One of the passages of Pope's life, which seems to deserve some inquiry, was a publication of "Letters between him and many of his friends, which, falling into the hands of Curll, a rapacious bookseller, of no good fame, were by him printed and sold. This volume containing some letters from noblemen, Pope incited a prosecution against him in the House of Lords for breach of privilege, and attended himself to stimulate the resentment of his friends. Curll appeared at the bar, and, knowing himself in no great danger, spoke of Pope with very little reverence.
"He has," said Curll, "a knack at versifying, but in prose I think myself a match for him."
When the orders of the House were examined, none of them appeared to have been infringed. Curll went away triumphant, and Pope was left to seek some other remedy.
Curll's account was, that one evening a man in a clergyman's gown, but with a lawyer's band, brought and offered for sale a number of printed volumes, which he found to be Pope's epistolary correspondence; that he asked no name, and was told none, but gave the price demanded, and thought himself authorised to use his purchase to his own advantage.
That Curll gave a true account of the transaction it is reasonable to believe, because no falsehood was ever detected; and when, some years afterwards, I mentioned it to Lintot, the son of Bernard, he declared his opinion to be, that Pope knew better than anybody else how Curll obtained the copies, because another parcel was at the same time sent to himself, for which no price had ever been demanded, as he made known his resolution not to pay a porter, and consequently not to deal with a nameless agent.
Such care had been taken to make them public, that they were sent at once to two booksellers; to Curll, who was likely to seize them as a prey, and to Lintot, who might he expected to give Pope information of the seeming injury. Lintot, I believe, did nothing, and Curll did what was expected. That to make them public was the only purpose may be reasonably supposed, because the numbers offered to sale by the private messengers showed that the hope of gain could not have been the motive of the impression.
It seems that Pope, being desirous of printing his "Letters," and not knowing how to do, without imputation of vanity, what has in this country been done very rarely, contrived an appearance of compulsion, that, when he could complain that his "Letters were surreptitiously published, he might decently and defensively publish them himself.
Pope's private correspondence, thus promulgated, filled the nation with the praises of his candour, tenderness, and benevolence, the purity of his purposes, and the fidelity of his friendship. There were some letters which a very good or a wise man would wish suppressed; but, as they had been already exposed, it was impracticable now to retract them.
From the perusal of those letters, Mr. Allen first conceived the desire of knowing him; and with so much zeal did he cultivate the friendship which he had newly formed, that, when Pope told his purpose of vindicating his own property by a genuine edition, he offered to pay the cost.
This, however, Pope did not accept; but in time solicited a subscription for a quarto volume, which appeared (1737), I believe, with sufficient profit. In the preface he tells that his letters were reposited in a friend's library, said to be the Earl of Oxford's, and that the copy thence stolen was sent to the press. The story was doubtless received with different degrees of credit. It may be suspected that the preface to the "Miscellanies" was written to prepare the public for such an incident; and, to strengthen this opinion, James Worsdale, a painter, who was employed in clandestine negotiations, but whose voracity was very doubtful, declared that he was the messenger who carried, by Pope's direction, the books to Curll.
When they were thus published and avowed, as they had relation to recent facts, and persons either then living or not yet forgotten, they may be supposed to have found readers; but, as the facts were minute, and the characters being either private or literary, were little known, or little regarded, they awaked no popular kindness or resentment. The book never became much the subject of conversation. Some read it as a contemporary history, and some perhaps as a model of epistolary language; but those who read it did not talk of it. Not much therefore was added by it to fame or envy, nor do I remember that it produced either public praise or public censure.
It had, however, in some degree, the recommendation of novelty. Our language had few letters, except those of statesmen. Howel, indeed, about a century ago, published his "Letters," which are commended by Morhoff, and which alone, of his hundred volumes, continue his memory. Loveday's "Letters" were printed only once; those of Herbert and Suckling are hardly known. Mrs. Phillips's (Orinda's) are equally neglected. And those of Walsh seem written as exercises, and were never sent to any living mistress or friend. Pope's epistolary excellence had an open field; he had no English rival, living or dead.
Pope is seen in this collection as connected with the other contemporary wits, and certainly suffers no disgrace in the comparison; but it must be remembered that he had the power of favouring himself. He might have originally had publication in his mind, and have written with care, or have afterwards selected those which he had most happily conceived or most diligently laboured; and I know not whether there does not appear something more studied and artificial in his productions than the rest, except one long letter by Bolingbroke, composed with all the skill and industry of a professed author. It is indeed not easy to distinguish affectation from habit; he that has once studiously formed a style, rarely writes afterwards with complete ease. Pope may be said to write always with his reputation in his head; Swift, perhaps, like a man that remembered he was writing to Pope; but Arbuthnot, like one who lets thoughts drop from his pen as they rise into his mind.
Before these "Letters appeared he published the first part of what he persuaded himself to think a system of Ethics, under the title of an "Essay on Man," which, if his letter to Swift (of September 14, 1723), be rightly explained by the commentator, had been eight years under his consideration, and of which he seems to have desired the success with great solicitude. He had now many open, and doubtless many secret, enemies. The "Dunces" were yet smarting from the war, and the superiority which he publicly arrogated disposed the world to wish his humiliation.
All this he knew, and against all this he provided. His own name, and that of his friend to whom the work is inscribed, were in the first editions carefully suppressed; and the poem being of a new kind was ascribed to one or another as favour determined or conjecture wandered. It was given, says Warburton, to every man except him only who could write it. Those who like only when they like the author, and who are under the dominion of a name, condemned it, and those admired it who are willing to scatter praise at random, which, while it is unappropriated, excites no envy. Those friends of Pope that were trusted with the secret went about lavishing honours on the new-born poet, and hinting that Pope was never so much in danger from any former rival.
To those authors whom he had personally offended, and to those whose opinion the world considered as decisive, and whom he suspected of envy or malevolence, he sent his Essay as a present before publication, that they might defeat their own enemity by praises which they could not afterwards decently retract.
With these precautions, in 1733, was published the first part of the "Essay On Man." There had been for some time a report that Pope was busy upon a "System of Morality," but this design was not discovered in the new poem, which had a form and a title with which its readers were unacquainted. Its reception was not uniform. Some thought it a very imperfect piece, though not without good lines. While the author was unknown, some, as will always happen, favoured him as an adventurer, and some censured him as an intruder, but all thought him above neglect. The sale increased, and editions were multiplied.
The subsequent editions of the first epistle exhibited two memorable corrections. At first, the poet and his friend
"Expatiate freely o'er this scene of man, A mighty maze of walks without a plan."
for which he wrote afterwards,
"A mighty maze, but not without a plan."
for if there was no plan it was in vain to describe or to trace the maze.
The other alteration was of these lines:—
"And spike of pride, and in thy reason's spite, One truths is clear, whatever is, is right:"
but having afterwards discovered, or been shown, that the " truth " which subsisted " in spite of reason " could not be very " clear," he substituted
"And spite of pride in erring reason's spite."
To such oversights will the most vigorous mind be liable when it is employed at once upon argument and poetry.
The second and third epistles were published, and Pope was, I believe, more and more suspected of writing them. At last, in 1734, he avowed the fourth, and claimed the honour of a moral poet.