Alexander Pope

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

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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 his audience is familiar with Freudian or Marxist ideas. He refers to the Oedipus complex or to the class struggle without having to explain what he means. Such ideas form an area of allusion from which a modern writer freely draws, and about which he is sure of his reader's familiarity. But in two hundred years time such allusions may well need footnotes to explain them, just as eighteenth-century allusions to the concepts of concordia discors and the scala naturae need them today. The aim of this chapter is to explain some of the critical assumptions that underlay Augustan expectations about literature, and to show how an understanding of such assumptions helps one to see better what Pope was trying to do in his poetry, and to judge more fairly the degree to which he succeeded in doing it.

One of the most important and helpful documents for an understanding of Augustan literary principles is Pope's Essay on Criticism. Although most of this poem was written when he was only twenty or twenty-one, it hardly deserves the scorn poured on it by De Quincey who called it ‘the feeblest and least interesting of Pope's writings, being substantially a mere versification, like a metrical multiplication table, of commonplaces the most mouldy with which criticism has baited its rat-traps’. It is true that there is nothing especially new in what Pope says, but that is also its merit. It is an extremely thorough and often memorable account of the Augustan critical position, and, preferring Dr Johnson's words to those of De Quincey, ‘exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignity didactic composition—selection of matter, novelty of arrangement, justness of precepts, splendour of illustration, and propriety of digression’. Part of our difficulty with the poem, if we find one, is due to our lack of familiarity with didactic poetry. In the twentieth century we tend to feel that this is not quite the right subject matter for poetry. But the eighteenth century laid down no such limitations on what was or was not the right subject for poetry. Indeed it is not until one tries to extract a prose meaning from the lines that one realizes how poetically charged they in fact are.


When we first read a new poem today we tend to come to it with certain accepted ideas concerning what is and is not good poetry. We expect, for example, that a good poem will be fresh and striking in its imagery, will use everyday colloquial language, and will offer a full expression of the poet's own feelings. But these are peculiarly post-Romantic criteria, and although an eighteenth-century reader also judged poetry according to certain preconceived criteria, he would not have approached a new poem with anything like so narrow a set of preconceptions. He would have a different set of criteria for different kinds of poems. He would have read a new poem much as sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers had done before him, and when they read a new...

(This entire section contains 9795 words.)

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poem the first question they would have asked would have been ‘Whatkind of a poem is this?’

So far as the Renaissance was concerned particular kinds of poetry demanded particular kinds of subject matter. The epic, for example, required an elevated subject of a grand scope, while the epistle required a familiar subject of a more parochial scope. There was a wide variety of possible kinds of poetry, just as there was a wide variety of possible kinds of subject matter, but each kind made its own special rules and demands on the poet. What was appropriate for one kind of poetry might be totally inappropriate for another. This is what is meant by the concept of decorum.

The different kinds of poetry had different degrees of importance. Just as the Renaissance world fell into an ordered hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being (see chapter 5) in which all existence from the human to the inanimate had its fit place, so the literary kinds, ideally, fell into an ordered hierarchy in which each kind had its fit place. In practice, however, the order was never as strict or as clearcut as this comparison suggests, and there was considerable difference of opinion about the correct ordering of the kinds. In the sixteenth century we find the kinds ordered, in such works as Julius Caesar Scaliger's Poetics, 1561, or George Puttenham's Art of English Poesie, 1589, so that hymns and paeans are the highest kind of poetry, because of their divine subject matter, while incantations, epigrams and ditties are the lowest. What matters for us of course is not Scaliger or Puttenham's ordering of the kinds, but that of the eighteenth century. I have begun by mentioning the sixteenth-century belief in the doctrine of the kinds because it shows us that Pope in his acceptance of the doctrine was, as in so many other things, faithful to the past. Furthermore we know that he was familiar with Scaliger's work in particular, for he told Spence in 1739 that ‘Scaliger's Poetics is an exceeding useful book of its kind, and extremely well collected’.

The main difference between the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ordering of the kinds and that of the Renaissance concerns the much higher valuation that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gave to the epic. The epic was pre-eminently the major literary kind, and any poet aspiring to greatness should have written one. For this reason, if no other, Spenser and Milton were accepted as the great English poets, and although Dryden and Pope, who were accounted the next greatest, failed to write their planned epics (Dryden's was to be on King Arthur, and Pope's on Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain) they did the next best thing by writing translations of the two greatest epics in any language. The more one reads of post-Restoration poetry the more one becomes aware of the very great degree to which the epic shaped and formed it. Without the idea of the epic in the background MacFlecknoe, Absalom and Achitopel,The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad would have been impossible. Each of these poems constantly alludes to, quotes from, imitates, parodies or mocks specific lines and incidents from the great epics of Homer, Virgil and Milton. One can only fully appreciate the satiric wit of the poems when one has a knowledge of the epics on which they are based.

This is no place to discuss the separate traditions lying behind all the different kinds of poetry that Pope attempted, for he tried his hand, not always with equal success, at a great number—the mock epic, the georgic, the pastoral, the dream vision, the didactic, the heroic epistle, the elegy, the familiar epistle, the formal verse satire, the moral epistle, the prologue, the epilogue, the ode, the epigram and the epitaph. What matters is that the reader should be aware that each kind of poem Pope writes has a different tradition behind it, and therefore a different framework in which it needs to be viewed. This is important because Pope expects the reader to recognize the tradition in which he is writing and then to admire the way in which he gives it a new turn. Where the nineteenth- or twentieth-century poet hopes the reader will think his poem original and new, the eighteenth-century poet considers that he has failed if he ignores tradition by being too original.

At the same time as the doctrine of the kinds created certain formal expectations it also allowed an inventive poet to create surprise by breaking those expectations in unusual ways. This, of course, is the basis of the mock epic where the poet uses an elevated form for unsuitable subject matter. In The Rape of the Lock a trivial event is treated with a mock seriousness that is totally inappropriate to its importance. The same sort of deliberate unrelatedness between form and subject lies behind many Augustan satiric writings. Gay's ‘Newgate Pastoral, The Beggar's Opera, and Swift's mock aubade, A Description of the Morning, are two cases in point. In both these works the success of the satire depends not only on the reader's recognizing the fact that form and subject are at odds with one another, but also in his implicitly knowing how the literary kinds of the pastoral and the aubade would be correctly handled. The reader's appreciation of the poem is increased through his self-esteem in recognizing the distortion that has taken place.

One other way in which an awareness of the doctrine of the kinds helps in an appreciation of Pope's poetry concerns the reader's being responsive to the possibility of a shift in kinds, even within a single poem. Pope never allows the kinds, to become so mixed that the overall effect is one of confusion, but he does frequently move into a style that is appropriate to a kind other than that in which he is writing. For instance, in his Imitation of Horace, II, vi, which tells the famous story of the town and country mice, Pope writes in the familiar and colloquial language appropriate to the formal verse satire. Then, suddenly, in describing the home of the town mouse he shifts into a mock epic language that is strictly inappropriate to the kind of poem he is writing:

                    Behold the place, where if a Poet
Shin'd in Description, he might show it,
Tell how the Moon-beam trembling falls
And tips with silver all the walls:
Palladian walls, Venetian doors,
Grotesco roofs, and Stucco floors:
But let it (in a word) be said,
The Moon was up, and Men a-bed,
The Napkins white, the Carpet red:
The Guests withdrawn had left the Treat,
And down the Mice sate, tête à


The transition from the elegant pictorial language of the trembling moonbeams that tip the walls with silver in the first six lines to the curt and clipped telegrammatic language, that so perfectly captures the style of Swift, in the last five lines, shows a wonderfully urbane turn of wit.


The Augustan concept of decorum is directly connected with the doctrine of the kinds just discussed. In the same way as there is an appropriate kind of poetry for a certain subject matter, so there is an appropriate language for each kind of poetry. Decorum is another word for propriety, and the literary concept of decorum involves proper words in proper places. The language must be suited to the purpose, or as Ian Jack puts it in his book Augustan Satire, the idiom must be level with the intention.

Pope expresses the doctrine clearly enough in the Essay on Criticism:

Expression is the Dress of Thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable;
A vile Conceit in pompous Words exprest,
Is like a Clown in regal Purple drest;
For diff'rent Styles with diff'rent Subjects sort,
As several Garbs with Country, Town, and Court.


The analogy between literary decorum and civilized behaviour is a crucial one. Just as there is an art in doing certain things well—dressing, eating, courting—so there is an art in expressing them well. One dresses according to the occasion. It would be ridiculous to wear one's best suit and new shoes to go gardening in, and it would be disrespectful to wear one's tattiest clothes to attend a wedding. In the same way, it is ridiculous to use an elevated style to describe a trivial event like the removal of a lock of hair from a young lady's head, just as it is disrespectful to use an earthy style to praise the King. As the above examples imply there are times when Pope deliberately breaks the concept of decorum for satiric effect, but in breaking it he is of course tacitly acknowledging its fundamental importance.

The epic demands a specially well-chosen style. It should be written in a language appropriate to its grand purpose. Indeed, one of Pope's rare criticisms of Dryden concerns the inappropriateness of part of his translation of the Aeneid:

I agree with you [he writes to his friend Henry Cromwell in 1710] in your censure of the use of sea-terms in Mr Dryden's Virgil; not only because Helenus was no great Prophet in those matters, but because no Terms of Art, or Cant-Words, suit with the majesty and dignity of style which epic poetry requires.

An understanding of the literary concept of decorum helps us to appreciate two particular aspects of Pope's vocabulary that have given readers trouble and concern over the years: his use of poetic diction, and his use of scatologic words.

Poetic diction is a term used by Pope in his Preface to the Iliad to describe that quality in Homer's expression which is especially alive and glowing and more highly charged than ordinary speech. But the term was taken up by the Romantics and used in a much narrower and more pejorative sense to describe the artificial language that they felt to be the overriding fault of eighteenth-century poetry. The most famous and influential attack on poetic diction comes in Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800:

There will be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction: as much pains has been taken to avoid it as is ordinarily taken to produce it; this has been done for the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of men.

Later on Wordsworth refers to poetic diction as ‘adulterated phraseology’ and a ‘motley masquerade of tricks, quaintness, hieroglyphics and enigmas’.

Wordsworth's attack on poetic diction is particularly a rejection of personification and periphrasis: phrases like the ‘scaly breed’, used by Pope to describe fish in Windsor-Forest, or the ‘glitt'ring forfex’, to describe a pair of scissors in The Rape of the Lock. These are words specially chosen to raise the respective scenes in which they occur, either seriously or ironically, above an ordinary scene. Furthermore, they add a dimension to the meaning that the more ordinary words could not possibly add. In calling the fish the ‘scaly breed’ in Windsor-Forest, for example, Pope shows through the adjective what the individual fish that he is about to describe in great detail have in common that distinguishes them from other creatures in the scala naturae; through the noun he points out that they are at the same time a generative part of that scala naturae, thus adding to the sense of creative plenitude found in the forest at large. The more ordinary word ‘fish’ could not have suggested these additional areas of meaning. Similarly detailed reasons can be given for the periphrastic description of the scissors in The Rape of the Lock (see under ‘Periphrasis’ in the Glossary of Technical Terms, p. 162).

Because Pope can be shown to be using poetic diction here for a deliberate purpose, however, it does not follow that there is not a great deal of substance in Wordsworth's attack on it. There certainly was a decaying poetic style among the minor poets of fifty years later, who frequently used the formulaic quality of poetic diction as a way of constructing stock effects, and Wordsworth's rejection of this habit was more than welcome. What needs to be pointed out here is that the best poets, such as Pope, Thomson and Gray, used poetic diction as an integral support to their poetic feeling, not as a substitute for it.

The difficulty with scatologic words is similar. Pope is gratuitously obscene in The Dunciad, Book II, critics will say, or his image of excrement being passed on from ‘hog to hog in huts on Westphaly’, in Epilogue to the Satires: Dialogue II, 171-80, is unpardonably filthy. But this is exactly what Pope wants us to say. To an audience that is not shocked by his attack on moral decay, only the analogy with physical decay remains. Again the concept of decorum is at work, for just as the epic requires a suitably elevated style, so satire requires a suitably vigorous and scabrous one. Pope did not hesitate to call a spade a spade if it was appropriate, and he did not shrink from calling it a shovel if it was necessary. When Boswell objected to a certain phrase in Pope as being low, Dr Johnson replied: ‘Sir, it is intended to be low: it is satire. The expression is debased to debase the character’.


Much of the foregoing discussion might suggest that Pope and the Augustans believed poetry should be written according to a set of pre-ordained rules. But there is a great difference between the person who believes that poetry should be written according to a narrow set of sharply defined rules and the person who believes that the poet's imagination works the more freely for operating within a broad set of shared expectations. The theoretical discussion concerning whether a poet is born or made is a simplification of the same issue. A poet, of course, is both born and made: he has both genius and skill. The critical question is where the emphasis should lie, which is the more important? The question was indeed a lively and perennial one in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but only the most stereotyped of neoclassical critics, like Thomas Rymer, believed in a strict and uncompromising adherence to the rules. The great creative writers, especially Dryden and Pope, were far too aware of the complex workings of the imagination to subscribe to limiting formulae without making serious reservations.

The rules received their greatest support and popularity in seventeenth-century France. Boileau's Art Poétique, 1674, Rapin's Réflexions sur la Poétique, 1674, and Le Bossu's Traité du Poème Epique, 1675, belong to a common school of criticism in that they each set out to abstract a set of guidelines for the writing of poetry from the works of the Ancients, and particularly from Aristotle and Horace. Perhaps the most notorious rules abstracted from the Ancients were those concerning drama. The demand that plays be written according to the three unities of time, place and action has long since been shown to be totally irrelevant to the stage, and nowhere more effectively than by Dr. Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare, 1765. But for a short period during the last quarter of the seventeenth century this theoretical demand held great sway in both France and England. Thomas Rymer's vituperative attack on Shakespeare in A Short View of Tragedy, 1692, shows such a position taken to its logical and absurd conclusion. Rymer's ‘commonsense’ approach demonstrates an extraordinary aesthetic insensitivity and has earned him the reputation among most latterday students of being, in Macaulay's words, ‘the worst critic that ever lived’.

Dryden's attitude to the rules is, like that of Pope, mixed. Both men skilfully pick their way between the strict rigidity of the formalist critics and the boundless freedom of their opponents. Where Rymer sees the rules as ends in themselves, Dryden and Pope see them as means to an end:

I never heard of any other foundation of Dramatic Poesy than the imitation of nature; neither was there ever pretended any other by the ancients, or moderns, or me, who endeavour to follow them in that rule. This I have plainly said in my definition of a play; that it is a just and lively image of human nature … if nature be to be imitated, then there is a rule for imitating nature rightly; otherwise there may be an end, and no means conducing to it.

Dryden, Defence of Dramatic Poesy, 1668.

Pope begins his discussion of the rules in An Essay On Criticism in much the same way:

Those rules of old discover'd, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz'd;
Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same Laws which first herself


The modern reader may feel that Pope is trying to have his cake and eat it, but there is a great deal of validity in what he says. He neatly sidesteps involvement in the debate between the proponents of rules and the proponents of imitating nature by saying that the two are essentially the same. He makes the identical point later in the poem when he says:

Learn hence for Ancient Rules
a just Esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy Them.


Pope draws, in An Essay on Criticism, on many of the same persons who so influenced Rymer—Boileau, Rapin and Le Bossu—but never in so slavish a way. He struggles throughout to effect a reasonable reconciliation between the adherents and the opponents of the rules, a reconciliation that is summed up in the antithetical force of the second line in the following couplet:

Hear how learn'd Greece her useful Rules indites, When to repress, and when indulge our Flights.


He defends ‘just precepts’ drawn from ‘great examples’, but the emphasis in both phrases is an much on the adjective as the noun. What really counts, however, is the ‘Poet's Fire’, that is, his imagination (cf. Pope's admiration for Homer's fire which ‘burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly’, Preface to the Iliad), and for as long as critics admired that ‘coelestial fire’ (195) criticism remained in a healthy state:

Then Criticism the Muse's Handmaid prov'd,
To dress her Charms, and make her more belov'd.


But later critics grew jealous of what they could not themselves achieve and, elevating criticism above the art it presumed to study, used ‘mistaken rules’ to attack the poets they were meant to serve:

But following Wits from that Intention stray'd;
Who could not win the Mistress, woo'd the Maid;
Against the Poets their own Arms
they turn'd,
Sure to hate most the Men from whom they learn'd.


Critics who slavishly adhere to precept are seen as quack apothecaries (108-11), insects (112-13) and even as cooks, who ‘write dull Receits [recipes] how Poems may be made’ (115).

For Pope the only true way to sharpen one's critical discrimination is to soak oneself in the classics:

Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring.


Pope's strategy in effecting a reconciliation in the debate concerning the rules is to redefine what is meant by them so that following them becomes the same thing as following nature. Yet even when he has thus carefully qualified his approval he still finds it necessary to insist on the escape clause:

          Some Beauties yet, no Precepts can declare,
For there's a Happiness as well
as Care.


He goes on to stress the mysterious quality that exists in the greatest poetry, the ‘nameless Graces which no methods teach’, and which depend on a ‘Lucky licence’ [Pope's capitals], or a ‘brave Disorder’ that will part from ‘vulgar Bounds’ and ‘snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art’ (144-55).

What this account of Pope's discussion of the rules in the Essay on Criticism shows us is that, far from being the fervent disciple of the rules that he is sometimes described as being, Pope gives them, at most, a qualified vote of approval. He admits their usefulness when they lead us back to the great works of creative genius, but once they become dogmatic or limiting they must be put aside. On the whole he is a far fiercer defender of the ‘Liberties of Wit’ than he is of the ‘vulgar Bounds’ of ‘Foreign Laws despis'd’.


Of all the literary terms current in the Augustan period ‘wit’ is the most difficult to define. The word is used in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to cover a variety of widely different meanings, each one of which forces us to see the other in a slightly different light. Pope was concerned with the word's complexity from a very early age. In 1704, for instance, we find him writing to William Wycherley offering the following definition: ‘True Wit I believe, may be defin'd as a justness of Thought, and a Facility of Expression; or (in the Midwives phrase) a perfect Conception, with an easy Delivery’. The definition is itself an example of one kind of wit, but the sixteen-year-old Pope was fully aware of the elusive nature of the term, for he continued in the next sentence: ‘However this is far from a compleat definition; pray help me to a better, as I doubt not you can’.

In his Dictionary, 1755, Dr Johnson lists eight different meanings of the word, while the OED, published almost two hundred years later, lists fourteen main meanings and any number of subordinate and compound ones. William Empson has pointed out in The Structure of Complex Words that the word appears on an average every sixteen lines in An Essay on Criticism and in a somewhat different sense nearly every time, though he adds that ‘there is not a single use of the word in the whole poem in which the idea of a joke is quite out of sight’. All this is of little comfort to the new reader, but it is a warning against expecting a clear cut definition of so complex a word.

The basic meaning of the word, from which all others derive, concerns the various powers of the mind. The term could refer either to all the mental faculties working together, or to individual mental faculties, such as the imagination, judgment and memory. It is because the word originally covered each of these very different faculties that its meaning became so complex when writers tried to limit its application to a particular faculty. We still use the term in its overall sense, albeit somewhat unconsciously, when we talk about being at our ‘wit's end’, but by and large the word has a very much narrower meaning in its most commonly accepted usage today, referring to a person's ability to say clever and ‘witty’ things.

There are four main ways in which Pope uses the expression in An Essay on Criticism. First, he occasionally uses it in its original sense to refer to all the mental faculties considered together:

          Nature to all things fix'd the Limits
And wisely curb'd proud Man's pretending Wit:
As on the Land while here the Ocean gains,
In other Parts it leaves wide sandy
Thus in the Soul while Memory prevails,
The solid Pow'r of Understanding
Where Beams of warm Imagination play,
The Memory's soft Figures melt
One Science only will one Genius fit;
So vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit.


Wit, as it is used in the last line of this passage, refers to each of the cognitive faculties in turn whether one is considering the ‘soft figures’ of Memory, the ‘solid power’ of Understanding [i.e. Judgment], or the ‘beams of warm’ Imagination. No man can excel in all the faculties of the mind, ‘so vast is Art [Learning], so narrow Human Wit’, and man must therefore fit his genius to one particular branch of knowledge.

The second meaning of the word, and the one with which he begins the poem, is as a synonym for genius, or the indefinable gift of the poet:

In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to Judge, as well as those
to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, 'tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?


In the first line here the distinguishing mark of the poet is ‘true Genius’ which must be derived from Heaven (cf. poeta nascitur non fit), but by line 17 the distinguishing mark of the poet is his ‘Wit’. The term ‘wit’ has become interchangeable with ‘genius’ and distinct from ‘judgment’. We shall see when we come to Pope's fourth meaning that, in other places, he stresses the importance of its liaison with judgment. Such paradoxes are an essential part of the word's complexity.

A third way in which Pope uses wit is to refer to the quality of ingenuity in a writer. It is this quality of verbal and intellectual agility that the Restoration Wits strove after. At its best the pursuit of such a quality leads to piercing illumination, but at its worst it leads to a purely superficial glamour, to writing that is all frothy extravagance without any ethical basis, or what Pope so aptly calls, ‘One glaring Chaos and wild Heap of Wit’ (292). Pope is totally scornful of this kind of wit:

          Some have at first for Wits, then Poets past,
Turn'd Criticks next, and prov'd
plain Fools at last;
Some neither can for Wits nor Criticks pass,
As heavy Mules are neither Horse
nor Ass.
Those half-learn'd Witlings, num'rous in our Isle,
As half-form'd Insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish'd Things, one knows not what to call,
Their Generation's so equivocal:
To tell 'em, wou'd a hundred Tongues require,
Or one vain Wit's, that might a hundred tire.


The comparison of the ‘witlings’ to insects (cf. the opening lines of An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot), the pun concerning their proliferation and the final epigrammatic dig at their endless loquacity show the brilliant effectiveness of Pope's own satiric wit being used to annihilate the glittering falsity of the poetasters and pretenders to wit. At its best, wit of such intellecutal agility adds a sprightliness to poetry that both charms and surprises the reader. It involves a liveliness of mind that should not be underrated, though, as Pope would be the first to admit, it is only part of the great poet's equipment.

The fourth and by far the most important meaning that Pope attributes to ‘wit’ concerns the imagination. Towards the end of the poem he describes Horace as:

He, who supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg'd with Coolness tho' he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.


Here wit involves the ‘fire’ of the imagination, an image that picks up the earlier reference to the ‘Beams of warm Imagination’ (58). Wit, as it refers to the imagination, is, like the sun, the source of all light. Pope explicitly makes the comparison when he compares ‘envy'd Wit’ to ‘Sol Eclips'sd’ (468). When the Sun's beams are too strong they draw up vapours that at first obscure but finally reflect added glory. In the same way Wit's shining light at first attracts dull critics, but finally endures despite them.

