Much that is felt to be absent in Pope’s great poems—The Rape of the Lock, The Moral Epistles—is a source of life in the wonderful Imitations of Horace—and especially the wonderful Epistle II.ii. In all but one respect, Samuel Johnson’s critical assessment of Pope is hard to dispute; and that one respect is not, as might be thought, the careful limitations set around what The Dunciad is and could be, but is instead the dismissal of the Imitations:
The “Imitations of Horace” seem to have been written as relaxations of his genius. This employment became his favourite by its facility; the plan was ready to his hand, and nothing was required but to accommodate as he could the sentiments of an old author to recent facts or familiar images; but what is easy is seldom excellent. Such imitations cannot give pleasure to common readers; the man of learning may be sometimes surprised and delighted by an unexpected parallel, but the comparison requires knowledge of the original, which will likewise often detect strained applications. Between Roman images and English manners there will be an irreconcilable dissimilitude, and the works will be generally uncouth and parti-coloured, neither original nor translated, neither ancient nor modern.
But Johnson had not read Byron, and was not initiated into Romantic Irony as Byron practiced it; had he been, he might have recognized, more quickly, what Pope does in the Imitations, distinct from what he does elsewhere in his poetry. That’s not to say that the poems are examples of Romantic Irony, with its individually false assertions set against one another to reveal a foundation of valid insight. But, like the masterpiece of Romantic Irony, Don Juan, they are alive to the pressures of performance and self-presentation, compromise, and ingratiation that betray a speaker to be what he would not be, say what he would not say, and affirm what he would not affirm.
That would seem to set them in a tradition of poems that affirm the charge to know oneself. In other poems by Pope, the prospect of self-knowledge is perhaps real and worthy. But in the Horatian imitations, as in Byron’s satiric masterpiece, the persistent evasion of self by and from self is a condition of utterance and life alike; these are poems that retreat from pressures to be a certain thing not in order to be a different certain thing, but instead in order to be that uncertain thing that is a human life, with a freedom that might be confused for inconsistency. The foundation of valid insight is not a stable ground, not much of a foundation at all, as it is typically understood, so much as it is condition of mutability, sometimes more, sometimes less exacerbated. It is no wonder that Montaigne is a recurrent presence in Pope’s lines.
I’ve equivocated, or at least failed to state outright, as to whether I refer to Pope exclusively or Pope and Horace alike. In part, this is owing to my un-ease with the Latin, but in part it is because one of the chief insistences of Pope’s imitations is that their voices and selves are not, cannot be, entirely distinct. When John Butt, the editor of Pope, observes that Pope’s account of his past in his imitation of Epistle II.ii is one of the barest and most complete autobiographical statements we have from the poet, we are led to a central irony of the imitations: that Pope is most himself when he is taking on and writing from the voice and vantage point of another, and that the explicit renunciations of poetry, public, and property in that Epistle are themselves allowed by the inheritance and appropriation of the poetry and property of his Roman predecessor. The consequence is not only an irony; it is also an argument about self and identity, about the grounds of judgments that we can call our own, and by which we are ourselves and know ourselves to be.
The mutability of self, and the therapeutic evasion of the urge to locate a center of self or central self, are together the formal principles of Horace’s epistles, and so the weight of the praise cannot go to Pope’s imitations. But Horace’s epistles, whatever their allusive and intertextual reach, cannot do what Pope’s imitations do, which is to find an instantiation of Horace’s thought more perfect for being second-hand, and, as a consequence, for refusing a special central place to a unique self, for acknowledging that much that we hold to be our own property, our “own-ness” in fact, is commonly held, shared, and only as good as the use that can be made of it; self becomes less a stock of stuff than a technique of divesting the stock at hand. Hence Pope, reinventing Horace, changes the anecdote at the start of Epistle II.ii, to a boy who steals rather than a boy who lazes; but both the theft and idleness are relevant to the imitation, since there is in the theft the suspicion—as Johnson aired it—that Pope was putting forth less than a full effort, and there is in the decision to revise the original a counter to that claim: something is being taken up for new ends, stolen but not idly.
“Use” is the arch of Epistle II.ii, but not “use” as bare economic utility: the poem restores to the word a fuller sense of what it might mean, to use another, to use another’s words, to use property, to be used by others, and to put one’s time to good use. Beyond the slogan “meaning is use,” we might hear the phrase “self is use” in the poem, both passively, in how one is used, and actively, in what and how one uses.
(Is Pope used by Horace or is Horace used by Pope? As an imitation, the answer is both: the pressure runs both to and from the original, as it ought to in a translation, but as translators do not often acknowledge it must, preferring either the conceit of slavish service or else of inspiration.)
To say that “use” is restored or broadened from its contemporary economic strait is not to say much of substance, but the thought occurs that in the epistle, the term is bound up in something like care, where to use something properly is to care for it, and to care for or about it is to use it. Care, like use, can cut both ways: to care too much by, say, what others think or say is to be used by them; to care too little about what becomes of one’s property is to fail to use it as one should.
