Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1915
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.
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.
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...
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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” andEloisa 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 social and literary life. The London literary world (which included some noblemen who were not necessarily writers) indeed became divided between his many, mostly well-known, friends and his fewer, mostly also well-known, enemies, some of whom he was to attack in his later works. Loyal and hospitable as a friend, he could be an acidulous enemy.
Pope bought a home on the Thames at Twickenham in 1719 and spent the rest of his life there, visited frequently by his London friends and also visiting his friends in London and many other places. His mother lived with him at Twickenham until her death in 1733. Besides his translation of the Odyssey (in which he shared the work with two assistants), his edition of the works of Shakespeare, and his important philosophical poem An Essay on Man (1733-1734), his later work was almost entirely verse satire, the form for which he is most admired and of which he is the outstanding master in English literature. Opinions differ about the value of An Essay on Man, a long poem about man’s place on earth and in the universe, the purpose of which is “to vindicate the ways of God to man,” but it contains many splendid passages and remains among his best-known poems. The satires include, among others, several based on specific epistles and satires of Horace, with the locales and the phenomena changed to contemporary England; An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735), addressed to one of his closest friends, which includes his famous attack on Addison, the portrait of “Atticus”; and another mock-epic, The Dunciad, of which his enemy Lewis Theobald was the “hero,” published in 1728, followed by an enlarged edition in 1729 and a new edition in 1743, with the “hero” changed to Colley Cibber, the new poet laureate, whose appointment enraged many of the important writers of the day. Pope’s later work also includes a prose satire, Peri Bathos: Or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), and a series of verse “moral essays,” parts of which also involve satire.
Among other skills, Pope was a master of the epigram. He has more entries in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations than almost anyone else except Shakespeare, many of which have become traditional proverbs. Examples include:
A little learning is a dangerous thing
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread
Hope springs eternal in the human breast
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right
An honest man’s the noblest work of God
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
Pope died in 1744, a victim of his worsening bone ailment and of a disease of the kidney. He was buried in Twickenham (an Anglican) Church.
Like that of most important writers of his day, Alexander Pope’s life centered on the literary world of London and his broad circle of friends within that world. His important works run from An Essay on Criticism, published when he was twenty-three, to his final version of The Dunciad, published a year before his death.
Other major poets of the heroic couplet in the neoclassical period were John Dryden (1631-1700) and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Pope certainly learned from Dryden, and Johnson from Pope, but each has his own distinctive and effective style. Individual poems of Pope remain far better known to the world in general than those of Dryden, and Johnson’s output as a poet was small. With the advent of the Romantic period near the end of the eighteenth century, the work of the neoclassical period—especially the poetry and criticism—became unpopular and remained so throughout the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, recognition of the quality and value of the neoclassical poets—and again especially Pope—has been restored. The heroic couplet as a form, however, has never again approached the popularity of blank verse and other verse forms, and Pope’s translations of Homer will almost surely never be as popular as the best blank verse translations. Nevertheless, Pope is now firmly established as one of the truly great poets of English literature.
Barnard, John. Pope: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Comments by eighteenth century writers and critics, in books, articles, essays, letters, and other forms, on Pope’s individual poems and his work in general, ranging from a letter written by William Walsh in 1705 commenting on the Pastorals to comments on Pope’s definition of wit by Samuel Johnson in 1782, in a conversation reported by Fanny Burney. An astonishingly varied and useful work.
Guerinot, J. V., ed. Pope: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. An important early collection, including essays by, among others, Maynard Mack, W. H. Auden, Geoffrey Tillotson, and Allen Tate.
Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. This lengthy and authoritative volume by one of the major Pope scholars of this century casts much new light on Pope’s life and should remain the standard biography of Pope for many years to come.
Mack, Maynard, ed. Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964, revised and enlarged, 1968. Articles by such major scholars as F. R. Leavis, Samuel Holt Monk, Austin Warren, Earl Wasserman, William Empson, George Sherburn, and Hugo Reichard.
Mack, Maynard, and James A. Winn, eds. Pope: Recent Essays by Several Hands. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980. A new collection of more recent important essays, by such major scholars as Ronald Paulson, Hugh Kenner, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Louis Landa, William K. Wimsatt, Paul Hunter, and Irvin Ehrenpreis.
Morris, David B. Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. A study of critical issues in Pope’s poems, including, for example, a fine and original analysis of method in An Essay on Criticism and of revision in The Rape of the Lock, and a convincing defense of style and morality in Eloisa to Abelard.
Russo, John Paul. Alexander Pope: Tradition and Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. An important contribution to Pope scholarship, this book does an admirable job of interpreting Pope’s life through his poetry and his poetry through his life. A major example is Pope’s translation of Homer, involving his knowledge of and love for the Iliad and Odyssey from childhood, his gradually developed decision to attempt the arduous task of translating the Iliad while still a young man, his problem of translating in a style suitable to both Homer and contemporary taste, and his extensive comment on the task in his correspondence and in his preface to the translation.
Winn, James Anderson. A Window in the Bosom: The Letters of Alexander Pope. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977. An enlightening study of Pope’s correspondence, covering such topics as his attitudes toward letter writing; his different styles for different people, such as noblemen, ladies, and adversaries; his adopting of various personas; and his successful efforts in getting carefully chosen parts of his correspondence published.