BORN: 1688, London, England
DIED: 1744, London, England
GENRE: Poetry, criticism
An Essay on Criticism (1711)
The Rape of the Lock (1714)
The Dunciad (1728)
Moral Essays (1731–1735; collected 1751)
An Essay on Man (1733)
Alexander Pope was a superstar of English neoclassical literature, so much so that the first half of the British eighteenth century is often referred to as “the age of Pope.” Pope alternately defined, invented, satirized, critiqued, and reformed almost all of the genres and conventions of early-eighteenth-century British verse. He polished his work with meticulous care, and he is generally recognized as the greatest English poet between John Milton and William Wordsworth.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Catholic Exile Pope's Roman Catholic father was a linen merchant. After a line of Catholic monarchs was excluded from England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Catholics were barred from living within the city of London, and Pope's family moved to Binfield in Windsor Forest. Pope had little formal schooling, largely educating himself through extensive reading. He contracted a tubercular infection in his later childhood; tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease that generally causes damage to the lungs but can also affect other areas, such as the spine, as it did in Pope's case. Tuberculosis was a widespread concern in Pope's time, since effective treatments for the disease were still two centuries away, and half of those who developed full-blown symptoms would eventually die. Pope lived, but because of his illness, he never grew taller than four feet six inches, suffering from curvature of the spine and constant headaches. His physical appearance, frequently mocked by his enemies, undoubtedly gave an edge to Pope's satire, but he was always generous in his affection for his parents and many friends.
Early Poems Pope was a child prodigy. His first publication, Pastorals (1709), drew on long-established literary conventions but nevertheless announced him as a major new talent. Pope's next major work, An Essay on Criticism (1711), was much bolder. In the work, Pope finds modern literature largely failing in its responsibility to follow unchanging “nature,” the test of which is how well we can recognize basic human truths in ancient classical works (particularly Homer). An Essay on Criticism became the manifesto for a major movement in literary criticism: neoclassicism. Pope wrote the entire essay in heroic couplets (pairs of rhymed iambic pentameter lines).
One year later, Pope surprised many by showing he was also a master of humor and satire with The Rape of the Lock (1712, two cantos), which immediately made Pope famous. A fashionable young lady, Arabella Fermor, had a lock of her hair cut off without permission by a suitor, and Pope was asked by a mutual friend to soothe ruffled tempers with a jest. Adopting a mock-heroic style that drew upon Homer and others (who were valorized so seriously in An Essay on Criticism), Pope showed how ridiculous it was to treat the event overseriously and simultaneously satirized the vanity and glitter of upper-class society.
Other poems published by 1717, the date of the first collected edition of Pope's works, include “Windsor Forest” (1713), which showed Pope as an “occasional” poet, or one who writes about current events. The collection also included Eloisa to Abelard, which shows Pope's turning to a new genre, love poetry.
Translations of Homer Pope's study of, and high regard for, classical literature led him naturally to the art of translation. He had already done poetic imitations, transformations, or translations of Vergil, the Bible, and Chaucer, but his versions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were his greatest achievement as a translator and, some say, a poet. Pope not only translated Homer's Greek into English, but also recast the lines into powerful, expressive, and flexible heroic couplets.
Pope's translations sold well, making him one of England's first full-time, self-supporting poets. Unlike Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), who was arguably England's first professional writer, Pope was the first poet to become wealthy. In 1716, an increased land tax on Roman Catholics forced the Popes to sell their place at Binfield, but after Pope's father died in 1717, Pope and his mother moved to an expansive villa outside London. He had gardens built there that became famous throughout Europe, complete with an underground grotto decorated with shells and bright stones.
During these years, Pope became friends with some brilliant writers, including Jonathan Swift, Dr. John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and Thomas Parnell. Together they combined to form the Scriblerus Club, and they planned a series of satires against narrow-minded academics and the popular culture's fascination with “novelty.” Together they published The Memoires of Martinus Scriblerus (1741), and their discussions contributed to the creation of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Pope's The Dunciad.
The Dunciad One of the editorial projects Pope undertook was an edition of Shakespeare's plays (1725). Pope's explanatory notes were uneven, and the edition was attacked by a rival Shakespeare editor, Lewis Theobald. Pope, never one to forget or forgive criticism, made Theobald the head of all dunces in a mock-epic tour de force of bitterly satirical couplets. The Dunciad (the title is a pun on Homer's epic The Iliad) appeared in 1728. A year later the text increased to include a large collection of notes and commentaries intended as a burlesque on the heavy labor of commentators and textual critics. Pope used The Dunciad to settle old scores and to show his distaste for a literary culture that would come to be known as “Grub Street”; on “Grub Street,” writers competed with one another to appeal to the lowest tastes of the reading public, which often resulted in untalented and irresponsible writers gaining undeserved literary prominence.
The Epistles and An Essay on Man Late in his life, Pope undertook a series of satires in the classical sense of the term, a collection of serious and sardonic commentaries of culture and ethics. These satires took the form of letters (or “epistles”) to his close friends. For example, “The Epistle to Burlington” (1731) illustrates, along with its companion piece “Epistle to Bathurst” (1733), the right and wrong way to use wealth as well as the parallels between artistic taste and moral virtue.
