To Binfield Pope was called by his father when he was about twelve years old, and there he had for a few months the assistance of one Deane, another priest, of whom he learned only to construe a little of "Tully's Offices." How Mr. Deane could spend with a boy who had translated so much of "Ovid" some months over a small part of "Tully's Offices," it is now vain to inquire. Of a youth so successfully employed, and so conspicuously improved, a minute account must be naturally desired; but curiosity must be contented with confused, imperfect, and sometimes improbable intelligence. Pope, finding little advantage from external help, resolved thenceforward to direct himself, and at twelve formed a plan of study, which he completed with little other incitement than the desire of excellence. His primary and principal purpose was to be a poet, with which his father accidentally concurred by proposing subjects and obliging him to correct his performances by many revisals, after which the old gentleman, when he was satisfied, would say, "These are good rhymes." In his perusal of the English poets he soon distinguished the versification of Dryden, which he considered as the model to be studied, and was impressed with such veneration for his instructor, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him.
Dryden died May 1, 1701, some days before Pope was twelve; so early must he therefore have felt the power of harmony, and the zeal of genius. Who does not wish that Dryden could have known the value of the homage that was paid him, and foreseen the greatness of his young admirer?
The earliest of Pope's productions is his "Ode on Solitude," written before he was twelve, in which there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley's performance at the same age.
His time was now wholly spent in reading and writing. As he read the classics he amused himself with translating them, and at fourteen made a version of the first book of the "Thebais," which, with some revision, he afterwards published. He must have been at this time, if he had no help, a considerable proficient in the Latin tongue.
By Dryden's fables, which had then been not long published, and were much in the hands of poetical readers, he was tempted to try his own skill in giving Chaucer a more fashionable appearance, and put "January and May" and the "Prologue of the Wife of Bath" into modern English. He translated likewise the Epistle of "Sappho to Phaon" from Ovid, to complete the version, which was before imperfect, and wrote some other small pieces, which he afterwards printed.
He sometimes imitated the English poets, and professed to have written at fourteen his poem upon "Silence," after Rochester's "Nothing." He had now formed his versification, and the smoothness of his numbers surpassed his original; but this is a small part of his praise; he discovers such acquaintance both with human life and public affairs as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen in Windsor Forest.
Next year he was desirous of opening to himself new sources of knowledge, by making himself acquainted with modern languages, and removed for a time to London, that he might study French and Italian, which, as he desired nothing more than to read them, were by diligent application soon despatched. Of Italian learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.
He then returned to Binfield, and delighted himself with his own poetry. He tried all styles, and many subjects. He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epic poem, with panegyrics on all the princes of Europe; and, as he confesses, "thought himself the greatest genius that ever was." Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings. He, indeed, who forms his opinion of himself in solitude, without knowing the powers of other men, is very liable to error; but it was the felicity of Pope to rate himself at his real value.
Most of his puerile productions were, by his maturer judgment, afterwards destroyed. "Alcander," the epic poem, was burnt by the persuasion of Atterbury. The tragedy was founded on the legend of St. Genevieve. Of the comedy there is no account.
Concerning his studies, it is related that he translated Tully on "Old Age," and that, besides his books of poetry and criticisms, he read Temple's "Essays" and Locke on "Human Understanding." His reading, though his favourite authors are not known, appears to have been sufficiently extensive and multifarious, for his early pieces show with sufficient evidence his knowledge of books.
He that is pleased with himself easily imagines that he shall please others. Sir William Trumbal, who had been Ambassador at Constantinople, and Secretary of State, when he retired from business, fixed his residence in the neighbourhood of Binfield. Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced to the statesman of sixty, and so distinguished himself that their interviews ended in friendship and correspondence. Pope was, through his whole life, ambitious of splendid acquaintance; and he seems to have wanted neither diligence nor success in attracting the notice of the great, for, from his first entrance into the world, and his entrance was very early, he was admitted to familiarity with those whose rank or station made them most conspicuous.