Study Guide

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

0111201572-Pope.jpgAlexander Pope (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: The major English poet in the neoclassical tradition, Pope also wrote critical introductions to his edition of the works of William Shakespeare and his translation of Homer’s Iliad and took up important critical concepts in An Essay on Criticism and certain others of his works in both verse and prose.

Early Life

Alexander Pope was born May 21, 1688, in London, of Roman Catholic parents, his father being a well-to-do merchant. When he was small, the family moved, apparently first to Hammersmith, and then, in 1698, to a small house on a large property at Binfield in Windsor Forest. The move from London was partly or wholly to avoid what had become a law forbidding Roman Catholics to live within ten miles of Hyde Park Corner in London. Pope attended two Catholic schools, one near the home in Binfield, the other, oddly, at Hyde Park Corner. His regular schooling ended at age twelve. At about that age he became afflicted with Pott’s disease, a lifelong problem both because of frequent serious pain and because it left him a humpbacked dwarf.

Pope turned to writing verse in early adolescence, having read widely in classical, French, English, and some Italian literature. An early poem, which he sent to Henry Cromwell in 1709, made him known to a number of established writers; they encouraged him to seek a publisher for his Pastorals, written when he was sixteen and published in 1709. The resultant friendships caused him thereafter to spend much time in London. He never married, and while he had close woman friends, particularly Martha Blount, he almost surely had no sexual relationships.

Life’s Work

Other poems quickly followed the Pastorals: An Essay on Criticism (1711), “The Messiah” (1712; published in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator, although Pope and Addison later became enemies), The Rape of the Lock (1712, and, in longer form, 1714), Windsor Forest (1713), the first portion of his translation of the Iliad (1715), and, in 1717, a volume collecting his works to date and adding two new poems, “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” and Eloisa to Abelard. All of these poems and all of his later important poems are in heroic couplets (iambic pentameter couplets, rhymed), the popular verse form of the neoclassical period and the form of which he was the outstanding master. (“Neoclassicism” is a term referring to the admiration of, and patterning after, the work of the ancient writers of Greece and Rome, especially Rome. Pope, for example, patterned some of his work after the Roman poets Horace, Ovid, and Lucretius, and used some of the literary types that the Romans used, such as epic, satire, and epistle.) Regarding the more important of the poems through 1717, An Essay on Criticism was the last and best of a long series of poems on literary theory and practice in Italy, France, and England during the Renaissance and the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the more or less distant origin of which was Horace’s Ars Poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry), although Pope’s differed from all the earlier ones in being addressed to critics rather than poets. The Rape of the Lock is the most delightful and important of English mock-epics, a popular neoclassical genre. It is a kind of mockery of the idle, fashionable, upper-class life of his day, with the major characters, under fictitious names, recognizable to most contemporary readers as living persons. Its climactic point is an event which had actually occurred, a young man’s “rape” (that is, the cutting off as a souvenir) of a lock of hair of a greatly admired belle—a trivial act but by no means regarded as such by the belle. The poem’s later form includes, as actual epics do, some—in this case trivial though interesting—supernatural beings. “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” and Eloisa to Abelard show Pope succeeding in writing emotional poems involving love and death, a type of poem of which he might not otherwise have been thought capable. Eloisa to Abelard, the more important of the two, is a dramatic monologue by a nun torn between her love for her former lover, who is now a monk, and her love for God and the Church.

During this period, Pope became a member of the well-known Scriblerus Club, with such other writers as Jonathan Swift, who became his closest friend, and John Gay. The membership itself and the fact that Swift was an Anglican clergyman are evidence that Pope’s Catholicism had relatively little effect on his...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)