An Essay on Man is Pope's most philosophical work and in some ways his most ambitious. Pope's argument views religion through the lens of the emerging eighteenth-century Enlightenment: seeing God as a rational and balanced creator who, by nature, ensures that everything happens as part of a carefully organized universal plan. “All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee; / All chance, direction, which thou canst not see / All discord, harmony not understood, / All partial evil, universal good,” Pope writes. Pope also revives the ancient idea of the “great chain of being,” the idea that all species in creation are ranked in a hierarchy with God and the angels at the top, Man in the middle, and the simple organism at the bottom. Presuming for ourselves the authority to blame God for when things do not go our way, Pope says, is therefore an absurd and blasphemous act of pride for stepping out of our place on the chain. In essence, An Essay on Man is not so much philosophy or theology, but a poet's apprehension of unity despite diversity, of an order embracing the whole multifarious creation—a theme that finds expression in Pope's works as various as the Pastorals, The Dunciad, and “An Epistle to Burlington.”
Works in Literary Context
Pope and Neoclassicism Pope, particularly in An Essay on Criticism and “Epistle to Arbuthnot,” contributed to neoclassicism, or the resurgence in ancient ideals in art and literature—particularly the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. For Pope, the core truth is whatever has lasted longest across many generations of readers; thus we should look to ancient literature for truth. In the epics of Homer, for example, the ethics of heroism, loyalty, and leadership are as true now as they were then. In addition, the balanced and symmetrical structures of classical literature and architecture represent values of reason and coherence that Pope says should remain central to all modern arts.
Comic Satire Pope used his great knowledge of and respect for classical literature to write mock-epics that poked fun at the elite. Essentially Pope believed the upper class possessed an exaggerated sense of its own importance. He also made fun of hack writers, comparing their shoddy work with timeless stories of the past. Pope is credited for proclaiming, “Praise undeserved is satire in disguise.”
Pope and Proverbs Pope's style and personal philosophies have become part of the English language. For example, “A little learning is a dang'rous thing” comes from An Essay on Criticism, as does “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Other well-known sayings from An Essay on Criticism include “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and “Hope springs eternal.”
Works in Critical Context
Pope's enormous success attracted a great deal of jealousy within the already competitive and vindictive London literary scene. Pope's Catholicism, his conservative politics, and his unusual physical appearance made the literary public even more envious. Pope remembered every literary critic who dared to disapprove of his work or mock his physical appearance, and decades after someone printed a bad review of Pope's poetry, a critic might find their name in the parade of fools in The Dunciad. Not satisfied with the level of attack in that work, which was enough to ruin the career of more than one writer, Pope followed it a year later with The Dunciad, Variorum, which added mock-scholarly footnotes naming names of even more of the disfavored literary critics and hack writers who, Pope believed, were dragging down the dignity of the entire literary profession and endangering the moral foundation of society.
Pope in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries After his death in 1744, few had anything but the highest praise for Pope's poetic achievement. Joseph Warton and Samuel Johnson, perhaps the most influential critical voices in the late eighteenth century, secured his place in the literary canon. For the Romantic critics of the early nineteenth century, however, Pope was often seen more as a fine poetic craftsman who nevertheless preferred topical satire and petty themes to the higher (to Romantics, anyway) poetic subjects of the natural world and confessional passions. As the mid-nineteenth-century Victorians sought to distinguish themselves with a high moral tone in contrast to their somewhat more coarse and outspoken eighteenth-century ancestors, Pope was respected but largely neglected.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Pope's famous contemporaries include:
Christian Wolff (1679–1754): A philosopher who embodied the Enlightenment ideal in Germany, Wolff is regarded as the inventor of economics and public administration as fields of academic study, and his ideas influenced the American Declaration of Independence.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759): A German-born composer who later relocated to England, Handel is most famous for his oratorio The Messiah, composed in 1741.
George Berkeley (1685–1753): Berkeley, an Irish philosopher who promoted the idea of “immaterialism,” also contributed to the development of calculus.
John Harrison (1693–1776): This English clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer, a device that accurately determined the longitudinal position of a ship, won a huge prize offered by the British Parliament and made voyages to the New World safer and more efficient.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755): This French social and political commentator promoted the separation of government powers, an idea that became a cornerstone of the American Constitution.
New Critics The New Critics of the mid-twentieth century revived interest in Pope with their emphasis on high literary technique, irony, and the poetic rewards of close reading. A definitive edition of Pope's works in 1963 and a thorough biography by Maynard Mack in 1985 brought about many new enthusiastic and often biographically based interpretations of Pope's work. In recent years, Pope's collected poetry has proven a rich resource for cultural critics interested in all aspects of early eighteenth-century values and culture, particularly the influence of colonial ideologies, the role of gender in the poet's imagination, the impact of an emerging print culture, the new emphasis on materialism, and the complex interactions of religion and politics as the Restoration moved into the early eighteenth century.
Responses to Literature
- Pope did not often appreciate it when other people wrote about him, but he wrote often about himself. Particularly in the “Epistle to Arbuthnot,” how does Pope portray himself? What is Pope's image of himself and the conditions of his own life? Jot down a paragraph summarizing your findings.
- For all of the satire in The Rape of the Lock, it is often said that a tone of admiration and even longing resonates in the way Pope portrays the kind of upper-class society from which he was excluded as a Catholic, a poet, and the son of a linen merchant. With a classmate, discuss whether you agree or disagree. Then, discuss whether you think Pope manages to balance or combine his admiration of Belinda and her friends with his satire of them. Point out specific lines from the text to support your ideas.
