Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744) is generally regarded as the greatest English poet of the early eighteenth century, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third most frequently quoted writer in the English language, after Shakespeare and Tennyson. Pope was a master of the heroic couplet.
First published in 1710 in a volume of Poetical Miscellanies by Jacob Tonson, The Pastorals brought instant fame to the twenty year old Pope. They were followed by An Essay on Criticism (1711), which was equally well received, although it incurred the wrath of the prominent critic John Dennis, the first of the many literary enmities which would play such a great role in Pope's life and writings. Windsor Forest (1713) is a topographical poem celebrating the "Tory Peace" at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession.
Around 1711, Pope made friends with the Tory writers, John Gay, Jonathan Swift and John Arbuthnot, as well as the Whigs, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Pope's friendship with Addison would later cool and he would satirise him as "Atticus" in his Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot.
Pope, Gay, Swift, Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell formed the Scriblerus Club in 1712. The aim of the club was to satirise ignorance and pedantry in the form of the fictional scholar Martinus Scriblerus. Pope's major contribution to the club would be Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728), a parodic guide on how to write bad verse.
The Rape of the Lock (two canto version, The Rape of the Locke, 1712; revised version in five cantos, 1714) is perhaps Pope's most popular poem. It is a mock-heroic epic, written to make fun of a high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the "Belinda" of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission.
In 1714, the political situation worsened with the death of Queen Anne and the disputed succession between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites, leading to the attempted Jacobite invasion of 1715. Though Pope as a Catholic might be expected to have supported the Jacobites, according to Maynard Mack, "where Pope himself stood on these matters can probably never be confidently known". These events led to an immediate downturn in the fortunes of the Tories, and Pope's friend, Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke fled to France.
The climax of Pope's early career was the publication of his Works in 1717. As well as the poems mentioned above, the volume also included the first appearance of Eloisa to Abelard and Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady; and several shorter works, of which perhaps the best are the epistles to Martha Blount.
The middle years: Homer and Shakespeare
Though the Dunciad was first published anonymously in Dublin, its authorship was not in doubt. As well as Theobald, it pilloried a host of other "hacks", "scribblers" and "dunces". Mack called its publication "in many ways the greatest act of folly in Pope's life". Though a masterpiece, "it bore bitter fruit. It brought the poet in his own time the hostility of its victims and their sympathizers, who pursued him implacably from then on with a few damaging truths and a host of slanders and lies...". The threats were physical too. According to his sister, Pope would never go for a walk without the company of his Great Dane, Bounce, and a pair of loaded pistols in his pocket.
In 1731, Pope published his "Epistle to Burlington", on the subject of architecture, the first of four poems which would later be grouped under the title Moral Essays (1731-35). In the epistle, Pope ridiculed the bad taste of the aristocrat "Timon". Pope's enemies claimed he was attacking the Duke of Chandos and his estate, "Cannons". Though the charge was untrue, it did Pope a great deal of damage.
Around this time, Pope began to grow discontented with the ministry of Robert Walpole and drew closer to the opposition led by Bolingbroke, who had returned to England in 1725. Inspired by Bolingbroke's philosophical ideas, Pope wrote An Essay on Man (1733-4). He published the first part anonymously, in a cunning and successful ploy to win praise from his fiercest critics and enemies.
The Imitations of Horace followed (1733-38). These were written in the popular Augustan form of the "imitation" of a classical poet, not so much a translation of his works as an updating with contemporary references. Pope used the model of Horace to satirise life under George II, especially what he regarded as the widespread corruption tainting the country under Walpole's influence and the poor quality of the court's artistic taste.
Pope also added a wholly original poem, An Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot, as an introduction to the "Imitations". It reviews his own literary career and includes the famous portraits of Lord Hervey ("Sporus") and Addison ("Atticus"). In 1738 he wrote the Universal Prayer.
After 1738, Pope wrote little. He toyed with the idea of composing a patriotic epic in blank verse called Brutus, but only the opening lines survive. His major work in these years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad. Book Four appeared in 1742, and a complete revision of the whole poem in the following year. In this version, Pope replaced the "hero", Lewis Theobald, with the poet laureate Colley Cibber as "king of dunces". By now Pope's health, which had never been good, was failing and he died in his villa surrounded by friends on May 30, 1744. On the prior day, May 29, 1744, Pope called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Church. He lies buried in the nave of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham.
Later career: "An Essay on Man" and satires
The poetry of Alexander Pope holds an acknowledged place in the canons of English Literature, although his work has gone in and out of fashion. One edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes no less than 212 quotations from Pope.
Some quotations from Pope's work have passed so deeply into the English language that they are often taken as proverbial by those who do not know their source: "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (from the Essay on Criticism); "To err is human, to forgive, divine" (ibid.); "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread" (ibid); "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" and "The proper study of mankind is man" (Essay on Man). This would have greatly pleased Pope, who wrote:
- True wit is nature to advantage dress'd;
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.
Pope dominated his age to an extent few writers before or since have matched. After his death, it was almost inevitable a reaction would set in against his poetry, especially with the first stirrings of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century.
In An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756 and 1782), Joseph Warton denied Pope was a "true poet", merely a "man of wit" and a "man of sense". In his Lives of the Poets Doctor Johnson countered: "...It is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, whether Pope was a poet, otherwise than by asking in return, if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?". But he was fighting a losing battle against changing taste.
The Romantics had little time for Pope, with the notable exception of Lord Byron, who acclaimed him as "the great moral poet of all times, of all climes, of all feelings, and all stages of existence". Keats dismissed the style of writers who wrote in heroic couplets, saying:
- They rode upon a rocking horse
And called it Pegasus.
In the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold dismissed Pope and Dryden as "classics of our prose". The 19th century considered his diction artificial, his versification too regular, and his satires insufficiently humane. The third charge has been disputed by various 20th century critics including William Empson, and the first does not apply at all to his best work. That Pope was constrained by the demands of "acceptable" diction and prosody is undeniable, but the elegance and flexibility with which Pope used this technique shows that great poetry could be written with these constraints. His expression is concise and forceful, conveying emotion as well as reason and wit.
In his time Pope was famous for his witty satires and aggressive, bitter quarrels with other writers. When his edition of William Shakespeare was attacked, he answered with the savage burlesque The Dunciad (1728), which was widened in 1742. It ridiculed bad writers, scientists, and critics: "While pensive poets painful vigils keep, / Sleepless themselves to give their readers sleep." With the growth of Romanticism Pope's poetry was increasingly seen as outdated and the 'Age of Pope' ended. It was not until the 1930s that any serious attempts were made to rediscover the poet's work.
Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (Yale, 1985, the definitive biography)
- They rode upon a rocking horse