Alexander Pope Pope, Alexander (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Alexander Pope 1688-1744

British poet, satirist, translator, epistler, and editor.

The following entry provides recent criticism of Pope's works. For additional information on Pope's career, see LC, Volume 3.

The embodiment of a neoclassical aesthetic that flourished during his career in the early 1700s, Pope mastered both the heroic couplet and the art of satire in his poetry, producing some of the best epigrammatic verse in the English language, notably The Rape of the Lock (1712; enlarged 1714) and The Dunciad (1728; enlarged and revised 1742). Pope practiced diverse poetic styles, imitating classical modes ranging from pastoral through satire to epic, and his poetic corpus expresses such classical ideals as order, beauty, wit, retirement, and ethics in the manner of the Roman poet Horace. Most of his writings deal with the moral, social, and intellectual climate of his milieu, which he thought vital for his satire; his poems often allude to contemporary events and the rich and famous of early eighteenth-century London life, as does his vast correspondence. In addition to translating highly respected editions of Homer's lliad (1715–20) and Odyssey (1725–26) into the contemporary idiom, Pope also was among the earliest writers to earn a living solely from his writings, which let him cultivate his other talents for landscape gardening, architecture, and painting. Generally respected as the greatest poet of the age by his contemporaries and the following generation, Pope's canon gradually fell from favor throughout the nineteenth century as romantic aesthetics prevailed, until the advent of New Criticism in the early twentieth century, when critical interest revived. His postmodern reputation has continued to flourish through the efforts of feminist and cultural critics who have investigated his writings for representations of emerging modern perspectives on gender, capitalism, print culture, language, and politics that still resonate.

Biographical Information

The only child of a moderately wealthy Roman Catholic cloth merchant, Pope was born in London in 1688, the year of the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” when William of Orange, a Protestant Dutch prince, deposed the Catholic Stuart king James II and enacted repressive measures against all English Catholics, restricting their religious practices, civil rights, educational access, and even residence. Consequently, his father retired and relocated the family to a small acreage in the countryside of nearby Binfield in Windsor Forest beside the Thames River. Pope received a sporadic primary education from various private tutors and priests, but was mainly self-taught. By age twelve he was well read in classical and English literature and soon began imitating the style and themes of master poets, especially John Dryden, whom Pope idolized from youth. At the same time, though, he likely contracted a tubercular infection, which deformed his spine, ruined his constitution for the rest of his life, and severely stunted his growth, attaining a mature height of four and a half feet. Undaunted and exceptionally precocious, Pope inevitably charmed the families of Binfield with his verse, currying favor from a socially prominent neighbor, who eventually introduced him to literary circles in London and facilitated his acquaintances with such contemporaries as William Wycherley, William Congreve, and William Walsh.

After the appearance of his “Pastorals” in 1709, Pope began poring over the critical thought of both classical and modern writers until he had completed An Essay on Criticism (1711), his first work to draw significant acclaim. He began to associate with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, publishers of the Spectator, whose editorial policies at the magazine influenced Pope's next effort, his first version of The Rape of the Lock, which made him famous. Because of his Catholicism and political affiliations, Pope loosened his ties with Whigs Addison and Steele and made friendships among the Tory set, notably Scriblerus Club members John Gay, Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot, and Thomas Parnell. Between 1713 and 1714 these satirists collaborated with Pope on works exposing the abuses of learning and the follies of the learned, which he gathered and published in 1741 as the memoirs of foolish Martin Scriblerus. Later, his Tory friends encouraged Pope to undertake his monumental verse translations of Homer's works, completing the Iliad in six volumes in 1720 and the Odyssey in six volumes with assistance in 1726.

Meanwhile, Pope became wealthy from the subscriptions to underwrite the translations, and by 1718 he had settled at his five-acre suburban villa that straddled London Road in Twickenham, entertaining friends and cultivating miniature landscapes. With sufficient means and literary clout during the late 1710s and 1720s he busied himself revising earlier works, compiling updated collections of his own poetry and prose, editing William Shakespeare's plays, and writing a series of satirical miscellanies with Swift. Throughout his career Pope's success and fame as a wit had more often than not evoked disparaging responses and merciless caricatures from jealous authors, harsh critics, and political ememies. Pope, however, generally refrained from refuting attacks until a dispute with Shakepearean scholar Lewis Theobald compelled the publication in 1728 of the first version of The Dunciad, Pope's finest acheivement. In the 1730s, Pope retired to Twickenham to contemplate the human condition and contemporary society with friends, which inspired An Essay on Man (1734), Epistles to Several Persons (1731-35), and almost a dozen imitations of Horace's second book of satires in response to renewed attacks on his person and reputation. To similar ends, Pope contrived in 1735 to publish a “pirated” edition of his correspondence, which he “amended” for the 1737 edition. Upon publication of the final and expanded version of The Dunciad in 1742, Pope set about revising and gathering his life's poetry for a definitive edition of his works but died in the midst of the task, succumbing to acute asthma and dropsy in May, 1744.