- Do some research into the style of gardens in the eighteenth century. Create an audiovisual report discussing why you think landscaping means more than just a pleasing arrangement of plants. Then, research the way Pope made contributions to the theories of gardening during his lifetime, as well as the plants or forms he incorporated into his own garden. Add your findings about Pope to your presentation.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
When tragedy strikes, people of faith often question how a just and good God could allow it to happen. Pope, who had crippling physical ailments and chronic pain for his entire adult life, worked out his own theories in An Essay on Man. Many other authors have tackled these difficult questions with alternate answers.
In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (2005). Selected teachings of the Buddha from the Pali Canon, the earliest record of what the Buddha taught, from truths on family life and marriage to renunciation and the path of insight.
The Metamorphosis (1915), a novella by Franz Kafka. In this classic existentialist work, a man wakes up one day and finds he has been transformed into a human-sized dung beetle. No explanation is given, no lessons are learned, and no redemption is given.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1983), a nonfiction book by Harold S. Kushner. In this controversial best seller written by a Jewish rabbi facing the death of his own child, Kushner offered a theory that God does not necessarily control everything that happens in his creation.
Boyce, Benjamin. The Character-Sketches in Pope's Poems. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1962.
Brown, Laura. Alexander Pope. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1985.
Brownell, Morris. Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978.
Fairer, David. Pope's Imagination. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1984.
Griffin, Dustin M. Alexander: The Poet in the Poems. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Jones, John A. Pope's Couplet Art. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969.
———. Collected in Himself: Essays Critical, Biographical, and Bibliographical on Pope and Some of His Contemporaries. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982.
———, ed. Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1968.
Rogers, Pat, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Alexander Pope. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Sitter, John. The Poetry of Pope's Dunciad. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.
Spacks, Patricia. An Argument of Images: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Tillotson, Geoffrey. Pope and Human Nature. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1958.
White, Douglas H. Pope and the Context of Controversy: The Manipulation of Ideas in An Essay on Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
The English poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the greatest poet and verse satirist of the Augustan period. No other poet in the history of English literature has handled the heroic couplet with comparable flexibility and brilliance.
Alexander Pope inherited from John Dryden the verse from that he chose to perfect. He polished his work with meticulous care and, like all great poets, used language with genuine inventiveness. His qualities of imagination are seen in the originality with which he handled traditional forms, in his satiric vision of the contemporary world, and in his inspired use of classical models.
Pope was born on May 21, 1688, in London, where his Roman Catholic father was a linen merchant. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 his family moved out of London and settled about 1700 at Binfield in Windsor Forest. Pope had little formal schooling, largely educating himself through extensive reading. Sir William Trumbull, a retired statesman of literary interests who lived nearby, did much to encourage the young poet. So did the dramatist and poet William Wycherley and the poet-critic William Walsh, with whom Pope became acquainted when he was about 17 and whose advice to aim at "correctness" contributed to the flawless texture and concentrated brilliance of Pope's verse.
A sweet-tempered child with a fresh, plump face, Pope contracted a tubercular infection in his later childhood and never grew taller than 4 feet 6 inches. He suffered curvature of the spine (necessitating the wearing of a stiff canvas brace) and constant headaches. His features, however, were striking, and the young Joshua Reynolds noticed in his "sharp, keen countenance … something grand, like Cicero's." His physical appearance, frequently ridiculed by his enemies, undoubtedly gave an edge to Pope's satire; but he was always warmhearted and generous in his affection for his many friends.
Precocious as a poet, Pope attracted the notice of the eminent bookseller Jacob Tonson, who solicited the publication of his Pastorals (1709). By this time Pope was already at work on his more ambitious Essay on Criticism (1711), an illuminating synthesis of critical precepts designed to expose the evils and to effect a regeneration of the contemporary literary scene.
The Rape of the Lock (1712, two cantos) immediately made Pope famous as a poet. The cutting off of a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair by Robert, Lord Petre, had caused an estrangement between these prominent Catholic families; and Pope's friend John Caryll had suggested that he write a poem "to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again." In the poem Fermor is represented as Belinda and Lord Petre as the Baron. Adopting a mock-heroic style in the manner of Nicholas Boileau's Le Lutrin, Pope showed how disproportionate it was to treat the event overseriously, at the same time glancing good-humoredly at vanity and at the rococolike glitter of the beau monde. Rejecting Joseph Addison's advice not to enlarge his design, Pope published an extended version (1714, five cantos) containing the "machinery" of the sylphs (adopted from the Rosicrucian system) and various other epic motifs and allusions. These not only heightened the brilliance of the poem's world but also helped to place its significance and that of the "rape" in proper perspective.
Several other poems published by 1717, the date of the first collected edition of Pope's works, deserve a brief mention. "Windsor Forest" (1713), written in the tradition of Sir John Denham's "Cooper's Hill, " celebrated the peace confirmed by the Treaty of Utrecht. A rich tapestry of historical and poetic allusions, it showed the Stuarts, and especially Queen Anne, in a quasi-mythical light. In 1717 appeared the sophisticated yet moving "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" and "Eloisa to Abelard, " an example in the Ovidian manner of the currently popular form of heroic epistle. The representation of the cloistered Eloisa's conflicting emotions toward her former lover (the scholar Peter Abelard), the denouement, and the concluding epilogue make this poem, in effect, a drama in miniature.
Translations of Homer
Pope also engaged in poetic imitations and translations. His Messiah (1712), published by Sir Richard Steele in the Spectator, was an imitation of Virgil's fourth Eclogue, based on passages from Isaiah; and his early "translations" of Chaucer included the Temple of Fame (1715). In later life Pope published reworkings of several of John Donne's satires. But Pope's versions of Homer were his greatest achievement as a translator.
