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.
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...
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