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Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 12244

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

Coming from Chelsea by way of Battersea Bridge, you go a few yards along the Battersea Bridge Road, then turn aside into Church Road, and presently you pass a narrow, mean street of small houses, which is Bolingbroke Road, and serves to remind you that the Bolingbrokes were once lords of the manor of Battersea and proprietors of the ferry that crossed the river hereabouts before the first Battersea Bridge was built. A little further down Church Road, past squat and grimy houses on the one hand and gaunt walls and yawning gateways of mills, distilleries, and miscellaneous "works" on the other, and you come to a gloomy gateway that has "To Bolingbroke House" painted up on one of its side-walls. Through this opening you see a busy, littered yard; straw and scraps of paper and odds and ends of waste blow about on its stones; stacks of packing-cases and wooden boxes rise up against a drab background of brick buildings, and deep in the yard, with a space before it in which men are at work and a waggon is loading, you find the forlorn left wing-all that survives-of what was once the family seat of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, whose chief title to remembrance now is that he was the friend of Alexander Pope.

Worn and dingy with age, its stone porch stained and crumbling, and some of its windows broken, the place has a strange, neglected look, though it is still used for business purposes, and you have glimpses of clerks writing at their desks in the rooms from which Pope used to gaze out on very different surroundings.

It is difficult, indeed, to associate such a house and such a neighbourhood as this has now become with so fastidious, finicking, and modish a poet as Pope. All the adjacent streets are squalid, poverty-stricken, noisy; along the main road, almost within hearing, trams and motor-buses shuttle continually to and fro: except for a quaint, dirty, weary-looking cottage that still stands dreaming here and there among its ugly, mid-Victorian neighbours, and for the river that laps below the fence at the end of the yard, there is scarcely anything left of the quiet, green, rural Battersea village with which he was familiar; even the church whose steeple rises near by above the mills, and in which Bolingbroke was buried, was rebuilt a few years after his death.

Nevertheless, this weatherbeaten, time-wasted old house down the yard is the same house that, when it stood with Bolingbroke's lawn before it and his pleasant gardens sloping to the Thames, was the occasional home of Pope, and numbered Swift, Thomson, and other of the great men of letters of Queen Anne's reign among its visitors. One of the rooms overlooking the river, a room lined with cedar, beautifully inlaid, is still known as "Mr. Pope's parlour"; it is said to have been used by Pope as his study, and that he wrote his Essay on Man in it.

It is therefore the more fitting that Pope should have dedicated An Essay on Man to Bolingbroke, whom he addresses in the opening lines with that exhortation:-

"Awake, my St. John, leave all meaner things

To low ambition, and the pride of kings!"

He dedicated also one of his Imitations of Horace to-

"St. John, whose love indulged my labours past,

Matures my present, and shall bound my last."

A man of brilliant gifts, both as writer and statesman, Bolingbroke became involved in the political intriguings of his day, and in 1715 had to flee to Calais to escape arrest for high treason. Eight years later he was allowed to return, and his forfeited estates were given back to him. On the death of his father he took up his residence at Battersea, and it was there that he died of cancer in 1751. "Pope used to speak of him," writes Warton, "as a being of a superior order that had condescended to visit this lower world;" and he, in his turn, said of Pope, "I never in my life knew a man that had so tender a heart for his particular friends, or more general friendship for mankind."


And on the whole one feels that this character of Pope was truer than Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's presentation of him as "the wicked asp of Twickenham"; for if he was viciously cruel to Colley Cibber and the poor Grub Street scribblers whom he satirises in The Dunciad, he was kindness itself to Akenside and other of his younger rivals in reading their manuscripts and recommending them to his publishers; and if he retorted bitterly upon Addison after he had fallen out with him, he kept unbroken to the last his close friendship with Swift, Gay, Garth, Atterbury, Bolingbroke, and with Arbuthnot, for whose services in helping him through "this long disease, my life" he expressed a touchingly affectionate gratitude. If he had been the heartless little monster his enemies painted him he could not have felt so tireless and beautiful a love for his father and mother and, despite his own feebleness and shattered health, have devoted himself so assiduously to the care of his mother in her declining years. "O friend," he writes to Arbuthnot, in the Prologue to the Satires:-

"O friend, may each domestic bliss be thine!

Be no unpleasing melancholy mine:

Me let the tender office long engage

To rock the cradle of reposing age,

With lenient arts extend a mother's breath,

Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death,

Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,

And keep a while one parent from the sky."

