Fame and reputation have not dealt evenly with Alexander Pope, the leading English poet of the early eighteenth century. Following his death, he was generally ranked among the greatest of English poets, but his reputation declined during the Romantic period, when neoclassicism fell into disfavor. In the twentieth century, Pope has found enthusiastic readers, although their numbers are small. His place in literary history remains secure, yet he is studied as a poet of a remote era and remote sensibility rather than as a living influence upon contemporary literature. In his lengthy biography of the poet, Maynard Mack has attempted to depict Pope’s life, to clarify his literary principles and values, and to interpret his achievements.
As Mack points out, Pope’s remoteness from the present results, in part, from his view of the purpose of poetry and literature. Pope believed that poetry had an important function in society at large as an influence on manners, morals, and taste—it should appeal not merely to aesthetic sensibilities but to reason as well, and the poet indeed had a legitimate role as an adviser to rulers and political leaders. Even Pope’s age was hostile to this exalted view of poetry, for the rulers of England, the first Hanoverian kings, who neither read nor spoke English, cared little about English literature. Moreover, the great prime minister of Pope’s era, Sir Robert Walpole, was contemptuous of poetry and poets. Readers of a later age, even those who agree with Pope’s exalted view of literature, encounter an additional burden, for those poets who address the issues of their own day, particularly if they address them in satire as Pope did, produce works containing topical allusions and contemporary references that inevitably become obscure.
Pope did not allow himself to become discouraged by official indifference or disapproval, for he did not rely on the patronage of the great. Instead, he achieved independence through his ability to bargain with booksellers, becoming the first truly professional man of letters in English literature. Those who received official patronage, notably the poets laureate—such as Nahum Tate, Laurence Eusden, and Colley Cibber—are all but forgotten. For modern readers, Pope’s contribution remains in the epigrammatic wit of his couplets and countless expressions that have passed into English idiom and have become familiar maxims—“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “To err is human, to forgive divine,” “Be not the first by whom the new are tried”—a decidedly lesser immortality than he would have desired.
In addition to the disadvantages stemming from Pope’s view of literature, another obvious one must be noted. It lies in the same epigrammatic wit that made Pope’s brief passages memorable—for he wrote primarily in heroic couplets, the rhymed iambic pentameter lines that reveal numerous rhetorical and poetic conventions, chiefly intricate and varied patterns of repetition. Pope brought the couplet to its perfection in English poetry, largely through making the verse form of John Dryden more regularly balanced and end-stopped. Yet in modern times the verse form can be appreciated by few readers. A scattered few couplets are easily recalled; hundreds following successively in a single composition cause most readers to lose the poem’s thought and structure. They seem restrictive and artificial rather than artful. The decline of the couplet form inevitably had an adverse effect on Pope’s fame as a poet.
In the poetry of a neoclassic writer such as Pope, little about the poet’s life is revealed. John Dryden, the greatest literary figure in England during the final part of the seventeenth century, once remarked that however little a man said about himself, it was too much. As with many other legacies from his predecessor, Pope seems to have taken this one to heart. It implies much about the mental outlook of the neoclassic artist: respect for traditional...
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