Major Works

Pope's poetry represents the apotheosis of the heroic couplet form, which he honed throughout his works. Reminiscent of the poetry of Virgil, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and Dryden, the early “Pastorals” demonstrate Pope's youthful veneration of the established literary figures and tradition through a series of eclogues addressed to various neighbors in Windsor Forest. An Essay on Criticism exhibits a precocious command of the heroic couplet form and originates numerous expressions that have entered the lexicon of modern popular culture. An informal discussion of the literary acumen and practice of critical thinkers ranging from Horace to Thomas Bolieau, An Essay on Criticism is both a treatise on the rules of composition and poet's manual for writing poetry, with an appendix on the history of literary criticism and famous critics. The Rape of the Lock, published in two cantos in 1712 and later in five cantos in 1714, is a mock-epic poem based on an actual event and meant to reunite two socially prominent families estranged by it. This slightly irreverent portrait of high society, suffused with literary allusions and ironic observations on current events, recounts in high epic style the theft of a lock of a young woman's hair by a passionate young man. Similar in tone and method, Windsor-Forest (1713), “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717), the famous though tragic account of a twelfth-century love affair, and “Verses to the Memory of an Unfortuante Lady” (1717) are thematic studies on beauty, passion, and suffering.

Created out of anger and frustration over the conflicted status of the professional writer in society, The Dunciad elegantly savages London literary culture with ease and wit. Pope's most controversial work, the multi-volume masterpiece of mock-heroic poetry initially was published anonymously in 1728, and Pope denied his hand in it through subsequent reprints until 1735. In its first incarnation, London's literary world is reconstructed as a chaotic kingdom, ruled by “Dulness” and populated by Dunces charged with professional ineptitude, malice, and idiocy. Designed as the work of an incompetent pedant, the 1729 Dunciad Variorum reissued the original text supplemented by extensive mock-pedantic bibliographical matter on numerous London writers and critics. In the 1742 New Dunciad, now comprising four volumes, Pope conferred the hero's laurels on England's newly appointed poet laureate, Collie Cibber, and addressed his commentary to a broader spectrum of English society that ultimately dissolves into anarchy. Pope's later works reflect his vision of a poetic magnum opus that was never finished. Comprising four philosophical epistles, An Essay on Man devolved from discussions instigated by Pope's friend Lord Bolingbroke concerning the place of rational humans in an ordered universe and various relationships between the individual, society, and the possibility for happiness. The poem defines the poet's famous formulation of the Great Chain of Being and accounts for the dissolution of contemporary culture by way of its hierarchical paradigm. The Epistles to Several Persons, commonly known as the Moral Essays, consist of four apologias or defenses of his life and writings modeled on Horatian satire and directed to contemporary personalities, notably “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735). The eleven Satires and Epistles of Horace, Imitated (1733-37) adapts Horatian themes extolling the simple life of rational moderation to materialistic and degenerate values of contemporary society.

Critical Reception

Since his death, the merit of Pope's literary achievement has been hotly debated for centuries, beginning towards the end of the eighteenth-century in a series of letters to the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Although such late eighteenth-century tastemakers as Joseph Warton, William Warburton, and Samuel Johnson acknowledged Pope as a gifted satirist, translator, and poet, none thought of his major poems as poetry of the highest degree. These apparaisals foreshadowed Victorian critical views on Pope's canon, when romantic aesthetics flourished, which marked his poetic style as dated, even prosaic, and his themes as petty and ill-advised. Such attitudes persisted well into the twentieth century, when the critical strategies that define New Criticism revived interest in Pope's body of works, renewing appreciation of his poetics in terms of its own art. Modern scholarship also has refuted the common perception that Pope's later satire detracts from the grace of his early poetry. In recognition of the poet's keen intellect and emotional sensitivities, some critics have explored his verse for prototypical elements of Romanticism. With the mid-twentieth-century publication of the definitive edition of his complete correspondence, critical biographers emerged to fill the lucunae of Pope's life, which in turn has spurred textual examinations for details of intimate relationships and relations to his avocational pursuits. By the close of the twentieth century, feminist scholars and cultural critics have investigated Pope's writings for signs of emerging modern ideologies surrounding diverse issues. Postmodern commentators have begun to negotiate the role gender played in the poet's and culture's imaginative life as well as gauge the influence of colonial ideology on formation of the professional writer and mark out changes in the social obligations of literature. Others have described the relation between burgeoning print and mercantile cultures, deconstructed linguistic ambiguities, and analyzed political implications of Pope's texts. The endurance of critical interest in Pope's literary legacy after nearly three hundred years is validated by his poetic renditions of some of the world's most wittily elegant satires dressed in the ostensibly perfect language of heroic couplets.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