Alexander Pope Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The two most important elements in Alexander Pope’s life were his being born a Catholic and his contracting, during his twelfth year, a severe tubercular infection from which he never fully recovered. Because of his Catholicism, Pope was compelled to live outside London and was not allowed to enroll in a formal university program. Because of his illness, Pope attained a height of only four and a half feet, suffered from migraine headaches, was obliged to wear several pairs of hose and an elaborate harness to compensate for the slightness of his legs and the curvature of his spine, and was subject to frequent and caustic ridicule by critics, such as John Dennis, who directed their rancor at his physical deformities as much as at his poetic efforts. Pope’s physical ailments and the acrimony with which political and literary pundits attacked both his person and his work should never be forgotten in evaluating, say, the optimistic faith of An Essay on Man or the acidulous satire of The Dunciad. The affirmations of the former poem were not written out of ignorance of human suffering, and the vituperations of the latter poem cannot be understood apart from the contumely that Pope suffered at the hands of his adversaries—Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Lord Hervey, John Dennis, Joseph Addison, and Lewis Theobald, to name a few. Pope’s reference in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot to “this long disease, my life,” is no literary confabulation but an...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Alexander Pope Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201572-Pope.jpgAlexander Pope Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Alexander Pope was born in the City of London, England, on May 21, 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. He was the only child of Catholic parents. The Pope family lived on Lombard Street until Alexander was five years old. A portrait of him painted when he was about ten shows his face to be round, pretty, and of a fresh complexion. Later, an illness disfigured him. In the same year that he was born, an act of Parliament prohibited Catholics from living within ten miles of the City of London. This act became a major factor in determining the course of Pope’s life.

Pope received his first education when he was about eight years old from a priest named John Banister. Later, he attended Twyford School near Winchester, a school for Catholic boys. At the age of twelve, Pope’s father decided to move the family from London in order to conform to the act restricting Catholics. Whitefield House and seventeen acres of land in Windsor Forest near Binfield became the new home. This move brought Pope’s formal education to an end, and thereafter he educated himself. About 1704, at the age of sixteen and now suffering from the dreaded Pott’s disease, a form of spinal tuberculosis, he thought he was about to die. His farewell to the Abbe Southcote caused him to secure the services of Dr. John Radcliffe, an eminent physician of the day, who successfully treated Pope. His advice to Pope, to exercise and ride each day, worked.

During these years of growing up at Binfield, the young poet was not only extending his reading and perfecting his poetry, he was also developing his literary acquaintances. He got to know many literary wits at Will’s Coffee House, including William Trumbell, William Walsh, Samuel Garth, William Wycherley, William Congreve, and the actor Thomas Betterton. Pope became especially friendly with Wycherley and Walsh. He helped Wycherley prepare his verse for publication, and from Walsh he received the famous advice to make correctness his study and aim. Walsh was referring, of course, to literary decorum.

The period of 1709 to 1717 was the experimentation period for Pope. During these eight years, he tried his hand at half a dozen different kinds of poetry, ranging from pastoral and georgic, such as Windsor Forest (1713), to didactic, such as An Essay on Criticism (1711), to elegiac, as in “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” to heroic, as in Eloisa to Abelard (1717), to mock epic, such as The Rape of the Lock (1712; expanded, 1714), to actual epic, as in The Iliad of Homer (1715-1720), a translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611).

These years were also a time of great expansion in his personal and social life. They mark a period during which Pope spent more time in London than at any other stage in...

(The entire section is 1179 words.)

Alexander Pope Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like other significant writers of his time, Alexander Pope’s life revolved around the London literary scene and his wide circle of friends. Among his most important works are An Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad. Through his early fancy to his more mature universal satire, Pope created for his time a true reflection of society. He is firmly established as one of the truly outstanding poets of English literature.

(The entire section is 75 words.)

Alexander Pope Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201572-Pope.jpgAlexander Pope Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Alexander Pope, who became known as the “prose and reason” poet, was the son of a prosperous linen merchant and his second wife. The fact that Pope’s parents were Roman Catholics had a bearing on his education and economic and social status. Schools and universities were closed to him, he could not buy or inherit land, he paid double taxes, and he could not legally live within ten miles of London. He was educated at irregular times by private tutors, usually priests, but for the most part he “dipped into a great number of English, French, Italian, Latin and Greek poets.” This was no meager education in itself, for poets of the early 1700’s copied many forms and ideas from the classical writers of ancient Rome; not for...

(The entire section is 746 words.)