From an early age a frequenter of Will's Coffeehouse, Pope was for a time friendly with men of both political parties. He wrote the prologue for Joseph Addison's Cato (1713), and the Whigs naturally hoped to secure his talents for their party. But growing opposition between him and Addison's followers (who met at Button's) made inevitable Pope's adherence to his other and more congenial group of literary friends—Jonathan Swift, Dr. John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and Thomas Parnell. Together they combined to form the Scriblerus Club, which aimed at a burlesque treatment of all forms of pedantry and which indirectly contributed to the creation of such works as Gulliver's Travels and the Dunciad. In 1715 Addison tried to forestall the success of Pope's translation of the Iliad by encouraging Thomas Tickell to publish a rival version, and this caused Pope a great deal of anxiety until the superiority of his own translation was acclaimed.
Pope undertook the translation because he needed money—the result of a sharp drop in the interest from his father's French annuities. The translation occupied him until 1720, and it was a great financial success, making Pope independent of the customary forms of literary patronage. Parnell and William Broome were among those who assisted with the notes, but the translation was entirely Pope's own. It has been highly praised by subsequent critics.
From the time his Iliad began to appear, Pope became the victim of numerous pamphlet attacks on his person, politics, and religion, many of them instigated by the infamous publisher Edmund Curll. In 1716 an increased land tax on Roman Catholics forced the Popes to sell their place at Binfield and to settle near the Earl of Burlington's villa at Chiswick. The next year Pope's father died, and in 1719 the poet's increased wealth enabled him to move with his mother to a semirural villa at Twickenham. There he improved house and gardens, making a special feature of the grotto, which connected house and gardens beneath the intervening road. At Twickenham, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu soon became Pope's neighbor. Several years earlier she had rivaled Martha Blount as an object of Pope's affection, but later a good deal of enmity existed between her and Pope, and she joined Lord (John) Hervey in attacking him.
During the 1720s Pope was engaged on a version of the Odyssey (1725-1726). Broome and Elijah Fenton were his collaborators, completing half of the translation between them. It was Pope's name, however, that sold the work, and he naturally received the lion's share of the profits (Pope earned about £9, 000 from his translations of Homer). It was this translation that led to Pope's association with the young Joseph Spence, who wrote a Judicious and engaging criticism of it and who later recorded his valuable Anecdotes of Pope.
Pope also undertook several editorial projects. Parnell's Poems (1721) was followed by an edition of the late Duke of Buckingham's Works (1723), subsequently suppressed on account of its Jacobite tendencies. The trial of his friend Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, for complicity in a Jacobite plot also caused Pope a good deal of concern. Then, in 1725, Pope's edition of William Shakespeare appeared. Pope's emendations and explanatory notes were notoriously capricious, and his edition was attacked by Lewis Theobald in Shakespeare Restored (1726), a work that revealed a superior knowledge of editorial technique and that gained for its author the unenviable distinction of becoming the original hero of the Dunciad.
In 1726-1727 Swift was in England and a guest of Pope. Together they published three volumes of Miscellanies in 1727-1728, in the last of which the Peri Bathous; or the Art of Sinking in Poetry was included. Renewed contact with Swift must have given a great impetus to Pope's poem on "Dulness, " which appeared as the three-book Dunciad (1728). Theobald was the prime dunce, and the next year the poem was enlarged by a ponderous apparatus (including "Notes Variorum") intended as a burlesque on the learned lumber of commentators and textual critics.
Clearly Pope used the Dunciad as personal satire to pay off many old scores. But it was also prompted by his distaste for that whole process by which worthless writers gained undue literary prominence. "Martinus Scriblerus" summarized the action of the poem as "the removal of the imperial seat of Dulness from the city to the polite world, " and this parody of Virgil's epic was accompanied by further mock-heroic elements—the intervention of the goddess, the epic games of the second book, and the visit to the underworld and the vision of future "glories, " with the former city-poet Elkanah Settle acting the part of the sybil. Indeed, despite its devastating satire, the Dunciad was essentially a phantasmagoric treatment of the forces of anticulture by a great comic genius.
In 1742 Pope published a fourth book to the Dunciad separately, and his last published work was the four-book Dunciad (1743), which incorporated the new material and enthroned the brazen laureate Colley Cibber as prime dunce in place of Theobald. This revenge on Cibber, who had recently exposed a ridiculous escapade of the poet's youth, provided the poem with a more considerable hero. It also gained in artistic completeness, since the action of the fourth book depicted the fulfillment of Settle's prophecy.
Epistles and An Essay on Man
"The Epistle to Burlington" (1731), reminiscent of the Dunciad in its vivaciously satiric portrait of "Timon, " was designed as part of a "system of ethics in the Horatian way" of which An Essay on Man (1733-1734) was to constitute the first book. Though this plan was never realized, the poem illustrates, along with its companion, "Epistle to Bathurst" (1733), antithetical vices in the use of riches. These two epistles were subsequently placed after those "To Cobham" (1734) and "To a Lady" (1735), which were thus intended to provide the projected magnum opus with an introductory section on the characters of men and women. "To Cobham" fits easily into this scheme, but "To a Lady" is rather a deliciously witty portrait gallery in Pope's best satiric manner.
"To Burlington" also compliments a nobleman friend of long standing who influenced Pope's appreciation of architecture as did Allen Bathurst his appreciation of landscape gardening. To these pursuits Pope devoted much of his time, being disposed to regard a cultivated esthetic taste as inseparable from a refined moral sense.