“Pastorals” (poetry) 1709; published in Poetical Miscellanies, vol. 6

An Essay on Criticism (poetry) 1711

“The Messiah” (poetry) 1712; published in journal The Spectator

The Rape of the Lock (poetry) 1712; enlarged edition, 1714

Windsor Forest (poetry) 1713

The Iliad of Homer. 6 vols. [translator] (poetry) 1715-20.

*“A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry” (criticism) 1717

*“Eloisa to Abelard” (poetry) 1717

*“Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (poetry) 1717; also known as “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate...

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I. R. F. Gordon (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Augustan Literary Tenets,” in A Preface to Pope, Longman Group Ltd., 1976, pp. 86-108.

[In the following essay, Gordon explains common eighteenth-century literary conventions in the context of Pope's poetry, highlighting his Essay on Criticism.]

A perfect Judge will read
each Work of Wit
With the same Spirit that its Author writ,

An Essay On Criticism, 1711, (233-4)

Any age makes certain intellectual and cultural assumptions about itself which seem dated, and sometimes totally foreign, to succeeding ages, but which come almost unconsciously to the age itself. Any twentieth-century writer, for example, assumes that...

(The entire section is 9795 words.)

Pat Rogers (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Politics of Style,” in Essays on Pope, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 27-36.

[Rogers is a prominent literary historian specializing in eighteenth-century studies and a recognized authority on Pope. In the following essay, which originally appeared in his An Introduction to Pope (1976), Rogers describes the principal features of Pope's poetic style and technique, emphasizing his virtuosity with the heroic couplet.]


From his earliest years Pope set himself to introduce a new ‘correctness’ to English poetry. It seems an odd ambition to us; and not merely because it implies a censorious attitude towards the...

(The entire section is 3770 words.)

David B. Morris (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Introduction: Imitation and Commerce,” in Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense; Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Morris discusses Pope's attitudes toward the literary past, particularly his “veneration” of Dryden's poetry, in terms of both the classical theory of mimesis and contemporary mercantile doctrines of trade.]

The best history of a writer is contained in his writings—these are his chief actions.

—George Eliot

Only a handful of writers are sufficiently central that we name whole ages after them. Thus we speak of an Age of Wordsworth but...

(The entire section is 6531 words.)

Laura Brown (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Ideology of Neo-Classical Aesthetics: Epistles to Several Persons (1731-5),” in Alexander Pope, Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 94-127.

[In the following essay, Brown reveals inconsistencies in the rhetorical devices used in Epistles to Several Personsto address questions of morality, gender, and pastoral aesthetics, elucidating the conflicted status of Pope's ethics in the face of emerging capitalism.]

We know from the Advertisement to the ‘death-bed’ edition of the Epistles to Several Persons that Pope saw a direct connection between these poems and the Essay on Man.1 Together they were to frame Pope's opus...

(The entire section is 11164 words.)

Ellen Pollak (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 1-21.

[In the following essay, Pollak outlines differences between Pope and Swift in their formal responses to eighteenth-century sexual ideology, highlighting the emergence of modern cultural attitudes about gender.]

… the more a system is specifically defined in its forms, the more amenable it is to historical criticism. To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.


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G. Douglas Atkins (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Fair Art's ‘Treach'rous Colours’: The Fate of ‘Gen'rous Converse’ in An Essay on Criticism,” in Quests of Difference: Reading Pope's Poems, The University Press of Kentucky, 1986, pp. 16-38.

[In the following essay, Atkins identifies a number of thematic relations between reading, language, and texts in An Essay on Criticism, focusing on the differences among them that structure and unify the poem.]

