Alexander Pope

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What is the importance of allusions in "The Immortality of Verse" by Horace, translated by Alexander Pope?

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Alexander Pope ’s poem “The Immortality of Verse,” is a loose translation of part of Horace’s Ode IV.ix, “To Lollius.” Pope substitutes appropriate English equivalents for Horace’s references to Ancient Greek poets, so we have Milton instead of Homer, and Spenser in place of Pindar. Like Horace, Pope makes his...

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Alexander Pope’s poem “The Immortality of Verse,” is a loose translation of part of Horace’s Ode IV.ix, “To Lollius.” Pope substitutes appropriate English equivalents for Horace’s references to Ancient Greek poets, so we have Milton instead of Homer, and Spenser in place of Pindar. Like Horace, Pope makes his own claim to immortality by locating himself in the company of illustrious predecessors. In the second stanza, he alludes to four poets in as many lines. The first two, Milton and Spenser, are the most celebrated epic poets England has ever produced. Horace also placed an epic poet, Homer, first, but then referred to Pindar, who was best known for writing odes, as Horace did.

The other two names Pope mentions are those of Edmund Waller and Abraham Cowley, seventeenth-century Cavalier poets more celebrated in Pope’s time than they are now. Both wrote lyric verse and were thus quite distinct from Pope, the poet of satire and mock epic, though they were very much in the Horatian tradition, suggesting that Pope chose the names of his poets with some care and with reference to his source.

Pope makes a distinction between his poetry, along with that of the poets to whom he alludes, and the “vulgar” song of lesser scribblers. The effect of these allusions is not only to situate Pope in the most distinguished of company (though over a range of talents and styles, since he is too subtle simply to select the four greatest English poets: he wisely leaves Shakespeare alone). It is also to claim for English verse a place alongside that of classical antiquity, a common trope in eighteenth-century poetry and the subject of Jonathan Swift’s satire The Battle of the Books. This parity is suggested by Pope’s substitution of English names for Greek ones in his allusions.

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Pope is making the claim that poetry, like all great art, never truly dies; it transcends the world of time and sense to achieve immortality. Pope was a great poet himself and was never shy in proclaiming his genius. At the same time, he wants to convince the reader of his genius by claiming that he is part of a long and noble tradition that stretches all the way back to Milton. This history is so much more important to Pope than the mere unfolding of events in time, the history of kings and queens, of empires, chiefs, and sages.

The allusions to the great poets of the past consciously place Pope in a tradition, one whose mantle he wishes to inherit. The world of eighteenth-century letters, of which Pope was such a notable figure, was intensely suspicious of anything that smacked of eccentricity or spontaneity. Art must be true to nature; human nature, to be precise. And that meant following the traditional rules and emulating the great poets of the past. In doing so, a poet would be able to convey universal truths that would live on long after he had died. It is this immortality that Pope seeks for himself and for poetry in general.

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The first thing to note here is that the poem is not actually by Horace, a Latin poet who lived in the first century BCE. The poem mentions the Thames, located in England, and Milton, Spenser, Cowley, and Newton, all of whom were born many centuries after Horace died. 

The actual author of the poem is Alexander Pope, an eighteenth-century poet, writing in imitation of the themes of Horace's Ode IV.9. Horace's original ode mentions famous Greek poets such as Homer, Pindar, Simonides, Alcaeus, and Stesichorus. Thematically, though, both poems have a similar argument, namely that what makes people memorable, especially after their death, is a combination of great deeds and of artistic works such as poems which cause them to become fixed in cultural memory. We remember Helen's beauty or Odysseus's cleverness because of the Homeric epics, but other people equally attractive or clever have long been forgotten. 

The point of the allusions is precisely to make us aware of how powerful poets are in creating cultural memory. Pope is suggesting that just as the ancient Greek poets cemented the reputation of ancient heroes for all time, so English poetry (including his own) will immortalize the great thinkers and leaders of England. The allusions to famous English poets such as Waller, Cowley, Milton, and Spenser are included as examples of poets whose verse will not "yield to time" (i.e. will never be forgotten). Thus the poets will preserve for all time the greatness of English leaders and thinkers.

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The allusions to other poets in this brilliant poem are used to support the central message of the poem, which is that immortality can only be truly gained through poetry. Note the final stanza, which seems to cement the argument of the speaker of this poem. Even though chieftains and leaders "raised new empires o'er the earth," their pride was all in "vain" because "they had not poet, and are dead." The message of this poem is very much that if we want to be immortal, or to have our name remembered throughout the history of mankind, we need to make sure that our name is enshrined in poetry.

This explains the second stanza and the way that each of the four poets mentioned, Milton, Spenser, Waller and Cowley, are shown to have stood the test of time. We still read them and we still talk about them and study their works. These poets will not "yield to time" but will endure throughout the centuries, proving that verse does not die, as the first line of this poem makes very clear.

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