Alexander Pope Poetry: British Analysis
Alexander Pope’s poetry is an unmistakable challenge to the post-Romantic sensibilities of the twentieth century reader. John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard,” seems entirely contradicted by the public and topical voice that characterizes the epistles, satires, and philosophic exordiums of Pope. The language of introspective reverie that poets, from the nineteenth century on, cultivate in lonely self-communion among the bowers of a refined aestheticism could not be further removed from the racy, tough, and contentious idiom of Pope. That is not to say that Pope’s language is devoid of sculptured phrases or chiseled locutions; on the contrary, his compositions are exquisitely wrought and develop with an inevitability that makes Pope, after William Shakespeare, the most quoted poet in the English language. Following the translation of the Iliad, however, Pope’s works became increasingly didactic and satirical in nature and engaged in topical assaults on the foibles, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings that characterized the literary and political arena during the reigns of Anne and George II. The astonishing thing is that these topical satires of literary hacks long since forgotten and social customs consigned to oblivion, touch, time and again, upon that which is enduring and universal in the moral being of humanity. The literary battles and political machinations that gave occasion to Pope’s vitriolic utterances may be forgotten, but the integrity with which Pope affirmed the centrality of letters, the tempering spirit of humanism, the need for standards, and the cultivation of reverence as indispensable ingredients of a just and balanced society, retains its relevance in the broken world of the twentieth century.
Like Vergil, Pope began as a writer of pastorals; his first poems, composed when he was sixteen, are delicate evocations of an idyllic world of shepherds and shepherdesses poised among settings reminiscent of François Boucher and Jean Fragonard. These highly stylized exercises won for him the accolades of contemporary critics and gave him the confidence to essay the next task that tradition prescribed for the developing poet: the epic. Pope’s translation of the Iliad, the first books of which appeared in 1715, was a watershed in his poetic career. Though Pope had already written poems that prefigure his later orientation as a satirist, it was the publication of the Iliad that triggered the wholly irrational and unexpected assault on Pope’s life, family, writings, and physiognomy by his political enemies and rivals to poetic fame. These attacks diverted Pope from the musings of Windsor Forest, the perorations of An Essay on Criticism, and the witticisms of The Rape of the Lock, and obliged him, to paraphrase a Nobel laureate, “to grab his century by the throat.” After 1719, Pope’s career is notable for the increasing venom of his pen and the sustained brilliance of his polemic.
An Essay on Criticism
Pope’s first important utterance gives us direct access to the critical values of the Augustans and remains the best and most compendious statement of a poetic tradition that extends from Horace to Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. Indeed, as a distillation of neoclassical attitudes, Pope’s An Essay on Criticism is without a peer. The critical assumptions on which the poem is based could not be further removed from the splintered aesthetics and boneless relativism of the present: As a statement of poetic intention and practice, it provides a necessary corrective to the farrago of contradictions that characterize the contemporary critical scene. Pope vigorously attacks the notion that taste is a purely subjective matter, arguing that a deterioration in aesthetic values is both a symptom and a portent of a general disequilibrium in the moral being of the individual and the political fabric of society. The poem’s controlling symbol is the sun—an emblem of universal reason and light...
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