106. (Alexander Pope)

Wordsworth, conceding that he knew some thousand lines of Pope’s poetry by heart,  set him nonetheless “at the foot of Parnassus,” for his deficiency in the “beautiful, the pathetic, and the sublime.” But Wordsworth is nearest of all British poets to Pope, and Pope nearest of all British poets to Wordsworth, in his sensitivity towards stigma; these two poets mark poles of the British poetic response to what it means, in Erving Goffman’s terms, to be a discreditable or discredited person.

Neither pole is definable without reference to the other: Pope’s contempt and horror is alloyed by anxious pity; Wordsworth’s pity is cut by uncomprehending horror and contempt. The difference in the balances cannot be explained by reference to the poets alone; it is the stigmas they face, and the configuration of those stigmas in society, that tilt the scales.

The difference in the stigmatized as Pope and Wordsworth imagine them: for Wordsworth, the stigmatized are the solitaries, outcasts, scarred physically or mentally, severed from social bonds; their existence is a mystery because they cannot be placed, justified, or explained socially; the pity that they elicit from Wordsworth runs aground on his inability to understand them, to sympathetically imagine them as human beings; such imagination depends, Wordsworth’s poems testify, on the conventional social relationships. His life in the Lake District, removed from the corrupt excesses of the city, is not a removal from society or even politics, but a distilling of these to their essential bonds and units–but that same landscape sustains lives that are excluded even from these. Unable to give them social reality, Wordsworth makes sense of the solitaries by endowing them with spiritual, mythic reality; since they possess recognizable humanity, but disfigured and cast out from the structures that allow for humans to become full persons, they come to seem both greater than and less than (but not equal to) other human beings.

What Wordsworth struggles with in his encounters is stigma: he cannot fail to recognize what discredits these individuals socially, and his efforts at redeeming them as humans therefore proceeds by his circumventing social classifications, and instead attributing to them a religious human essence.

In the case of Alexander Pope, much can be inverted: Pope’s targets, the cast of characters populating the poetry, live in a tight grid of social rules and conventions; they are bound by status and they determine their lives, their actions, and their presentation by desires that are dependent on the essentially social motives of greed, lust, fame, luxury, and pride; the power to buy and sell, the power to conquer, the power to possess, and the power to command attention and desire at will. Whereas Wordsworth encounters solitaries whose defects instantly stigmatize them, who are, in Goffman’s terms, discredited already, Pope surveys a social scene populated by the discreditable: those whose credit, social and fiscal, is hollow or corrupt. Pope’s poetry, not only but especially the satires, serves the function of readjusting the credit levels, exposing the information and facts to which others are blind, or which others see but have chosen to ignore, too concerned either with themselves, or too fearful that to admit recognition of another’s failings would invite recognition of one’s own failings.

But Pope’s poetry breaks against, and runs into, pity where he imagines, as Wordsworth cannot (with any confidence) the inner lives of those he would pillory, and confronts the anxieties and self-loathing they must feel, and their own exhausting efforts at managing their identities and moral careers, without the willingness to reform or abandon their failings; he does not laugh at the fact that people must delude themselves about their own existences, however ridiculous those existences or the means of delusion may be. What’s more,  Pope recognizes, not with pity but with a warm imaginative apprehension, the viciousness of judgment in that world, the game wherein deluded others are invited and tolerated as a distraction from the burden’s of one’s own delusions. Few in Pope’s poetry achieve lives free from the perpetual threat of being discredited, in the eyes of others and oneself; and the anxiety of the discreditable is not, for Pope, limited to those whose failings are real; anyone can discredit anyone else, and his own retirement is an attempt at leaving that behind. But the fray is worth entering because the capacity to discredit is necessary for a well-ordered world; it is, in Pope’s view, the poet’s duty to correct and preserve the power to stigmatize appropriately.

No less than Wordsworth, Pope appeals to the mythic, but the mythic in Pope is pagan: the gods made human, rather than, as in Wordsworth, the humans made gods. Wordsworth would redeem the solitaries from stigma by returning them to a cosmological place that has, in Christianity at the very least, taken stigma as evidence for that which which is above the judgment of human society. Pope will refuse even the gods a place or a world impervious to the power to discredit.

Wordsworth was not wrong to set Pope at the foot of Parnassus; Pope did not see much of a refuge in the sacred heights, Parnassian or Olympian.

 

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