In after-life the poet made some progress in acquiring the art of painting; and the bequest suggests the possibility that the precocious child had already given some indications of artistic taste. Affectionate eyes were certainly on the watch for any symptoms of developing talent. Pope was born on May 21st, 1688—the annus mirabilis which introduced a new political era in England, and was fatal to the hopes of ardent Catholics. About the same time, partly, perhaps, in consequence of the catastrophe, Pope's father retired from business, and settled at Binfield—a village two miles from Wokingham and nine from Windsor. It is near Bracknell, one of Shelley's brief perching places, and in such a region as poets might love, if poetic praises of rustic seclusion are to be taken seriously. To the east were the "forests and green retreats" of Windsor, and the wild heaths of Bagshot, Chobham and Aldershot stretched for miles to the South. Some twelve miles off in that direction, one may remark, lay Moor Park, where the sturdy pedestrian, Swift, was living with Sir W. Temple during great part of Pope's childhood; but it does not appear that his walks ever took him to Pope's neighbourhood, nor did he see, till some years later, the lad with whom he was to form one of the most famous of literary friendships. The little household was presumably a very quiet one, and remained fixed at Binfield for twenty-seven years, till the son had grown to manhood and celebrity. From the earliest period he seems to have been a domestic idol. He was not an only child, for he had a half-sister by his father's side, who must have been considerably older than himself, as her mother died nine years before the poet's birth. But he was the only child of his mother, and his parents concentrated upon him an affection which he returned with touching ardour and persistence. They were both forty-six in the year of his birth. He inherited headaches from his mother, and a crooked figure from his father. A nurse who shared their care, lived with him for many years, and was buried by him, with an affectionate epitaph, in 1725. The family tradition represents him as a sweet-tempered child, and says that he was called the "little nightingale," from the beauty of his voice. As the sickly, solitary, and precocious infant of elderly parents, we may guess that he was not a little spoilt, if only in the technical sense.
My story is chiefly concerned with the third son, James, born about 1733. After studying law for a short time at Aberdeen, he was sent abroad, when eighteen years old, to Holland, and afterwards to France, with a view to some mercantile business. He was six feet three inches in height, and a man of great muscular power. Family traditions tell of his being attacked by two footpads, and knocking their heads together till they cried for mercy. Another legend asserts that when a friend offered him a pony to carry him home after dinner, he made and won a bet that he would carry the pony. In the year 1752 this young giant was sailing as supercargo of a ship bound from Bordeaux to Scotland, with wine destined, no doubt, to replenish the 'blessed bear of Bradwardine,' and its like. The ship had neared the race of Portland, when a storm arose, and she was driven upon the cliffs of Purbeck Island. James Stephen, with four of the crew, escaped to the rocks, the rest being drowned. Stephen roped his companions to himself, and scaled the rocks in the dark, as Lovel, in the 'Antiquary,' leads the Wardours and Edie Ochiltree up the crags of the Halket Head. Next day, the outcasts were hospitably received by Mr. Milner, Collector of Customs at Poole. Stephen had to remain for some time on the spot to look after the salvage of the cargo. The drowned captain had left some valuable papers in a chest. He appeared in a dream to Stephen, and gave information which led to their recovery. The news that his ghost was on the look-out had, it is said, a wholesome effect in deterring wreckers from interference with the cargo.
The disease had scarred and disfigured features otherwise regular and always impressive. It had seriously injured his eyes, entirely destroying, it seems, the sight of one. He could not, it is said, distinguish a friend's face half a yard off, and pictures were to him meaningless patches, in which he could never see the resemblance to their objects. The statement is perhaps exaggerated; for he could see enough to condemn a portrait of himself. He expressed some annoyance when Reynolds had painted him with a pen held close to his eye; and protested that he would not be handed down to posterity as "blinking Sam." It seems that habits of minute attention atoned in some degree for this natural defect. Boswell tells us how Johnson once corrected him as to the precise shape of a mountain; and Mrs. Thrale says that he was a close and exacting critic of ladies' dress, even to the accidental position of a riband. He could even lay down aesthetical canons upon such matters. He reproved her for wearing a dark dress as unsuitable to a "little creature." "What," he asked, "have not all insects gay colours?" His insensibility to music was even more pronounced than his dulness of sight. On hearing it said, in praise of a musical performance, that it was in any case difficult, his feeling comment was, "I wish it had been impossible!"