A crux for thinking of the matter is offered in the passage in which Pope and Horace describe a man mildly possessed. In Horace’s original, the man is deluded into believing that he sits alone in a theater with a troupe of actors performing for his applause; he is angered when the delusion is cured, and Horace seems to find sympathy with his anger, on the grounds that the man did no harm, just as bad poets do no harm. In Pope’s imitation, the situation is otherwise:
If such the Plague and pains to write by rule,
Better (say I) be pleas’d, and play the fool;
Call, if you will, bad Rhiming a disease,
It gives men happiness, or leaves them ease.
There liv’d, in primo Georgii (they record)
A worthy Member, no small Fool, a Lord;
Who, tho’ the House was up, delighted sate,
Heard, noted, answer’d, as in full Debate:
In all but this, a man of sober Life,
Fond of his Friend, and civil to his Wife,
Not quite a Mad-man, tho’ a Pasty fell,
And much too wise to walk into a Well:
Him, the damn’d Doctors and his Friends immur’d,
They bled, they cupp’d, they purg’d; in short, they cur’d:
Whereat the Gentleman began to stare—
My Friends? He cry’d, p-x take you for your care!
That from a Patriot of distinguish’d note,
Have bled and purg’d me to a simple Vote.
The final line of the passage ties the knot between self, use, and care: a simple vote is flatly used, cannot care in the same way, cannot find the same opportunity to care, as one engaged in full debate, and so feels less alive and less a self than he otherwise would have. But this is a consequence of their caring for him: “P-x take you for your care” and the relative of “care,” “cur’d.”
The passage is not a full-throated defense of ridiculous delusion, of letting lie the lies that people tell themselves, but it asks that there be a distinction made between different sorts of self-lying—living a fantasy of impassioned caring is not, by necessity, an abnegation of a proper duty (“Fond of his Friend, and civil to his Wife.”). The man does not debate because he cares what others think of him, but because he cares for others; if he does no good, he does little harm. His folly is assuming an audience and role, rather than capitulating to one or abandoning one for which he is suited. Better to avoid that state, but it is not as dire as others against which Pope warns; he cared for a public that was not his, and not there, to care for; he used his powers in vain, but not with vanity, and in so doing became a self, only, upon being cured, to lose that which he was, and could be.
The threat that he must face being such a self-deluded poor rhymester, or else expend his utmost powers in the mastery and perfection of rules of great verse, leads Pope to concede the poetic race, to instead give himself to “prose”:
Well, on the whole, plain Prose must be my fate:
Wisdom (curse on it) will come soon or late.
There is a time when Poets will grow dull:
I’ll e’en leave Verses to the Boys at school:
To Rules of Poetry no more confin’d,
I learn to smooth and harmonize my Mind,
Teach ev’ry Thought within its bounds to roll,
And keep the equal Measure of the Soul.
Soon as I enter at my Country door,
My mind resumes the thread it dropt before;
Thoughts, which at Hyde-Park-Corner I forgot,
Meet and rejoin me, in the pensive Grott.
There all alone, and Compliments apart,
I ask these sober questions of my Heart.
One way of reading these lines is as a simple irony: he writes poetry despite professing it will be prose, because he can do no other, and wants us to see how it is his nature to be a poet. But another way is to deepen that obvious irony by what has come just before: whether or not he cares about being a poet, about winning praise or not, must use poetry to reflect on whatever ends are worth reaching. Unlike the Lord in his imaginary debate, Pope is incurable, in that he cannot be divested of his means of expression and thought. The inexorable rocking-horse couplets are especially powerful (they are always powerful for different reasons) in registering the pull of verse, the pull of the convention for which he cares, and ultimately also the pull of the care for the convention itself. The Epistle presents Pope with elbows out among the bustle of London, but also with elbows seized and compelled to move in number and rhyme. He cannot help but care; he needs no care.
There is also, behind the lunacied Lord another question: “Who does this man think he is?” And that question is of course the question of the original poem, and also the question that might be put, at any point in the poem to Pope: “Who does Pope think he is?” Does he think he is Horace? Does he think he is Pope? Those questions about self are obliquely raised and then mildly, quietly dispelled, dissipating in the sober questions of the heart:
Yes, Sir, how small soever be my heap,
A part I will enjoy, as well as keep.
My Heir may sigh, and think it want of Grace
A man so poor wou’d live without a Place:
But sure no Statute in his favour says,
How free, or frugal, I shall pass my days:
I, who at some times spend, at others spare,
Divided between Carelessness and Care.
‘Tis one thing madly to disperse my store,
Another, not to heed to treasure more;
Glad, like a Boy, to snatch the first good day,
And pleas’d, if sordid Want be far away.
Even, then, the care is susceptible to the wrong sort of care; even the notion of “Use” can be used too much, too often leant on; and the “self” is itself liable to carry too much weight of thought.
Epistle II.ii stands, in the original and in Pope’s imitation—truly a continuation and amplification—of the original, to poetry as Wittgenstein’s poetry stands to philosophy: an agent to undo binds, rather than establish them, but potent and fascinating for its implicit vigilance towards the strength of the binds it would undo.