Perhaps the most important point Pope makes about wit in this sense, however, is that imagination is not in itself sufficient for the poet:

Some, to whom Heav'n in Wit has been profuse,
Want as much more, to turn it to its use;
For Wit and Judgment often are at strife,
Tho' meant each other's Aid, like Man and Wife.


In the best writing the imagination must be at one with the judgment. The two qualities cannot be separated. As ‘grave Quintillian’, whom Pope praises for his clear method (669-74), says in his Institutio Oratoria: ‘I do not believe that invention can exist apart from judgment, since we do not say that a speaker has invented inconsistent two-edged or foolish arguments, but merely that he has failed to avoid them’ (Loeb translation). La Rochefoucauld, whose maxims were translated into English in 1706, just a few years before Pope wrote his poem, says much the same thing:

The making a Difference between Wit and Judgement, is a Vulgar Error. Judgement is nothing else but the exceeding Brightness of Wit, which, like Light, pierces into the very Bottom of Things, observes all that ought to be observed there, and discovers what seemed to be past anybodies finding out: From when we must conclude, that the Energy and Extension of this Light of the Wit, is the very Thing that produces all those Effects, usually ascribed to the Judgement.

(Maxim 98)

It is this idea of wit as the marriage of imagination and judgment that lies behind the best-known couplets in the poem:

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er
so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd
at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind.


True wit involves both the imagination and the judgment, both nature and art. It involves subject matter and form welded together in the creative mind so that the truth that results convinces us at sight and ‘gives us back the Image of our Mind’.

I have suggested four different ways in which wit is used by Pope in An Essay on Criticism, and the question that now arises is whether these differences in the meaning of one word are the result of confusion or deliberate strategy. In order to answer this we need to say something about the distrust of the imagination found in the writings of the most influential seventeenth-century philosophers and scientists. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a distrust that is found among Augustan poets. On the other hand they could not help being aware of it and of the corresponding attempt to downgrade the importance of poetry as a medium for expressing truth about human nature.

Francis Bacon was the chief originator of this distrust of the imagination. For Bacon poetry was almost totally a means of escapism that allowed deception to triumph. In The Advancement of Learning, 1605, he admitted the power of poetry and the imagination but he distrusted it as a vehicle for truth because it transformed reality. For Bacon poetry was ‘the play of the mind’. This distrust was taken up by Bacon's disciples, the members of the Royal Society, and eloquently expressed by their official historian Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society, 1667. Sprat described the wit and imagination of the poet as being inconsistent with a sincere enquiry into the works of Nature.

A further example of the philosopher's distrust of the imagination occurs in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, 1651. For Hobbes imagination ‘is nothing but decaying sense and is found in men, and many other living creatures, as well sleeping as waking’. John Locke also considered the imagination a hindrance in arriving at the truth. The emphasis in his Thoughts Concerning Education, 1695, falls on the importance of judgment and the frailty of imagination. He defines wit as ‘lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures in the fancy’. Judgment on the other hand ‘lies in separating carefully one from another ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by Similitude’. In aligning wit with fancy and opposing it to judgment, Locke is managing further to discredit poetry as likely to mislead the mind. If a child has a poetic vein, he argues, the parents ‘should labour to have it stifled and suppressed as much as may be’.

It is against this background that we need to consider Pope's definition of ‘wit’ in An Essay on Criticism, in which he defends poetry against these attacks as subtly as he can. He does this by taking the word most frequently associated with poetry—namely wit—and working it over and over in a variety of different ways that stress the complexity of the creative process and, above all, the fusion of those faculties of judgment and imagination that Bacon, Hobbes and Locke had been trying to separate. In redefining ‘wit’, Pope is attempting to redefine and secure poetry itself. For Pope ‘wit’ is what E.N. Hooker calls ‘the unique mode of the creative artist’. It is the essence of poetry entailing the inspiration of genius, the mental agility of ingenuity, the fire of imagination and the control of judgment. It involves, in direct contrast to Eliot's notorious phrase, an association of sensibility.


One thing that should be clear from the foregoing discussion is that Augustan wit, and hence Augustan poetry, has nothing to do with originality. The true poet should say things in a new way, but the idea that he can say things that have never been said before, that he can be totally original, is a post-Romantic one. For the Augustan poet there are only a few irrefutable human truths, and they have been discovered long ago. The idea that anyone can come up with original truths is merely an indication of man's presumption and pride. All the living poet can do is reinterpret the validity of established truths as they apply to the modern world:

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er
so well Exprest.


A person who claimed to be original was looked on with some suspicion. Indeed the noun, an ‘original’, was a term of abuse reserved for laughing at eccentric and singular persons like Captain Lismahago in Smollett's novel Humphry Clinker, 1771.

Instead of trying to be original, the Augustan poet assimilated his knowledge of the past into his awareness of the present. Dryden praises the young Anne Killigrew's poetry by saying that:

Such noble vigour did her verse adorn
That it seem'd borrow'd, where 'twas only born.

(To the Memory of … Mrs Anne Killigrew, 75-6)

Although her poetry had the limitation of being original, it had such vigour that it at least seemed to have the excellence of imitating the ancients.

The Augustan poet, then, sees imitation as more important than originality. But this does not mean that he feels in duty bound simply to copy earlier writers. ‘Those who say our thoughts are not our own because they resemble the Ancients’, wrote Pope in the Preface to his Works, 1717, ‘may as well say our faces are not our own, because they are like our fathers’. True imitation involves both borrowing and recasting. The youthful Pope, writing to his friend William Walsh in 1706, said:

I wou'd beg your opinion too as to another point: it is how far the liberty of Borrowing may extend? I have defended it sometimes by saying, that it seems not so much the Perfection of Sense to say things that have never been said before, as to express those best that have been said oftenest; and that Writers in the case of borrowing from others, are like Trees which of themselves wou'd produce only one sort of Fruit, but by being grafted upon others, may yield variety. A mutual commerce makes Poetry flourish; but then Poets like Merchants, should repay with something of their own what they take from others; not like Pyrates, make prize of all they meet.

The poet both takes from others and repays with something of his own. Like Swift's famous bee in The Battle of the Books, he visits ‘all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden’, and ‘by an universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax’.

Pope visited the flowers and blossoms of the literary field widely, especially in his youth. He told Spence, shortly before he died, that in his great reading period, (from about thirteen or fourteen to twenty-one), he went through ‘all the best critics, almost all the English, French and Latin poets of any name, the minor poets, Homer and some of the greater Greek poets in the original, and Tasso and Ariosto in translations’. He not only read widely in classical and English literature, but he also wrote many imitations of earlier English poets including Chaucer, Spenser, Waller and Cowley, and many translations of earlier classical poets including Homer, Virgil, Ovid and Horace. This was an essential part of his apprenticeship as a poet for, as he put it to Spence, ‘my first taking to imitating was not out of vanity, but humility. I saw how defective my own things were, and endeavoured to mend my manner by copying good strokes from others’. Reuben Brower has revealed in his illuminating and subtle book, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion, just how present the classical poets were to Pope and his eighteenth-century readers. Brower shows how, for Dryden and Pope, allusion to the past is ‘a resource equivalent to symbolic metaphor and elaborate imagery in other poets’. We find the same thing, in a more strained and self-conscious way, in the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

But imitation was more than just a frame of mind for the Augustan poet. It was also an accepted form, or literary ‘kind’, that grew out of the great interest and activity in verse translation that took place in the seventeenth century. During the first half of the century most English verse translation tended toward a fairly close adherence to the original, for example Ben Jonson's translation of Horace's Ars Poetica, but during the second half of the century verse translators increasingly took more freedom with their models. It became more important for a translator to catch the spirit of a work than to give a word-for-word rendition.

The imitations written in post-Restoration England are a further extension of this concept of free translation. In the ‘Advertisement’ prefacing his version of Horace's Ars Poetica Oldham says that he thought of turning the work to an advantage which had not occurred to those who went before him in the translation (Jonson and Roscommon) by making Horace speak as if he were then living:

I therefore resolved to alter the scene from Rome to London, and to make use of English names, places, and customs, where the parallel would decently permit, which I conceived would give a kind of new air to the poem, and render it more agreeable to the relish of the present age.

Oldham was not the first to modernize classical poems in this way. Cowley, Sprat and Rochester had each done it before him and would each have agreed with his reasons for taking such liberties. As the imitation developed and became more popular, so it became completely independent of various levels of translation. It made different assumptions of its audience: where translation was primarily intended to help those readers who could not understand the original, imitation assumed that the reader would be sufficiently familiar with the original to appreciate the author's wit in adapting it. For this reason the Latin (and most imitiations were of Roman poetry) was frequently printed on the facing page or at the foot of the poem, while parallel passages were indicated by linking arabic numerals.

Imitation is a way for a poet to give depth and authority to his writing. The poet does not simply rely on his own opinion, he calls on acknowledged classical masters to support his case. He searches for a peculiarly appropriate classical equivalent to the modern subject he wants to write about, or for a peculiarly appropriate modern equivalent to the classical poem he wants to adapt, and then fits his treatment to the overall organization of the classical poem. This relationship between the present and the past can be handled in a variety of ways. It can either be used to add emphasis to the condemnation of the present, as in Oldham's Satire in Imitation of the Third of Juvenal, where London is shown as not only bad but as bad as Juvenal's Rome, or it can be used ironically to undercut the present by creating a contrast with the past. The outstanding example of such a usage is Pope's Imitation of Horace, Epistle II, i (To Augustus) where the compliments sincerely paid by Horace to Augustus are ironically paid by Pope to George Augustus Hanover.


It seems appropriate to close this chapter by saying something about the chief mode of Augustan literature. When all is said and done, it is for the brilliance of its satire that the age in general, and Pope's poetry in particular, is most highly valued. But what did the Augustans understand by satire? What were its aims and intentions, and why was it so popular among Augustan writers? What kind of pressures impel someone to write satire in preference to other literary modes? These are some of the questions that a study of Augustan literature forces one to consider.

The word ‘satire’ as it is used today describes a mode of writing rather than a form. It describes a spirit of conception, or state of mind, that can operate through any number of different forms. Thus an epic poem, such as The Dunciad, or a prose account of imaginary travels, such as Gulliver's Travels, or an opera, such as The Beggar's Opera, are each referred to as satires because they share certain common qualities in terms of their overall conception.

At the most general level one can say that satire attacks human evil and stupidity by making fun of it from a standpoint that at least implies, if it does not state, a consistent moral position. There are three distinct elements of conception involved here—attack, laughter and morality—and a careful fusing of all three elements is necessary for successful satire. If the author concentrates on attack alone then the work of art tends towards mere invective; if he concentrates on laughter alone then he moves into a region of the purely comic; and if he concentrates on morality alone then he moves towards the area of the homily. Clearly satire cannot be completely separated from other allied modes, especially comedy, for, as many critics have pointed out, some of the greatest comic characters also have strong satiric dimensions. Falstaff's gluttony, cowardice and dishonesty, for example, are clearly satirised by Shakespeare, but since his superabundant jollity and massive zest for life so dwarf these vices we see him finally as a comic rather than satiric character.

I have suggested three main qualities that compose the satiric vision overall, but we can also point to certain particular structural elements that are common to most works of satire, whatever their form. Satire frequently involves, for instance, the imaginative creation of absurd, or even grotesque worlds, such as Swift's Yahoos in Gulliver's Travels or Pope's Cave of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock that ridicule man by containing both exaggerations and real depictions of his pretensions and frailties. The satirist creates at the same time as he destroys, and this paradox lies at the root of his power to excite our attention. There is a tendency among some readers to dwell on the destructiveness of satire and to see satire as a totally negative mode. It is, of course, a destructive mode, but the best satirists are never purely destructive. They protest against the viciousness and absurdity of the present world, both by creating grotesque transformations of it in a nightmare world and by suggesting alternative and better ways of proceeding. Their destructiveness goes along with equally important elements of creativity and constructiveness.

The satirist sees through man's affectations, and sets out to expose them to laughter and scorn. He does not do this out of meanness or envy but because he feels indignation at the wastage and corruption of human potential. The satirist confronts man with his own nakedness and with his own tenuous grasp on existence. He uses his pen partly as a weapon to attack people with and partly as a scalpel with which to lay them open. Consider the defence put forward by Pope's irate satirist in his Imitation of Horace, Satire II, i:

          What? arm'd for Virtue when I point the Pen,
Brand the bold Front of shameless, guilty Men,
Dash the proud Gamester in his gilded Car,
Bare the mean Heart that lurks beneath a Star;
Can there be wanting to defend Her Cause,
Lights of the Church, or Guardians of the Laws?
Could pension'd Boileau lash in honest Strain
Flatt'rers and Bigots ev'n in Louis' Reign?
Could Laureate Dryden Pimp and Fry'r
Yet neither Charles nor James be in a Rage?
And I not strip the Gilding off a Knave,
Un-plac'd, un-pension'd, no Man's Heir, or Slave?


The satirist describes himself in an aggressively militant way. He points, brands, dashes, bares, lashes and strips his enemy. The verbs draw comparisons between the satirist's profession and that of the public prosecutor: both see it as their duty to publish and punish, to strip bare and to whip.

The satirist forces man to come face to face with the most brutal and least attractive part of himself. As a result we often find in satire scenes of crowded humanity portrayed at its most barbaric and uncivilized. The unthinking mob that surges through the stinking streets of London in The Dunciad Book II is related in this way to the wretched mass of humanity that accompanies Tom Idle on his way to execution at Tyburn in Hogarth's Industry and Idleness, Plate XI. The satirist forces us to watch not only a close clinical analysis of man's anatomy, but very often a dissection, or even a vivisection of it. ‘Yesterday’, says Swift's scientist persona in his most complex satire A Tale of a Tub,

I ordered the carcass of a beau to be stript in my presence; when we were all amazed to find so many unexpected faults under one suit of clothes. Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen, but I plainly perceived at every operation, that the further we proceeded we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk.

The satirist analyses man and his world with brutal and often horrifying frankness. At his most extreme he is not content with confronting man with his own nakedness, but lays open the flesh and exposes the festering innards.

The satirist protests against the state of the world as he finds it, largely because he knows there are other and better states. In looking for examples of better states he frequently looks to the Golden Age of Mythology, or to the security of the past. Sometimes this becomes mere nostalgia for the good old days, but in Pope and Swift it is very much more than this. Both men share a deep-rooted belief in the stability of inherited order. The satirist nearly always finds himself in a minority position, for if his viewpoint was that of the majority he wouldn't feel the need to protest in the first place. Thus in the early part of the eighteenth century, when the government was nearly always Whig, it is hardly surprising that most satire is written by opponents of the Whigs. Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, Gay, Fielding and Thomson were all, at various times and in various differing degrees of commitment, affiliated to the Tory opposition to Robert Walpole.

The satirist's traditional justification for his art is that he does it for the good of society. He hopes to reform and correct corruption, and for this reason frequently takes on the role of the defender of virtue or spokesman for the public good. Whether or not he really believes in such a role is another question: it is sufficient for him that he has a conventional framework within which to carry out his attack. ‘Ask you what Provocation I have had?’ says Pope's satirist in the Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II,

The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.
When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
Th' Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours.


Above all else the satirist is committed to the living world. He cares about its decay, and if he does not, if he merely uses his wit in a virtuoso way, then his satire will be shortlived.

So far I have talked about satire as a mode in literature, but the word has not always been used in this all-embracing sense and it is helpful to consider briefly its origins as a particular form of poetry. The English word satire derives from the Latin word satura (meaning medley or mixture), which was the name Horace (65-8 b.c.) first gave to a genre of poetry he inherited from Ennius and Pacuvius. This genre, or form, was later taken up by Persius (a.d. 34-62) and Juvenal (a.d. 60-140) and imitated at the same time as it was further developed. Horace and Juvenal wrote poems in which they attacked particular vices and follies of their day. They were so effective that a word which was originally used to designate a particular literary form, with a definable rhetorical structure, has been extended to cover a whole mode of writing. That literary form does, however, have an independent and continuing tradition in English literature which we usually refer to as formal verse satire. It is a form that reached its peak in England during the eighteenth century, particularly in the poetry of Pope, Swift and Dr Johnson.

Although Horace and Juvenal use the same form, satura, there are important differences in the way they use it. Where Horace's satirist sets out to persuade with witty and urbane ridicule, Juvenal's attempts to chastise with fierce and savage denunciation. Horace tries to laugh us into truth, while Juvenal sets out to provoke our indignation and horror. In the First Satire of his First Book Horace asks why one cannot tell the truth with laughter, as a teacher gives children sweets to persuade them to learn to read. Juvenal, in his first satire, tells us that it is indignation and anger that drives him to write satire. As a result of this difference of tone in the satires of Horace and Juvenal we have developed the habit of referring to milder, more gentle satire as Horatian, and of referring to harsh and savage satire as Juvenalian. The dominant influence on English verse satire from Skelton through Donne, Hall and Marston to the great satirists of the Restoration and Augustan periods has been that of Juvenal, and although it was Horace's poems that Pope chose to imitate so widely in the 1730s it makes a great deal of sense to say that in imitating Horace he has ‘Juvenalized’ him.

We can find useful hints about Pope's concept of satire and his reasons for writing it by consulting his Correspondence. He writes to Swift in March 1732 saying, ‘I know nothing that moves strongly but Satire, and those who are ashamed of nothing else, are so of being ridiculous’. He clearly feels that the satirist aims at an emotional as well as an intellectual response. Satire ‘moves’ the reader, and furthermore it moves him ‘strongly’. Two years later, on 17 July 1734, Arbuthnot wrote to Pope urging him to ‘continue that noble Disdain and Abhorrence of Vice which he seem'd naturally endued with,’ but begging him to show a certain regard for his own safety and to ‘study more to reform than chastise’. This distinction that Arbuthnot presses on Pope is similar to that we have already described between Horatian and Juvenalian satire.

Pope's reply to Arbuthnot's letter offers the clearest prose statement we have of his theory of satire. He thanks Arbuthnot for his comments about his disdain of vice and for the concern he expresses for his safety, but with regard to Arbuthnot's request that he study more to reform than chastise he argues that such a separation is impossible:

But General Satire in Times of General Vice has no force, and is no Punishment: People have ceas'd to be ashamed of it when so many are joined with them; and tis only by hunting One or two from the Herd that any Examples can be made. If a man writ all his Life against the Collective Body of the Banditti, or against Lawyers, would it do the least Good, or lessen the Body? But if some are hung up, or pilloried, it may prevent others. And in my low Station, with no other Power than this, I hope to deter, if not to reform.

If the satirist merely tries to reform without using examples to enforce his reform, then his satire will have little effect. As Pope put it when he rewrote this letter for the publication of his Correspondence in 1737, ‘to attack Vices in the abstract, without touching Persons, may be safe fighting indeed, but it is fighting with Shadows’. Both the references to ‘fighting’, in this quotation, and to ‘hunting’, in the previous quotation, indicate that Pope sees the satirist's role in militant terms.

It is this concept of the satirist's role that emerges most strongly from the poetry. Sometimes he appears as a hunter, as in the Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II where knaves are seen as ‘game’ (27) to be ‘run down’ (29) and where the satirist has to ‘beat about’ to find an honest man:

To find an honest man, I beat about,
And love him, court him, praise him, in or out.


The broken movement of the second line here acts out the image of the hunter thrashing about in the undergrowth to raise the game. At other times the satirist is seen as a bird of prey hovering over the world ready to drop on its victim. Thus in the same poem the satirist ‘sowzes’ (15) and ‘stoops’ (110) on mankind. Both words are technical terms taken from falconry, where they describe the action of the bird swooping down on its prey. The image is also found in An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot when the speaker tells us,

That not in Fancy's Maze he wander'd long
But stoop'd to Truth, and moraliz'd his song.


The concept of the satirist that informs Pope's satirical poetry is one of a militant defender of the public good, determined to continue ‘that noble Disdain and Abhorrence of Vice’ that Arbuthnot describes. Contrary to what has all too frequently been said about the wounded and besieged poet who lashes out at his enemies in desperate retaliation, Pope usually directs his wrath from a position of personal detachment. The satirist's attack is not primarily the result of personal hurt or grievance, nor is it primarily a form of self-defence: it springs rather from a profound disgust at his ‘Country's Ruin’ and from a correspondingly strong sense of public spiritedness concerning the ‘Public Weal’.


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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.

Pat Rogers (essay date 1976)

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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 ‘irregular’ beauties of Shakespeare and Milton. Beyond all this, we are ill at ease with an aesthetic which places such a high value on what seem to us aridly technical skills. But for the Augustans it was different. The new polish they looked for in art was a matter of glamour, pride, self-confidence. ‘Correct’ poetry was part of a swelling nationalism and a swaggering modernism; it came ready equipped with a justification in cultural history:

… Britain to soft refinements less a foe,
Wit grew polite, and Numbers learn'd to flow.
Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine.
Tho' still some traces of our rustic vein
And splay-foot verse, remain'd, and will remain.
Late, very late, correctness grew our care,
When the tir'd nation breath'd from civil war.
Exact Racine, and Corneille's noble fire
Show'd us that France had something to admire.
Not but the Tragic spirit was our own,
And full in Shakespear, fair in Otway shone:
But Otway fail'd to polish or refine,
And fluent Shakespear scarce effac'd a line.
Ev'n copious Dryden, wanted or forgot,
The last and greatest Art, the Art to blot.

(Horace, Ep. II. i. 265-81)

Note the precise distinctions drawn between Waller and Dryden, Racine and Corneille, Shakespeare and Otway. Always Pope is busy discriminating.

It is worth looking with some attention at the key words in this passage, especially the honorific epithets. Wit must be ‘polite’—that is, civilized, courtly, free from affectation. ‘Refinements’ may involve the gentler qualities but can also accommodate the ‘energy’ of a vigorous master such as Dryden. The effects to be shunned are ‘rustic’, what Matthew Arnold was to characterize by his phrase ‘the note of provinciality’. Instead, literature should be urbane and agreeable. The ‘exact’ language of the great French dramatists is commended for its classical precision and bite. One can see in all this a conscious programme, a manifesto for contemporary poets, as well as a reductive account of the sloppiness of preceding generations. There are similarities with the Imagist declaration at the start of this century, notably in the attitude of T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound to decadent Romanticism.

This then is anything but a timid defence of arbitrary rules. It is a call to action; Pope belonged to an age-group which believed itself at an important watershed in taste. In fact, some heavy demands are laid on poetry in the high Augustan era. It is permitted to relinquish the quest for false sublimity; the pressure on a major writer to produce an authentic English epic was never again to reach its Renaissance dimensions. But by way of compensation poetry was asked to mirror a social revolution. More than that, it was asked to foster and indeed guide this process. The English nation was to throw off its insularity and attain a new cosmopolitan ease. This meant that society needed a thorough course of education, and poets were to be among the principal instructors. It was no longer acceptable for writing to be crabbed, rough, ill-proportioned. But nor were the dilettante Restoration coterie-poets much help, that ‘Mob of Gentlemen who wrote with Ease’ (Horace, Ep. II. i. 108). A distinct professional competence was required—a solid control masked beneath the suave insouciance of the verse.