How better to begin a critical reading of Pope's poems than by attending to what he writes about reading? Though he thematizes reading most prominently in the moral epistles and satires of the 1730s, Pope's first major poem, An Essay on...

(The entire section is 7231 words.)

Rebecca Ferguson (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “‘The best of passions’: The Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and Eloisa to Abelard,” in The Unbalanced Mind: Pope and the Rule of Passion, The Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 1-31.

[In the following essay, Ferguson analyzes the moral system and emotional goals of the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and Elegy to Abelard, in relation to representations of both the human and divine in each poem.]

The period around 1717 has been aptly characterised by Reuben Brower1 as Pope's ‘Ovidian’ phase, when there emerges a marked susceptibility to tender feelings which is brought out particularly in his...

(The entire section is 12005 words.)

Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Conclusion,” in The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 282-304.

[In the following excerpt, Damrosch demonstrates the rhetorical nature of Pope's literary achievement by comparing the aims of his poetry with those of earlier and later poets as well as with strategies of contemporary writers in other genres, particularly novels.]

The Rape of the Lock, written at the same period as Windsor-Forest, is a good-humored mock-epic; the Dunciad is not really mock-epic at all, but rather an anti-epic that rejects the prevailing attitudes of a whole civilization.1 In such a culture, pastoral...

(The entire section is 7255 words.)

A. D. Nuttall (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Moving Cities: Pope as Translator and Transposer,” in The Enduring Legacy: Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays, edited by G. S. Rousseau and Pat Rogers, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 151-70.

[In the following essay, Nuttall attributes the dynamic elements of Pope's literary style to his use of the poetic techniques of Virgil as evidenced by his youthful translations of Homer's Odyssey.]

The criticism of Pope has never been the same—or ought never to have been the same—since Empson declared that he would enter ‘the very sanctuary of rationality’ and applaud the poets of the eighteenth century ‘for qualities in their writings which they...

(The entire section is 9304 words.)

Valerie Rumbold (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Assumptions and Ironies,” in Women's Place in Pope's World, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Rumbold investigates post-Restoration cultural attitudes about women and gender in light of Pope's religious and political sympathies as well as his physical infirmities, suggesting implications for both his career and poetry.]


Although the few celebrated poems in which Pope sets women in the limelight provide the natural focus for any attempt to understand his attitude to the sex, it is important to remember that the vast bulk of his output is concerned only tangentially with issues of gender. In...

(The entire section is 11404 words.)

Felicity Rosslyn (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Goodness and Good Humour: Pope and the Later Eighteenth Century,” in Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1990, pp. 37-50.

[In the following essay, Rosslyn scrutinizes the evolution of the cultural significance of the term “good Humour,” tracing changes from Pope's era through the end of the eighteenth century.]

In every culture there are words so loaded with significance for their users that they seem to require no explanation. These are precisely the words that to strangers, or a later generation, require most: for where there should be quivering, vital significance there seems merely to be a hole in the page—a blank....

(The entire section is 4772 words.)

Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Fictions of Passion: The Case of Pope,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 20, edited by Leslie Ellen Brown and Patricia Craddock, Colleagues Press, 1990, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, Spacks elucidates the function of the “ruling passion” theory in the Epistles to Several Persons by positing it as a corollary of fictional reality.]

Discussing “the Necessity of human Actions,” Captain William Booth, protagonist of Henry Fielding's Amelia (1751), denies that men function “under any blind Impulse or Direction of Fate,” but insists “that every Man acted merely from the Force of that Passion which was uppermost in...

(The entire section is 4176 words.)

James R. Aubrey (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Hierarchies of Kind and the Gardening of Alexander Pope,” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 303, 1992, pp. 149-53.

[In the following essay, Aubrey suggests that Pope's landscaping at Twickenham reflects an overarching principle that informs his poetic oeuvre, namely, the traditional literary theory that ranks genres of poetry.]

Historians of landscape gardening agree that Alexander Pope is an influential figure, but how to account for his various practices and pronouncements is less certain. Labels such as ‘inconsistent’, ‘eclectic’, and ‘transitional’ have been offered. Morris Brownell calls Pope's garden at Twickenham a...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)

Raymond Stephanson (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Pope and the Figure of the Silenced Woman,” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 304, 1992, pp. 775-79.