All his life, Pope dwelt in London or on the skirts of it. He was twenty-eight when, soon after the death of his father in 1715, he leased the famous villa at Twickenham and took his mother to live with him there, and it was from there when she died, a very old lady of ninety-three, that on the 10th June 1783, he wrote to an artist friend the letter that enshrines his sorrow:-

"As I know you and I naturally desire to see one another, I hoped that this day our wishes would have met and brought you hither. And this for the very reason which possibly might hinder your coming, that my poor mother is dead. I thank God her death was easy, as her life was innocent, and as

it cost her not a groan or even a sigh, there is yet upon her countenance such an expression of tranquillity, nay, almost of pleasure, that, far from horrid, it is even amiable to behold it. It would form the finest image of a saint expired that ever painter drew, and it would be the greatest obligation art could ever bestow on a friend if you could come and sketch it for me. I am sure if there be no prevalent obstacle you will leave every common business to do this; and I hope to see you this evening as late as you will, or to-morrow morning as early, before this winter flower is faded. I will defer her interment till to-morrow night. I know you love me or I would not have written this-I could not (at this time) have written at all. Adieu. May you die as happily."

From Twickenham Pope made frequent visits to London, where he stayed in lodgings, or at the houses of friends; and in the last four or five years of his life, after Bolingbroke had settled down at Battersea, he put up as often as not at Bolingbroke House. Of his personal appearance at this date there are a good many records. One of his numerous lampooners, unkindly enough but very graphically, pictures him as-

"Meagre and wan, and steeple crowned,

His visage long, his shoulders round;

His crippled corse two spindle pegs

Support, instead of human legs;

His shrivelled skin's of dusty grain,

A cricket's voice, and monkey's brain."

His old enemy, John Dennis, sneering at his hunched and drooping figure, described him as "a young, short, squab gentleman, the very bow of the god of love." He had to be laced up tightly in bodices made of stiff canvas, so that he might hold himself erect, and, says Dr. Johnson, "his stature was so low, that to bring him to a level with a common table it was necessary to raise his seat. But his face was not displeasing, and his eyes were animated and vivid." And here is Sir Joshua Reynolds's word-picture of him: "He was about four feet six inches high, very hump-backed and deformed. He wore a black coat, and, according to the fashion of that time, had on a little sword. He had a large and very fine eye, and a long, handsome nose; his mouth had those peculiar marks which are always found in the mouths of crooked persons, and the muscles which run across the cheek were so strongly marked that they seemed like small cords."


This is the queer, misshapen, pathetic little shape that haunts that old-world house in the yard at Battersea, and you may gather something of the life he lived there, and of the writing with which he busied himself in the cedar parlour, from these extracts out of two of his letters, both of which were written to Warburton:-

"January 12, 1743-4.

"Of the public I can tell you nothing worthy of the reflection of a reasonable man; and of myself only an account that would give you pain; for my asthma has increased every week since you last heard from me to the degree of confining me totally to the fireside; so that I have hardly seen any of my friends but two (Lord and Lady Bolingbroke), who happen to be divided from the world as much as myself, and are constantly retired at Battersea. There I have passed much of my time, and often wished you of the company, as the best I know to make me not regret the loss of others, and to prepare me for a nobler scene than any mortal greatness can open to us. I fear by the account you gave me of the time you design to come this way, one of them (Lord B.) whom I much wish you had a glimpse of (as a being paullo minus ab angelio), will be gone again, unless you pass some weeks in London before Mr. Allen arrives there in March. My present indisposition takes up almost all my hours to render a very few of them supportable; yet I go on softly to prepare the great edition of my things with your notes, and as fast as I receive any from you, I add others in order (determining to finish the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot and two or three of the best of Horace, particularly that of Augustus, first), which will fall into the same volume with the Essay on Man. I determined to publish a small number of the Essay, and of the other on Criticism, ere now, as a sample of the rest, but Bowyer advised delay, though I now see I was not in the wrong."

"February 21, 1743-4.

"I own that the late encroachments on my constitution make me willing to see the end of all further care about me or my works. I would rest from the one in a full resignation of my being to be disposed of by the Father of all mercy, and for the other (though indeed a trifle, yet a trifle may be some example) I would commit them to the candour of a sensible and reflecting judge, rather than to the malice of every short-sighted and malevolent critic or inadvertent and censorious reader. And no hand can set them in so good a light, or so well turn them best side to the day, as your own. This obliges me to confess I have for some months thought myself going, and that not slowly, down the hill-the rather as every attempt of the physicians, and still the last medicines more forcible in their nature, have utterly failed to serve me. I was at last, about seven days ago, taken with so violent a fit at Battersea, that my friends, Lord Bolingbroke and Lord Marchmont, sent for present help to the surgeon, whose bleeding me, I am persuaded, saved my life by the instantaneous effect it had, and which has continued so much to amend me that I have passed five days without oppression, and recovered, what I have three days wanted, some degree of expectoration and some hours together of sleep. I can now go to Twickenham, to try if the air will not take some part in reviving me, if I can avoid colds, and between that place and Battersea, with my Lord Bolingbroke, I will pass what I have of life while he stays, which I can tell you, to my great satisfaction, will be this fortnight or three weeks yet."

In the year after writing this Pope came to the end of all further care about himself and his works; he died at Twickenham, and lies buried under the middle aisle of Twickenham Church.

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