It is easy to see how in this situation the heroic couplet acquired its overwhelming attraction. It is a shapely mode of writing, firmly structured but pleasant in appearance. It solicits a clean organization of thought; the poet must know what he wants to say first, and what second, and how he is going to get from one to the other.1 Yet the couplet has its own aesthetic appeal, deriving from its underlying symmetry. As everyone observes, figures like parallelism and antithesis flourish strongly in the Augustan climate; somehow the ideas seem to fall into such pairings without any effort on the part of the poet. In addition, there was a definite social component in the preference for this form. Blank verse had become associated with high Miltonic aspirations. This was a view which events in Pope's lifetime did little to change. Both good poets like James Thomson in his Seasons (1726-30) and bad poets like Thomas Newcomb in his Last Judgement (1723) helped to preserve the vaunting claims of blank verse. But couplets were quite another thing. They were well bred, gentlemanly, elegant.

Let us be more concrete. Pope devoted his whole career to mastering the couplet, and we should be clear on the advantages he derived.

(1) The heroic couplet was perspicuous; it invited a lucid approach, in that the formal demands make for sequentiality.

On this Foundation Fame's
high Temple stands;
Stupendous Pile! not rear'd by mortal Hands.
Whate'er proud Rome, or artful Greece beheld,
Or elder Babylon, its Frame excell'd.
Four Faces had the Dome, and ev'ry Face
Of various Structure, but of equal Grace:
Four brazen Gates, on Columns lifted high,
Salute the diff'rent Quarters of the Sky.
Here fabled Chiefs in darker Ages born,
Or Worthys old, whom Arms or Arts adorn,
Who Cities rais'd, or tam'd a monstrous Race;
The Walls in venerable Order grace:
Heroes in animated Marble frown,
And Legislators seem to think in Stone.

Temple of Fame, 61-74)

Here the ideas seem to be forming a regular queue to gain admittance to the poem. It is very different from Milton, say, where the struggle to articulate engenders a titanic struggle between thought and expression, registered in the convoluted syntax. Pope moves steadily on, like an experienced rock-climber; he does not make a move until he knows where he is going after that.

(2) The couplet was flexible. It was in touch with conversational rhythms—indeed, Pope's later work shows an increasing tendency to adopt colloquial airs:

P. How Sir! not damn the Sharper,
but the Dice?
Come on then Satire! gen'ral, unconfin'd,
Spread thy broad wing, and sowze on all the Kind.
Ye Statesmen, Priests, of one Religion all!
Ye Tradesmen vile, in Army, Court or Hall!
Ye Rev'rend Atheists!—F[riend].
Scandal! name them, Who?
P. Why that's the thing you
bid me not to do.
Who starv'd a Sister, who forswore a Debt,
I never nam'd—the Town's enquiring yet.
The pois'ning Dame—Fr.
You mean—P. I don't.—Fr. You do.
P. See! now I keep the Secret, and
not you.
The bribing Statesman—Fr. Hold!
too high you go.
P. The brib'd Elector—Fr. There you stoop too low.
P. I fain wou'd please you,
if I knew with what:
Tell me, which Knave is lawful Game, which not?

(Epilogue to Satires, II, 13-27)

But such cross-talk acts are only one of innumerable effects available to Pope. He can be high and sententious, obscene, skittish, tender, or whatever he pleases.

(3) The form was, as it were, poetically neutral. It could carry sustained narrative or the most delicately chiselled epitaph. Pope was able to modulate in and out of the set genres without elaborate formal preparations—thus, Windsor-Forest incorporates a topographical poem, a political panegyric, an economic prophecy, a lyrical interlude, an Ovidian set-piece, and much else. The poet can change gear as smoothly as he does only because of the unassuming, inconspicuous amenity afforded by the couplet.

(4) The couplet is particularly well adapted to a number of rhetorical devices which suited Pope's ends. Among these are paradox, contrived anti-climax, zeugma, syllepsis and parison. Some of these are noticeable only to the reader, a rare one nowadays, who is trained to spot particular ‘turns’. Others, though, are very obvious—like punning. And in any case W. K. Wimsatt has written so well on the subject that detailed treatment is not in order here. In summary, Wimsatt shows how in Pope ‘the abstract logic of parallel and antithesis is complicated and offset’ by these other rhetorical figures, and above all by rhyme.2 This can be illustrated by a simple example:

Then flash'd the living Lightning from her Eyes,
And Screams of Horror rend th' affrighted Skies.
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last,
Or when rich China Vessels, fall'n from high,
In glittring Dust and painted Fragments lie!

(Rape of the Lock, III, 155-60)

Obviously the main satiric impact here comes in the second couplet, with its delicious zeugma in line 158. But the rhyme words enact the same confusion of levels and play the same arch mock-heroic game. In appearance the couplet is a little prim, which is just what the ironist asks of it.

(5) The form obliges the reader to attend carefully. There is none of the open-ended garrulity of free verse; an analytic hold is placed on the material even as it is enunciated. Pope employs the heroic couplet as a placing and discriminating device. In contemporary aesthetics, deriving from Locke and Addison, it was usual to split the creative act between invention (fancy: the synthetic power of the imagination) and judgement (the operation of a critical intelligence). Particular stress was laid on the latter, though the sturdy critic John Dennis for one felt the emphasis was sometimes misplaced. But for Pope, as for the Renaissance writers, concern for ordonnance was a moral issue as well as a technical one. The poet placed his words with minute care, rather as one would set precious stones in a piece of fine jewellery. Precision not merely prettifies, it embodies all the intellectual commitment bestowed on the work. The couplet, indeed, is a machine for thinking in; but it is at the same time a jewel box, to display craftsmanship and to lend allure to finely textured ideas:

The lucid Squadrons round the Sails repair:
Soft o'er the Shrouds Aerial Whispers breathe,
That seem'd but Zephyrs to the
Train beneath.
Some to the Sun their Insect-Wings unfold,
Waft on the Breeze, or sink in Clouds of Gold.
Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal Sight,
Their fluid Bodies half dissolv'd in Light.
Loose to the Wind their airy Garments flew,
Thin glitt'ring Textures of the filmy Dew;
Dipt in the richest Tincture of the Skies,
Where Light disports in every-mingling Dies,
While ev'ry Beam new transient Colours flings,
Colours that change whene'er they wave their Wings.

(Rape of the Lock, II, 56-68)

This would be exquisite writing in any context. But it is the finicky precision of the language and the minute delicacy of the verse movement that give the passage its note of intimacy. Such an impression is hard to attain with any looser-knit metrical scheme. The couplet lets us explore the tiniest detail.

Of course, not all Pope appears within the confines of a single couplet. He learnt to compose in sweeping verse paragraphs, directing the argument with measured authority. As his career went on, he became particularly adept at the larger structural devices—e.g. the resolution of a satiric poem by means of a contrasting block of compliment or celebration (often turned towards the dedicatee, as in the Epistle to a Lady). But it remains true that the fundamental architectural unit is not the paragraph but the couplet. Within these twenty syllables Pope deployed an extraordinary range of artifice. By ceaseless variations he defeats our expectations and avoids monotony. By small shadings of rhythm, tone or syntax he creates surprise and delight:

He look'd, and saw a sable Sorc'rer rise,
Swift to whose hand a winged volume flies:
All sudden, Gorgons hiss, and Dragons glare,
And ten-horn'd fiends and Giants rush to war.
Hell rises, Heav'n descends, and dance on Earth,
Gods, imps and monsters, music, rage and mirth,
A fire, a jig, a battle, and a ball,
Till one wide Conflagration swallows all.

(Dunciad, A, III, 229-36)

The pace quickens or slows at the poet's will (line 234 here has six stresses, line 235 only four) and there is a constant interplay between the strict metrical pattern and the free-flowing syntax, with its catalogues, suspensions, alliterative echoes and so on. For a long time, Pope was bogged down in a sterile debate concerning the relations of ‘sound’ and ‘sense’ in poetry, much of it tediously annexed to the more jejune sort of onomatopoeia. But when he devoted himself to composing, instead of theorizing, everything fell into place. Pope made the couplet into a marvellously supple piece of phonetic engineering.3


It would equally be wrong to give the idea that his expressive power derives solely from the vehicle he employed. The twentieth century has been able to find in Pope almost every poetic beauty which has successively arrogated critical notice. There is plangency and lyrical grace, as in Eloisa to Abelard; there is vibrant metaphysical wit, as in The Dunciad; there is arcane symbolism, as in The Temple of Fame; there is myth, virtually everywhere. At present Pope is most admired for a kind of prophetic urgency, evident principally in his later works. But if teasing social badinage ever comes into fashion again, he will satisfy that demand just as easily—and much the same could be said of high moral and discursive writing. There is scarcely any aesthetic canon which would exclude Pope from literary distinction, unless it is the cult of the ill-made poem.

The wider implications of Pope's technique have never been exposed in a wholly convincing manner. In my view, his poetic style is beautifully calculated to express what might be termed (simply for convenience) the Augustan outlook on life. In the first place, it shuns obscurity, as Georgian churches sought to dissipate the gloom of Gothic structures. Second, his style operates in a consecutive manner; it nurtures logic and connection. Other poetic techniques, in other ages, have been designed to blur distinctions—to allow free movement back and forward among the constituent parts of the poem. Milton, Blake and Hopkins can all be shown to favour his mode of working. But the strength of eighteenth-century poetry was that it knew the syntactic moment to leave. Pope's verse gains momentum and verse precisely from its refusal to merge one statement into another:

Turn then from Wits; and look on Simo's Mate,
No Ass so meek, no Ass so obstinate;
Or her, that owns her Faults, but never mends,
Because she's honest, and the best of Friends:
Or her, whose Life the Church and Scandal share,
For ever in a Passion, or a Prayer:
Or her, who laughs at Hell, but (like her Grace)
Cries, ‘Ah! how charming if there's no such place!’
Or who in sweet vicissitude appears,
Of Mirth and Opium, Ratafie and Tears,
The daily Anodyne, and nightly Draught,
To kill those foes to Fair ones, Time and Thought.
Woman and Fool are two hard things to hit,
For true No-meaning puzzles more than Wit.

(Epistle to a Lady, 101-14)

The successive antitheses make their point because they arrive in a prepared environment. Line 106 is full of rhetorical charge. It involves antithesis and zeugma, with a hint of paradox. The small reservation ‘or a Prayer’ would easily get lost in the thrashing syntax of (say) Gerard Manley Hopkins. But it springs straight out at us here, so orderly is the grammatical context.

Third, Pope's style asserts the intelligibility and connectedness of things in a genteel, elegant idiom. It manages to avoid dislocation and disruption, as the work of Pope's friend Swift did not. Again the poetic vocabulary chimes in with the prejudices of the age. As Geoffrey Tillotson, a brilliantly observant analyst of linguistic effect, once noted, ‘Correctness elicits and does not abuse the reader's confidence. … His alertness is intensified, his curiosity, his trust increased.’4 Many of Pope's greatest achievements rely on this delicate negotiation with the reader; and it is crucial that Pope should get the audience on his side. Other writers in other situations can afford to alienate or insult the people whom they are addressing. Shock tactics are a common feature in modern literature. But Pope needs first to enlist our sympathy. He makes writing seem a civilized business, a polite form of communication as unthreatening as (to take extreme examples) a wine list or a bus timetable. Of course, there are really the most powerful undercurrents of feeling ready to surface within the poem. But, like most of his contemporaries, Pope found a posture of innocence, a demure manner, a placid front, useful to his purposes. If his style had been less witty, polished and agreeable, he would not have been able to do many of the things he did.

Finally, Pope's style is adapted not just to contemplating or celebrating—it compares, contrasts, judges. Where other writers, before and since, have evolved a use of language which would maximize other attributes of experience, Pope was chiefly occupied by sorting and ranking functions. A comparison is needed here, in fact, to make this plain. Here is Milton's Eden:

Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view:
Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Others whose fruit burnisht with Gold Rinde
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here onely, and of delicious taste:
Betwixt them Lawns, or level Downs and Flocks
Grasing the tender herb, were interpos'd,
Of palmie hilloc, or the flourie lap
Of some irriguous Valley spread her store,
Flours of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose:
Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves
Of coole recess, o're which the mantling Vine
Layes forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; mean while murmuring waters fall
Down the slope hills, disperst, or in a Lake,
That to the fringed Bank with Myrtle crownd,
Her chrystall mirror holds, unite their streams.
The Birds thir quire apply; aires, vernal aires,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
The trembling leaves, while Universal Pan
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance
Led on th' Eternal Spring

(Paradise Lost, IV, 246-68)

Now Pope's ‘Groves of Eden’, transported to England, and embodying a conscious Miltonic recollection: we join the passage a few lines later than in the previous essay (p. 14 above):

Here waving Groves a chequer'd Scene display,
And part admit and part exclude the Day;
As some coy Nymph her lover's warm Address
Not quite indulges, nor can quite repress.
There, interspers'd in Lawns and opening Glades,
Thin Trees arise that shun each others Shades.
Here in full Light the russet Plains extend;
There wrapt in Clouds the blueish Hills ascend;
Ev'n the wild Heath displays her Purple Dies,
And 'midst the Desart fruitful Fields arise,
That crown'd with tufted Trees and springing Corn,
Like verdant Isles the sable Waste adorn.
Let India boast her Plants, nor envy
The weeping Amber or the balmy Tree,
While by our Oaks the precious Loads are born,
And Realms commanded which those Trees adorn.
Not proud Olympus yields a nobler
Tho' Gods assembled grace his tow'ring Height,
Than what more humble Mountains offer here,
Where, in their Blessings, all those Gods appear.
See Pan with Flocks, with Fruits Pomona crown'd,
Here blushing Flora paints the enamel'd
Here Ceres' Gifts in waving
Prospect stand,
And nodding tempt the joyful Reaper's Hand,
Rich Industry sits smiling on the Plains,
And Peace and Plenty tell, a stuart

(Windsor-Forest, 17-42)

Milton shows us a scene; Pope takes us on a guided tour. His landscape is composed, planned, resonant with meanings. Milton is taken up with the sheer sensuous wonder of Eden; Pope maps out his groves with fastidious care. He starts with a contrast on the accented ‘These’ (line 9) and proceeds through a whole series of antitheses, explicit or implicit. Milton's ‘here’ is a vague locative: Pope's is set directly against a clear cut ‘there’. Milton alludes for a moment to classical myth, but simply to compass his atmospheric ends—to enrich the awe and mystery. Pope applies directly to the classics, as a touchstone and contrast. His style is always quick to detect rivalries:

While by our Oaks the precious
Loads are born,
And Realms commanded which those
Trees adorn.

Pope's language is full of small direction signs, which control the relationship of one thing to another—not/but, part/part, nor/nor, not/than. In short, Milton presents experience, Pope arranges it. He has been shown to import into his Homer a strong emphasis on perspectives, not present in the original; and we have the same organizing process at work in Windsor-Forest. Pope needed a poetic language of location and comparison: and the couplet—sharp and sequential—was a key part of this language.


  1. See pp. 1-26 above; and more generally, J. A. Jones, Pope's Couplet Art (Athens, Ohio, 1969).

  2. W. K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (London, 1970), p. 180.

  3. See I. Ehrenpreis, ‘The Style of Sound: The Literary Value of Pope's Versification’, The Augustan Milieu, ed. H. K. Miller, E. Rothstein and G. S. Rousseau (Oxford, 1970), pp. 232-46, especially pp. 244-5.

  4. G. Tillotson, On the Poetry of Pope (Oxford, 2nd edn, 1950), p. 116.


Corr: The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1956)

EC: The Works of Alexander Pope, ed. W. Elwin and W. J. Courthope, 10 vols. (London, 1871-90)

Mack, Garden and City: Maynard Mack, The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope 1731-1743 (Toronto, 1969)

Mack, Life: Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (New Haven and London, 1985)

Prose Works: The Prose Works of Alexander Pope, vol. 1, ed. Norman Ault (Oxford, 1936); vol. 2, ed. Rosemary Cowler (Oxford, 1986)

Spence: Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, ed. J. M. Osborn, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1966)

TE: The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. J. Butt et al., 11 vols. (London, 1939-69)

The Dunciad is quoted, unless otherwise indicated, from the ‘B’ text, that is the four-book version of 1743.

The following abbreviations are used for journal titles:

ECS: Eighteenth-Century Studies

JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology

MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly

N&Q: Notes & Queries

PBA: Proceedings of the British Academy

PLL: Papers on Language & Literature

PQ: Philological Quarterly

RES: Review of English Studies

SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

SP: Studies in Philology

YES: Yearbook of English Studies

Principal Works

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“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 Lady”

The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope (poetry and criticism) 1717

The Odyssey of Homer. 5 vols. [translator] (poetry) 1725-26

The Works of Shakspear. 6 vols. [adaptor] (poetry) 1725

The Dunciad (poetry) 1728

“Peri Bathous; or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry” (criticism) 1728; published in Miscellanies, vol. 3

The Dunciad, Variorum. With the Prolegomena of Scriblerus (poetry) 1729

Epistles to Several Persons (poetry) 1731-35

Satires and Epistles of Horace, Imitated (poetry) 1733-37

An Essay on Man, Being the First Book of Ethic Epistles. To Henry St. John L. Bolingbroke (poetry) 1734

An Epistle from Mr. Pope, to Dr. Arbuthnot (poetry) 1735

Mr. Pope's Literary Correspondence for Thirty Years; from 1704 to 1734 (letters) 1735

Letters of Mr. Alexander Pope and Several of His Friends (letters) 1737

Epilogue to the Satires (poetry) 1738

Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus [With John Arbuthnot, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and Jonathan Swift] (satire) 1737

The New Dunciad: As It Was Found in the Year 1741. With the Illustrations of Scriblerus, and Notes Variorum (poetry) 1742

The Dunciad, in Four Books (poetry) 1743

Satires of Dr. Donne Versified (poetry) 1751

The Works of Alexander Pope. 9 vols. (poetry and criticism) 1751

The Correspondence of Alexander Pope (letters) 1956

*These works first appeared in the 1717 edition of The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope.

†This work first appeared in the 1751 edition of The Works of Alexander Pope.

David B. Morris (essay date 1984)

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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 not an Age of Keats, a Pound Era but not a Williams Era or an Age of Frost. Alexander Pope is the major poet of his century, and the period of his lifetime (1688-1744) might be justly called, give or take a few years, the Age of Pope. Pope's importance, however, extends far beyond his own times. Few major poets remain so unfailingly controversial, for Pope has deeply divided readers in almost every subsequent generation. (His gift for attracting enemies seems inseparable from his poetic virtues and large talent for friendship.) Questions of morality no doubt generate much of the divisiveness; even after two hundred years his motives and conduct still inspire lively dispute. Yet, questions about Pope's morality do not fully explain his knack of transforming readers into passionate advocates or adversaries. He continues to engage us, I believe, especially because his work requires us to clarify and to articulate our differences about literature itself. It demands that we reconsider such primary issues as the uses of tradition, the value of rhyme, and the place of doctrine in poetry. We must redefine what we mean by imitation and originality, by open and closed form. We must test our beliefs about the moral stance of the poet, about the nature of style, about didactic verse, about wit and reason and imagination as poetic resources—about the relation between life and art. Pope is more than a gifted writer from a distant age whose writing still commands attention. He has become fundamental to our ways of thinking about literature.

The purpose of this book is to offer a perspective on Pope which will allow a better understanding of his achievement and importance. Perspective is a crucial matter, because Pope remains identified by many of his readers (and many who have not read his work) with the smallest fragment of his genius: the heroic couplet. Most academic studies have unintentionally helped to distance or to diminish Pope by offering us only two main ways of encountering his work, as in a film that consists entirely of close-ups or panoramas. We view him neither through the detailed analysis of individual poems and of special topics or through bird's-eye surveys which glance swiftly and superficially over his entire career. In the years since Reuben A. Brower's Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (1959) only a few critical books—introductions aside—have attempted to discuss at length the whole range of Pope's work, and even Brower circumscribed his study by emphasizing Pope's debt to the classical tradition, especially to “Homer and the Roman poets.”1 As in Brower's distinguished study, for example, the emphasis upon a special topic or controlling theme necessarily introduces additional problems of perspective by excluding or by blurring whatever falls outside a unifying focus. (Thus Pope's classicism needs to be understood in relation to his concern—not always disapproving—for contemporary culture and for popular writing: he enjoyed such unclassical works as Gulliver's Travels, The Beggar's Opera, and Robinson Crusoe.) A writer as diverse as Pope demands in his readers a perspective both comprehensive and flexible, one which offers more than a choice between rapid sketches in bold outline and the scrutiny of magnified pieces. We need a perspective which encourages us to see Pope as a life-size, three-dimensional, changing figure. We need studies which are detailed but not fragmentary, extensive but not merely general, which permit us a spectator's freedom to shift our points of view. If no single study can accomplish such an impossible combination of virtues, it is essential to respect the diversity of such an elusive and many-sided writer.

The problems of perspective are further complicated by Pope's troublesome multiplicity, for his character and art confront us with strangely incongruent figures. There is the bawdy Pope, the polite Pope, Pope the scholar, Pope the gardener. There is the London wit, the country gentleman, the plain-dealer, the genteel equivocator. There is the gallant, the outsider, the man of moderation, the heroic extremist, the faithful son, the devoted enemy, the trickster, the philosopher, and the rake. Like Proteus, his nature seems centered, if a stable center exists, in the power to assume different shapes. It is easier to make sense of Pope if we narrow our gaze to a single fragment of his character, such as the familiar poet of retirement and limitation who gives voice to all the verities of neoclassicism. A more comprehensive study, however, must offer us a less manageable portrait—diverse, copious, changing, contradictory—like mankind as depicted in Pope's two puzzling epistles on human character.

An exhaustive study of Pope might begin with the moment when Pope began his own literary studies, but in a poet so precocious and so devious (who, quoting Ovid, reports that he lisped in verse) such unrecoverable origins recede indefinitely. Even as a child, Pope seems never wholly outside the world of literature. Perhaps the best substitute for a moment of poetic origin—the occasion when the poet first dedicates himself to poetry—is Pope's encounter as a child with the seventy-year-old poet and playwright John Dryden. “I saw Mr. Dryden when I was about twelve years old,” Pope recalled to Joseph Spence. “I remember his face, for I looked upon him with the greatest veneration even then, and observed him very particularly.”2 This encounter at Will's Coffee House had not been left to chance. Pope had persuaded a friend to bring him to Will's—where Dryden regularly held court—hoping to see the greatest writer of the age. To the young Pope, Dryden was not simply a celebrated literary man but the epitome of a poet. Pope at twelve was carefully observing not just an individual but a role, a vocation, an archetype.

