Alexander Pope

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What are the poetic achievements of Alexander Pope?

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Pope extended and perfected the poetic technique of his great predecessor John Dryden. Ever since the Restoration in 1660, English poetry had taken a direction in which there was an increasing attempt to re-create the ideals and the aesthetic orientation of the Greek and Roman poets of antiquity. The heroic couplet—rhymed iambic pentameter—became standard. Elegance, grace, and the classical ideals of balance and emotional restraint were present in Dryden's work, as well as the use of satire as the most important and characteristic genre. Pope's achievement was to create not so much what was new or original as the best poetry that conformed to this modern re-creation of the poetic achievements of antiquity—especially of the period when Emperor Augustus was in power (27 BC–AD 14). Pope's era is thus often called the Augustan age of English poetry.

Pope's The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad are among the most important examples of satire in English poetry. But Pope excelled as well in writing didactic works, the best-known of which are his An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man. The former is an expression of Pope's (and his time's) aesthetic ideals; the latter is a philosophical work, a kind of poetic incarnation of the philosophy of Leibniz and others who promoted an optimistic (and later much ridiculed) picture of man's limited and imperfect position in the universe. Pope also translated Homer into English, and for many, his versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey represented his central achievement.

Though their philosophy was one of the acceptance of imperfection in the cosmos, Pope and his generation believed that English poetry itself had reached a high point of perfection in their time. Pope "re-versified" some of the works of Donne in a smoother, more elegant style and even considered doing the same with Milton's Paradise Lost. And the essence of Pope's achievement lies in the beauty of his poetic language within the context of this replication in English of the style and the concerns of Augustus's era. For Pope, the primary model was Horace, while for Pope's friend and contemporary Jonathan Swift, the model was Juvenal.

By only a few decades after Pope's death in 1744, tastes had already begun to change, with a more sentimental and even openly emotional ideal of literature representing the very beginnings of Romanticism. In his Life of Pope, Samuel Johnson reiterated the view of those who had not been swayed by this change in aesthetic values, saying that Pope's work is the essence of the poetic.

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Alexander Pope is generally regarded as one of the most important of the 18th century British poets. His first major achievement was a translation of Homer's Iliad into rhymed heroic couplets. Although the famous classicist, Richard Bentley, claimed it was inaccurate (he said "A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer"), it was extremely popular. He was a major figure in the revival of the classics and a notion of taste based on Roman poetry, especially Horace. As a poet, he was renowned for his satirical works, especially the "Dunciad", "Rape of the Lock", and "Essay on Criticism", as well as his mastery of the heroic couplet.

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