Pope, Alexander

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Pope, Alexander (1688-1744): English, Poet.

Alexander Pope was England’s most important poet of the eighteenth century before the Romantics. Born to middle-class Roman Catholic parents, Pope was part of a disenfranchised religious minority that was looked upon with suspicion. Pope also suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, which stunted his growth, deformed his back, and forced him to endure pain and ridicule. Despite these handicaps, Pope forged a highly successful career as a poet, producing a large body of significant writing, which included works of satire, aesthetics, and moral and philosophical reflection.

Pope was largely self-taught. As a Catholic, he was barred from universities and most schools, though he did attend some Catholic schools that were tolerated. At age twelve he began to study on his own and to take private language lessons. In 1705 he met Sir William Trumbull (former secretary of state) who encouraged his early literary efforts and introduced him to other writers and political figures, notably WilliamWycherley, William Walsh, and Lord Somers.

In 1709, Pope announced himself as a poet by publishing Pastorals, an act in which he emulated the Roman poet Virgil, who began his career with a work of pastoral verse called Eclogues. Pope understood his responsibility as a poet to be that of preserving, enriching, and refining the literary legacy bequeathed to his generation by Dryden (the great poet of the late seventeenth century), a legacy that stretched back through English literary history to the ancients. But as his career progressed, Pope increasingly felt that modern culture as it developed during the Enlightenment—specifically, the rise of Grub Street and the literary marketplace, the advent of new forms of learning, and the growing pervasiveness of commercial values—was hostile to the literary legacy he inherited and the culture it sustained. Much of Pope’s work is thus engaged in a deep struggle with key developments of the Enlightenment. It is telling, for example, that though Pope planned to write an epic comparable to Virgil’s Aeneid, he ended up creating mock-epics that satirized his own age, which he deemed unworthy of epic treatment.

While Pastorals announced Pope as promising poet, his subsequent work quickly established him as a major literary figure, beginning with An Essay on Criticism (1711), regarded as a summa of the neoclassical or “Augustan” aesthetic that has come to characterize the period. Though a product of much study, Criticism impresses mainly by its epigrammatic brilliance and stunning confidence. So memorable are some lines that they have become proverbs still in use today (e.g., “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”). In elegant strokes, Pope lays out his aesthetic principles (which are not rigid rules), explains the virtues that critics must acquire, and analyzes the role of criticism in civilization.

In 1712, Pope published Rape of the Lock (revised 1717), a dazzlingly witty mock-epic poem that recounts the furor created by a noble suitor who, without invitation, cuts a lock of hair from a rich coquette named Belinda. Based on an actual incident and ostensibly intended to reconcile the parties involved, Rape presents a satire of modern England and its ruling class. The use of the mock-epic form, in which trivial matters are expressed in the grand style and treated as heroic events, humorously shows the incongruity between Pope’s contemporaries and the heroes of past epics to whom they are implicitly compared. Indeed, Rape depicts a governing elite that seems incapable of any form of greatness: they are shallow, self-absorbed, vain, and morally confused. So confused is Belinda that at one point she thinks that discrete rape would have been preferable to losing her lock of hair because the former is private whereas the other is public. Though the poem delights in the opulence of Belinda’s world made possible by England’s burgeoning commercial empire, it suggests that prosperity has produced moral decline.

In addition to Criticism and Rape, Pope published other significant works in the 1710s, such as Windsor Forest (1713), a poem that celebrates rural life as it meditates (in contrast to Rape) optimistically on England’s emerging empire, and Temple of Fame (1715), an allegorical poem that explores the moral and existential perils of fame. Pope also wrote the remarkable Eloisa to Abelard (1717), a heroic epistle that treats the tragic twelfth-century love affair of Héloïse and Peter Abélard. That Pope wrote the epistle in the voice of Héloïse and did so in convincing fashion shows his emotional and literary range. The poem succeeds in its moving exploration of the conflict between passion and guilt, erotic love and divine love, and in its conviction in the power of art to transfigure human suffering.

In keeping with his calling as a poet to safeguard and enrich England’s literary legacy, Pope regarded translating and editing as important activities. His translations of Homer’s Iliad (1716-20) and Odyssey (1725-26), which he sold by subscription, were major achievements. Pope was lauded for making Homer poetically available and thus meaningful to eighteenth-century England. The translations also brought Pope financial independence, enabling him to work outside the patronage system without being a slave to the marketplace, like the Grub Street hacks he despised. Pope also edited a prestigious edition of Shakespeare’s works (1725). Pope attracted criticism, however, for his tendency to “improve” Shakespeare’s texts by making them conform in small ways to neoclassical ideas of decorum.

By the early 1720s, Pope was fairly wealthy (he was able to buy a villa in Twickenham near London) and famous: he was England’s unofficial poet laureate, a member of the Sciblerus Club (a literary club that included Swift, Jonathan and Gay, John), and the friend of prominent Tory politicians (such as Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount). But success also brought enemies, which included envious Grub Street hacks, scholars critical of his translations and editions, and persons hostile to his political associations. Pope retaliated through satire, with such works as The Art of Sinking Poetry (1728) and The Dunciad (1728), considered a masterpiece.

The Dunciad is a mock epic that ridicules modern learning and contemporary culture. Inspired by Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, the poem ironically celebrates the triumph of the goddess Dulness and her supporters, headed by Lewis Theobald, a scholar who had criticized Pope’s edition of Shakespeare and whom Pope saw as representative of the deadening pedantry that he considered modern scholarship to be. Other satiric victims also inhabit The Dunciad—so many that Pope published a Dunciad Variorum (1729), complete with mock-scholarly notes, to identify them. In 1742, Pope published a new section called The New Dunciad and reworked the earlier ones. The complete and final form of the work appeared in 1743 as The Dunciad, In Four Books. In this form, the poem darkens: in addition to satirizing the rise of Grub Street, the misuse of learning, and the decline of literary culture, the final version depicts a politically corrupt society that has been vulgarized by crass commercial values and that is tottering on self-destruction. The poem ends in an apocalyptic scene of de-creation when Dulness yawns and plunges the world into endless night. Such a conclusion, which parodies the story of Genesis, insists on the idea that dullness in its multiple manifestations--bad art, pedantic scholarship, myopically specialized sciences, mind-numbing and vice-producing institutions of education, and so on—is a destructive force that undoes our ability to make God’s creation intelligible and to sustain civilization.

Between the first and last versions of The Dunciad, Pope produced other major poems that treat philosophical, ethical, and political subjects. Key works are An Essay on Man (1734), Epistles to Several Persons, often referred to as Moral Essays (1735), An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735) and Imitations of Horace (1733-39). Among these, Essay on Man is perhaps the most important given that it became known throughout Europe, generating both admiration and criticism. It attempts, like Milton’s Paradise Lost of the previous century to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” but unlike Milton, Pope retells no biblical stories. His argument, presented in four epistles, unfolds through a series of propositions that explain our relationship to God and the universe (first epistle), the psychologically of virtue and vice (second epistle), the individual’s relationship to society (third epistle), and the way to happiness (fourth epistle). Though Man is an Enlightenment text in that it seeks to explain our place in the universe through reason and without recourse to the scriptures, like much of his other work it mounts a critique of the Enlightenment in that it chastises the blasphemous pretensions of modern science to probe into realms only God can know and exhorts contemporaries to return to traditional humanistic studies (ethics, history, poetry).

Further Reading:

Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life, 1985

James McLaverty, Pope, Print, and Meaning, 2001.

David Morris, Alexander Pope, the Genius of Sense, 1984.

Terence Bowers

College of Charleston