The “veneration” (implying almost religious awe) with which Pope gazed at Dryden tells us a great deal about Pope. As he once implied in referring to the encounter at Will's, he saw in Dryden something like the legendary dimensions of Virgil. Nor did this patriarchal stature diminish as Pope gained experience in recognizing Dryden's faults. At sixteen he had undertaken with the aging William Wycherley a strained and posturing literary correspondence, and the unpublished young poet needed no prompting to share his thoughts about Dryden. “I think with you,” he replied agreeably to Wycherley, “that whatever lesser Wits have risen since his Death, are but like Stars appearing when the Sun is set.”3 So imposing was Dryden to Pope that even his absence seemed, like night, a form of lingering presence. Although Pope spent ten years translating Homer and editing Shakespeare, although he was one of the earliest admirers of Milton, and although he borrowed ideas or appropriated phrases from writers in at least four languages in a literary heritage extending from the Bible to Matthew Prior, yet, as he worked to secure his character and reputation as a poet, his closest kinship was with the man (like Pope, a Roman Catholic) who was the most important writer of the previous age. Dryden's words and rhythms and thoughts make a continual reappearance throughout the works of his extraordinarily allusive successor. It is hardly surprising that Pope kept a picture of Dryden in his chamber, along with portraits of Shakespeare and of Milton.

The influence of a great writer often causes later writers to experience a form of anxiety. Pope's relation to Dryden, however, does not reveal the strains of psychic and literary conflict that Harold Bloom discovers in Romantic and in post-Romantic writers. Pope's emotions are instead disarmingly direct: “Many people would like my ode on music better,” he states matter-of-factly, “if Dryden had never written on that subject.”4 The judgment is probably correct. It certainly exposes no dark and intricate turns of anxiety, no oedipal designs on Dryden's muse, no latent fears of castration, no patricidal desire—only respect mingled with diffident self-regard. When Pope came to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey, he again encountered the looming presence of Dryden, who had published translations of scattered passages from Homer. “Had he translated the whole Work,” Pope confessed sensibly, “I would no more have attempted Homer after him than Virgil, his Version of whom (notwithstanding some human Errors) is the most noble and spirited Translation I know in any Language.”5 Pope's parenthesis is not an instance of mean-spirited detraction—damaged praise—but the expression of discriminating independence—the judicious criticism of one who knows, as opposed to servile or dutiful flattery. (Dryden himself publicly deplored his own haste in composition.) It might be possible to uncover traces of anxiety or envy in Pope's silences, to discover occasions when he ought to have praised Dryden but did not—as in the roll call of exemplary critics which concludes An Essay on Criticism. Yet, silent omissions, where they can be reasonably discovered, prove little. Pope borrowed more without acknowledgment than any major poet except Shakespeare. Psychoanalytical speculation about his latent anxieties, even if fascinating, overlooks the central feature of Pope's literary relation with Dryden. His relation to the past was not governed by oedipal themes or buried laws of the psyche, but by two formerly powerful and closely related forces: the classical theory of mimesis and the mercantile doctrines of trade.

For Pope, the classical theory of imitation specified the poet's main task not as the pursuit of radical uniqueness—what a later generation meant by “originality”—but as the imitation of nature. The imitation of nature, of course, included the imitation of literary works that embodied laws, forms, and sentiments stipulated as “natural.” This, for Pope, was the great lesson of Virgil, whose youthful, spirited contempt for literary models did not survive his later scrutiny of Homer. As Pope wrote of Virgil's crucial discovery: “Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.6 The imitation of specific writers and of established genres did not imply slavish copying, which Dryden dismissed with scorn: “This is like Merry Andrew on the low rope, copying lubberly the same tricks which his master is so dexterously performing on the high.”7 Neoclassical imitation, as Pope and Dryden understood it, implied a process of transformation in which continuities with the past are a means of making change visible. “I might imitate Virgil, if I were capable of writing an heroic poem,” Dryden modestly remarked, “and yet the invention be my own.”8 For Pope, as for Dryden, invention—the creative faculty which discovers and disposes new materials for art—was the indispensable collaborator in all worthy acts of imitation. (“Without invention,” Dryden insisted, “a painter is but a copier, and a poet but a plagiary of others.”9) Thus the past, like nature, is an inexhaustible treasury of matter which the inventive poet will put to use, mixing genres, adapting characters, reviving imagery, echoing thoughts to create a work simultaneously familiar and new, imitative and original. Although an adversarial relation with the past often bedeviled (or inspired) writers in the generations after Pope, Pope was not, as they were, charged with the burden of an innovation so radical that it reduced the past to a catalogue of exhausted possibilities. Pope, while drawing nourishment from the past, found his main adversaries in the present—in the corrupt politicians and hack writers whose open rejection of established values he transformed into a sign of their duncelike irrationality.

It was in genealogy that the theory of imitation found its most fruitful metaphor for expressing the relation between past and present. Genealogy, of course, was not the only metaphor available, for neoclassical writers imagined the past in various ways, complementary and sometimes contradictory. The past might seem, for example, like a pastoral scene, a region wholly set apart from the present, inaccessible, fixed in a serene and perfect stillness, as in a classical landscape by Poussin. This is the view Pope reflects in An Essay on Criticism when he imagines the great writers of the past as a separate community—“born in happier Days” (l. 189)—isolated from the corrupt present by an almost visible gulf. Genealogy as a metaphor for imitation held the power to span the vast distance between past and present without denying the remoteness of antiquity. In fact, the bond linking fathers with sons—sometimes over many generations—becomes the most common way for eighteenth-century writers to express their connection to the past, and Pope invokes this metaphoric bond in An Essay on Criticism when he directly allies himself with the great ancient writers as “the last, the meanest of your Sons” (l. 196). For Pope the relation between fathers and sons did not conjure up themes or metaphors of Freudian family romance, but rather it referred mainly to social, legal, and religious duties. Pope imagines the son primarily in the role of heir: the ultimate successor to his father's estate. Imitation becomes the act by which a modern poet appropriates tradition, establishing himself as rightful successor, son and heir, to the great ancient writers. Yet, the social and legal suggestions of inheritance do not exhaust the metaphor of genealogy. Equally important, the father is both guardian and teacher; he protects the son, instructs him, and guides him toward eventual independence and maturity. This filial embrace with the past—far from creating rebellious tensions—serves as a source of support, for the father in his role as tutor and protector performs the office usually attributed, in the traditional development of the artist, to the “master.” Imitation is a mode of learning—a source of knowledge—and the tradition of artistic discipleship expects worthy sons eventually to become the fathers and teachers of a new generation. The crucial question for Pope is whether they will have appropriated—made their own—what the past has to teach them. We look in vain for hints of anxiety in Pope's forthright statement that he “learned” the art of versification “wholly from Dryden's works.”10 Dryden, quite simply, was the master.

While the theory of mimesis provided in genealogy one way for modern writers to imagine their relation to the past, a complementary version of the same relationship (with its own cluster of metaphoric terms) was available in contemporary mercantile doctrine. Commerce, as an economic force and a literary subject, holds an importance in the eighteenth century now difficult to reconstruct.11 Free from its later associations with bourgeois philistinism and distinct from mere shopkeeping or plying a trade, commerce then seemed an unprecedented national adventure—opening new overseas markets, supplying raw materials, generating endless publications, and promising not only personal wealth but also imperial power. Far from denigrating commerce as an activity reserved for the enemies of culture, Augustan writers viewed it as a potentially glorious and civilizing enterprise. Thus Pope's Windsor-Forest (1713)—like Dryden's Annus Mirabilis (1666), from which it frequently borrows thoughts and images—concludes its vision of British renewal by celebrating commerce as an emblem of harmonious order. Pope would later question the commercial spirit Windsor-Forest so readily endorses, but his early celebration of trade was far from unusual. Polite letters had discovered in commerce something like a new species of romance. The merchant as financial daredevil and exotic traveler grew indistinguishable, in some eighteenth-century accounts, from the enterprising heroes who dominated the recently translated Arabian Nights (one of Pope's favorite books). Commerce promised the abrupt magical change of fortune that also fed the national passion for lottery tickets and South Sea stock (in which Pope, too, invested). This general celebration of commerce had at least one further effect on the world of writing. It supplied a set of economic metaphors for literary production at a time when literature was just beginning to redefine itself as a commodity. It is not coincidental that Pope was the first English poet to earn a living from the sale of his works or that borrowing (perhaps his most characteristic literary trait) refers, like commerce, to an economic process.

It was probably from Dryden that Pope borrowed the commercial metaphors which help him express his relation to the past. Dryden at times viewed the poet's task as inseparable from the new enterprises of commerce. As he announced openly: “I trade both with the living and the dead, for the enrichment of our native language.” These words, meant to explain his linguistic practice in translating the Aeneid, offer more than a description of poetic technique. The metaphor of commerce central to Dryden's meaning might be said to encompass a whole theory of literature. His subsequent discussion of poetic language seems to have been developed primarily to explore the richness of this controlling metaphor. “If [re]sounding words are not of our growth and manufacture,” he continues, “who shall hinder me to import them from a foreign country? I carry not out the treasure of the nation, which is never to return; but what I bring from Italy, I spend in England: here it remains, and here it circulates; for, if the coin be good, it will pass from one hand to another.” Then he concludes his strange discourse on poetic diction with a restatement of mercantile theory that sounds as if it were written by an economist rather than by a poet or literary critic: “We have enough in England to supply our necessity; but, if we will have things of magnificence and splendour, we must get them by commerce.”12 Such literary uses of commerce did not depend upon a realistic understanding of how an economy functions. We are witnessing rather the spell of a metaphor as it shapes and expresses Dryden's attitude toward the relations between present and past. Writing—whether it involves translation or imitation or allusion—seems now absorbed into the general activity of commerce, and the restoration of English literary greatness is seen to depend upon expanded trade with the past. The past, like Virginia or the East Indies, becomes a resource for what Dryden calls national “enrichment.” Poets in this alliance find themselves the merchants of a mutual exchange between distant worlds of time.

The idea of the poet as merchant, though hardly a sublime concept and insufficient to represent Pope's larger view of poetry, expresses an outlook wholly appropriate to the materialistic and patriotic spirit of Augustan writing, concerned with rebuilding England's literary reputation after the ruinous violence of seventeenth-century conflict. Such rebuilding is Dryden's theme in his noted essay Of Dramatick Poesie (1668). “Be it spoken to the honour of the English,” boasts Dryden's usual spokesman, Neander, “our nation can never want in any age such who are able to dispute the empire of wit with any people in the universe.” The metaphor representing literature as an empire-in-dispute may seem casual or commonplace until we reflect upon the strange setting in which Dryden places his four speakers. They are drifting down the Thames on a barge, attracted by a distant thunder of cannon. A great naval battle is in progress, we learn, between Dutch and English warships—which “disputed the command of the greater half of the globe, the commerce of nations, and the riches of the universe.” By setting his gentlemanly argument against the background of a violent episode in the recurring Anglo-Dutch commercial wars, Dryden emphasizes that two empires are in dispute—that English dominance in commerce establishes a paradigm for literary dominion. At times Dryden's metaphors reveal an exploitative attitude toward the past that verges on crude imperialism. For example, Neander says in praise of Ben Jonson's imitation of the ancients: “He has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him.”13 Here is the opposite of anxiety: a sovereign confidence that the past exists to advance the power and grandeur of the present. This belief, purged of its bellicose tone, is among Dryden's most important legacies to Pope and is the basis of all Pope wrote. “A mutual commerce makes Poetry flourish,” the young Pope explained to his mentor, William Walsh. “But then,” he added, in enlightened mercantile phrases, “Poets like Merchants, shou'd repay with something of their own what they take from others; not like Pyrates, make prize of all they meet.”14

What can it mean to “repay” the past? Pope's statement to Walsh helps to answer this paradoxical question when we recognize that Pope's image of mercantile repayment corrects or revises Neander's rough metaphor describing imitation as a form of imperious theft or seizure. For Pope, the present “repays” the past by judiciously correcting or improving its legacy. This process, so crucial for understanding Augustan poetics, is what Pope describes in the ambiguous term refinement. Refinement does not imply an indiscriminate or artificial smoothness—as Romantic critics of Pope suggest in their attacks—mere high polish, fancy manners, or elitist taste. In refinement, the purpose of labor is to enhance value already existing in an original material. (It is necessary in refining gold to begin with gold-bearing ore.) The most obvious eighteenth-century models for refinement were the massive building projects which occupied the great landowners of Pope's day, who not only constructed vast country houses in imitation of classical prototypes but also redesigned the landscape, adding artificial lakes or woods or vistas wherever nature proved deficient. This was far from mere polish, even when stretched to absurdity. (The well-placed ruin soon joined Roman temples on the list of desirable aristocratic improvements.) Refinement was a special kind of creation which artfully linked past and present in an improving harmony. Like Pope's famous improvements to the small estate he rented at Twickenham, the changes in landscape and in architecture signified internal refinements of spirit, taste, and knowledge. Ethics and aesthetics thus shared the same general goal, as reflected in The Spectator, where the refinements of polite behavior were recommended in a prose so pure that Addison sometimes stopped the presses (legend has it) to correct a comma. An ideal so widely shared has, of course, numerous precedents—in theology, in philosophy, in political theory—but for Pope no precedent was more more conspicuous than the literary career of Dryden. It was Dryden who most influentially defined the modern writer's relation to the past as one of revision, correction, and improvement. Pope would have perfectly understood the reference to Augustus' transformation of Rome when Samuel Johnson wrote of Dryden that he found the language brick and left it marble.15

Refinement, as a concept describing the Augustan poet's relation to the past, provides both the subject and structure for Dryden's brief but important poem “To my Dear Friend Mr. Congreve” (1694). The poem is in effect a sustained meditation on the relations between past and present, proposing a clear three-stage vision of English literary history since the time of Elizabeth. First come the great Elizabethan “Syres” (l. 3): unnamed writers of strength and genius, who were also rough, rude, and uncultivated. The second stage commences with the Restoration, which Dryden characterizes as a period of art, skill, and cultivation accompanied by the unwelcome loss of genius and strength. (Dryden modestly includes himself among the writers of this second stage.) Congreve, for Dryden, signals the inception of a third and culminating era, when strength and art, genius and regularity are at last triumphantly united. This is the prophetic moment of transition with which Dryden's poem begins:

Well then; the promis'd hour is come at last;
The present Age of Wit obscures the past.(16)

This is a counter Dunciad: its plot reveals the long-deferred arrival of light. The light which obscures the past, however, does not bury it in darkness. In Dryden's vision of refining change, the present rejects only the weakness and errors of the past, while maintaining and augmenting its strengths. This mythic history of refinement—with Congreve cast metaphorically as Dryden's “Son” (l. 43) and “lineal” (l. 44) heir—suggests how Pope might have understood his visit to Will's Coffee House. As he gazed at Dryden “with the greatest veneration,” he was gazing at the poetic father whose estate he—not Congreve—would soon inherit and improve.

There is no more profound kinship between Pope and Dryden than the belief that poetry advances by refining the achievement of the past. Refinement is so far from mere technique that it enters into the most basic composition of Pope's thought, which his technical improvements might be said to reflect. For Pope the ultimate purpose of poetry is, quite simply, to make men better. The refinements of poetry are a means toward achieving ethical improvements that Pope would consider more valuable than any poem. Toward this goal, he needed to turn his attention to improving the legacy of English verse as inherited from Dryden. Pope, of course, never gave better proof of his debt to Dryden than when improving, and reproving, him. Thus, although he praised the unprecedented variety, energy, and majesty of Dryden's couplets, he also usually rejected the alexandrines and triplet rhymes so characteristic of Dryden. Such silent reproofs, to be sure, do not add up to damaging criticism. They also seem focused upon small points of style. Pope, however, found in Dryden much more serious errors—errors which he could not correct in silence.

Dryden's serious failures shared, in Pope's view, the defects characteristic of most Restoration writing. The charge that Dryden often lapsed into tasteless indecency (“To please a lewd, or un-believing Court”) seems slightly hypocritical when issued by the author of Sober Advice from Horace (1734)—Pope's seamy analysis of lust. Less pietistic is the explicit claim that Dryden's indecency can be understood as an attempt to win favor at court. In refining the example of Dryden, Pope was less concerned with indecent language than with establishing his independence from all sources of patronage, both in and out of court. This determination not to repeat Dryden's errors is clear, too, in Pope's complaint that Dryden published in haste, failing to revise or correct his own performances. As Pope wrote in mixed praise and blame: “Ev'n copious Dryden, wanted, or forgot, / The last and greatest Art, the Art to blot.”17 Pope, in correcting Dryden, performed what Dryden did not do for himself. Yet, although Pope's pursuit of correctness is notorious, there is one final improvement which clearly distinguishes his work from Dryden's. Dryden, in Johnson's words, “delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle; to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy. This inclination sometimes produced nonsense.”18 Such a description could not apply to Pope. For Pope and his age, the improvement which most clearly measured their distance from the recent past was conveyed in a single, momentous change: the correction of nonsense by sense. Sense, as embodied in the poetry of Pope, became the watchword of a new age.

As I have said, this study of Pope aims to encompass his entire career, treating specific poems at considerable length. In most cases I have chosen to discuss well-known poems rather than works which are seldom read or taught, although this procedure slights some poems which seem to me unjustly neglected. There is no single, central argument or thesis which underlies my discussion of specific poems, such as the claim (by Thomas R. Edwards, Jr.) that Pope's career can be divided into an “Augustan” and a “grotesque” mode. Such overly schematic generalizations tend to dissolve when pressed upon individual works. What gives this book coherence is a series of recurring topics, issues, and themes. The sequence of chapters, while following the basic chronology of Pope's works, is intended to allow the eddying and recursive movement of Pope's thought full play, as later poems extend or modify or affirm earlier positions. A chronological study in thematics seems especially appropriate to Pope's work. Pope, in his concern with ethics, was particularly attracted to the interpenetration of imagery and idea that imparts a concreteness and vitality to abstract propositions. In addition, as a writer whose major work spans three decades, he was constantly revisiting and revising his own compositions. Revision, in its richest sense, is the characteristic activity of Pope's writing. Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Horace, Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden—all are in various ways “revised” by Pope as he appropriates their virtues for his work or infuses their writing with his own vision. Even his own previous works become a resource which he draws upon later. For Pope, new poems do not simply follow, but modify and sometimes replace—even retract—what went before. A study in thematics, with its recursive ebb and flow, offers a way of understanding how thoroughly Pope devoted his career to the refinement which comes through repeated acts of perception, with their reopening and shifting of perspectives. Revision for Pope is a great deal more than a technique of composition. It is a mode of thought, a natural rhythm, a way of life.

As a poet dedicated to the principle of refinement, Pope at times necessarily contradicted his earlier positions and statements, since revision can introduce change which is abrupt and radical as well as gradual and continuous. Sometimes, because he is a writer so committed to paradox, his thought is irreconcilably divided, as with his attitude toward women, whose “oppression”—the term is his—he observes, condemns, and, in a milder form, perpetuates. Yet, it is not sufficient to observe contradictions within Pope's thought, whether they emerge over time (as his themes develop and ideas alter) or remain fixed and unalterable. We must also try to understand how and why these conflicts appear at different times in different poems. An understanding of such differences exerts two kinds of pressure: outward, toward history, so that we may see how Pope revises both his own thought and the thinking of his age; and inward, toward detailed literary analysis, so that we may see how Pope develops the resources of his style and vision. Refinement implies both change and consistency, and what remains consistent is no less important than what changes. The unchanged verse or phrase or thought, as it passes through successive stages of approval, contributes an invaluable stability to the text, without which change would be invisible. The scope of such changes may be large or small; size is not crucial. Refinement refers to a process, not to magnitude, and it is in the unremitting refinement of his own thought and language that Pope locates the poet's essential work. My purpose in examining Pope's work is not to argue with him, to condemn or to exaggerate his failures of logic, his ideological blindnesses, his lapses of taste. Rather, I wish to recover the vision and revisions which make his work—including its blindnesses, lapses, failures, and contradictions—ultimately compelling and coherent. Pope's outlook clearly differs from our own. The literary conventions he accepted we no longer accept, much as swords and wigs and sedan chairs, like rhymed couplets, now seem antique. I do not intend to claim for Pope an unusual timeliness or special relevance to the present, if only (as Pope insisted) because the present continually changes. I try instead to present Pope through the past, believing that his power to speak to us depends primarily on our power to recover his language and the vision which gives it shape. Neoclassical theorists often emphasized the importance of timeless values and general truths, as in Imlac's famous advice against numbering the streaks of the tulip. Pope, in many ways the most neoclassical of writers, shared the view that art must not lose itself in what is purely idiosyncratic, contemporary, individual, irregular, or untrue. It was also Pope, however, who believed that poets unable to speak to their own times speak, finally, to no one. Historical facts, local details, slang expressions, personal whimsies, unruly (even obscene) verses all find a place in Pope's work—to the distress of readers who seek only what is timeless and uplifting. We cannot understand Pope fully or adequately without immersing ourselves in the historical life which his works helped to create and which they so fully engaged. The challenge in reading Pope arises precisely from the complicated sense in which he agrees with Wallace Stevens that poetry—while not reduced or restricted to its origins—is always, inevitably, “the cry of its occasion.”


  1. Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. viii. I do not mean to slight various introductory books which undertake the difficult task of reviewing, in a few brief chapters, the life and art of a prolific, complex writer whose major works span three decades; Pat Rogers' An Introduction to Pope (London: Methuen, 1975) is a reliable guide. I should also express my debt to four skillful studies which extend the analysis of a special topic or controlling theme throughout Pope's work: Thomas R. Edwards, Jr., This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963); Patricia Meyer Spacks, An Argument of Images: The Poetry of Alexander Pope (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971); Frederick M. Keener, An Essay on Pope (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974); and Dustin H. Griffin, Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

  2. In Spence, I, 25. Pope's relation to Dryden is the subject of two essays by Reuben Brower: “An Allusion to Europe: Dryden and Poetic Tradition” (1952), reprinted in Essential Articles, pp. 132-145; “Dryden and the ‘Invention’ of Pope,” in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature: Essays in Honor of Alan Dugald McKillop, ed. Carroll Camden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 211-233.

  3. Correspondence, I, 2 (26 December 1704). On Pope's correspondence—especially its shifting voices and social strategies, which affect the meaning of nearly every statement—see James Anderson Winn, A Window in the Bosom: The Letters of Alexander Pope (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Press, 1977).

  4. In Spence, I, 28. When Bloom describes Milton's Satan as a figure of the modern poet “because he shadows forth gigantically a trouble at the core of Milton and of Pope,” I assume that he considers Pope among the writers “troubled” by their relation to the past; see Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 20. With good reason, Bloom draws most of his examples from post-Augustan writers.

  5. “Preface” to the Iliad (1715), in PW, p. 251.

  6. An Essay on Criticism (1711), l. 135.

  7. “Dedication of the Aeneis” (1697), in Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Ker, 2 vols. (1900; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), II, 201.

