If we had stepped into Button's coffee-house any day in the autumn of 1712 to see Addison and his friends, we should have noticed a birch rod hanging on the wall. It was a curious ornament for a room frequented by wits and scholars, but it reminds us that there was a rival court in England to that of King Joseph. It clustered round King Alexander, who held his court at Twickenham, and between the two there was frequent war. In 1712 it had become so fierce that one of Addison's admirers hung up the birch that it might be ready if the rival potentate dared to enter Button's.
We must therefore leave the coffee-house coteries and proceed to Twickenham to see this other ruler in the world of eighteenth-century literature. Twickenham may be but twelve miles from the city, but many inconveniences, and even perils, lay before travellers ere they reached it. So deep in mud and ruts were the roads that one evening when Bolingbroke and Pope were driving home in a coach with six horses, it overturned, falling into a stream, and the poet found himself with the water up to the knots of his periwig, and his hand severely cut by broken glass.
Highwaymen, too, were liable to start out at any dark corner, and prudent travellers carried a purse of false coins with which they tried to pacify the thieves. By water was therefore the pleasanter and safer route, and one of the many barges which plied the Thames landed the visitor beneath the smooth lawn of a villa whose owner had
"twisted and twirled and rhymed and harmonized it, till it appeared'two or three sweet little lawns, opening and opening beyond one another and the whole surrounded by impenetrable woods".
Such a pleasant house within reach of London was an ideal home for one who loved to be in touch with the gossip and the intrigues of the town, and yet was prevented by circumstances from taking personal part in its politics.
For Pope was a Catholic, and in these days that meant that he could not enter Parliament. He was from childhood very delicate, so feeble that he could not dress without assistance, so cold that he had always to wear a fur doublet under his shirt, so thin that he wore three pairs of stockings. He himself refers to "that long disease, his life", and describes himself as
"a lively little creature, with long legs and arms, a spider is no ill emblem of him, and he has been taken at a distance for a small windmill".
But he had something which showed no deformity, the full, lustrous, penetrating eyes of a poet.
For such a child ordinary school life had been impossible, and Pope had educated himself by constant reading, especially of poetry. At that time his parents lived near Windsor, and the forest was the boy's favourite haunt, but on the death of his father, and by the time he had begun to prosper by his writings he took the villa at Twickenham which is linked with his name. To layout its grounds was his great delight, and he was especially proud of his grotto. It was a little tunnel which connected the villa with the lawn sloping to the river, and he so filled it with mirrors and pieces of spar, coral, and crystals that it became a camera obscura in its reflections.
Without any influence, and in spite of his drawbacks, Pope became famous early in his life. He was only twenty-three when he published that Essay on Criticism, many of whose lines at once became household words.
Three years later he found a subject well fitted for his deft pen. A Lord Petre had greatly offended a Miss Arabella Fermor by stealing a lock of her hair while they were drinking coffee at Hampton Court, and angry feeling between the two families was the consequence. The young poet was asked to write a poem turning the episode into burlesque in the hope that in laughter the offended persons would forget the offence. Pope carried out his commission successfully in the sparkling Rape of the Lock.
"The life of a wit is a warfare upon earth," Pope once wrote, and his certainly was. It is a long chronicle of quarrels with other men of letters, and it would need a far longer book than this to follow them clearly. Even then some would remain obscure, for Pope was full of tricks and underhand devices. He thought nothing of altering the dates of letters written to and by him, of omitting important passages and adding others, and then publishing them as the authentic record of events.
His most famous quarrel was with Addison, with whom he had been quite friendly at the beginning of his career. Addison's little coterie was a mutual admiration society, and Pope was so vain that he could not bear praise to any but himself. He also carried on a wordy warfare with a host of minor writers, as the birch rod at Button's and his own poem The Dunciad bear witness. The little man's malice is only excusable when we remember how handicapped he was physically and how sensitive his deformity made him.
Meantime he was busy writing as well as quarrelling. The chief literary event of his life was his publication of a translation of Homer after five years of labour over it. No one in our days would ever think of attempting to translate Homer with the poor equipment Pope had for the task, for he did not even know Greek. But at that time accurate scholarship was not demanded of a translator, and if Pope's work has not accuracy it has other qualities which brought him great renown. From that day he was the leading poet of England, and with the profits he was able to buy his villa.
That villa became the court of King Alexander, as his admirers called him, and he gives a lively picture of the crowds of young authors who flocked thither to ask his patronage.
"What walls can guard me or what shades can hide?
They pierce my thickets, through my grot they glide,
By land, by water, they renew the charge;
They stop the chariot and they board the barge;
No place is sacred, not the church is free,
E'en Sunday shines no Sabbath day to me."
At Twickenham he lived with his aged mother to whom he was devoted, and his care of whom blots out the memory of his many ill-natured words. There he welcomed his friends. It could not be easy for his halting feet to keep up with the long strides of Swift as he paced the little lawns, but whenever the Dean came to England he delighted to visit Twickenham.
Another frequent visitor was stout, indolent, good-natured John Gay. Gay had begun life as a silk mercer, held some political posts, lost one fortune in the South Sea Bubble and made another. He had an immense admiration for Pope, and his good nature would no doubt be soothing to the peppery little poet. It is remarkable that many of the chief works of the early eighteenth century were inspired by a chance word of Swift, and he it was who suggested to Gay the works which have made him famous, The Beggar's Opera and Polly.
For many years Gay lived as an indulged member of the household of the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. This Duchess, whose portrait is to be seen in the National Portrait Gallery, a beauty with hazel eyes and dark brown hair dressed as a milkmaid, was a famous person in her day. Her vagaries fill many pages in the letters and diaries of the period. She was a rebel against the fashions of her time, refusing to "cut and curl her hair like a sheep's head", and once scandalizing the town by appearing at court in a dress of red flannel. When she was eighteen, Matthew Prior sang the praises of Kitty, "beautiful and wild as a colt untamed"; for years she carried on a gay correspondence with Swift, who told Pope that her letters "made up a great part of the little happiness I could have here"; when she was over seventy Horace Walpole declared,
"To many a Kitty,
Love his car
Will for a day engage,
But Prior's Kitty, ever fair,
Obtained it for an age."
Another frequent visitor at the villa at Twickenham was the Rev. Joseph Spence, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, who loved the society of great men, and was untiring in putting down on paper his recollections of them. To him we owe many reminiscences of Pope.
He was with him through the spring days of 1744, when the frail strength of the poet was ebbing. He recalled that one day when the doctor gave an encouraging report, Pope smilingly remarked that he "was dying of a hundred good symptoms". We see in Spence's pages the men and women who came and went, Bolingbroke the statesman, and blue-eyed Patty Blount who cheered him most of all. He died on the 30th of May, forgetting in these last days his quarrels and his fame, but rejoicing in the beauty and fragrance of spring blossom in his garden.