alexander popeIntroduction

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was born to Catholic parents in May 1688. His father retired from business as linen draper in 1700, and settled at Binfield, in Windsor Forest, moving again in 1716 to Chiswick on the Thames. Being Catholic, the younger Pope was barred from university education and public employment. He was taught the elements of reading by an aunt, two Catholic schools, and then by private tutors, but for the most part Pope was self-educated.

He never became a scholar, but knew the English poets well, and studied French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. After his father's death in 1717, Pope leased a house and five acres of land at Twickenham, where he lived with his mother and then until his own death in 1744. When ten, Pope incurred Pott's disease, a tuberculosis of the bones, and grew up a 4' 6" hunchback. The illness, his incessant study and lack of formal education, added to a hypersensitive nature, made Pope quick to take offence, and slow to forget injury, imaginary or not. He wrote steadily and to plan, through blinding headaches and physical pain, but the translations which made his name and secured him an independent income also hardened his character. He quarrelled with many writers and public figures of his day, but he was greatly devoted to his mother and maintained a close friendship with chosen friends: Arbuthnot, Gay, and Swift.

Pope was a precocious writer, producing a translation of the Thebaïs of Statius in 1702, an epic entitled Alexander (burned in 1717) and Pastorals (1706, published 1709), where his smooth and melodious verse attracted attention. There followed the works by which Pope is still read: Essay on Criticism (1711), Windsor Forest (1713) the Rape of the Lock (1712-4) and the poems Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard and the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady (1717). His translation of the Iliad (six volumes, 1715–20) made his name, but the later Odyssey (1725-26) was largely the work of collaborators. Pope then turned on the hack writers of Grub Street with Bathos, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry in Miscellanies (1728-9, written in conjunction with Swift and Arbuthnot) and the Dunciad (1728-9). Lewis Theobald was first enthroned as the supreme dunce for (rightly) criticising Pope's edition of Shakespeare, but a fourth book in 1742 replaced him by Colley Cibber. Pope concluded his career with Moral Essays (1731–38, including the Essay on Man) and a group of satires called Imitations of Horace (1733–38, which has the well-known Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot).

Pope was the most faultless of English verse writers, a master of epigram, satire and the mock epic. To the Romantic poets with their stress on imagination and impassioned language Pope did not appeal — though Byron admired him — and nineteenth century critics doubted whether he was poet at all. In fact, like Milton, whose style can also alienate readers, Pope was a far more complex, sensitive and generous character than first appears. The later work can indeed be acrid and unforgiving, but the satire in the Rape of the Lock is shot through with more understanding of women's foibles and needs than the Romantics displayed (again, apart from Byron), and Pope always had the courage of his convictions, writing strongly to the end.

Pope brought to perfection the heroic couplet of Dryden, and set a standard from which later poets developed as needed: Goldsmith, Churchill, Cowper and George Crabbe. Heroic couplets are end-stopped pentameters, rhymed aa bb cc, have a marked caesura, and prominent stress on the line end. As expected in an age of commerce and politeness, Pope strove for metrical correctness, but his acute ear and unremitting industry allowed for enormous variety within this self-imposed ideal.

The poetry was also modelled on the classical authors, dealing with matters of public or perennial concern — truth, friendship, patriotism — which again can sound remote or inauthentic now. Pope was not straightforward in his business dealings, unfortunately, and made enemies quickly, so that the later satires need an exact understanding of eighteenth century mores, and knowledge of its personalities, to come alive. The satires may be ungenerous, but are also more telling and deadly than what could be published today.

But in all periods, amongst the biting scorn and epithet, are passages of great lyrical beauty, written with an exact tenderness of heart that show that Pope was not venomous by nature but driven to these extremes by the manifest absurdity and cruelty of the world around him. He was a poet of society, sometimes only the moralising gossip writer, but often with a reach, indignation and expressive power that make his work permanently worth reading.

It will help to see Pope in his historical setting: the Enlightenment in general, and in England the success and corruption of Walpole's government, the Whig and Tory machinations that spilled over into street riots, the influence of queen and court on parliament, as of women generally, and the lurking Jacobite threat. Theatres fought for independence from censorship, and changed in Pope's lifetime from licentious comedies to the moralising and sentimental. Pope scholarship requires a detailed understanding of the period, but among books for the general reader are E. Sitwell's Alexander Pope (1948), R.K. Root's The Poetical Career of Alexander Pope (1938), W. C. Brown's The Triumph of Form: A Study of the Later Masters of the Heroic Couplet (1948), J. Sutherland's A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (1948), and M.A. Doody's The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered (1985).

Suggestion: Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry. Pat Rogers. O.U.P. 1998. $9.56

A generous selection, with detailed notes and a helpful introduction that explains Pope's themes and social setting.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.