acknowledges that his vanity saves as well as distorts his person. In Timon’s vanity to the poor, “What his hard hard denies | His charitable Vanity supplies.” But the possibility for caricature peeps out:


To compass tis, his building is a Town,

His pond an Ocean, his parterre a Down:

Who but must laugh, the Master when he sees,

A puny insect, shiv’ring in the breeze.


When Eliot described Pope as master of the miniature, he had in mind moments such as these: men are made smaller than they are, their stature reduced. But they are reduced also down the chain of being in which Pope seemingly believed: they are not, as in Dryden, aggrandized to boorish gods.

At the same time, there is a sense that Pope’s method is, like Goya’s in the etchings, dependent on a small canvas: rather than a portrait, we are offered something on a reduced scale, without full delineation. The man, for a moment in the poem, is seen to be that puny insect; but only for a moment. It is in the nature of a caprice to be fleeting; it is in the nature of Pope’s poetry to remain in rapid motion, as if obeying whim or impulse.

It is more horrifying like this: the possibility for this sort of vision into things,a glimpse into the excruciatingly shriveled and warped lives behind public disguises and self-avowals, can occur at any time, with anyone. The masks slip unexpectedly, at odd times, in odd places; they are replaced just as quickly; there is no time but for a brief glance and a small representation of what has been seen.


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