Pope's friendship with the former statesman Henry St. John Bolingbroke, who on his return from exile had settled a few miles from Twickenham, stimulated his interest in philosophy and led to the composition of An Essay on Man. Some ideas were doubtless suggested by Bolingbroke; certainly the argument advanced in Epistle 4—that terrestrial happiness is adequate to justify the ways of God to man—was consonant with his thinking. But Pope's sources were predominately commonplaces with a long history in Western thought, the most central being the doctrine of plenitude (expressed through the metaphors of a "chain" or "scale" of being) and the assertion that the discordant whole is bound harmoniously together. Even Pope's doctrine of the "ruling passion" was not original—though he gave it its most extended treatment. In essence, however, the Essay is not philosophy but a poet's apprehension of unity despite diversity, of an order embracing the whole multifarious creation.
In 1733 Pope's mother died. The same year he engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Curll to have his letters published in the guise of a pirated edition. Appearing in 1735, this edition allowed him to publish an authoritative edition in 1737. Such maneuvers are not easy to justify. Nor is the careful rewriting and fabrication, designed to reflect the author in the best possible light. But at least Pope's letters suggest the extent of his many friendships and something of the hospitality he enjoyed whenever he indulged his love of traveling.
Imitations of Horace
The 1730s were also the years of the Imitations of Horace (1733-1738), pungent and endearing by turns. How congenial to Pope were the conversational framework and Horatian independence of tone is evident from the fact that they read not like "imitations" but have the freshness of originals. Indeed, the best of them—the "Epistle to Arbuthnot" (1735) and the "Dialogues" (1738)—have no precise source. The "Epistle, " with its famous portrait of Addison ("Atticus") and searing indictment of Hervey ("Sporus"), was both the satirist's apologia pro vita sua and his vindication of personally oriented satire. The two "Dialogues" continued this theme, introducing an additional element of political satire.
As Pope grew older, he came to rely more and more on the faithful Martha Blount, and to her he left most of his possessions. He described his life as a "long disease, " and asthma increased his sufferings in his later years. At times during the last month of his life he became delirious. He died on May 30, 1744, and was buried in Twickenham Church.
The definitive edition of Pope's works is The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt (10 vols., 1951-1967), a monumental and illuminating scholarly achievement. Pope's Poetical Works, edited by Herbert Davis (1967), presents the poems, without annotation, as in their original format.
George Sherburn, The Early Career of Alexander Pope (1934), is a scholarly literary biography of Pope to about 1726. A less scholarly but readable, reliable, and up-to-date biography is Peter Quennell, Alexander Pope: The Education of Genius, 1688-1728 (1968), the first volume of a projected two-volume study. Marjorie Nicolson and G.S. Rousseau, "This Long Disease, My Life": Alexander Pope and the Sciences (1968), is a good treatment of Pope's illness and a history of science of the time. A short but colorful biography is Bonamy Dobrée, Alexander Pope (1951). See also Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets (3 vols., 1779-1781; several recent editions); Emily Morse Symonds, Mr. Pope, His Life and Times (2 vols., 1909); Edith Sitwell, Alexander Pope (1930); Norman Ault, New Light on Pope (1949); and William K. Wimsatt, The Portraits of Alexander Pope (1965).
Useful critical studies of the poetry include Geoffrey Tillotson, On the Poetry of Pope (1938) and Pope and Human Nature (1958); Aubrey L. Williams, Pope's Dunciad (1955); Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (1959); Thomas R. Edwards, This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope (1963); and Maynard Mack, comp., Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope (1964; rev. ed. 1968).
Recommended for general reading are James R. Sutherland, A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (1948); Ian Jack, Augustan Satire (1952); and Geoffrey Tillotson, Augustan Poetic Diction (1964). □
Pope, Alexander (1688–1744)
POPE, ALEXANDER (1688–1744)
POPE, ALEXANDER (1688–1744), English poet, translator, and critic. A celebrity not only in fact but also by profession, Alexander Pope was the unmatched superstar of English neoclassical literature and arguably the first author in England to make his living exclusively through literary talent. During a comparatively short life focused on literary and cultural activities, Pope alternately defined, improved, invented, satirized, critiqued, and reformed the genres and conventions of early-eighteenth-century British verse.
Born in 1688 amidst a "Glorious Revolution" that put an end to the absolutist claims of Stuart monarchs and set Britain on a course for a constitutional if not altogether secular government, Pope's life was characterized by the contradictions of new gentility and chastised affluence. Despite their urban origins and their mercantile vocation, Pope and his forebears drifted in Tory, royalist circles; despite physical deformity and entrenchment in the upper middle classes, Pope affected the stylish, rakish ways of high life; despite profiting handsomely from his publications and living like a conforming country squire on his suburban Twickenham estate, Pope persisted in Catholicism (enduring heavy economic and political sanctions) and enjoyed provoking persecution from an officialdom that was also his audience and customer. The story of Pope's meteoric rise—from the publication of his Pastorals (1709) at the age of twenty through the runaway success of his versified critical treatise, The Essay on Criticism (1711), at twenty-three through his best-selling translations of Homer (1715–1726) through his unlikely versified philosophical hit, An Essay on Man (1733–1734), and on through his snarling but astonishingly successful Dunciad (1743)—may read like the contrived biography of some twentieth-century movie idol, but it also points up Pope's lucky historical position at a moment when an enlarged readership and an expanding urban culture were transforming the "literary career" from a private preserve for gentlemen to an open public spectacle. So powerful and pervasive was this new idiom of the public writer that Pope could maintain influential friends across the political and cultural spectrum, from the conservative Jonathan Swift to the snappy Joseph Addison and from Richard Boyle, the Whiggish earl of Burlington, to Tory movers-and-shakers such as Robert Harley, earl of Oxford and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke.
