Alexander Pope Alexander Pope World Literature Analysis

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Alexander Pope World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pope has often been thought of only as a personal satirist, a small man in ill health, with a crooked back, spitting out vengeance on the world for his state of affairs. That famous epithet describing him as the “wicked wasp of Twickenham” is a part of the stereotyped image that he bears. Yet Pope is much more than that. The poetic activity in which he discovered the actual shape of his world and its ideal possibilities was the same as that in which he discovered his own feelings, values, and role as a poet within it. As one matured, so did the other.

From youth to adulthood, Pope was busy attempting a variety of poetry to ascertain where his strength lay. After his early Vergilian Pastorals in 1709, he wrote his well-known poem of criticism titled An Essay on Criticism in 1711, following the pattern of French poet Nicolas Boileau and that poet’s concern for good poetry writing. Again Boileau and also Garth influenced him in writing another form, the mock epic, to be fulfilled eventually in The Rape of the Lock. Pope’s Windsor Forest of 1713 is an attempt to continue the tradition established earlier by John Denham’s Cooper’s Hill (1642), the poetry of landscape utilizing the pastoral motif. Moreover, Eloisa to Abelard and “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” are best seen as imitations in part of Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567).

An early poem, “Epistle to Miss Blount,” shows how much he inherited from the seventeenth century and its Metaphysical wit. The poem’s closest affinities are with Andrew Marvell. It demonstrates a light, teasing intimacy. In “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” Pope draws on formal modes from the seventeenth century and tends to see himself as a poet in a corresponding way. Both these poems exhibit an attempt to make obvious to his society the meaning of order, reason, virtue, and decorum—those things accepted in Pope’s time as indicative forms of civilized life.

Pope also attempts to clarify as central to his whole moral outlook the relationship between the chaotic forces of life and the conscious sense that he made of it. A good reminder is in The Rape of the Lock, when he points out that, although beauty must decay and locks will turn to gray, the woman who scorns a man will die a maid. In his Eloisa to Abelard, Pope heightens the romantic trappings of the mode to a positively sub-Miltonic degree; he seemingly exploits the Ovidian implications more fully than any Elizabethan except perhaps Shakespeare. He uses Eloisa’s case as a means of reflecting the paradoxes and metamorphoses of love.

Eloisa to Abelard and “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” were published in the first collected volume of his poems in 1717. This collection contains some of Pope’s best work, including the revised version of The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Criticism, and the musical versification of the Pastorals. Pope in later years made a distinction between these earlier “fanciful” poems and his mature work, in which he wrote of Truth. These early poems do indeed demonstrate a great deal of rococo fancy. This fancy is at its most luxuriant in portions of Windsor Forest. In a passage such as the description of Old Father Thames rising from his oozy bed to hail the Peace of Utrecht, one sees Pope at his best with such fancy. In such writing, he was challenging two of the greatest predecessors of such poetry, Edmund Spenser and John Milton, with their river catalogs. Also, there is within the piece the long tradition of the court masque. It is in allegory an exceptionally elaborate compliment to Queen Anne and her efforts to bring the long war to an end.

Although Pope was triumphant in Windsor Forest, it is The Rape of the Lock that foreshadows more of his future successes. That rococo fancy is still at work as one sees the gilding of the brazen world of Hampton Court, but Pope “stoops to Truth” much more and shows the world as it is. This poem is as much a...

(The entire section is 4,077 words.)