‘The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine / Feels at each thread, and walks along the line.’ For me that wonderful couplet, from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, catches the best of the Augustan period: that place where, for all the apparent coldness of its favoured forms, classical discipline makes room for wit and the warmth of life.
Pope’s spider provides an analogy for the poet himself, and how lines of verse seem to hang in the balance as you read them, even as they take a fully formed shape on the page. But looking at Roubiliac’s magnificent portrait bust of Pope on our June cover, I think too about how the couplet might apply to the sculptor’s work. It has an achieved monumentality that makes its subject live on, as if the man and his mind somehow inhabited the marble.
This bust was made in 1760, some 16 years after the death of the poet. And yet it conveys an extraordinary sense of care and concentration: in the depth of experience that Pope seems to carry in the bags under his eyes; in the creases that run vertically across his lower brow; and in how the marble looks drawn around his cheeks and jaw – which, for me at least, challenges that fleshiness that sometimes seems inherent in the material.
We have cropped an image of the bust to feature only this inquiring face. The Latin inscription on its socle (plinth) translates Pope’s famous line, also from the Essay on Man, ‘Whatever is, is right’, but is preceded by a line celebrating Pope’s contemporary – and his hero – Isaac Newton. It tells us a lot about the intellectual networks of the period that one man’s monument could be measured against another man’s achievements.
As an undergraduate, I was lucky to be taught by the great Pope scholar Howard Erskine-Hill. Howard died earlier this year, and his character, publications and teaching were warmly commemorated at a memorial service at Pembroke College, Cambridge in April. He was a man who could seem stony, but whose own formality concealed a rich and generous warmth. This cover pays tribute to him.
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