Pope routinely presents himself as a conservative spokesman (and satirist) for sound common sense and as a sturdy pillar of English classicism. His works, however, are emphatically neoclassical. They stress what the period called "imitation," a speculative, psychological, and altogether modern attempt to write "as if" one were an ancient author who happened to be living and writing in Augustan London. "Wit," "genius," "grace," and other eighteenth-century literary values vie for hegemony with assorted classical "rules." Pope's works advocate experimentation and adaptation, applying putatively classical norms to eighteenth-century contexts, topics, and genres. Pope's early Pastorals (1709) apply Virgilian techniques to English landscapes to produce a modern Georgics. An Essay on Criticism (1711) borrows from Horace's Ars Poetica (Art of poetry) to characterize and to spoof Augustan rhetorical miscarriages. The Rape of the Lock (1714) fuses contemporary mockery (as practiced by John Dryden, John Philips, Samuel Garth, and John Gay) with Homeric heroism to produce a ridiculous mock-heroic "epic" about domestic adventures in the boudoir. Not unlike the Rape is Windsor Forest (1713), a more sober but no less historically mixed attempt to combine Elizabethan versified history with Augustan heroic couplets to produce an epic story of the British monarchy, an epic that somewhat preposterously culminates in the coronation of Queen Anne.
Pope's later works preserve his commitment to this unabashedly transhistorical classicism while also negotiating between the differing demands of moral, satiric, and heroical writing, three strands that intertwine but never completely braid in Pope's increasingly tense later verse. The Essay on Man (1733–1734) flutters nervously if brilliantly between versified popularizations of philosophical optimism (as preached by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others) and broad satiric indictments of human shortsightedness. Several verse essays and epistles in imitation of Horace, collectively known as the Moral Essays (1733–1738), along with the companion An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735), tackle a range of philosophical topics, from architectural aesthetics to the character of women, in a sometimes theatrical, sometimes compassionate, sometimes deliberative, generally satiric voice. Pope's last large work, The Dunciad (1743), a re-issue and extension of his earlier Dunciad Variorum (1729), deploys crashingly gigantic heroic couplets to record, judge, and satirize a veritable encyclopedia of "dunces," poetasters, and seekers after literary fame who, in Pope's mind, have succeeded only in sucking the life out of neoclassicism.
In addition to his poetic offerings, Pope made substantial contributions to literary criticism (mostly through the seemingly simple but always subtle witticisms in An Essay on Criticism ), to the rise of bibliography and textual studies (through his not always competent production of an edition of Shakespeare  and through his relentless, ravaging attacks on other editors), and to the rise of the private epistle as a literary form (through his audacious publication of his own correspondence ). Pope was a major figure in the history of the print culture and of the publishing industry through his lively interactions with eighteenth-century publishing magnates such as Jacob Tonson, Bernard Lintot, and the scandalous Edmund Curll. Pope's opinions on naturalistic landscape gardening are definitive for their period. These and many other contributions mark him as a quintessential if not always representative figure in early eighteenth-century English culture.
See also Addison, Joseph ; English Literature and Language ; Glorious Revolution ; Steele, Richard ; Swift, Jonathan .
Pope, Alexander. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Edited by John Butt. London, 1963. A one-volume edition of the Twickenham text with selected annotations.
Brower, Reuben. Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion. Oxford, 1959. Classic study of Pope's poetic technique and topical allusions.
Brownell, Morris R. Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England. Oxford, 1978.
Griffin, Dustin H. Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems. Princeton, 1978. Analysis of Pope, Pope's persona, and the role of the author in neoclassical verse.
Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope: A Life. New Haven, 1985. Standard, highly detailed biography of Pope.
Quintero, Ruben. Literate Culture: Pope's Rhetorical Art. Newark, Del., 1992. Updated account of the rhetorically attuned culture in which Pope flourished.
Kevin L. Cope
Born: May 21, 1688
Died: May 30, 1744
The English poet Alexander Pope is regarded as one of the finest poets and satirists (people who use wit or sarcasm to point out and devalue sin or silliness) of the Augustan (mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century English literature) period and one of the major influences on English literature in this time and after.
Alexander Pope was born on May 21, 1688, in London, England, to Alexander and Edith Pope. His Roman Catholic father was a linen merchant. His family moved out of London and settled in Binfield in Windsor Forest around 1700. Pope had little formal schooling. He educated himself through extensive studying and reading, especially poetry.
Although Pope was healthy and plump in his infancy, he became severely ill later in his childhood, which resulted in a slightly disfigured body—he never grew taller than 4 feet 6 inches. He suffered from curvature of the spine, which required him to wear a stiff canvas brace. He had constant headaches. His physical appearance, frequently ridiculed by his enemies, undoubtedly gave an edge to Pope's satire (humor aimed at human weaknesses), but he was always warmhearted and generous in his affection for his many friends.
Pope was precocious (showed the characteristics of an older person at a young age) as a child and attracted the notice of a noted bookseller who published his Pastorals (1709). By this time Pope was already at work on his more ambitious Essay on Criticism (1711) designed to create a rebirth of the contemporary literary scene.
The Rape of the Lock (1712) immediately made Pope famous as a poet. It was a long humorous poem in the classical style (likeness to ancient Greek and Roman writing). Instead of treating the subject of heroic deeds, though, the poem was about the attempt of a young man to get a lock of hair from his beloved's head. It was based on a true event that happened to people he knew. Several other poems were published by 1717, the date of the first collected edition of Pope's works.
