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. Pope was a master of the heroic couplet.
Pope was born in the City of London to Alexander Pope Senior, a linen merchant, and Edith (née Turner), who were both Roman Catholics. Pope's education was affected by the laws in force at the time upholding the status of the established Church of England, which banned Catholics from teaching on pain of perpetual imprisonment. Pope was taught to read by his aunt and then sent to two surreptitious Catholic schools, at Twyford and at Hyde Park Corner. Catholic schools while illegal, were tolerated in some areas. From early childhood he suffered numerous health problems, including Pott's disease (a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine) which deformed his body and stunted his growth, no doubt helping to end his life at the relatively young age of 56 in 1744. He never grew beyond 1.37 m (4 ft., 6 in.).
In 1700, his family was forced to move to a small estate in Binfield, Berkshire due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a statute preventing Catholics from living within 10 miles of either London or Westminster. Pope would later describe the countryside around the house in his poem Windsor Forest. With his formal education now at an end, Pope embarked on an extensive campaign of reading. As he later remembered: "In a few years I had dipped into a great number of the English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. This I did without any design but that of pleasing myself, and got the languages by hunting after the stories...rather than read the books to get the languages." His very favourite author was Homer, whom he had first read aged eight in the English translation of John Ogilby. Pope was already writing verse: he claimed he wrote one poem, Ode to Solitude, at the age of twelve. At Binfield, he also began to make many important friends. One of them, John Caryll (the future dedicatee of The Rape of the Lock), was two decades older than the poet and had made many acquaintances in the London literary world. He introduced the young Pope to the aging playwright William Wycherley. William Walsh, a minor poet, helped Pope revise his first major work, The Pastorals. He also met the Blount sisters, Martha and Teresa, who would remain lifelong friends.
Early literary career
First published in 1709 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. In 1712, Pope, Gay, Swift, Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell formed the Scriblerus Club. 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
Pope had been fascinated by Homer since childhood. In 1713, he announced his plans to publish a translation of Homer's Iliad. The work would be available by subscription, with one volume appearing every year over the course of six years. Pope secured a revolutionary deal with the publisher Bernard Lintot, which brought him two hundred guineas a volume. The commercial success of his translation made Pope the first English poet who could live off the sales of his work alone, "indebted to no prince or peer alive", as he put it. His translation of the Iliad duly appeared between 1715 and 1720. It was later acclaimed by Samuel Johnson as "a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal". The classical scholar Richard Bentley, less fulsomely, wrote: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." The money he made allowed Pope to move to a villa at Twickenham in 1719, where he would create a famous grotto and gardens (destroyed by bombing in World War Two). Encouraged by the very favourable reception of the Iliad, Pope translated the Odyssey. The translation appeared in 1725–1726, but this time, confronted with the arduousness of the task, he enlisted the help of William Broome and Elijah Fenton. Pope attempted to conceal the extent of the collaboration (he himself translated only twelve books, Broome eight and Fenton four), but the secret leaked out. It did some damage to Pope's reputation for a time, but not to his profits. In this period Pope also brought out an edition of Shakespeare, which silently "regularised" his metre and rewrote his verse in several places. Lewis Theobald and other scholars attacked Pope's edition, incurring Pope's wrath and inspiring the first version of his satire The Dunciad (1728), the first of the moral and satiric poems of his last period.
Later career: "An Essay on Man" and satires
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"). 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. He lies buried in the nave of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham.
Pope's works were once considered part of the mental furniture of the well-educated person. One edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes no less than 212 quotations from Pope. Some, familiar even to those who may not know their source, are "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); and "The proper study of mankind is man" (Essay on Man).
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”. 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 Pope's example shows that great poetry could be written with these constraints.
Pope also wrote the famous epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton:
"Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light."
to which Sir John Collings Squire later added the couplet
"It did not last: the devil, shouting 'Ho.
Let Einstein be' restored the status quo."
Pope's association with Sir Isaac Newton is mentioned in the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code.
A quotation from Pope's Eloisa to Abelard (lines 206-210) was used in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it goes as such:
"How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd...".
- (1709) Pastorals
- (1711) An Essay on Criticism
- (1712) The Rape of the Lock
- (1713) Windsor Forest
- (1715-1720) Translation of the Iliad
- (1717) Eloisa to Abelard
- (1717) Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady
- (1725-1726) Translation of the Odyssey
- (1728) The Dunciad
- (1734) Essay on Man
- (1735) The Prologue to the Satires (see the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot and Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?)
Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (Yale, 1985, the definitive biography)
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