[In the following essay, Stephanson considers Pope's identification with the female voices of Eloisa to Abelard, “On the statue of Cleopatra,” and Sapho to Phaon as an artistic strategy designed to represent his insecurities about women and his own sexuality.]

The figure of the silenced woman occurs often in Pope's early works. Particularly complex is Pope's impersonation of a woman whose ‘speaking’ or whose speech is paradoxically about female silence. Three of his early female impersonations—Sapho to...

(The entire section is 1573 words.)

Stephen W. Brown (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Alexander Pope's Correspondence as Fiction,” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 304, 1992, pp. 925-28.

[In the following essay, Brown plumbs the depth of Pope's instinct for self-fashioning in his letter writing, explaining the role of the poet's concept of fiction in his approach to publishing his assorted collections of letters during his lifetime.]

As early as 1706 in letters exchanged with William Wycherley and in 1712 with Caryll, we find Pope speculating and encouraging speculation about the possibility of his ‘epistolary fame’. Pope first explores the notion tentatively and with classical models in mind, but the impulse is a...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)

David Wheeler (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “‘So Easy to Be Lost’: Poet and Self in Pope's The Temple of Fame,” in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter 1993, pp. 3-27.

[In the following essay, Wheeler addresses the autobiographical aspects and personal tone of The Temple of Fame, speculating on the nature of Pope's attitude toward literary fame.]

When Pope sent Martha Blount a copy of The Temple of Fame, the accompanying letter contained these remarks about fame: “Whatever some may think, Fame is a thing I am much less covetous of, than your Friendship; for that I hope will last all my life, the other I cannot answer for. … Now that I talk of fame,...

(The entire section is 8461 words.)

Martin Blocksidge (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “A Warfare upon Earth: The Life of a Satirist,” in The Sacred Weapon: An Introduction to Pope's Satire, The Book Guild, 1993, pp. 9-32.

[In the following essay, Blocksidge provides an overview of Pope's life and career, highlighting the personalities whom he targeted—and who targeted him—as the objects of satirical verse.]

Pope has always been a controversial figure, liable to arouse strong feelings in his readers. These strong feelings were as much a part of his life as they have been of his reputation since his death. For a man who, in his life, celebrated friendship and was esteemed highly by a range of eminent and discerning people, his posthumous...

(The entire section is 8438 words.)

Claudia N. Thomas (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Introduction: Alexander Pope, Literary Creativity, and Eighteenth-Century Women,” in Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Thomas demonstrates how a variety of eighteenth-century women responded to Pope's poetry in terms of cultural issues surrounding their ability to create literary art, focusing on the significance of the natural settings of Twickenham as a symbol of literary creativity for both Pope and his female audience.]

Alexander Pope's rhetorical constructions of femininity have stimulated recent critical debate. Such studies as Laura Brown's Marxist...

(The entire section is 7466 words.)

Helen Deutsch (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The ‘Truest Copies’ of a ‘Mean Original,’” in Resemblance & Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture, Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 11-39.

[In the following excerpt, Deutsch describes Pope's poetic corpus within the context of the emerging book trade and role of professional writer, relating how the ubiquitous image of the poet marks his poetry as uniquely his own.]

Few proficients have a greater genius for Monsters than myself.

“To a Lady from her Brother,” 10 February 1714/15?, Correspondence, vol. 1, p. 277

In this chapter I determine how...

(The entire section is 14871 words.)

Christa Knellwolf (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Violence and Representation in Windsor-Forest,” in A Contradiction Still: Representations of Women in the Poetry of Alexander Pope, Manchester University Press, 1998, pp. 67-85.

[In the following essay, Knellwolf investigates the myth of artistic origins in Windsor-Forest in relation to contemporary conventional thought on femininity and aesthetics, highlighting the fundamental value of violent themes in art.]

Although it appears to be a simple youthful exercise in the pastoral genre, and a panegyric of patriotic sentiments at that, Windsor-Forest is a challenging attempt to show the embeddedness of theories of power and violence in...

(The entire section is 8247 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985, 975 p.

Comprehensive treatment of Pope's life and times, placing his writings in the context of “feelings, personalities, and events which precipitated them.”


Bloom, Harold, ed. Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. New York: Chelsea House, 1988, 141 p.

Contains twentieth-century commentary on the poem by such notable critics as Martin Price, William K. Wimsatt, C. E. Nicholson, and A. C. Büchmann.

Braun, Theodore E. D. “Perception of Deism in Some Eighteenth-Century French...

(The entire section is 560 words.)