Translations of Homer
Pope also engaged in poetic imitations and translations. His Messiah (1712) was an imitation of Virgil (70–19 b.c.e.). He also did a version of Geoffrey Chaucer's (1342–1400) poetry in the English of Pope's day. But it was Pope's versions of Homer (c. 700 b.c.e.) that were his greatest achievement as a translator.
Pope undertook the translation of Homer's Iliad because he needed money. The interest earned from his father's annuities (money from investments) had dropped sharply. The translation occupied him until 1720. It was a great financial success, making Pope independent of the customary forms of literary patronage (support from wealthy people), and it was highly praised by critics.
From the time parts of Iliad began to appear, Pope became the victim of numerous pamphlet attacks on his person, politics, and religion. In 1716 an increased land tax on Roman Catholics forced the Popes to sell their place at Binfield and to settle at Chiswick. The next year Pope's father died, and in 1719 the poet's increased wealth enabled him to move with his mother to Twickenham.
From 1725 to 1726 Pope was engaged in a version of Odyssey. He worked with two other translators, William Broome and Elijah Fenton. They completed half of the translation between them. It was Pope's name, however, that sold the work, and he naturally received the lion's share (biggest part) of the profits.
Pope also undertook several editorial projects. Parnell's Poems (1721) was followed by an edition of the late Duke of Buckingham's Works (1723). Then, in 1725, Pope's six volumes on the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) were published. Pope's edits and explanatory notes were notoriously capricious (impulsive and not scholarly). His edition was attacked by Lewis Theobald in Shakespeare Restored (1726), a work that revealed a superior knowledge of editorial technique. This upset Pope, who then made Theobald the original hero of Dunciad.
In 1726 and 1727 the writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was in England and a guest of Pope. Together they published three volumes of poetry. Renewed contact with Swift must have given a driving force to Pope's poem on "Dulness," which appeared as the three-book Dunciad (1728). Theobald was the prime dunce, and the next year the poem was enlarged by a burlesque (broad comedy) on commentators and textual critics.
Clearly Pope used Dunciad as personal satire to pay off many old scores. But it was also prompted by his distaste for that whole process by which worthless writers gained undeserved literary prominence (fame). The parody (comic imitation) of the classical epic (heroic poem) was accompanied by further mock-heroic elements, including the intervention of a goddess, the epic games of the second book, and the visit to the underworld and the vision of future "glories." Indeed, despite its devastating satire, Dunciad was essentially a phantasmagoric (created by the imagination) treatment by a great comic genius. In 1742 Pope published a fourth book to Dunciad separately, and his last published work was the four-volume Dunciad in 1743.
An Essay on Man
Pope's friendship with the former statesman Henry St. John Bolingbroke, who had settled a few miles from Twickenham, stimulated his interest in philosophy and led to the composition of An Essay on Man. Some ideas expressed in it were probably suggested by Bolingbroke. For example, the notion that earthly happiness is enough to justify the ways of God to man was consistent with Bolingbroke's thinking.
In essence, the Essay is not philosophy (the study of knowledge) but a poet's belief of unity despite differences, of an order embracing the whole multifaceted (many-sided) creation. Pope's sources were ideas that had a long history in Western thought. The most central of these was the doctrine of plenitude, which Pope expressed through the metaphors (a figure of speech in which words or phrases are used to find similarities in things that are not comparable) of a "chain" or "scale" of being. He also asserted that the discordant (not harmonious) parts of life are bound harmoniously together.
Pope wrote Imitations of Horace from 1733 to 1738. (Horace was a Roman poet who lived from 65 to 8 b.c.e.) He also wrote many "epistles" (letters to friends) and defenses of his use of personal and political satire. As Pope grew older he became more ill. He described his life as a "long disease," and asthma increased his sufferings in his later years. At times during the last month of his life he became delirious. Pope died on May 30, 1744, and was buried in Twickenham Church.
Alexander Pope used language with genuine inventiveness. His qualities of imagination are seen in the originality with which he handled traditional forms, in his satiric vision of the contemporary world, and in his inspired use of classical models.
For More Information
Quennell, Peter. Alexander Pope: The Education of Genius, 1688–1728. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.
Russo, John Paul. Alexander Pope; Tradition and Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Poet; b. London, May 21, 1688; d. Twickenham, May 30, 1744. His mother was a member of an old Catholic Yorkshire family and his father a devout convert to Catholicism. Pope's formal education was desultory and his life ill-starred in many ways: he belonged to a proscribed "sect"; he was deformed and suffered ill health throughout his life; and he was hypersensitive. On the other hand, he had more than the usual allotment of courage, and he was unquestionably the most talented writer of his generation.
Early Work. His earliest published work, four graceful Vergilian Pastorals (1709), showed the poetic promise that was more than amply fulfilled in his Essay on Criticism (1711), which, if derivative, incorporating ideas from Aristotle, Horace, Vida, and Boileau, nevertheless possesses a sprightliness, a jauntiness of its own. Old truths are given a new relevance; each line, each couplet is marvelously felicitous. The first version of The Rape of the Lock, the most delightful of English mockheroic poems, appeared in 1712. The occasion, a foolish quarrel between two prominent Catholic English families over a social indiscretion, the impulsive and playful snipping of a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor by Lord Petre, teased Pope into a jocular treatment designed to persuade the participants in the feud to make sense. The poem is, however, much more than an occasional piece; it was simultaneously lighthearted, amusing, good-humored, persuasive—and a profound study of the values men live by. Pope obviously found the poem a challenge and two years later published an expanded and far superior version.
