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Pope's 'Epistle to Burlington'
Alexander Pope's 'Epistle to Burlington' (1731)
In 1730 Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) published a collection of drawings of a number of ancient Roman buildings made by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, which he had acquired while traveling in Italy in 1718, under the title Fabbriche Anticde disegnate da Andrea Palladio (Curl, 1993, p. 28). Burlington was at this time well-known as a promoter and practitioner of the Palladian style in architecture, and was seen by many contemporaries, including his friend the poet Alexander Pope, as a leader of taste (Rogers, 1978, pp. 213-4). The following year Pope published 'An Epistle to the Right Honourable Richard, Earl of Burlington' which was occasioned by Burlington's collection of Palladio's drawings and which dealt directly with the issues of aesthetic taste and judgment at the heart of the Burlingtonian movement in architecture.
The poem is preceded by a quotation from Horace's Satires (Book I, Satire X), urging simplicity and clarity in place of elaborateness and complexity, and the Horatian tradition in satire informs the entire poem. The style is unforced and conversational, but rich in allusion and pointed observation (Brower, 1959, p. 191) and creates an impression of cultivated elegance combined with sharp wit. The opening is almost a throwaway, musing observation, giving the reader the impression of having entered a conversation already under way: "Tis strange, the Miser should his cares employ / To gain those riches he ne'er can enjoy' (lines 1-2). This tone is continued throughout the poem and lends itself well to the varying rhythms -- again reminiscent of conversation -- and divisions of the whole, producing 'a great variety of rhythmic and dramatic effect with swift changes of irony and brilliant contrasts of image' (Brower, 1959, p. 240). The rhyme scheme is simple, clear and unvarying, following a pattern of 'AABB' throughout which gives structure to the whole and allows the reader to anticipate the resolution of each section of the lyric, which comes in pointed observation or witty comment. As is the case with the Horatian satires that are Pope's inspiration, an over-arching structure binds the poem together, carrying the reader sequentially through to the resolution of the final passage. The reader is invited to consider what Pope sees as the abominations perpetrated by the tasteless and vulgar, before finding the answer in the hymning of Burlington's vision which is the climax of the poem. As one scholar has noted, 'The development runs from a description of violation, through a consideration of what has been violated, to a positive definition of a noble role for man to play in the life of nature' (Edwards, 1963, p. 67).
In following this trajectory, the poem falls into three main sections. The opening section, lines 1-98, which sees the poet considering the general principles of good and bad taste in architecture and gardening, is followed by the celebrated passage containing the description of Timon's villa and grounds, lines 99-176, which are held up as an example of vulgarity and bad taste in both, while the concluding section from line 177 to the end, portrays a future in which great patrons bring taste and elegance to 'happy Britain' (line 203). The poem's primary purpose has been described as 'the minute dissection of false taste and vanity of expense, and the promotion of positive artistic and moral values' (Ayres, 1990, p. 429). The fundamental distinction in the poem is between true and false taste in architecture and its companion enterprise of landscape gardening. Burlington is held up as the exemplar of good taste, an inheritor of the true Roman values of simplicity, elegance, strength through restraint, and a concern with truth rather than falsity in aesthetic judgment: 'You show us, Rome was glorious, not profuse, / And pompous buildings once were things of use' (lines 22-3). For Pope this marks out Burlington as characterized by both wealth and taste, the ideal of the noble patron and a rarity in a society in which, he suggests, the possession of wealth is not normally accompanied by any sense of taste:
For what his Virro painted, built, and planted?
Only to show, how many tastes he wanted.
What brought Sir Visto's ill got wealth to waste?
Some daemon whisper'd, 'Visto! have a taste.'
Heav'n visits with a taste the wealthy fool,
And needs no rod but Ripley with a rule. (lines 13-18)
The 'Ripley' mentioned here is Thomas Ripley, who was appointed Comptroller of the Board of Works by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in 1726. Not only was this a rejection of Burlington's own preferred candidate for this highly influential and important architectural post, William Kent, but it was a particularly shameless instance of patronage favoring the career of an individual unmarked by talent (Curl, 1993, p. 200). Ripley, for Pope, typified the rise of the tasteless, inept, but well-connected which was doing so much to damage contemporary architectural style.
Ripley is notable for being picked out by name in the Epistle, while Pope's other targets are disguised beneath classicized names such as Timon, Visto, Bubo and Virro, but is perhaps less significant for Pope in terms of his own architectural efforts than he is as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the British architectural scene which he is satirizing (Aubrey, 1983, p. 334). Similarly, the other figures satirized have elements of many contemporary figures and their houses and gardens that would have been familiar to Pope's readers. Among the targets of the Epistle are James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, who possessed a vast and extravagant country estate at Cannons; the Duke of Devonshire and his great house at Chatsworth; the Duke of Marlborough's palace at Blenheim; and the Prime Minister himself, Sir Robert Walpole, and his great house at Houghton Hall (Aubrey, 1983, pp. 325-6). These estates were all, in Pope's view, characterized by grandiose size, conspicuous consumption, extravagant and vulgar decoration, a lack of harmony and elegance, and a complete failure of taste and judgment on the part of those responsible for them. They were monuments to wealth, political patronage, and vulgarity.
Burlington stands as the epitome of good taste but, Pope warns, there is a danger of those who do not have his innate judgment and aesthetic sense misinterpreting the lessons he has to teach. Pope thus seems to be suggesting that even the efforts of men of taste such as Lord Burlington are doomed to failure if the undiscriminating and vulgar are free to misinterpret and pervert the values they have to impart:
Yet shall (my Lord), your just, your noble rules
Fill half the land with imitating fools;
Who random drawings from your sheets shall take,
And of one beauty many blunders make ... (lines 25-28)
If that is the case, the reader may ask, what hope is there for art, architecture and landscape gardening? Pope places his faith in men of innate sense such as Burlington, appearing to argue that although many will ignore or distort their precepts of taste and elegance, their practice of those ideas will stand as inspiration to those who are capable of understanding true aesthetic and moral values. The key lies in a receptivity to what Pope calls 'sense': 'Something there is more needful than expense, / And something previous e'en to taste -- 'tis sense: / Good sense, which only is the gift of Heav'n' (lines 41-3).
This 'sense' underlies and makes possible true taste. The consequences of false taste are made all to clear in Pope's account of Timon's villa, in the central section of the Epistle. Pope's critique of the wealthy Timon's estate is summarized in the phrase 'Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!' (line 109). The villa and its grounds are vast in scale, but pitiful in aesthetic sense and taste. They violate one of Pope's fundamental precepts: 'In all, let Nature never be forgot' (line 50). Nature must be respected in scale, in conception, in spirit, or the whole enterprise, however grand, will fail. Thus Timon's artificial lake is so positioned that it is exposed to the north wind, while the fussiness and incoherent planning of his gardens mean that 'On ev'ry side you look, behold the wall!' (line 114) so that no pleasing views or varied vistas attract the eye. The entire garden is forced, rigid, symmetrical -- 'Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother, / And half the platform just reflects the other' (lines 117-8) -- with no heed played to the true natural character of the location, the 'genius of the place' (line 57). As for the house, it too is built for show, not use, and exhibits artificiality, contrivance, superficiality and vulgarity. The representative image here is of the study, filled with books that are chosen for their appearance, not their content: 'In books, not authors, curious is my Lord' (line 134). In a dramatic inversion, the chapel is devoid of spiritual purpose, being full of comfort and indulgence, 'To rest, the…[continue]
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