  8. Dryden, “A Parallel of Poetry and Painting” (1695), in Essays, II, 138. Pope maintains a similar view of invention: “It furnishes Art with all her Materials, and without it Judgment itself can at best but steal wisely: For Art is only like a prudent Steward that lives on managing the Riches of Nature. Whatever Praises may be given to Works of Judgment, there is not even a single Beauty in them but is owing to the Invention” (“Preface” to the Iliad, in PW, p. 223).

  9. Dryden, “Dedication of the Aeneis,” in Essays, II, 201.

  10. In Spence, I, 24. In a similar spirit, Dryden describes the diction of his translation of the Aeneid by saying, “I must acknowledge that Virgil in Latin, and Spenser in English, have been my masters” (Essays, II, 218). Pope's apprenticeship to the great “masters” of the past is clear from the anecdote he told concerning his early attempt at an epic poem, as recounted by Spence: “I endeavoured (says he, smiling) in this poem to collect all the beauties of the great epic writers into one piece. There was Milton's style in one part and Cowley's in another, here the style of Spenser imitated and there of Statius, here Homer and Virgil, and there Ovid and Claudian” (Spence, I, 18).

  11. See Eli Heckscher, Mercantilism (1931), trans. Mendel Shapiro, rev. ed., 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1955), and J. H. Parry, Trade and Dominion: The European Overseas Empires in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Praeger, 1971). A useful introduction to the literary uses of mercantile doctrine is Louis A. Landa, “Pope's Belinda, The General Emporie of the World, and the Wondrous Worm” (1971), reprinted in Recent Essays, pp. 177-200. See also james H. Bunn, “The Aesthetics of British Mercantilism,” New Literary History 11 (1980), 303-321.

  12. Dryden, “Dedication of the Aeneis,” in Essays, II, 234. Addison in The Spectator (no. 69) provided one of the most glowing contemporary accounts of the benefits which flow from commerce: “Our Ships are laden with the Harvest of every Climate: Our Tables are stored with Spices, and Oils, and Wines: Our Rooms are filled with Pyramids of China, and adorned with the Workmanship of Japan: Our Morning's-Draught comes to us from the remotest Corners of the Earth: We repair our Bodies by the Drugs of America, and repose our selves under Indian Canopies. My friend Sir andrew calls the Vineyards of France our Gardens; the Spice-Islands our Hot-Beds; the Persians our Silk-Weavers, and the Chinese our Potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with the bare Necessaries of Life, but Traffick [commerce] gives us a great Variety of what is Useful, and at the same time supplies us with every thing that is Convenient and Ornamental.” The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).

  13. Dryden, Essays, I, 88, 28, and 82.

  14. Correspondence, I, 20 (2 July 1706). On the possibility of “mutual gain” from trade, see Richard C. Wiles, “Mercantilism and the Idea of Progress,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8 (1974-75), 56-74. Also useful is John McVeagh's Tradefull Merchants: The Portrayal of the Capitalist in Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)—especially the chapter entitled “The merchant as hero: 1700-1750.”

  15. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779-1781), ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), I, 469. The best introduction to this subject is the brief essay by Susan Staves entitled “Refinement” (delivered at the forty-first session of The English Institute, 26 August 1982).

  16. All quotations from Dryden's verse refer to the four-volume Poems of John Dryden, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). For additional clarification of Dryden's views of the past, see Achsah Guibbory, “Dryden's Views of History,” Philological Quarterly, 52 (1973), 187-204.

  17. For Pope's comments on Dryden, see The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated (1737), ll. 213-214, 267-269, 280-281.

  18. Johnson, Lives of the Poets, I, 460.

Epigraph: The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight, 7 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), VII, 230.


Correspondence: The Correspondence of Alexander Pope. Ed. George Sherburn. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Essential Articles: Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope. Ed. Maynard Mack. Revised edition. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.

PW: The Prose Works of Alexander Pope. Ed. Norman Ault. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (for Shakespeare Head Press), 1936.

Recent Essays: Pope: Recent Essays by Several Hands. Ed. Maynard Mack and James A. Winn. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980.

Spence: Joseph Spence. Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men (1820). Ed. James M. Osborn. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.

Twickenham edition: The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt et al. 11 vols. London: Methuen, 1939-1969.

Laura Brown (essay date 1985)

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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 magnum, a discursive epic on humankind conceived as a dilated version of the Essay on Man. That longer and evidently uncompletable work was, according to Pope's prospectus, to begin with the four epistles of the Essay on Man, and to move on to a book on reason, science, learning and their misuses, a book on civil government, and a book on private ethics. As Pope himself indicates, this scheme follows the outline of the four epistles of the Essay on Man—beginning with the limits of human reason in respect to the universe and in respect to man himself, and moving to society, and finally to individual virtue. The Epistles to Several Persons, then, along with other similar moral essays, were to constitute that last book on private morality, the conclusion of Pope's major philosophical/poetic effort. These poems, like the Essay on Man, seek to place traditional definitions of character and morality, vice and virtue, in a capitalist context. Their struggle with the status of ethics in an impersonal economic system, with the nature of moral value in the new world of the commodity, reflect the central underlying obsession of Pope's opus magnum: the attempt to provide a cultural, ethical and psychological rationale—both critical and descriptive—for a capitalist mode of production.

We have already begun to see the inherent problems of Pope's project in our examination of the imagistic ambivalences and the dual ethical allegiances of the Essay on Man. The Epistles to Several Persons will offer further evidence of this ‘ethical duet’. They will also provide a perspective on the place of the ‘characters of women’ in the problematic of Pope's poetry, and an indication of the role of pastoral scene-painting in Pope's ethical project. Perhaps this constellation of ruling problems—ethical, sexual and pastoral—will give us some grounds for guessing why Pope's opus magnum could not be written.


Epistle I, To Cobham (1734) centres upon the same ambivalent theories of character that we observed in the problematic assertions of the Essay on Man; only here that ambivalence is thematized primarily in the difficulty of knowing and located in the indecision of the observer:

To Observations which ourselves we make,
We grow more partial for th' observer's sake.


From the opening lines of the poem, the attempt to construct a system for understanding and defining character is entangled with the problem of the status of man's knowledge of his fellow men, and this complexity itself is seen as a result of the elusiveness of character:

… the diff'rence is as great between
The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
All Manners take a tincture from our own,
Or some discolour'd thro' our Passions shown.


In other words, if the complexity and inaccessibility of motives make human character difficult to determine, those very qualities in the observer's character necessarily compound the problem. And indeed the first section of the poem, which elaborates the uncertain state of our knowledge about human character, systematically conflates observer and observed: ‘you’ and ‘he’ are merged in ‘us’—‘our depths’, ‘our shallows’, ‘our spring of action’ (29, 42).

From this opening declaration of the problem of knowing, the poem goes on to reject the judgement of character based on the congruence of action and motive:

In vain the Sage, with retrospective eye,
Would from th'apparent What conclude the Why,
Infer the Motive from the Deed, and shew,
That what we chanc'd was what we meant to do.


What we do, good or bad, may in fact be motivated by some form of self-interest:

Not always Actions shew the man: we find
Who does a kindness, is not therefore kind,
Perhaps Prosperity becalm'd his breast,
Perhaps the Wind just shifted from the east:
Not therefore humble he who seeks retreat,
Pride guides his steps, and bids him shun the great:
Who combats bravely is not therefore brave,
He dreads a death-bed like the meanest slave:
Who reasons wisely is not therefore wise,
His pride in Reas'ning, not in Acting lies.


This poem does not go as far as the Essay on Man towards suggesting explicitly that traditional ‘vice’ produces social ‘virtue’ and public welfare, but these examples accord with that argument. The man who ‘does a kindness’ may be motivated by private ‘Prosperity’, which is the source of public peace in Windsor-Forest and one of the period's strongest rationalizations for mercantile expansion. And if prosperity can make man kind, pride can make him humble and cowardice can make him brave. In fact, self-interest seems to reign supreme in the tone and the specific examples of this poem. There are no strong images of disinterested behaviour in the epistle, no ‘nobler aims’. A ‘Hero’ may ‘turn a crafty Knave’ because he ‘was sick, in love, or had not din'd’ (78-80). All of us are, according to ‘honest Nature’, ‘Consistent in our follies and our sins’ (226-7).

How can we understand character if we have no access to motive except the general assumption of self-interest? Only through observing men's actions in the world, only, that is, by granting the proto-utilitarian premise ‘that Actions best discover man’ (72). But this premise too is conditional. Pope goes on to argue that actions are, in practice, too varied or too dependent upon context to provide firm evidence in judging human character: deeds may be disparate and inconsistent, rank and education may affect inherent qualities, context may shape men's responses. His conclusion about the possibility of firm judgement is not hopeful:

Judge we by Nature? Habit can efface,
Int'rest o'ercome, or Policy take place:
By Actions? those Uncertainty divides:
By Passions? these Dissimulation hides:
Opinions? they still take a wider range:
Find, if you can, in what you cannot change.


All that remains is change, in observer and observed. The opening survey of the possibilities for understanding the characters of men leaves the poem with little to go on. The sage's failure to infer motives from actions signals the irrelevance of categorical morality, and the variability of human actions makes them useless for the understanding of character. At this point, the poem is asking a question that, on its own terms, cannot be answered: the question of how to supply a determinate and static definition of character, based on traditional abstract principles of inherent vice and virtue, to a world where the underlying motivation of all acts is implicitly located in private and self-interested passions. Indeed, this is a deliberate dilemma, staged by Pope to exemplify the poem's dominant premise of the inadequacy of human knowledge.

The conclusion of To Cobham unconsciously echoes the ethical indeterminacies that we have been tracing in the first half of the poem, tying them to the paradigmatic case of patriotism. The epistle ends with a list of examples of self-interest—significantly, a list made up primarily of Christian vices: lust in the ‘rev'rend sire’, Helluo's comic gluttony, miserliness in the ‘frugal Crone’, vanity, flattery, avarice and, finally, Cobham's passion of patriotism:

‘I give and I devise, (old Euclio said,
And sigh'd) ‘My lands and tenements to Ned.’
Your money, Sir; ‘My money, Sir, what all?
‘Why,—if I must—(then wept) I give it Paul.’
The Manor, Sir?—‘The Manor! hold,’ he cry'd,
‘Not that,—I cannot part with that’—and dy'd.
And you! brave cobham, to the latest
Shall feel your ruling passion strong in death:
Such in those moments as in all the past,
‘Oh, save my Country, Heav'n!’ shall be your last.


There is no doubt that Pope intended the conclusion of the poem as a compliment, or that he meant Cobham to stand as an emblem of moral virtue. Cobham wrote to thank Pope for the ‘publick testimony of your esteem and friendship’.2 And after his death his widow had these last two couplets inscribed on a memorial pillar at Stowe. But how do we know Cobham from the ‘rev'rend sire’, Helluo or ‘old Euclio’? How do we distinguish the inherent moral value of one passion over the next, especially when all actions are generated by universal self-interest?3 In placing the good patriot Cobham at the end of that catalogue, the poem formally conflates him with the examples of vice that so vividly go before. Indeed this concluding list enacts the earlier thesis that all acts derive from passions and that all passions are evaluatively equivalent, neither virtuous nor vicious except in terms of their benefit to society. The results of Cobham's particular passion may be more beneficial, but its inherent worth and Cobham's inherent virtue, at least on the basis of Pope's previous argument, are no different from the rest. The issue of the passion of patriotism arises again in the Epistle to Bathurst (1733), written earlier than To Cobham and perhaps influential upon the composition of that poem, especially in its concluding satiric portraits.4 One of the prominent characters in To Bathurst is young Cotta, the patriot who gives his whole estate for ‘his Country's love’ (212) and receives no reward. This example is offered not as an indication of inherent virtue, but as a signal of the amoral operations of heaven's law, by which extremes in human passions produce a general welfare. Cotta's amorality suggests that Cobham too cannot be seen as a pure and simple example of traditional virtue, the cornerstone of a determinate definition of character. Indeed, patriotism, as the prototype of a stable individual ethics, seems to have a special prominence in the moral problematic of the opus magnum: it serves as the emblem both of private virtue and, sometimes simultaneously, of the beneficial public effects of the passions. It plays this pivotal role in To Cobham. Though Pope claims in the last lines of that poem to have rediscovered categorical morality, the structure of his conclusion says that no such categories can be distinguished.5

Pope's attempt to justify a categorical morality is initiated at the turning point of the epistle with the line ‘Search then the Ruling Passion’ (174). The ruling passion supplies a systematic means of tying motives to actions, granting the predominance of self-interest. Thus Wharton's ‘Lust of Praise’ generates both his public eloquence and his private profligacy. And Caesar's ambition even explains the secondary passion of lust that caused him to make ‘a noble dame a whore’ (213). The ruling passion repudiates the paradox of the first half of the epistle, and consequently the thematization of the doubtful role of the observer in judging human character fades from the poem when this claim to resolution is made. Now we can know all:

… There, alone,
The Wild are constant, and the Cunning known;
The Fool consistent, and the False sincere;
Priests, Princes, Women, no dissemblers here.


In fact all we can do is discriminate among kinds of self-interest. But Pope passes off this discrimination as a determination of abstract principles of vice and virtue, as a means to an absolute ethical judgment of character. In other words, though the ruling passion may solve the problem of evaluating the relation between action and motive, it does not warrant the assumption that we can designate one passion virtuous and one vicious; indeed it directly opposes that assumption in its systematic levelling of moral distinctions. The failure of the ruling passion to provide a means of moral evaluation, and especially the peculiar parallelism of Cobham with the figures of vice in the poem's conclusion, all counter Pope's attempt to supply a neat moral resolution.

The ‘ethical duet’ that we found in the Essay on Man is thus even more of a duet in To Cobham, where it finds its focus in the problem of determinate character and personal morality. J.G.A. Pocock has suggested that the social thinking of the eighteenth century is characterized by a major implicit debate ‘between virtue and passion, land and commerce, republic and empire, value and history’. One of the consequences of this debate, according to Pocock, was that ‘social morality was becoming divorced from personal morality, and from the ego's confidence in its own integrity and reality.’6 We can situate To Cobham—and indeed all of these Epistles—at the centre of this ideological paradox. In different ways, each of them moves between the poles of virtue and passion, calling into question the foundations of personality itself, repeatedly staging the irresolvable contradiction between a cognitively stable, ethically absolute valuation and a contingent social and historical dynamic.


Epistle II, To a Lady (1735), the last published of the Epistles to Several Persons, has been read as a systematic parallel to the Epistle to Cobham.7 It begins, like To Cobham, by introducing the premise of the changeableness of human character, which it proceeds to elaborate in its long central section. It turns near its conclusion to the efficacious category of the ruling passion, which serves as the basis for a final generalization. And it ends with a predictable but in some respects extraneous tribute to the exemplary character to whom the epistle is addressed. These structural similarities might lead us to expect to read the poems in the same way, but strangely enough, as we shall find, their effects and assumptions are substantially different. The failure of the parallelism is sex-linked. In applying his paradoxical theory of human character to the ‘softer Man’ (272), Pope makes women the scapegoats of his ideological dilemma. The misogyny of the poem can be directly linked to this problematic.

Though the Epistle to a Lady emphasizes change, it does not take the position of uncertainty and indeterminacy that we found in the Epistle to Cobham. In that poem human changeableness renders the sage incapable of judgment. In To a Lady female changeability is the basis for extended satiric condemnation. This epistle begins with an assertion of its own access to truth:

Nothing so true as what you once let fall,
‘Most Women have no Characters at all.’


And it repeats this claim in the succeeding lines:

How many Pictures of one Nymph we view,
All how unlike each other, all how true!


This poem has no self-doubt. Exhaustively certain of its judgements, it will ‘Catch’ and ‘paint’ (20, 16) the changing faces of womanking despite their shifting appearance. Where To Cobham generates contradiction, To a Lady remains, at least on its own terms, coherent. In To Cobham the introduction of the theory of the ruling passion repudiates the indeterminacy that the poem proposes in its first half. In To a Lady the ruling passion is ill-prepared for by the demonstration of changeability that occupies the body of the poem, but once asserted, it fits smoothly with the confident attack on female character that precedes it. In other words, To a Lady readily accommodates itself to the application of a nation of systematic moral and characterological discrimination, while To Cobham cannot ever fully reconcile its position of uncertainty with the sudden advocacy of absolute judgment.

How can poems with such similar premises produce such different effects? It is tempting, and only somewhat unjust, to argue that To a Lady is less incoherent and more secure in its judgments than To Cobham because the one thing Pope knows in a changeable world is that women are contemptible.8 But we can go much further in accounting for Pope's misogyny. First, we can discover connections between the attack on women in this poem and Pope's ideological allegiance to classical authority. Second, we can understand the poem as an inverted consequence of the Mandevillian ethic with which Pope struggles in To Cobham as well as the Essay on Man. And third, we can even link the poem to the representation of commodity fetishism that we found most fully developed in The Rape of the Lock.

Pope's misogyny does not spring fully grown from his own personal antagonisms. Classical attacks on women, especially Juvenal's misogynist satires, serve as authority and justification for much of the anti-female literature of Pope's period. In the case of To a Lady, classical precedent provides not a specific model, but a context or series of customary tropes through which the criticism of women can be expressed. Ancient Roman misogyny emphasizes dressing, cosmetics, luxury and the implicit relationship of such forms of duplicity and concupiscence to sexuality. These are the themes that we identified in a much less hostile version in Belinda's connection with the products of mercantile expansion in The Rape of the Lock. For Pope, as for Juvenal, women embody the material consequences of commodification much more directly than men. Dress and make-up are the outward signs of female falseness derived from a commodified culture, but the direct association of women with the commodity and all its corollaries of indiscriminacy and acquisition also serves to attach an abstract imputation of moral indiscriminacy and deceit to female character. In other words, the capriciousness and inconstancy of women in satiric convention has the same source as their addiction to make-up and appearance. As the privileged locus for the display of the products of accumulation, women dress themselves in the commodities that expansionist culture provides; their duplicity—in To a Lady their changeableness—is simply an abstraction from this basic cultural tenet. Thus, as we observed in our discussion of the anthropocentric imperialist trope ‘for me’, the period's obsession with acquisition, luxury and accumulation is systematically displaced onto women, private figures technically unconnected with the public enterprises of trade and business, who thus become the displaced focus of the attack on a commodified society. It is no coincidence, then, that Pope's misogyny should have such a clear precedent in classical Latin literature. The precedent supplies Pope with an authoritative origin; it supplies us with an initial indication of this poem's ideological connection with mercantile capitalism.

In To Cobham, as in the Essay on Man, the problem of the determination of character arises for Pope with the positing of a separation between inner motives and outer actions, between private and public realms. The impossibility of probing true motives, the evaluative disjunction of motives and actions, the Mandevillian vision of a social utility produced by the self-centred effects of the passions, and the implicit attack on a coherent theory of virtue, all are part of the developing notion of a private sphere discontinuous with and therefore separate from public life. The theory of the characters of men in the Essay on Man and the Epistle to Cobham is contradictory because, as we have seen, both those poems begin to acknowledge but ultimately refuse to accept the division of private from public virtue. Significantly, To a Lady does not confront this problem:

But grant, in Public Men sometimes are shown,
A Woman's seen in Private life alone:
Our bolder Talents in full light display'd;
Your Virtues open fairest in the shade.
Bred to disguise, in Public 'tis you hide;
There, none distinguish 'twixt your Shame or Pride,
Weakness or Delicacy: all so nice,
That each may seem a Virtue, or a Vice.


Although the public manners of women may be as impenetrable as those of men, women have so little public exposure or significance that any resulting obscurity is trivial at best.

Indeed, just as Pope's lines suggest, all but working-class women were progressively excluded from participation in the economy in these early stages in the development of English capitalism. The increase in large-scale manufacturing and in the employment of wage labour, and the growing prosperity of shopkeepers and retailers, combined to make urban middle-class women consumers rather than producers. This is the period when wives lose connection with their husbands' business, when ‘spinster’ becomes a term of opprobium for a useless female dependent rather than the description of a productive participant in domestic manufacture and when the leisured lady who takes no note of business becomes a sign of status and gentility for well-off tradesmen. Thus, To a Lady registers an important social trend, a trend that—like the Mandevillian public-private paradox—is clearly a consequence of the new capitalist mode of production, but in this case an inverted and gender-specific consequence. To a Lady, like To Cobham, ultimately derives its central premises from the social changes attendant on the early growth of capitalism. But here the effect of early capitalism's tendency to devalue women's public role enables Pope to skirt the paradox of judgement and to assess the characters of women without contradiction. The unqualified misogyny of the poem, then, results from its escape from the anxiety of the failure of judgement, and its vehemence derives at least in part from the relief and enthusiasm with which it reinstitutes the categories of knowledge and morality that seem—at other moments and in other poems—to be seriously in question. The attack on women frees Pope from moral ambiguity and formal incoherence; it enables him to write a strong and uncompromising poem on human character. In this respect, we could say that Pope needs to hate women in order to forestall the contradictions associated with the new economic system; his misogyny has the same source as his ‘ethical duet’.

These private women, however, are described in a strangely public manner. Though they have no actual public valuation, they are given a public title and function in a series of metaphors initiated by the famous ‘Queen portrait’, the ironic description of Queen Caroline (181-98) that concludes the tour of female characters in the poem's portrait gallery. After this, women are repeatedly ‘Queens’: ‘Toasts live a scorn, and Queens may die a jest’ (282), ‘Yet mark the fate of a whole Sex of Queens’ (219), ‘But ev'ry Lady would be Queen for life’ (218). These last verse paragraphs of the epistle render women almost exclusively through images of power, subjection, tyranny, conquest, retreats, ‘foreign glory’ and domestic peace (220-43). The irony here works in two ways: to disparage the desire for power in so insignificant and powerless a creature, and, conversely, to create a public identity for a private being. In their direct accessibility to moral judgement, these private women represent Pope's closest approximation to a public male world in which the knowledge and definition of character is secure and unshakeable. In other words, the women in To a Lady serve to shore up the notion of a stable, morally determinate identity for men—the primary obsession of Pope's Epistles—by their eminently transparent, clearly despicable characterlessness. A strong judgement against women creates the possibility of a similar judgement in the public world of men. Perhaps this need to use women as surrogates for male stability explains the strange incorporeality of their appearance in the poem's most disturbing passage:

As Hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spight,
So these their merry, miserable Night;
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour dy'd.


The women haunting the last section of To a Lady are truly ghosts, the ghosts of men from a lost moral system.

If women stand for men in this poem, then where are the ‘real’ women to be found? Not in the admirable ‘Lady’ to whom the epistle is addressed. Martha Blount is either ‘a softer Man’ (272) or an androgyne, mingling the virtues of both sexes. To form her, Heaven

Picks from each sex, to make the Fav'rite blest,
Your love of Pleasure, our desire of Rest,
Blends, in exception to all gen'ral rules,
Your Taste of Follies, with our Scorn of Fools,
Reserve with Frankness, Art with Truth ally'd,
Courage with Softness, Modesty with Pride,
Fix'd Principles, with Fancy never new;
Shakes all together, and produces—You.