The restless interest in technique exhibited by neoclassical poets has been largely unnoticed. Between the two versions of The Rape of the Lock, Pope tried another classical genre, the topographical poem. Windsor Forest (1713) is important on many counts. It not only suggests that Pope (and his contemporaries) could appreciate external nature, even before Wordsworth publicized the Lake District; it hints that the kind of moralized description of nature that James Thomson made popular in The Seasons (and that has accordingly been viewed as a kind of foreshadowing of English Romanticism) was not foreign to neoclassicism. Further, it shows Pope's deep concern with the urgent issues of his day, e.g., the Peace of Utrecht that brought a long war with France to an end and was looked upon as the dawn of a new age of peace and prosperity.
Translations. If neoclassical poets were very much aware of contemporary events, they were also excessively respectful toward the achievements of the past. Pope not only imitated the classical pastoral and eclogue (as in Windsor Forest ), but he devoted many years of his creative life to translating Homer. Classical scholars even in his own day complained that he had done violence to the spirit of the original. He had. He meant to. Samuel Johnson, however, called Pope's Iliad (1715–20) "a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal." Johnson was much more perceptive than many of his contemporaries. He understood that Pope was not preparing a translation for schoolboys but rather a new poem for sophisticated readers.
This translation brought Pope a considerable fortune. He bought (not only for himself but for his mother, whom he idolized) a villa at Twickenham on the Thames, and amused himself with gardening and with the decorating of a fantastic grotto. He went on to translate the Odyssey (12 books, completed 1725), also a great financial success, and began work on an edition of Shakespeare's plays (completed 1725). His editorial principles in this labor are calculated to horrify a modern editor. But his determination to make Shakespeare available to his generation, to men brought up with the tastes (and prejudices) that he shared, makes his Shakespeare all of a piece with his Homer. The fact that his Homer has, to some extent, survived, while his Shakespeare is but a curiosity, is a kind of accident of history.
While Pope was still working on his translation of the Iliad, the first collected volume of his poetry appeared (1717), notable for its inclusion of two poems not hitherto published: Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and Eloisa to Abelard. These two famous poems are often thought to represent a somewhat aberrant romantic strain in Pope; actually Eloisa is classical and Ovidian, and the Verses exhibit an awareness of the language and of the attitudinizing of classical tragedy. They remain interesting evidence of the many-sidedness of Pope's genius and of his interest in problems of form.
Satires. Pope's later work is chiefly satirical. His reworkings of the satires of Horace and Donne are notable, but perhaps the best known is the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735), which became the Prologue to the Satires and which contains the famous sketches of Addison and Lord Hervey. The fundamental seriousness of the satires is also to be found in Pope's Moral Essays (1733), and the impetus behind the Moral Essays is the same impetus that gave the world the incomparable Essay on Man (1733–34). The profundity of this poem, its relationship to the permanent ethical problems that confront mankind, its dependence on traditional theology and philosophy, have only recently begun to be sensed. The "sublime" is one of the critical shibboleths of the 18th century. Pope's characteristic utterance was anti-sublime, but in the Essay on Man it mysteriously blended the cool common sense of the 18th century with an amazing awareness of the heights and depths of the mystery of the universe. He achieved the same kind of marvel in the Dunciad (1728–43). The conclusion of its fourth book is one of the most sublime and most frighteningly prophetic passages in English poetry.
Religious Background and Reputation. In spite of his family background, Pope's grasp of the fundamentals
of his faith seems never to have been conspicuously firm. Not a few of his critics have accused him of paying lip service to Catholicism while actually professing the fashionable deism of his day. Doubtless Pope was somewhat affected by what seemed to be the enlightened and magnanimous principles of Deism, but careful readers have become increasingly convinced that these Deistic elements in his thought have been overly stressed. His lifelong adherence to Catholicism, even after the death of his beloved parents and even when the advantages of a change of allegiance were obvious and their practical benefits actively urged by influential friends, demonstrates that his religious profession was more than nominal.
The history of Pope's reputation is singularly complex: in his own time he was both extravagantly admired and hated for the cleverness and ruthlessness of his personal satires. To the 19th century in general, Pope's poetry seemed that of a bygone age; its power was not felt, and his genius not apprehended. And a myth grew in which Pope was represented as a venomous monster, twisted in body and mind. New perspectives have gradually developed, however, and Pope is now almost universally recognized as one of the outstanding geniuses in the English tradition. The alleged "savageness" of his attacks on the fools and dunces of his day is now seen to be a brave man's defense of himself against conscienceless enemies—and also an implicit profession of belief in a highly moral and nobly humane credo.
Bibliography: Works, ed. w. elwin and w. j. courthope, 10v. (London 1871–89), rendered obsolete by The Twickenham Edition of the Poems, ed. j. butt, 6 v. in 7 (New Haven 1951–61). g.w. sherburn, Early Career of Alexander Pope (Oxford 1934), a model of careful biography. b. dobree, Alexander Pope (New York 1951), a good short study of his life. r. h. griffith, Alexander Pope: A Bibliography, 2 pts. (Austin 1922–27), an indispensable starting point. f. w. bateson, ed. The Cambridge Bibliographies of English Literature, 5 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1940–57) 2:294–305; 5:411–413.
J. A. Downie
D. Coffin (1994);
Jane Turner (1996)