20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 18

In public

Pat Rogers

The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope: Lives, Example and the Poetic Response Howard Erskine-Hill (Yale University Press £9.75) The call to devotion is a mysterious business. Women who are seemingly dull or plain often inspire the most besotted allegiance from their lovers. It is the same with artists: Pope — not one of the more obviously attractive poets — has somehow engaged the warmest ardour. From Byron and Lamb onwards, he has been singularly lucky with his adherents. In recent years he has leapt from one critical embrace to another; every twentieth-century fad has bent to accommodate him. Poor lovable old Fielding scarcely has a single book worth reading bestowed on him: the lack of an authoritative study of Dryden is the longest-felt want in English studies. Hardly a year goes by, though, without some further adornment of Pope's name.

Howard Erskine-Hill, who brings this latest offering to a well-kept shrine, is not one of the more fanatical devotees. None the less Its important book is the product of a long and searching interest in Pope and his age. It could only have been written by someone intensely at home with Pope's world. The work is replete with facts, ideas, quotations; it covers Hanoverian institutions, Augustan attitudes, Palladian aethetics, capitalist operations, charitable purposes. Beyond all this the author has an excellent ear for the true voice of poetry and a sharp eye for the figures in Pope's imaginative carpet.

Dr Erskine-Hill sets out to illustrate "the final connectedness of [Pope's] thinking about man, society, and God." To this end he uses some original formal means: a structure unlike any other I have come across. (He mentions James LeesMilne's Earls of Creation as an analogous study, but with that valuable book Pope rambles in and out of the text as a mere itinerant.) His own method is to describe the career of six men variously present in Pope's poetry, and then in three concluding chapters to show how such lives inform the art. As the author finely puts it, Pope had "an enthusiastic moral nature. . . which led him to find around him, if he could, examples of kindness, integrity, public spirit and resolution. It was by such examples that he plotted the moral map of his world." And of course there were negative examples too, lives not to be copied, for "a hostile impulse in Pope's mind nearly always, involved . . the deeper loyalties and antipathies of his life." The book's movement is from private allegiances to the public gestures of verse.

The six biographic subjects have been chosen with care — four good men and two baddies. In the first category come John Kyrie, "the Man of Ross"; John Caryll, a Roman Catholic landowner; a nonjuring peer, Lord Digby; and the postal reformer and entrepreneur Ralph Allen. In the second are Peter Walter, a kind of free-lance estate manager, and Sir John Blunt, chief executive of the South Sea Company. It is possible to fault this choice, though not because it is selective — for that is admitted, and in any case the missing persons we might look ,for (Martha Blount perhaps?) may well turn up, in one guise or another, in a sequel which the author plans. Rather, the team seems a little unbalanced because some members take a disproportionate place in the final reading of the poetry. Thus Caryl!, Pope's longest-lasting friend among the group and subject of the fullest biography, contributes not too much to the last part of the book.

The reason for this is that Erskine-Hill centres his account of the poetry on two works, the Epistle to Bathurst and the Epistle to Burlington. One or two imitations of Horace and Donne creep in at the end, but it is these two 'moral essays' which occupy the foreground. Now it is easy enough for the author to implicate Kyrie, Walter and Blunt in the argument, for they are actually enlisted by Bathurst. It is not too difficult to relate Allen to Burlington, for it was his stone which helped the elder Wood to build Bath and his munificence which funded some noble public works: and Burlington is cast by Pope as a super-planner as much as an architect. Against this Caryll — a major figure in Pope's correspondence — scarcely trickles into the mainstream of his poetry. And Digby has to be manhandled into the discussion: he is there principally because of a letter about landscape-gardening which Pope wrote to Martha Blount and a monument to Digby's relative sententiously inscribed by somebody else. There is no doubt that Caryll meant a good deal to Pope personally, and Digby may well have embodied important aristocratic values. The difficulty is showing this from the central poetic texts.

All the same, the method does broadly justify itself, and each of the biographies yields fascinating human material. This is especially notable in the case of John Kyrie, whom Pope never met and who lived an obscure life in Ross-on-Wye. But Ralph Allen, a much more prominent man in his own time and subsequently, receives treatment just as illuminating. Erskine-Hill has combed record offices, family muniments and public archives; he has not come up with any exciting finds, to tell the truth, but he has certainly filled out our knowledge of all these men. Moreover, he is outstandingly successful in applying information to the poems. His argument that Blunt (as well as 'Diamond' Pitt) lies behind the portrait of Sir Balaam in Bathurst is wholly convincing, and so too is his political interpretation of the Sporus passage in the Epistle to Arbuthnot. Such insights amply reward the teasing out of personal minutiae: Erskine-Hill can only make an educated guess at levels of income, but that is a task economic historians, like the Inland Revenue, have always found challenging.

The most intriguing case is Peter Walter. He went from the condition of a glorified bailiff for the Paget family to that of a landed proprietor. (He survived into his eighties: the average age of the six men at their death was 76, proving again that longevity was possible for a well-heeled Hanoverian who escaped the early hazards and wasn't liable to pregnancy.) Walter acquired a dreadful name in Augustan satire; he is the origin of Fielding's grasping Peter Pounce and crops up regularly in Pope and Swift. Erskine-Hill tries manfully to catch him in flagrante deticto, forging or bilking a lord or misdrafting a conveyance, but he doesn't succeed, though he presses the evidence as far as it will go. About the worst, so far as documentary evidence goes, is stinginess, and especially lack of charitable intent. Whether that equips him for the role in which he's cast — as a kind of metonymy for Walpole, like Jonathan Wild — is a moot point. On the information presented I cannot quite hate him as Pope and Dr Erskine-Hill manage to do.

On this reading merely to align oneself with Walpole was to go to the bad ("Charteris was 3 notorious cheat, usurer and debauchee, also a strong supporter of Walpole"). I think this leads to occasional haziness on political matters, as when 'Whig' is used as synonomous with court or ministry — when there was cross-PartY voting, as there was (pace Erskine-Hill) on the Septennial Bill in April 1716, it is dangerous to make this equation. On the other hand the implications of Pope's catholicism are sPleri" didly brought out in the section on Caryll, as is the psychic aftermath of the South Sea Bubble. Despite the best efforts of the designer, this book is not such a handsome job as the Yale Press would have made it in more opulent times: the paper suffers from mild jaundice, while the plates have come out rather dark. BLit it is better to have first-rate criticism in a utilitY packet than de luxe productions of the third-rate. Lovers of Pope are not like Janites or Joyceans, poking about for personal relics on topographic tours: still, they exist, and Will treasure the warmth and insight through which Erskine-Hill brings them into familiar comparlY with the poet.