Indeed, there are no substantial women in To a Lady. The various women described in the body of the poem are not ‘real’ women in the way that Wharton in To Cobham is a ‘real’ man, but either ghosts of men or simply pictures of women from the walls of a portrait gallery. As Carole Fabricant has suggested, this kind of portraiture, like landscape-painting and like the verbal pastoral scene-painting of Windsor-Forest, reflects an assertion of mastery, a representation of power and possession by which the painter, as well as the viewer/reader, makes the woman or feminized landscape his own.9 John Berger describes this process as ‘the metaphorical act of appropriation’ characteristic of the art of this period, an act that could ‘render all that is depicted into the hands of the owner-spectator’.10 Here we have appropriation in its most absolute form. ‘Woman’ is purely emblematic in the Epistle to a Lady. A painting without a model, a sign without a referent, ‘woman’ holds a place for male fantasy to fill. In The Rape of the Lock Belinda creates her identity through her dressing—her connection with the commodities of trade. The representation of ‘woman’ in To a Lady can be seen as the next step in that process of fetishization. Belinda seems to become the products with which she decks herself. The ‘characters of women’ in To a Lady become not products but the reified embodiment of an assertion of moral stability: they stand for a fantasy of unproblematic knowledge and uncontingent judgement, and in that sense they are the most complexly mystified of Pope's poetic creations, pointing toward the historical forces that distort and undermine the philosophical system of the opus magnum.


Near the conclusion of Epistle III, To Bathurst (1733), the speaker asks a ‘knotty’ (337) question:

Say, for such worth are other worlds prepared?
Or are they both, in this their own reward?


He refers most immediately to those who pursue the vice of avarice, and the answer is provided by the career of Sir Balaam, who accumulates riches through a combination of luck, plunder and thievery, rises to a position of wealth and power, and then receives a rapid and concrete earthly punishment:

My lady falls to play; so bad her chance,
He must repair it; takes a bribe from France;
The House impeach him; Coningsby harangues;
The Court forsake him, and Sir Balaam hangs:
Wife, son, and daughter, Satan, are thy own,
His wealth, yet dearer, forfeit to the Crown:
The Devil and the King divide the prize,
And sad Sir Balaam curses God and dies.


The poem ends on this note. But several lines earlier the parallel story of the fate of profusion has an outcome whose affect is very different from the approving narration of Sir Balaam's just deserts. Young Cotta, who ‘mistook reverse of wrong for right’ (200) and, to counter the avarice of his father, spent his fortune, selling his timber, his wool and his lands, which go to equip the English navy and further the imperial cause, finally faces bankruptcy:

And shall not Britain now reward his toils,
Britain, that pays her Patriots with her Spoils?
In vain at Court the Bankrupt pleads his cause,
His thankless Country leaves him to her Laws.


Young Cotta's punishment is presented rather bitterly as something of an injustice, an ironic reflection upon the nation's gratitude to its patriots, while that of Sir Balaam is unambiguously just, and that of young Cotta's cousin in profligacy from the second half of the poem, ‘Great Villiers’ (305), is also graphically appropriate. Young Cotta himself, though an emblem of vice, seems at least partially sympathetic. He wasted his estate from ‘no mean motive’ (205), and his patriotism, as we have seen, is, at least in terms of its benefits to the nation, comparable to Cobham's. Indeed, throughout his poetry Pope cannot represent the suffering of a patriot without some measure of sympathy. The ‘knotty’ question of the workings of justice is treated in two distinct ways, ways that indicate a familiar incoherence in Pope's philosophical tenets. In fact, To Bathurst contains two separate ethical systems, which we can trace through the whole of the poem.

The epistle opens by asserting the premise that the ‘use of riches’ takes two forms—avarice and profusion:

Then careful Heav'n supply'd two sorts of Men,
To squander these, and those to hide agen.


Significantly, these are also Mandeville's key vices, the passions that he sees as most necessary to a successful capitalist economy. Though the society that depends on these passions is treated ironically by Pope, its smooth functioning nevertheless illustrates Heaven's special care for human prosperity. Echoing Epistle II of the Essay on Man, Pope describes how the interaction of avarice and profusion ultimately conduces to the public welfare:

Hear then the truth: ‘'Tis Heav'n each Passion
‘And diff'rent men directs to diff'rent ends.
‘Extremes in Nature equal good produce,
‘Extremes in Man concur to gen'ral use.’
Ask we what makes one keep, and one bestow?
That pow'r who bids the Ocean
ebb and flow,
Bids seed-time, harvest, equal course maintain,
Thro' reconcil'd extremes of drought and rain,
Builds Life on Death, on Change Duration founds,
And gives th' eternal wheels to know their rounds.


We can find the same argument for the ‘gen'ral use’ of avarice and profusion in Mandeville: ‘I look upon Avarice and Prodigality in the Society as I do upon two contrary Poisons in Physick, of which it is certain that the noxious Qualities being by mutual Mischief corrected in both, they may assist each other, and often make a good Medicine between them.’11 Mandeville also argues in support of the specifically beneficial economic effects of luxury that we have seen implicit in Pope's ambiguously sympathetic privileging of young Cotta's vice:

But let us be Just, what Benefit can these things [virtuous moderation] be of, or what earthly Good can they do, to promote the Wealth, the Glory and wordly Greatness of Nations? It is the sensual Courtier that sets no Limits to his Luxury; the Fickle Strumpet that invents new Fashions every Week; the haughty Dutchess that in Equipage, Entertainments, and all her Behavior would imitate a Princess; the profuse Rake and lavish Heir, that scatter about their Money without Wit or Judgment, buy every thing they see, and either destroy or give it away the next Day. … It is these that are the Prey and proper Food of a full grown Leviathan; or in other words, such is the calamitous Condition of Human Affairs that we stand in need of the Plagues and Monsters I named to have all the Variety of Labour perform'd, which the Skill of Men is capable of inventing in order to procure an honest Livelihood to the vast Multitudes of working poor, that are required to make a large Society.12

The context for Pope's account of ‘That pow'r who bids the Ocean ebb and flow' in this epistle is the financial revolution. To Bathurst is about city wealth, paper credit and South Sea year (119). The first literary account of a stock-market crash, it describes the South Sea Bubble, when the boom in inflated South Sea Company stocks collapsed, many investors were ruined and a few corrupt company officials made fortunes.13 The poem is peopled with the major figures of the world of finance: John Blunt, a director of the South Sea Company; Gilbert Heathcote, one of the founders of the Bank of England; John Ward, a member of Parliament implicated in the South Sea scheme; and Joseph Gage, a famous stock speculator.14 Pope even praises paper credit for its efficiency in comparison with the clumsy and ridiculous exchanges of oxen, coals or hogs:

Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!
That lends Corruption lighter wings to fly!
Gold imp'd by thee, can compass hardest things,
Can pocket States, can fetch or carry Kings;
A single leaf shall waft an Army o'er,
Or ship off Senates to a distant Shore;
A leaf, like Sibyl's, scatter to and fro
Our fates and fortunes, as the winds shall blow:
Pregnant with thousands flits the Scrap unseen,
And silent sells a King or buys a Queen.


Though this passage is clearly ironic, and though Pope's treatment of the heroes of finance characterizes them as figures of vice, the epistle's philosophy of concurring extremes accepts and even celebrates the system that the poem locally satirizes. The natural and biblical imagery of ‘ebbing’ and ‘flowing’, ‘seed-time’ and ‘harvest’, ‘keeping’ and ‘bestowing’, refers, at least in the context of this poem, to the ‘natural’ financial cycles by which ‘blest paper-credit’ maintains economic balance and prosperity.15 The analogy is essential to the structure of the poem, but at the same time it is elusive, hidden, never explicitly admitted, as if the source of economic and financial order could be affirmed without ever being acknowledged. From this perspective the satiric encomium to paper credit is a real tribute that cannot admit its seriousness, and the account of John Blunt's financial manipulations during South Sea year is both sympathetic and ironic: ‘Much injur'd Blunt! why bears he Britain's hate?’ (135). Howard Erskine-Hill's account of Pope's treatment of Blunt finds ‘ambiguity somewhere in the passage’, ‘moral involvement’ and an indication of Pope's consciousness of Blunt's alliance with many of Pope's own friends.16 Certainly every surface and explicit aspect of the poem's language attacks the corruptions of modern finance, but the system of order that the epistle constructs leads in another direction.

The Cottas belong to this proto-utilitarian system. Old Cotta is avarice. He hosts no feasts, slights his tenants and turns away ‘Benighted wanderers’ (195). But in the longer perspective, his avarice serves the vital positive function of a ‘reservoir’ for the profusion of later generations:

Who sees pale Mammon pine amidst his store,
Sees but a backward steward for the Poor;
This year a Reservoir, to keep and spare,
The next a Fountain, spouting thro' his Heir,
In lavish streams to quench a Country's thirst,
And men and dogs shall drink him 'till they burst.


This positive view of the passions has the same ambiguous irony as the encomium to paper credit. The fountain is an image of life and fertility but at the same time a grotesque extreme, evoking a kind of levelling where men and dogs together ‘burst’ with excessive consumption. Young Cotta, the fountain, matches his father's avarice with an equivalent profusion. As we saw, his passion serves not simply the general welfare, but the specific cause of imperialist expansion. That is, his profusion directly supports the economic system that defines his vice as a public virtue; we don't even have to wait, like Mandeville, for his luxury eventually to employ the ‘working poor’.

Significantly and characteristically, Pope's definition of public benefits is located in the economic role of the rural gentry rather than in the contributions of the urban ‘Ministers of Industry’ that Mandeville tends more frequently to cite. This preference for the country illustrates Pope's personal connection with the landed upper classes, but it also reflects an accurate estimate of a major locus of capitalist transformation, at least in the early eighteenth century. Old landowners were the largest consolidators of new wealth in the period, though new fortunes were accumulated by other sources as well. Mandeville may have been more prescient, in that his theories seem almost to predict the operations of a fully industrialized society, but Pope's focus on the capitalist landlords accurately reflects the great movements of rural ‘improvement’ that served as the precursors of industrialization. As instruments of this kind of public benefit, neither of the Cottas receives a just reward. Indeed, justice is irrelevant to their role in the poem, just as moral judgement is irrelevant to the proto-utilitarian category of ‘gen'ral use’ within which their avarice and profusion function.

So when Pope turns a few lines later to the advocacy of the ‘golden Mean’ (246), he is subscribing to a different system. In this scheme, the Man of Ross is the ideal because of his altruism, his selfless attention to the poor, the aged and the sick, and his unqualified and absolute virtue:

Who builds a Church to God, and not to Fame,
Will never mark the marble with his Name:
Go, search it there, where to be born and die,
Of rich and poor makes all the history;
Enough, that Virtue fill'd the space between;
Prov'd, by the ends of being, to have been.


The Man of Ross stands in the same relation to the Cottas of this poem as the virtuous ideal of Epistle IV of the Essay on Man stands to the proto-utilitarian argument of Epistle II. In both cases, Pope asserts a norm of traditional virtue in a context that at least partly or conditionally invalidates the category of abstract morality itself. Naturally, under the system of the golden mean and the virtuous ideal, the issue of justice—in this world or the next—is an important one. The parable of Sir Balaam illustrates the significance that Pope attaches, at this point in the epistle, to the distinction between vice and virtue. Like the appearance of Cobham at the end of that poem, the vignette of Sir Balaam helps to reinstate by assertion a security of assessment that the body of the epistle tends to erode.17

We have been engaged so far in the task of dividing this poem in half, of seeing in the epistle two separate and irreconcilable ethical models: one, the opening private vices/public benefits position, which leads to the assertion of ‘gen'ral use’ and finally to the examples of the Cottas; the other, the rigoristic moral position that begins with the introduction of the ideal of the golden mean and includes the altruistic career of the Man of Ross and the condign punishment of Sir Balaam. But the poem's position is even more complicated than this. Young Cotta, as we have seen, serves as a metaphorical ‘fountain’ for the capitalist economic system. The Man of Ross, or John Kyrle, our touchstone of pastoral altruism, is celebrated for his construction of a real fountain and waterworks near the river Wye, providing the town of Ross with its first water supply, as well as a public causeway for the use of foot travellers and a new spire on the town church:18

Who hung with woods yon mountain's sultry brow?
From the dry rock who bade the waters flow?
Not to the skies in useless columns tost,
Or in proud falls magnificently lost,
But clear and artless, pouring thro' the plain
Health to the sick, and solace to the swain.
Whose Cause-way parts the vale with shady rows?
Whose Seats the weary Traveller repose?
Who taught that heav'n-directed spire to rise?
The man of ross, each lisping babe replies.


These projects, interestingly enough, far from being unique to John Kyrle or to the traditional country-house ideal upon which Pope's portrait of the Man of Ross draws, are typical of a major movement for domestic improvement that arose out of the economic prosperity and cultural optimism of the early decades of the eighteenth century.19 In fact the image of the fountain and waterworks that recurs in To Bathurst is one of the tropes of this ideology of public works. Richard Savage in Of Public Spirit in Regard to Public Works (1737) echoes Pope's description:

What though no Streams, in fruitless Pomp display'd,
Rise a proud Column, fall a grand Cascade;
Through nether Pipes, which nobler Use renowns,
Here ductile Riv'lets visit distant Towns!(20)

Aside from land and agricultural improvement schemes, characteristic public projects included inland waterways, turnpikes and churches. Daniel Defoe, the age's most prolific advocate and recorder of such projects, summarizes the situation this way:

'tis more than probable, that our Posterity may see the Roads all over England restor'd in their Time to such a Perfection, that Travelling and Carriage of Goods will be much more easy both to Man and Horse, than ever it was since the Romans lost this Island … as for Trade, it will be encourag'd by it every Way. … Another Benefit of these new measures for repairing the Roads by Turnpikes, is the opening of Drains and Watercourses, and Building Bridges. … [‘if an Account of Great Britain was to be written every Year’] every New View … would require a New Description; the Improvements that encrease, the New Buildings erected, the Old Buildings taken down: New Discoveries in Metals, Mines, Minerals; new Undertakings in Trade; Inventions, Engines, Manufactures, in a Nation, pushing and improving as we are: These Things open new Scenes every Day, and make England especially shew a new and differing Face in many Places, on every Occasion of Surveying it.21

Almost inadvertently, it seems, Pope makes his main exemplar of traditional rigoristic morality also a representative of the concrete works of capitalist prosperity. The Man of Ross would clearly be out of place in a Mandevillian system—in fact, it is the men like Ross with their high moral aims who ruin the prosperous hive in The Fable of the Bees. To the extent that Pope sees prosperity in proto-utilitarian terms, the Man of Ross's altruism is inexplicable and anomalous. To the extent that Pope sees an absolute and secure differentiation of vice and virtue as the basic premise of philosophy, young Cotta's ‘fountain’ of prosperity must be judged and condemned like Sir Balaam's avarice. In the image of the Man of Ross, these two positions are superimposed: that character combines altruism with the projects of an expanding commercial prosperity.

Again, we can apply Pocock's dichotomy between virtue and passion to the incompatible perspectives that we have noted in this poem. For Pocock, as for Pope, the problem of personal morality is closely tied to the rise of a money economy, to the spread of credit and to the substitution of a contingent, local valuation for a static ethical authority. The effect of this contingency, this new conditionality of the terms of moral assessment, was felt in the period as corruption, a theme to which Pope's late satires repeatedly return. Pocock outlines the constellation of issues that we have been treating here:

Once property was seen to have a symbolic value, expressed in coin or credit, the foundations of personality themselves appeared imaginary or at best consensual: the individual could exist, even in his own sight, only at the fluctuating value imposed upon him by his fellows, and these evaluations, though constant and public, were too irrationally performed to be seen as acts of political decision or virtue … the individual engaged in exchange could discern only particular values—that of the commodity which was his, that of the commodity for which he exchanged it. His activity did not oblige or even permit him to contemplate the universal good as he acted upon it, and he consequently continued to lack classical rationality. … Techniques certainly existed—of which Addison [and, we might add, Pope] was a literary master—of elevating his motivation to at least the lower forms of rationality and morality; opinion, prudence, confidence, sympathy, even charity; but behind all this lay the ancient problem of showing how society might operate rationally and beneficially when the individuals composing it were denied full rationality and virtue.

Solutions were of course to be found in seeking to depict society as an economic mechanism, in which the exchange of goods and the division of labor operated to turn universal selfishness to universal benefit. … But there was a certain sense in which all this was either beside the point or the admission of a necessary evil.22

This summary of the dilemma of the period places in clear conjunction the main points raised by our reading of Pope's opus magnum: the uncomfortable superimposition of virtue and self-interest, the incongruous alternation between an attack on capitalism and the acceptance of the amoral rule of public benefit and the anxiety-producing elusiveness of a stable character and identity. The figure of the fountain—at once a grotesque and sentimental emblem of capitalist prosperity—illustrates the poetic subtlety with which To Bathurst joins this debate.


Epistle IV, To Burlington (1731), is even more explicit than To Bathurst in specifying the ‘improvements’ by which prosperity will be spread to the countryside. In the celebratory conclusion of this poem, Pope's friend Burlington is presented as the ideal capitalist landowner, a more fully developed and ambitious version of the Man of Ross, who will build roads, bridges, dams and canals:

Bid Harbors open, public Ways extend,
Bid Temples, worthier of the God, ascend;
Bid the broad Arch the dang'rous Flood contain,
The Mole projected break the roaring Main;
Back to his bounds the subject Sea command,
And roll obedient Rivers thro' the Land.


He will participate, that is, in the essential work of domestic expansion, opening up the country to communication, travel and trade. These patriotic projects are indistinguishable from a corollary contribution to imperialist expansion. The true ‘improve[rs of] the Soil’ (177) are those, like young Cotta, whose lands directly support the English navy:

Whose rising Forests, not for pride or show,
But future Buildings, future Navies grow:
Let his plantations stretch from down to down,
First shade a Country, and then raise a Town.


Here Pope joins imperialism with an allusion to the domestic phenomenon of urbanization—the substantial growth of cities and towns in the eighteenth century—which was spurred by the agricultural improvements and enclosures of the capitalist landowners, and which served as an essential precondition of industrialization. No wonder, then, that Pope's celebration of the peace of domestic prosperity at the end of To Burlington is perfectly coincident with his evocation of the pax Britannica:

These Honours, Peace to happy Britain brings,
These are Imperial Works, and worthy Kings.


Like the imagery of the Essay on Man, the ‘future Navies’ and the imperial peace of this poem recollect the language of Windsor-Forest.

To Burlington is not only the most explicitly imperialist work in what we have of Pope's opus magnum, however. Like To Bathurst this epistle is often cited as an example of Pope's debt to Mandeville's proto-utilitarian ethic.23 The extended satiric account of the visit to Timon's villa, where false magnificence and real discomfort vie for preeminence, ends with a familiar passage on the ultimately beneficial effects of even such a grotesque misuse of riches.

Yet hence the Poor are cloth'd, the Hungry fed;
Health to himself, and to his Infants bread
The Lab'rer bears: What his hard Heart denies,
His charitable Vanity supplies.


The adversative ‘yet’ that begins this passage almost overturns the satire that precedes it. Again we encounter the problem of the coexistence of moral judgment and proto-utilitarian valuation. Burlington is commended for his good works, even though the system of private vices/public benefits would seem to be conducive enough to prosperity in itself. Likewise, Timon is condemned as immoral, and yet he serves the general good as well as any altruist. Indeed better. Pope's note to this passage on the poor and hungry suggests, ironically for his moral argument, that Timon is economically preferable to Burlington: ‘The Moral of the whole, where providence is justified in giving Wealth to those who squander it in this manner. A bad Taste employs more hands and diffuses Expence more than a good one’ (169n.).

In short, To Burlington joins a proto-utilitarian economic ethic with the most exact list of plans for capitalist prosperity that we have yet seen in Pope's works. Combined, these two positions give the epistle a programmatic effect, as if it sought to provide a concrete summary of the constituents of capitalist economic prosperity. But, typically, the two routes to this ideal prosperity are strictly incompatible. Timon's method is unconscious and amoral; he serves the general good despite himself, by acting upon his private vice. Burlington's is built upon a set of traditional moral standards and their conventional literary manifestations, upon the trope of the admirable patron of the country house and the perfect reciprocity between his motives and the good taste everywhere evident in his estate. If we turn to that latter notion, we begin to see how Pope obscures the formal contradiction of To Burlington by introducing the notions of balance, order and unity that we have already found to be central to the standard of taste derived from neo-classical aesthetics.

Good taste is defined for us in detail in the first part of the epistle. It is connected above all with utility—‘things of use’ like Ross's waterworks—and accordingly it is not ‘profuse’, ‘proud’ or ‘grand’. It is not a product of mere ‘glory’ or pure ‘expence’. Taste derives from ‘Good Sense’, a ‘gift of Heav'n’ that reflects a sensitivity to decency, moderation, pleasing variety and a balance by which parts are made to ‘slide into a whole’ (23-70). To possess good taste means first to follow nature—that neo-classical ‘Nature’ which must be so carefully and tactfully ‘dressed’ like the female emblems of displaced cultural expansion:

In all, let Nature never be forgot.
But treat the Goddess like a modest fair,
Nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare;
Let not each beauty ev'ry where be spy'd,
Where half the skill is decently to hide.


How does this poem demonstrate the proper dressing of nature, the concrete enactment of its theory of taste? Belinda dresses in the spoils of English mercantilism, the sylvan creatures of Windsor-Forest dress in the glowing colours of imperialist fantasy, and true wit in the Essay on Criticism dresses in the categories of bourgeois civic order and expansionist foreign policy. In the last epistle of the opus magnum, nature is dressed by the ordering power of Burlington's ‘Imperial Works’, the projects of the patriotic aristocrat at home and abroad—towns, bridges, water-works, public roads, navies and, above all, the ominous ‘Peace’ of imperialist ideology.

These patriotic projects take a distinctive poetic form in the ‘Bid Harbors’ passage that we have already examined, a form very close to that which represents the ordering power of nature in the central verses of To Bathurst:

Ask we what makes one keep, and one bestow?
That pow'r who bids the Ocean
ebb and flow,
Bids seed-time, harvest, equal course maintain.


In each of these passages the prominent rhetorical effect is balanced antithesis. Burlington's constructions will both ‘open’ and ‘contain’, just as the concurring extremes in nature ‘keep’ and ‘bestow’. The concordia discors here seems dependent on the image of waters or seas; the lines from To Burlington juxtapose and reconcile the ‘roaring Main’ and the ‘subject Sea’, the ‘dang'rous Flood’ and ‘obedient Rivers’, like To Bathurst's concern with the ‘ebb and flow’ of the ocean. But more interesting and perhaps less obvious is the strange dual agency embodied in the lines. Both Burlington and his works act: like God at the creation, Burlington ‘bids’ and his harbors ‘open’, his public ways ‘extend’, his temples ‘ascend’, and his bridges ‘contain’; nature ‘bids’ and the seasons ‘maintain’ their course. The lines in these passages are typically framed by verbs, one expressing the agency of the ordering power and the other that of the obedient subject in a reciprocal arrangement of perfect control and perfect co-operation where one slides into the other.

