Alexander Pope

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Compare and contrast Alexander Pope and John Milton as poets of their ages.

Alexander Pope is a poet of his age in that his works are marked by elegance, wit, and decorum. In keeping with the prevailing standards of early eighteenth-century England, he writes for an elite aristocratic audience who can appreciate his witty wordplay and polished phrases.

John Milton is a poet of his age in that he combines a fervent belief in Christianity with extensive knowledge of the pagan classics.

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Alexander Pope was very much the epitome of early eighteenth-century English poetry. In his elegant, witty, and polished verse, he exemplified the prevailing artistic standards of the age. At that time, poetry was expected to deal with timeless, universal themes, drawn largely from ancient writers, such as Horace, Ovid, and Cicero. It was expected to be written in elegant, consistent rhyme schemes and meters, in keeping with the order, stability, and decorum that the Augustan age demanded of its artists. In the age of Pope, there was no place for innovation, eccentricity, and singularity. Such characteristics would only become prominent in the age of Romanticism, long after Pope had passed away.

Throughout his extensive body of work, Pope fulfilled this ideal with considerable skill. His use of heroic couplets gave his work an economy of expression, imposing on his work the required consistency and decorum for which he strove and which was expected of him by his readers. The heroic couplet serves Pope particularly well in lengthier works such as the mock-epics The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, in which the interest of the reader is maintained by regular rhyme schemes as well as the entertaining, often scurrilous content.

If Alexander Pope was a poet of his age, then so too was John Milton. Milton’s age, the seventeenth century, was a time of change, in which the traditional theistic worldview was being challenged by the rise of secularism, which drew upon the work of ancient pagan writers, thinkers, and artists. To be sure, Milton’s age was a religious age, and a self-consciously religious age at that, but the fruits of pagan learning were the birthright of every educated man, and Milton was no exception.

In his work, Milton successfully incorporated the prevailing synthesis of pagan learning and Christianity that dominated cultural life during this epochal century. In “Lycidas,” for example, Milton draws extensively upon elements of pagan mythology in paying fulsome tribute to a recently departed friend.

And in his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, Milton takes as his point of departure the great epic poems of antiquity, such as The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid. In telling the tale of man’s first disobedience, the fall of Adam and Eve, he combines the form of pagan epic with the substance of Christian myth, generating a synthesis entirely in keeping with the standards of European high culture in the seventeenth century.

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