Can touch immortals, 'tis a soul like thine:
A soul supreme, in each hard instance tried,
Above all pain, all passion, and all pride,
The rage of power, the blast of public breath,
The lust of lucre, and the dread of death.'
Epistle to Robert, Earl of Oxford, and Earl Mortimer
Writing poetry that was dedicated to, and about, an individual was enormously popular in the eighteenth century. Indeed, composing dedicatory verses was in widespread use as a way of gaining (financial) patronage from a wealthy noble. This poem, however, is a rather more genuine expression of respect and esteem. The poem’s author, Alexander Pope, and its subject, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford were good friends, and both were part of the influential group of writers known as the Scriblerus Club (and which also included Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and Dr. John Arbuthnot). Unlike the other members of the group, Harley’s literary output was not in any way great, but he did leave a lasting legacy to British literature by gathering much of the collection of books, manuscripts, and pamphlets which his son would later donate to the nation to form the foundation of the British Library (the photo depicts Harley's portrait outside the Maps and Manuscripts reading room in the British Library).
The sense here is of the group as aloof from a world of petty political wrangling, free from the party politics that divided the government and thus able to find satirical humour in all the intrigue and political posturing. Yet the poem is also very much about Harley’s own place in the political arena. Having served as Lord Treasurer from 23 May 1711 to 27 July 1714 (effectively equivalent to the modern day role of Prime Minister), Harley had been at the very centre of the British government through what was perhaps the country’s most important political crisis in the early eighteenth century: the problem of who should inherit the crown when Queen Anne died. The choice was between the Catholic heir of the deposed James II (Anne’s father, thrust from power in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 by Anne’s sister Mary and her husband William III of Orange), or the royal family’s nearest Protestant relations in the German House of Hanover (the family which would indeed succeed to the throne upon Anne’s death in 1714). As Lord Treasurer, Harley managed the opposing factions so well that, to this day, the question of which side he actually supported is still very much up for debate. Whichever way his views truly tended, however, when Hanoverian George I succeeded Queen Anne in 1714, Harley’s rivals in government managed to implicate Harley as an opponent of the new regime, to the extent that from 1715 to 1717 he was held in the Tower of London, accused of treason. Despite his ultimate release, his political career was now well and truly over, and it is to this that Pope alludes when he states that ‘In vain to deserts thy retreat is made’ (much like the political wildernesses often referred to today when politicians fall from power).
find this poem:
(a beautiful collection of Pope’s poetry, and with a helpful amount of explanatory notes; as always, check reputable second hand dealers for cheaper copies, e.g. Ebay, Amazon, and independent bookstores)
About the author:
You can find out more about Pope:ædia Britannica: so much glorious information here, so beautifully and approachably presented! And freely available…)
Like most academic writing, it does assume a certain knowledge of eighteenth-century literature, but nothing that can’t be gained with aid of an internet search engine! The author is on twitter @josephhone1 and well worth following!)
The facts and figures for this blogpost was obtained from the following sources:
Anne Somerset, Queen Anne: The politics of passion (London: Harper Collins 2012)