We have seen this kind of verbal reciprocity elsewhere. The pastoral good works of the Man of Ross, for instance, illustrate the same structure in an interrogative mode:

Who hung with woods yon mountain's sultry brow?
From the dry rock who bade the waters flow?
Whose Cause-way parts the vale with shady rows?
Who taught the heav'n-directed spire to rise?


Again, the spire rises and the waters seem to flow by themselves, autonomously, though under Ross's command. The same simultaneity of control and concession characterizes an earlier passage in To Burlington describing the task of the landscape gardener who dresses the female countryside:

Consult the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall,
Or helps th' ambitious Hill the heav'ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the Vale,
Calls in the Country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks or now directs, th' intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.


In fact the agency is tripled here: the passage superimposes the gardener who ‘plants’ and ‘works’ upon the ‘Genius of the Place’, which ‘tells’ the waters what to do, ‘scoops’ the valleys, and ‘joins’ the woods. And both are simultaneously aided by the ‘willing’ landscape itself, the waters rising, the glades opening, and the hills scaling the heavens to provide a setting of aesthetic perfection. We can even find a version of this rhetoric in the opening pastoral scene of Windsor-Forest:

Here in full light the russet Plains extend;
There wraps in Clouds the blueish Hills ascend.


Though there is no opening verb here, like the ‘bidding’ or ‘calling’ or ‘teaching’ of the prior examples, the hills ascend and the plains extend at the implicit command of the poet's ordering vision and with the same rhyming words as To Burlington's extend/ascend couplet (197-8). Both Pope and Burlington shape a willing setting: but where Windsor-Forest paints pastoral plains and hills, Burlington builds imperial harbours, roads, temples and moles. In To Burlington as in Windsor-Forest, there is more to Pope's landscape than meets the eye. Both poems enact a characteristic convergence of the pastoral and the imperial, in which the natural world is ‘charmed’, transformed, magically made over in the mirror of ideology. When we read the poems together, we can see both versions of each landscape; we can discover the balanced vistas of Windsor's pastoral behind Burlington's imperial projects, and reciprocally, we can glimpse the harbours and moles of rural improvement in the hills and woods of the ‘natural’ setting of Windsor Forest.

The rhetoric of reciprocal command and concession that marks the concluding ‘Bid Harbors’ passage of To Burlington uncovers a rich complex of related ideological structures: from pastoral and patriotism to misogyny and neo-classical aesthetics. The collaboration that Burlington imposes upon his setting is the prototypical neo-classical act, the ‘True Wit’ that ‘gives us back the Image of our Mind’, the ultimate form of expansionist appropriation. Burlington's language of collaboration recalls the ‘poor Indian’ of the Essay on Man, who is made to testify to the inevitability of power and oppression. Here the countryside of England is made to ‘extend’ and ‘ascend’ in enthusiastic anticipation of the commands of the imperialist. But this is also an act of the fullest possible patriotism. In pursuing good taste and shaping his landscape as he does, Burlington serves as a figure of public virtue, a source of national prosperity. Likewise, in thus contributing to the economic welfare and peace of the empire, he fulfils an aesthetic ideal. The structure of command and concession embodied in that ideal reproduces the process of appropriation by which the goddess of the natural scene is dressed to advantage, possessed, mastered and maintained. The image of the woman lies hidden behind the pastoral landscape, the rhetoric of collaboration and the neo-classical trope of the ‘dressing’ of nature by true wit. In this sense the private figure of the woman can be said to stand for the whole constellation of ideological structures that the poem elaborates.24

To Burlington is an appropriate summary statement for the opus magnum, a compendium of the ideological constituents of Pope's major poetry. Its aim is the formation of an ideology which we have come to call ‘Augustan humanism’—the definition of a cultural ideal for the ruling class, an ideal constructed from the superimposition of an abstract and neo-classical system of aesthetic valuation upon a concrete programme for mercantile capitalist economic expansion.25 It is this superimposition that provides the poem with a thematic coherence—in the notion of taste—to weigh against the evaluative incoherence between Timon's vice and Burlington's virtue. Though both are efficacious in the new economy, that contradiction is obscured in the unifying concern with taste. But taste means even more to the poem than a nominal formal unity. Burlington's tasteful projects have been described as the epitome of Pope's vision of ‘Augustan humanism’.26 This reading substantiates that claim, but it also calls such a humanism into question. My questions are not new ones, however. They were already being asked, in a different manner, by the poets of the mid-eighteenth century. Burlington's ‘Imperial Works’ are predominantly waterworks: harbours, bridges to contain the ‘dang'rous ‘Flood’, the ‘Mole’ to command the ocean and the ‘obedient Rivers’ carrying commerce ‘thro' the Land’. We have seen these waters before: in the Thames that runs ‘strong without rage’ in Denham's famous couplet; in the seas that bear the forests of the English navy to the New World in Windsor-Forest, and in the fountain and the reservoir that guarantee economic prosperity in To Bathurst—in short, throughout the major imagery of mercantile expansion. These are the prototypical waters of the neo-classical concordia discors. But they flow with a different effect in another major poem of the period, a poem written almost a half-century after Pope's:

And thou, sweet Poetry, …
… with thy persuasive strain
Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
Teach him that states of native strength possessed,
Though very poor, may still be very blest;
That trade's proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the labour'd mole away.(27)

The graphic overturning of the mole, which is swept away in Goldsmith's and Johnson's lines by the very seas that it commanded in Pope's poem, marks the ideological shift in literature and especially poetry that accompanies the close of England's first imperial period in the second half of the eighteenth century. The formal failure and obsolescence of the concordia discors, the attitude of lament and loss, and the images of destruction and decay that replace Pope's hopeful landscapes of extension and ascension, all indicate a repudiation of imperialist apologia. The Deserted Village, with its indictment of the social costs of mercantile expansion, commercial prosperity and the transformation of English culture by urbanization, enclosure and agricultural modernization, anticipates the romantic critique of industrialization, and it grounds that critique in one of Pope's strongest images of imperial power.


At this point in our discussion of the four Epistles to Several Persons, the question of why Pope's opus magnum could not be written may seem a little less ‘knotty’. We have confronted, after all, a series of incoherent or contradictory poems, embodying all the extremes of inconsistency, mystification and appropriation in Pope's commodious repertory. Indeed the problem could perhaps more effectively be restated as the question of why Pope wrote as much of the opus magnum as he did, why he persisted beyond the Essay on Man in rephrasing the contradictions that he obviously could not escape or resolve. To Burlington gives us our best answer to this question. Pope's advocacy of rural ‘improvements’ in that poem is sometimes taken as anomalous, inconsistent with the political disillusionment of this period in his career.28 In our reading of Pope's corpus, however, these ‘Imperial Works’ are a sign of his continued allegiance to the new mode of production despite his specific quarrels with its implementation, a benchmark of his formal and ideological implication in capitalism. The opus magnum could not be written because it takes this implication as a problem to be resolved. As we have seen in our reading of the Epistles and the Essay on Man, Pope's problem engages a major historical transition in a way that allows for no resolution. The formal incoherence, the imagistic ambivalence and the ideological complexity that we have uncovered in these poems demonstrate the extent to which they live out the paradoxes of their historical moment. But in fact the very failure of this poetry to move beyond its time is also its enabling ‘advantage’, the constraint that assures its significance. The futility of Pope's struggle to assert a noncontingent and absolute standard of judgement generates that famous adversary stance of his late poetry, the stance of the virtuous satirist, the privileged arbiter whose vehement defiance takes on history itself:

Ask you what Provocation I have had?
The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.
When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
Th'Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours.
Mine, as a Friend to ev'ry worthy mind;
And mine as Man, who feel for all mankind.

(Epilogue to the Satires [1738], Dialogue II, 197-204)

Pope's own ‘True Wit’, then, derives its ‘advantage’ from the contradictions and contingencies of its context, much as Belinda makes her beauty from the materials of a commodified culture.


  1. The ‘Advertisement’ is reprinted in The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, vol. III, ii, Epistles to Several Persons (Moral Essays),ed. F.W. Bateson (London: Methuen; New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1951) pp. xviii-xx.

  2. Twickenham, vol. III, ii, p. 36n.

  3. This problem is also described by Peter Dixon: in the last lines of the poem Pope ‘is unable to make the usual sharp contrast between his satiric victims and the entirely worthy recipient of his verse-letter, for each individual, without exception, is controlled by his Ruling Passion.’ See The World of Pope's Satires: An Introduction to the ‘Epistles’ and ‘Imitations of Horace’ (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 26-7.

  4. See Miriam Leranbaum, Alexander Pope's ‘Opus Magnum’, 1729-1744 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 75-81.

  5. John E. Sitter defines the same phenomenon, though he does not read the poem as therefore incoherent, when he describes the epistle as primarily a lesson in humility and self-knowledge at the expense of the assertions of determinacy in the short ruling passion passage. See ‘The argument of Pope's Epistle to Cobham’, Studies in English Literature, 17 (1977), pp. 435-49.

  6. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 462 and 465.

  7. Leranbaum, Alexander Pope's ‘Opus Magnum’, pp. 71-5.

  8. Male readers have not always registered this contempt. Surprisingly many critics have commended Pope for the ‘compassion’, the ‘pathos’ or the ‘fundamental[ly] human’ value of his treatment of women in the poem. See, for example, Thomas R. Edwards, Jr., This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1963), pp. 74-5; Sitter, ‘The argument of Pope's Epistle to Cobham’, p. 78; and Maynard Mack, ‘“Wit and poetry and Pope”: some observations on his imagery’, in Pope and His Contemporaries: Essays presented to George Sherburn, ed. James L. Clifford and Louis A. Landa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), p. 35.

  9. Carole Fabricant, ‘Binding and Dressing Nature's Loose Tresses: the ideology of Augustan landscape design’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 8 (1979), pp. 109-35.

  10. John Berger, ‘Past seen from a possible future’, in The Look of Things: Essays by John Berger, ed. Nikos Stangos (New York: Viking, 1974), p. 215. Also cited in Fabricant, ‘Binding and Dressing Nature's Loose Tresses’, pp. 114-15.

  11. The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F.B Kaye (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), vol. I, p. 106.

  12. The Fable of the Bees, vol. I, pp. 355-6. Two notable readings of To Bathurst reject the notion of Mandevillianism. Earl R. Wasserman sees a theological unity in the poem by which the ‘extremes in man’ are reconciled according to a providential purpose: Mandeville's concern is the material good of society, Pope's the eternal good of mankind; see Pope's ‘Epistle to Bathurst’: A Critical Reading with an Edition of the Manuscripts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), pp. 33-40. Paul J. Alpers similarly argues that the poem is anti-Mandevillian in ‘insisting on non-economic, moral criteria to judge the state’; see ‘Pope's To Bathurst and the Mandevillian state’, ELH, 25 (1958), pp. 23-42. Reprinted in Essential Articles for the study of Alexander Pope, ed. Maynard Mack, rev. edn (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968), pp. 476-97; the quoted passage appears on p. 489. Both of these readings emphasize that rigoristic force of the poem, in opposition to earlier arguments that assign to it a relatively simply utilitarianism. Clearly any adequate analysis of To Bathurst must account for the dynamic tension between these two aspects.

  13. For the poem's many connections with the South Sea Bubble, see Vincent Carretta, ‘Pope's Epistle to Bathurst and the South Sea Bubble’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 77 (1978), pp. 212-31.

  14. For a full account of the poem's connection with the financial revolution, see Howard Erskine-Hill, ‘Pope and the financial revolution’, in Writers and their Background: Alexander Pope, ed. Peter Dixon (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 200-29.

  15. For this point, see Dixon, The World of Pope's Satires, pp. 195-6.

  16. Erskine-Hill, ‘Pope and the financial revolution’, p. 224.

  17. Reuben Arthur Brower describes the problem of the poem this way: ‘we must admire Pope for an instinctive common-sense inconsistency, for insisting that moral effort was still necessary in spite of the logic of his philosophic position. In a world where nature's laws work without fail to balance waste with miserliness, there would of course be little point in exhorting men to imitate the Man of Ross, or to adopt the golden mean in managing their wealth’ (Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959], pp. 259-60).

  18. Howard Erskine-Hill, The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope: Lives, Example and the Poetic Response (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 15-41.

  19. See Dixon, The World of Pope's Satires, pp. 61-2.

  20. Richard Savage, Of Public Spirit in Regard to Public Works, second version (1737), in The Poetical Works of Richard Savage, ed. Clarence Tracy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962,), pp. 224-5, lines 15-18. This poem plays upon Pope's imperialist and capitalist panegyrics in a variety of interesting ways.

  21. Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro' the whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26), introd. G.D.H. Cole (London: Peter Davies, 1927), vol. II, pp. 527, 528, 535, and vol. I, p. 252.

  22. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, pp. 464-5.

  23. See Twickenham, vol. III, ii, pp. 148-9.

  24. For a discussion of the significance of woman as the central figure of ‘a system in which sex, land, morality, and their economic substructure combine in such a way that … each can only be understood in combination with the others’, see James G. Turner, ‘The sexual politics of landscape: images of Venus in eighteenth-century English poetry and landscape gardening’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 11 (1982), pp. 343-66. The quoted passage appears on p. 360.

  25. Pope's note to the last lines of the conclusion shows that he was aware of current public works projects, and critical of their shoddy and corrupt execution. Burlington is the ideal alternative to these misconceived projects. See Twickenham, vol. III, ii, pp. 150-1n.

  26. ‘This vision of useful art is perhaps the most “Augustan” passage Pope ever wrote. … We respond not to “fact” but to the intelligent courage that rises above the merely factual to assert imaginatively the permanent possibility of goodness in the human condition’ (Edwards, This Dark Estate, pp. 71-2).

  27. Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, in The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longman, 1969), pp. 693-4, lines 407-28. The last couplet here is attributed to Samuel Johnson.

  28. Dixon, The World of Pope's Satires, p. 61.

Further Reading

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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 Translations of Pope's Universal Prayer.Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 263 (1989): 424-25.

Ruminates on the “perceived” deistic themes of Universal Prayer in translations of the poem published between 1740 and 1796.

Brooks-Davies, Douglas. Pope's Dunciad and the Queen of Night: A Study in Emotional Jacobitism. Dover, N.H.: Manchester University Press, 1985, 190 p.

Studies political allusions to the Jacobite effort to restore the power of the Stuart exile in the Dunciad,emphasizing “not so much Pope's political feelings as … his imaginative mythology, the pantheon of his subconscious.”

Foster, Gretchen M. Pope Versus Dryden: A Controversy in Letters to The Gentleman's Magazine. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1989, 156 p.

Provides historical context for the public debate on the merits of Pope and Dryden in letters written to the Gentleman's Magazine. Foster also reviews earlier comparisons, the various sides and issues, biographies of the correspondents, the periodical's role, as well as the complete text of the letters.

Gordon, I. R. F. A Preface to Pope. London: Longman, 1976, 195 p.

Gives a comprehensive overview of Pope's career in terms of personal, historical, cultural, and intellectual themes. Features close readings of selected passages, a glossary of literary terms, a gazetteer of places, short biographies, a chronology, and a bibliography.

Rogers, Pat. Essays on Pope. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 263 p.

Reprints considerably revised versions of essays published in scholarly journals, which cover most of Pope's writings as well as such general themes as his form and style, social context, dealings with the Burlington circle, and his battles with the publishing trade.

Rousseau, G. S. and Pat Rogers, eds. The Enduring Legacy: Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 286 p.

Gathers original criticism of various aspects of Pope's career on such themes as The Rape of the Lock,Pope and women, An Essay on Man, landscape gardening and architecture at Twickenham, Pope as translator and critic, and Pope's legacy.

Solomon, Harry M. The Rape of the Text: Reading and Misreading Pope's Essay on Man. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993, 245 p.

Addresses the widespread perception of An Essay on Man as an historical artifact devoid of postmodern relevance, “of … our alienation from the Being of Pope's text,” proposing alternative approaches to both the poem and philosophical poetry in general.

Srigley, Michael. The Mighty Maze: A Study of Pope's An Essay on Man. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1994, 178 p.

Studies the theodicy of An Essay on Man by comparing its discourse with the natural settings at Twickenham in relation to tension between Newtonian science and the relativism of Bacon's views of science.

Additional coverage of Pope's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1660-1789 ; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 95, 101; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Modules—Most-Studied Authors Module and Poets Module; Poetry Criticism Vol. 26; andWorld Literature Criticism.

Ellen Pollak (essay date 1985)

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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.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies


This book investigates the differing relationships of Swift and Pope to a shared set of cultural myths about gender. It seeks to illuminate not only the dynamics of eighteenth-century sexual ideology, but also the formal manifestations of that ideology in the poems of two men writing during the period of English cultural history when modern conceptions of sexual difference came into currency.

Neither the political reality of masculine privilege nor the predominant cultural inscription of woman as inferior to man disappeared with the social and epistemological revolutions of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that produced the conditions under which the novel flourished and that, in many respects, can be thought of as marking the transition from the ancient to the modern world. For although, in England, the age of Locke was also an age of incipient feminism and of unaccustomed interest in female education, dominant eighteenth-century myths of woman sustained the same Judeo-Christian dualism that prevailed in earlier centuries. The exclusive and rigid categories of angel and whore remained intellectual institutions in this age as they had been in others and, as standard terms for conceiving of the female sex, they made the integration of spiritual and erotic attributes in a single woman logically impossible. Indeed, as Ian Watt observes, the classic female paragon of the age displays an immunity to passion, the “decarnalisation” of female virtue being as integral in its way to the largely secular bourgeois moralism of the early eighteenth century as it had been to the Catholic orthodoxy of the Middle Ages.1 For both the scribbling Clarissa Harlowe and the voluble Wife of Bath, the very existence of desire is a transgression of the laws of gender and is represented as the invasion of a male prerogative.2

Nonetheless, despite the historical continuities of patriarchy, there is little question that the systems of thought by which its realities have been explained and justified have at various points in time undergone important transformations. As paradigms of social, political, and cosmic order have changed, as epistemological assumptions have evolved, so too have the discursive structures that have legitimized and sustained the historical fact of male hegemony.

The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries mark a critical point in the codification of modern strategies for conceptualizing women. As patriarchal notions of divine-right monarchy were rejected by political theorists, as benevolist attitudes began to infiltrate religious thought, as empiricist philosophy increasingly designated the human subject as the locus both of psychic and of referential truth, new terms in keeping with these individualist traditions gradually evolved to accommodate the ongoing subordination of women to men in social, political, economic, intellectual, and domestic life. Fuller and more complex strategies began to emerge for resolving the inconsistency between the increasing autonomy of the masculine subject, in a culture which increasingly affirmed the prerogatives of individual desire, and the systematic denial of either desire or autonomy in women.3

Analysis of popular literature of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—from prose fiction to the feminine conduct book and periodical essay—reveals the existence by the 1680s of a bourgeois sexual mythos whose values differed from those implicit within earlier sexual codes. Despite adherence to a belief in the fundamental supremacy of man over woman, Tudor and Stuart books of domestic conduct had concerned themselves seriously with women's competent performance of a wide range of agricultural, industrial, and managerial tasks.4 By contrast, the feminine conduct books which became widely popular in the last decades of the seventeenth century were distinguished by an advocacy of purely passive female virtues. In them a woman's “duties” were identified exclusively with such qualities, or passive states, of soul as meekness, modesty, affability, compassion, and piety, her “calling” with the dependency of marriage.5 Education, when advocated at all, was to serve a woman not as a means of acquiring worldly competence, but rather—through the development of her spiritual capacities for Christian resignation—as a way of cultivating techniques for bearing domestic solitude, idleness, economic dependence, and subservient social and conjugal status happily, without ennui, expense, or recourse to pedantry.

The passive female virtues of obedience, modesty, and compassion were, of course, valued in aristocratic circles earlier—whether or not they were accompanied by practical domestic skills. But a nobility where social status depended on the secure prerogatives of birth rather than on the contingencies of property per se could afford to be more casual about the inculcation and fulfillment of those virtues than a “rising” middle class influenced by Puritan religious and economic imperatives. Certainly aristocratic tolerance for, nay even attraction to, the sexual exuberance and gamesmanship of women appears in Restoration drama in a way unmatched by virtually any form of imaginative literature in the eighteenth-century proper. Indeed, by the turn of the century, the comic deviance of those stock female types that had frequented the Restoration stage was functioning more and more commonly in prose fiction to sanction a norm of radical self-denial in women rather than to puncture that norm by means of spunky female libertinage. Representing departures from its twin ideals of cheerfully obedient daughter and sexually faithful and supremely solicitous wife, the most popular stock deviants of the emerging middle-class myth (the coquette, prude, pedant, scold, and superannuated virgin or old maid) served to ratify the naturalness of feminine passivity by demonstrating the futile narcissism of women seeking the prerogatives of masculinity.

I call this configuration of ideas and attitudes which prevailed in England by the last decade of the seventeenth century the myth of passive womanhood, after the projected ideal of woman against or in relation to which all its other features are formulated. To a considerable extent, its fictions did mirror a social reality shaped by complex economic, religious, and psychological influences; but where they diverged from historical truth, they nonetheless sustained a powerful existence as a superstructure ordering society's ways of interpreting that truth and making it intelligible. For a long time to come, the values of this myth informed the conventional structures of language and thought available to writers for conceiving of and representing women.

For the most part, the myth of passive womanhood was prevalent among those classes most directly affected by the commercial and financial revolutions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These primarily included the upper and lower orders of the gentry and the merchant and professional classes; for it is probably fair to assume that in the squirearchy and aristocracy, where the effect of economic prosperity on the lives of women was somewhat less pronounced than in the middle class itself, the transitional impact of a cultural mythology that sought to justify and reinforce the idleness of women would be accordingly less profound. Nonetheless, to the extent that middle-class culture sought to emulate aristocratic manners, and to the extent that the society in which the myth of passive womanhood emerged as a dominant cultural code was one which had already witnessed generations of mobility between its highest and intermediate orders—and in which economic occupations were being distinguished less and less neatly on the basis of social class—the scope and boundaries of the influence of this myth become difficult to determine absolutely. I thus characterize its spirit as “bourgeois” not because its influence was confined exlusively to the middle classes, but because, pervading the literate classes generally, it emerged in and became the dominant sexual ideology of a culture where social consensus and representational codes originated in the middle class—indeed, where the mobile structure of society was itself a middle-class phenomenon.6

I use the term “myth” advisedly in order to maintain what I believe to be a significant theoretical distinction between ideology proper and the social fictions that evolve at once to cover and to enable its effects. For, as my analysis of Pope's verse especially seeks to show, ideology and its forms of representation do not always manifestly agree. By its function within a larger ideological system, for example, an affectively “positive” rendering of a woman (such as that embodied in Pope's portrait of Martha Blount) may be the vehicle for an essentially negative conception of the female. Women may be imaged favorably in a system of representation that operates on the ideological premise of their exclusion from the domains both of value and of meaning.

