Page images

English Letter-Writers.



As already indicated, the eighteenth century produced the most celebrated English letterwriters whose correspondence has been given to the world. It must be candidly acknowledged that the intrinsic value of a large proportion of these epistles is comparatively slight, their chief interest being, of course, a derivative one, from their intimate relation to persons of eminent talent. ' Pope's literary correspondence,' says De Quincey, with the wits, courtiers, and men of fashion of his day, is interesting as a model of what once passed for fine letter-writing. Every nerve was strained to outdo each other in carving all thoughts into a filigree work of rhetoric; and the amoebean contest was like that between two village cocks from neighbouring farms endeavouring to overcrow each other. To us, in this age of purer and more masculine taste, the whole scene takes the ludicrous air of old and young fops dancing a minuet with each other, practising the most elaborate grimaces, sinkings and risings the most awful, bows the most overshadowing, until plain walking, running, or the motions of natural dancing, are


Alexander Pope.

thought too insipid for endurance.' In 1737 -a few years before his death-Pope published a volume of his literary correspondence, abounding with pleasant gossip and shrewd observation; but it appears to have been ascertained that, like the letters of Miss Seward at a later period, it was manufactured with a view to publication, and not composed of actual epistles addressed to the different persons whose names are given. Many of Pope's letters, however, contain exquisite passages of description, humour, and sentiment; and as literary productions they have probably been undervalued by some recent critics. In his later years, he abandoned the gay rhetoric which is so conspicuously displayed in his earlier letters, but it is believed that he never ceased to look with favour on his youthful style. In the case of Pope—and indeed of nearly all the celebrated letter-writers to whom I intend to refer the selection of one or two letters from a large correspondence as suitable specimens of the writer's style, is, of course, a very difficult, if not an impossible task -and in some instances, I fear, an erroneous impression may be formed from the examples introduced. At the same time, however, I may

Letter to Mrs. Fermor.


state that I have always endeavoured to make a judicious choice, and my allusion to the difficulty in question is merely by way of warning.


You are by this time satisfied how much the tenderness of one man of merit is to be preferred to the addresses of a thousand. And by this time the gentleman you have made choice of is sensible how great is the joy of having all those charms and good qualities which have pleased so many, now applied to please one only. It was but just that the same virtues which gave you reputation should give you happiness; and I can wish you no greater than that you may receive it in as high a degree yourself, as so much good-humour must infallibly give it to your husband.

It may be expected, perhaps, that one who has the title of a poet should say something more polite on this occasion; but I am really more a well-wisher to your felicity than a celebrator of your beauty. Besides, you are now a married woman, and in a way to be a great many better things than a fine lady; such as an excellent wife, a faithful friend, a tender parent, and at last, as the consequence of them all, a saint in heaven. You ought now to hear nothing but that which was all you ever desired to hear (whatever others may have spoken to you), I mean truth; and it is with the utmost that I assure you, no friend you have can more rejoice in any good that befals you, is more sincerely delighted with the prospect of your future happiness, or more unfeignedly desires a long continuance of it. I hope you will think it but just that a man who will certainly be spoken of as


Jonathan Swift.

your admirer after he is dead, may have the happiness to be esteemed while he is living,-Yours, etc.


September 23, 1714.

DEAR MR. GAY,-Welcome to your native soil! welcome to your friends! thrice welcome to me! whether returned in glory, blessed with Court interest, the love and familiarity of the great, and filled with agreeable hopes; or melancholy with dejection, contemplative of the changes of fortune, and doubtful for the future; whether returned a triumphant Whig or a desponding Tory, equally all hail! equally beloved and welcome to me! If happy, I am to partake in your elevation; if unhappy, you have still a warm corner in my heart, and a retreat at Binfield in the worst of times at your service. ... I knew not whither to aim a letter after you; that was a sort of shooting flying: add to this the demand Homer had upon me, to write fifty verses a day, besides learned notes, all which are at a conclusion for this year. Rejoice with me, O my friend, that my labour is over; come and make merry with me in much feasting. We will feed among the lilies (by the lilies I mean the ladies). Are not the Rosalindas of Britain as charming as the Blousalindas of the Hague? . . . Talk not of expenses. Homer shall support his children. . . . I shall never know where to end, and am confounded in the many things I have to say to you, though they all amount but to this, that I am entirely, as ever, yours, etc.

The epistolary style of Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver and Dean of St. Patrick's, presents a remarkable contrast to the formal rhetoric of Pope, in its plain, sinewy, concise,

Letters of Junius.'


and homely character. In many of his letters we encounter the witty and satirical touches by which his other writings are distinguished; and the cheerful, familiar tone of those addressed to his favourite Stella' is universally admired. The image of his mind is reflected in almost everything he wrote; and accordingly we very rarely meet with the smallest approach to either loftiness of thought or delicacy of sentiment. A curious mixture of sunny playfulness and dismal despondency occasionally presents itself, somewhat resembling one of the special characteristics of another eminent letter-writer-to be afterwards noticed-of a very different temperament-I mean the poet Cowper.

Independently of their elegant diction, the letters of Junius' have been compared to those of Swift in respect to closeness, correctness of style, and force of satire; and even the celebrated Letter to the King,' while it must arouse a feeling of indignation in the mind of every loyal subject, cannot be perused without 'a certain amount of admiration.

[ocr errors]


DUBLIN, Oct. 31, 1729.

I received your Lordship's travelling letter of several dates, at several stages, and from different nations,

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »