In the year before he died, Pope planned an epic on the story of Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, who, in patriotic legend, had voyaged from Troy to found Britain. Brutus consists of a fragment, one sentence long:
The Patient Chief, who lab’ring long, arriv’d
On Britains Shore and brought with fav’ring Gods
Arts Arms and Honour to her Ancient Sons:
Daughter of Memory! from elder Time
Recall; and me, with Britains Glory fir’d,
Me, far from meaner Care or meaner Song,
Snatch to thy Holy Hill of Spotless Bay,
My Countrys Poet, to record her Fame.
This is not the familiar Pope of expertly weighted ironic couplets, but a Pope of epic aspirations, engaging with the national myth in Miltonic guise. The fragment is a reverse of Shelley’s later sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, the toe of a monument never built; so far as the verse goes, nothing beside remains. Yet Brutus represents a key element of Pope’s imagination, harnessing the energy of classical legend for national purposes, as Virgil used Aeneas to found Rome through the appropriation of Greek epic. Where Keats consoled himself with the thought that he would be among the English poets after his death, Pope’s is the rare instance of a poetic career which seems single-mindedly devoted from the outset to ensuring a position in the kind of canon which this book represents. Labouring like his own ‘Patient Chief’, Pope had always appeared determined to build a literary monument – akin to the ‘monumentum aere perennius’, the ‘monument more lasting than bronze’, that Horace claimed to have erected (Odes 3. 30, line 1) – as ‘My Countrys Poet’, however vexed his Englishness sometimes needed to be.