Thus, when I use the term “myth,” I mean to refer specifically to the representational forms that ideology takes—to the literary and epistemological structures by which certain propositions about the phenomenal world (in this case, women) are made to seem the outgrowths of a strict necessity, consistent with the laws of natural order.7 For the propositions that myths embody are typically conveyed in some narrative or dramatic, some mythological as opposed to logical, form—by means of a story. The peculiar advantage of this mimetic feature of myths is that it enables certain logical contradictions to be presented plausibly. The contradictions are obscured by being brought within a discursive order that constitutes the world according to culturally sanctioned axioms and laws. In this way, ideological consistency can be passed off as logical consistency, and systems of knowledge (which are inevitably systems of value too) can operate as narratives of fact.8

Only representational modes can give a powerful sense of inevitability to casual assumptions that conflict either with one another or with what, in fact, happens to be true. An excellent example of the way myths make propositions seem “natural,” even when they are not borne out by social realities, is suggested by Elizabeth Janeway in her influential study of social mythology, Man's World, Woman's Place. The proposition so familiar in the West that woman's place is in the home frequently runs up against the simple social fact that women constitute and always have constituted a significant proportion of the Western work force. The “mythic thinker,” according to Janeway's definition, obscures this discrepancy between proposition and fact by concluding that if women are not at home, they should be, and then promptly reassures him or herself of the inevitability of this conclusion by invoking myths (stories) about unhappy or irresponsible working mothers from anecdotal, legendary, or other largely impressionistic sources.9

The other type of contradiction common to myth is more internal to the structure of myth itself and is exemplified by the dual proposition familiar in Western patriarchal thought that women are, by nature, at once insatiably oversexed and indefectibly spiritual. As I have suggested above, these two statements are opposing aspects of a single ideological matrix which expresses a negative conception of women in the form of ambivalence; it at once idealizes and disparages female nature. The most familiar way in which this contradiction is obscured by representational modes is by the mythic division of women into two types, good and bad, a division which tacitly defines its “positive” pole as somehow “not woman.” (The common euphemism for a “good woman” is, of course, a “lady.”) Thus an underlying negative valorization of female sexuality is masked by the assertion of a positive ideal; the ideal is presented as an alternative to a negative assessment when, in fact, it is but a variant, or reinscription, of it.

Myths normally operate as parts of mythological systems; they tend to imply, complement, and signal one another. The attitudes and assumptions they embody generally constitute complexly articulated networks with specific, tacitly understood internal organizations and dynamics. For this reason, myths or parts of myths are apt to function as shorthand indicators of whole systems of belief. Pope's Belinda is, on one level, the antithesis of the Martha Blount that Pope portrays in “To a Lady”; but as I shall seek to show, the ideological content of the two figures is the same. Both are alibis for a single ideology supporting an elaborate system of social and economic relations and behavior.

The literary creations of an individual writer may be distinguished from myth up to a point. All fictions are mythic to the extent that they are defined by the semiological structures made available by the culture in which they exist; a writer has no choice within the limits of intelligibility but to speak or write this social language. But though the structure of this common discourse will inevitably determine the parameters of meaning, a given writer does retain a certain element of choice in the relationship he or she assumes to that structure. Thus, though myth is inevitably the material of artistic creation, the latter differs from the former by making a degree of singularity and subversion possible within limits. Art, in short, includes the potential for self-consciousness, while naive myths—as Barthes observes—usually imply a genuine confusion between nature and history.10

Recent critical work by Nancy Miller, Janet Todd, and Rachel Brownstein has effectively shown how the contradictions of bourgeois sexual ideology condition the plots of eighteenth-century novels.11 Even as such texts as Moll Flanders and Clarissa make their eponymous heroines the very representatives of integral selfhood—symbols of absolute identity—they reinscribe woman's status as an object within the syntax of a masculine desire and ratify her value as a commodity according to the realities of economic law. The fictional dominance of heroines in what Miller calls the “feminocentric” novel belies the operation of androcentric values which underwrite, indeed co-opt, the “subjectivity” of women. The Clarissa who passionately wills her own bodily and spiritual integrity by vowing that her hand and heart will never be separated is the same Clarissa who finally can sustain her experience of that integrity only by self-willed dismemberment, by the brutal banishment of self from self and, at last, that ultimate dissociation of body and soul in death.12 Such a heroine might take up the pen in a gesture of rebellion against the patriarchal norms that threaten her, but the Richardsonian plot is nonetheless determined by a conception of sexual difference which categorically defines the female as a sign of the lack, or absence, of what is present and appropriate in the male. Thus, when (as Leo Braudy puts it) the “woman with the pen confronts the man with the penis,”13 the woman with the pen must pay a price; for by its possession she both literally and figuratively threatens to undermine a system of signification that defines her both as vulnerable and as victim. By the “defense” of writing, she may defer her fate but never quite avoid it; her text is always recuperated by the necessity of her silence, her submission, or her death.

The artifice of narrative authenticity by which women in the novel became writing and speaking “subjects” did help readers to lose consciousness of the ideological impositions of plot. Indeed, in this sense, the epistemological and the ideological premises of the genre seem from the very outset to have been at odds. For even while this new tradition was, in principle, a tradition of the new—a tradition in which singularity, difference, new beginnings had a shaping and an authorizing role—it was also a tradition which denied the force of difference to women by authorizing a system of representation which hierarchically contained the sign of woman within man, indeed which figured female selves not as self-constitutive entities but as extensions, or constitutive parts, of the male self. The very centrality and intensity of the early novel's preoccupation with the inscription of female selves seem to have been born of a rhetorical need to resolve and thus obscure this paradox.


It is true that Swift and Pope did not write novels. Indeed, when we think of these two writers, we are more inclined to think of their loyalty to a threatened classical tradition than of their debt to “modern” cultural ideals. To both writers, “modern” learning was intellectually unregenerate, a menace to cultural stability. Whether one's dominant association is to The Dunciad's finale—that cataclysmic death of art before the uncreating word—or to Swift's yet more desperate vision of literary chaos in A Tale of a Tub, there is no escaping the perception that both Swift and Pope experienced themselves, with varying degrees of distress, as living at the brink of cultural collapse.

It is clearly an error, however, to read the works of these two writers solely as monuments of resistance to “modern” values. For both were as fully engaged as Defoe or Richardson in finding literary solutions to the formal and epistemological dilemmas of their age. The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,A Tale of a Tub, Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa—each in its own way addresses itself to the question of where to find meaning once the authority of the past has lost its sway. And though Swift and Pope finally commit themselves less wholeheartedly than the novelists to the values of interiority, personal psychology, and individual voice, they are nonetheless both seriously engaged by the possibilities and limits of situating value in the self. In their poems about women, they were inescapably confronted with the necessity of establishing some relation to what were becoming, to what to some extent already had become, the representational codes of modern sexual ideology.

Because Swift's fictive mode involved the impersonation of writing/speaking subjects, because he wrote largely in prose, and because that prose is sometimes digressive and open-ended, it is easier to recognize continuities with the novel tradition in his case than in Pope's. In a sense, Swift became a modern writer through his propensity for parodying modern modes. Still, in an effort to correct the distortions of traditional formalist and allusion-tracing analyses, recent Pope criticism has concerned itself with Pope's endeavors at self-representation, with his attempts at shedding autocratic speech, with his experiments in poetic autobiography.14 Despite his sustained optimism about the power of traditional literary forms to continue to move readers, he was embarked on a lifelong quest for personal voice; indeed, as Frederick Keener strikingly observes, he “came to incorporate more personal experience in his poems than had any English poet preceding him.”15

It is perhaps to be expected that a study of the impact of sexual ideology on a certain body of literature might call into question critical commonplaces that are not directly concerned with sexual difference but are vulnerable nonetheless to the pressures of feminist analysis by virtue of their relation to a critical tradition which excluded gender as a field of inquiry. The conventional identification of Swift and Pope—in literary, historical, and political terms—as “Tory satirists” is one such commonplace whose limits I seek to challenge in this book. In its emphasis on what the two writers have in common as cohorts in the war against the “moderns,” this critical concept has obscured not only the important continuities each had with modern discourse, but also the significant literary and philosophical differences that existed between them.16

For our sense of Swift's and Pope's connection with the novel is inevitably complicated by that division within the genre itself between the infinitely eccentric possibilities of a formal method that authorized, indeed privileged, the singularity of selves and the ideological structures that delimited and legitimized those selves. Even as the novel exalted private experience as the source of authenticity and truth, its pursuit of the particular and of the new was firmly circumscribed within static and recurrent cultural codes.

Swift and Pope stand in complexly varied relations to this split. Notwithstanding Pope's fidelity to traditional verse forms, he—like the novelists—sought to stabilize, and thus obscure, the contradictions inherent in the literary representation of private selves. Thus in the political poems of the 1730s, he undertook the Crusoe-like task of cutting himself off from the mainstream of society in order to establish himself, in private life, as an “individual”—in order to become his own master or, to use Maynard Mack's phrase, “master of a poet's ‘kingdom.’”17 Incorporating into himself classical values once presumably inherent in the universe but no longer easily found there, he would become the representative of virtue and good sense and his estate a microcosm of positive values beyond whose bounds only anarchy and corruption could prevail. He truly believed his satiric wit, though “now Apocrypha, … In time to come, [might] pass for Holy Writ” (Fourth Satire of Donne, 286-87). Private and public values could ultimately bear each other out.

Conversely, while Swift's work assumes more of the formal features of novelistic discourse, it is precisely the balance of the relation between singularity and its limits that his writing always seeks to undermine, the instability of the very idea of singularity that his satire always struggles to expose. Hence the madness of his narrators and the chaos of their views. To Swift, the idea of private meaning never held the positive possibilities it did, say, for Defoe, whose Crusoe would set himself adrift from a community of values in order to define and thereby validate a self. Difference, discontinuity, new beginnings boded epistemic madness in Swift's view; they signified the total disintegration not just of meaning, but of the discourse that could make that meaning known.

Indeed, as Edward Said has observed, Swift had a deep suspicion of beginnings. Writing at that pivotal point in English literary history when what Barthes calls the “erotics of the New” began, at the beginning of what Said calls Western literary culture's “obsession with beginnings,” Swift feared the imminence of a culture in which devotion to innovation was to become a value in itself, a culture whose investment in beginnings would ensure a loss of continuity with what had gone before.18 Thus in Gulliver's Travels he established a quartet of new beginnings (Said calls the text “a set of experiments in changing directions”)19 which on the one hand mocks Gulliver's compulsion to be continuously starting out and on the other offers a series of perspectives by incongruity through the juxtaposition and mutual criticism of different (really discontinuous) continuities of travel; and in A Tale of a Tub he ridiculed the individualist project of beginning a text fresh, presumably without “one single Hint from any Writer in the World” but “in a manner, that should be altogether new, the World having been already too long nauseated with endless Repetitions upon every Subject.”20

Perhaps it was because Swift sensed so keenly that absolute originality and authenticity in fiction were illusions, because he saw so clearly the utter instability of consciousness implicit in affirming “difference” as a value (both from the point of view of subverting the foundations of any affirmation of value and from the point of view of the insularity and megalomania of any purely private view) that he felt such fierce nostalgia for a settled, stable language.21 He seemed to know the paradox at the heart of a tradition of the new, that beginnings would always exist in a dialectical relationship both to repetitions and to what had gone before. Despite its disclaimers of repetition and its pretensions to the “novel,” modern discourse would carry with it the imprint of its origins and casual assumptions.

The great irony is that, in his desperation over the relentless mutability of meaning, Swift should have exploited difference as a formal principle as fully and as joyfully as he did. Indeed, by pushing that principle to its very farthest verge in A Tale of a Tub, he laid bare its dual nature as the condition at once the most enabling and most threatening to selves. As the parable of Crusoe would attest, while the modern ego might derive identity by its difference from the world outside the self (in Crusoe's case, by sailing away from society and its external impositions of identity on him), it could ensure its stability as a coherent, whole, integral entity only by the reduction or conversion of all otherness to sameness with the self (for Crusoe, by the taming and colonization of the black, pagan cannibal). It is precisely by failing to respect the limits of difference necessary to this project of defining the modern self that the quintessentially arrogant modern writer who narrates Swift's Tale is catapulted into incoherence. Swift, to be sure, is satirizing the literal-mindedness and ineptitude of the modern who, in effect, obliterates himself by misunderstanding the necessary compromise at the heart of modern meaning; but he is also refusing to accommodate the enabling contradiction on which the notion of the modern ego rests.

In the most general sense, it is the refusal of this accommodation that lies at the heart of my analysis of Swift. Most particularly, I am interested in examining the Dean's relation to the way gender conditions the modern configuration of textual relations that organize notions of selfhood and difference. For if modern notions of masculine selfhood are radically problematized in Swift's writing, so too it seems to me are corollary notions of the female as the fetishized appurtenance of a male totality.22 Indeed, intersecting with Swift's complex resistance to the values of the novel (a resistance which, as both the Tale and Travels would attest, was conditioned at one and the same time by a nostalgia for classical forms and a conviction of their utter obsolescence) is an equally complex system of resistance to eighteenth-century strategies of fictionalizing women.

Swift could never wholly avoid the terms of gender made available to him by the age in which he wrote, but neither could he ever embrace them comfortably. Thus, as we shall see, when he trapped his narrators—or his own narrative voice—in ambivalences embedded in the very structure of the available sexual myths and then produced within that voice the awful rage of impotence, he was exploiting the only means available to him for not complying with the logic of those myths. Such a refusal to comply is inevitably an equivocal pursuit, for it is in the very nature of language that a subversive text will exist in a parasitic relation to the constitutive text it would subvert. As Barthes has written of the ambiguous relation between what he calls the “text of pleasure” and the “text of bliss,” “there will always be a margin of indecision; … the paradigm will falter”; pleasure “sometimes extends to bliss, sometimes is opposed to it.”23 When Swift lets the terms of gender fail him, when he shows that he is not at home within the sexual mythos that he finds, or even within the language on which that myth erects itself, when he fails to make his women or his world cohere, but rather dashes them to pieces or skews them out of symmetry, he is calling attention to the rhetorical and conceptual problems he faced in representing women in much the same way he called attention to the problem of beginnings.

This tendency of Swift's writing to call its own organizing structures into question, insistently making them the grounds of their own critique, frequently manifests itself through the dramatizing of conflict between empirical and mythic “truths.” In Cadenus and Vanessa, for example, where Cadenus's subjective experience of Vanessa defies the logic of “experience” as shaped by literary, social, and sexual codes, Swift's textual strategy has the dual effect of underscoring the essentially fictive and historical nature of systems of knowledge about women and of disabling their aesthetic reconstitution.

Pope's work offers a striking contrast to Swift's in this respect. Instead of poetically exploiting the dissonance between reality and myth, Pope seemed to go out of his way to resolve that dissonance, to rhetorically accommodate the contradictions inherent in his culture's dominant sexual codes and—despite their delimiting character—to make them seem sufficient to experience, fulfilled. His poetry fed on the stock paradoxes that conventional myth allowed, not on those it found unthinkable. Thus in The Rape of the Lock Pope ratifies the premise that women are objects even as he satirizes the irrational materialism of bourgeois values that objectify human beings by giving primacy to forms over substance. And in “To a Lady” he portrays Martha Blount in the image of the feminine ideal even as he establishes the essential negativity of women. Indeed, in order to render a literary compliment that is consistent by the terms of the sexual ideology he sanctions in his text, he must take liberties with the facts of Martha's life, must literally reconstitute the history of the woman he so gallantly celebrates.


To argue as I do that Swift was committed in his poems to exploding certain bourgeois sexual myths that Pope's verse insistently worked to justify is, in a sense, to question a still largely accepted critical consensus. Broadly speaking, Pope has been considered not only the better poet of the two but also kinder to women. The New Criticism, with its emphasis on the aesthetic “integrity” of poetry—i.e., on the degree to which a poem manages, by resolving internal tensions, to achieve formal coherence, wholeness, or stability—saw in Pope's perfectly balanced and self-contained heroic couplet, with its masterful use of zeugma, punning, rhyme, syllepsis and a host of other devices for binding together manifold incongruities of sense, a richness of linguistic possibility that only the finest poetry could achieve. Sensitive to the subtler aspects of Pope's art, William K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, and Maynard Mack went far in restoring Pope to a literary preeminence that nineteenth-century criticism largely denied him.24 To Wimsatt's illuminations of the potentialities of couplet rhetoric, Mack and Brooks added eloquent elucidations of the larger metaphorical properties of the mock-epic itself. Through it, they sought to show, Pope managed to combine—often in the very same breath—dazzling literary compliment with gentle satiric wit. The mock-heroic's “supreme advantage for Pope,” wrote Mack, was that “it was a metaphor that could be made to look two ways. If the heroic genre and the heroic episodes lurking behind The Rape of the Lock diminish many of the values of this society, they also partially throw their weight behind some others.”25 And Brooks, in “The Case of Miss Arabella Fermor,” further developed this concept of the Rape's duality of vision. Through the use of paradox, Brooks maintained, Pope was able to censor the follies of Hampton Court while allowing Belinda all the myriad charms attendant upon her naive sense of self-importance. Moving through the world of maids and children with something approaching a sense of what Keats later called “negative capability,” the poet of the Rape managed, in Brooks's view, to capture the special loveliness and power of that world, even as he ridiculed its values as irrational.

No one can deny the formidable contribution of the New Critics in retrieving Pope for modern readers; and truly they have achieved as much in the elucidation of Swift's prose. With its stress on the rhetorical character of literary art in general and its interest in satire as a special kind of fiction, the New Criticism actually lent itself quite effectively to analyses of the rhetorical strategies of Swift's satiric art.26 Yet from this same school of criticism, the verse of Swift has suffered sore neglect, having until very recently attracted greater biographical than literary interest. By New Critical standards, surely, it would seem to be a species of coarse, doggerel rhyme, radically “unintegrated,” aesthetically inadequate, and, in any case, not serious or mature poetry. As early as 1937, this view was expressed by Harold Williams in the introduction to his three-volume edition of the poems. Though Williams made a gold mine of poetic material available to modern criticism, his own perception of Swift's verse is as of something imperfect, the product of a “natural genius” thwarted and confined. Swift, he held, “had something to give to English poetry that he never wholly gave,” and Williams faulted the indifference of editors to the verse far more than that of readers or of critics:

Swift's verse has been shabbily treated by his editors. Perhaps readers and critics may plead this neglect in excuse for theirs. Much of his verse is not readily, or completely, intelligible until ordered chronologically and annotated. If this be an admission that the chief interest of Swift's verse lies elsewhere than in poetic content, it is unnecessary to plead the contrary. Poetry is there, and the instinct to poetry, though trammelled and impeded. Further, the events of Swift's life, his character, his standing with his fellows, and his place in history can only be adequately interpreted if his verse is closely read and understood.27

There seems a fitting logic to the fact that the very critics who sought, through their formalism, to free literary interpretation from the psychological fallacies of intentionality and affect, were also those who, by turning their backs on Swift's verse, abetted its subjection to the most historicist and psychological of interpretations. The poems on women in particular have attracted the attention of biographers and psychoanalysts, serving as evidence for a mixed bag of speculation not only about Swift's personal feelings for particular women but also about the nature of his psychosexual conflicts. While John Middleton Murry argued from a conviction of Swift's repulsion toward mankind in general to a “peculiar physical loathing of women” evident in the excremental poems, Ricardo Quintana appealed to such works as the poems to Stella and “A Letter to a Very Young Lady on her Marriage” as proof that “Swift was not a hater of women” and not “an anti-feminist.”28 Yet whether or not biographers have found misogyny in Swift, their discussions of his poems almost invariably have left readers with more associations to the Dean's personal relationships with women than to his literary representations of them. It seems fair to say that quite the contrary is true for Pope, whose portraits of Atossa, Belinda, and Sappho—despite well-annotated texts—generally overshadow information about the historical figures who inspired them. The difference in the kinds and degree of critical attention the two poets have received is, I believe, largely responsible for this difference in popular image. Having been approached almost universally as no more than a series of occasional verses expressing his random personal attitudes and opinions, Swift's poems on women have received very little sustained critical scrutiny as self-conscious rhetorical statements with a representative place in their author's broader literary vision.

In the context of the larger body of sexual conventions that helped to shape Swift and Pope's poems about women, another critical view is possible, one that invites a reestimation not only of the relative value of the two poets in the history of English literature, but also of the criteria by which we have been accustomed in recent decades to judge the “integrity”—whether aesthetic, social, or moral—of our literary artifacts. As Judith Fetterley asserted in her witty exploration of the relationship between the New Criticism and feminist criticism in a paper delivered at the 1976 convention of the Modern Language Association, the New Criticism's “insistence on the objectivity of the determination and application of aesthetic criteria” had a tendency to enshrine and protect certain unacknowledged subjective values that run directly counter to the imperatives of a feminist hermeneutic. “The New Critics saw the world in pieces,” writes Fetterley,

and they wanted it put back together again. Hence the significance of their critical vocabulary: Tale's fusion of extension and intention into the concept of tension; Ransom's interweaving of structure and texture; Brooks's passion for paradox in which two contradictory concepts are catapulted into coherence; Warren's impure poetry which earns its vision by incorporating its opposite; and their joint dedication to the superfusion of form and content. This is not to say that these criteria are not useful or valid ones for reading poetry; it is to say that the exclusive concentration on them, the identification of the aesthetic with the degree of their presence in the poem, is the result of personal and political needs on the part of the critic. For the feminist critic, poetry which splits the world open and the critical vocabulary which accompanies such a rendering may be more useful and more valid.29

Fetterley makes effective use of John Crowe Ransom's comments on Edna St. Vincent Millay to demonstrate how drastic a failure of critical insight can be engendered by the standards of taste legislated by the New Criticism; finding that Millay's poetry makes him feel foolish when he commits himself to it, Ransom dismisses it as bad verse.30 And, indeed, is it not precisely such a failure of insight—part refusal and part inability of certain kinds of critics to respond to certain kinds of poems—that accounts for the unevenness of attention modern criticism has bestowed upon the verse of Swift and Pope? For more perhaps than for any other poet of his age, it was Swift's habit in his poetry to “split the world open” irrevocably rather than to make it cohere; and this is especially true in his poems about women, poems neither conventionally pretty nor orderly in subject matter or form.31

Twenty-one years the senior of his Twickenham friend, Swift was much less comfortably identified than Pope with the bourgeois culture that generated the myth of passive womanhood and its stereotypic negative exampla. In his verse he consistently failed to come to terms with the conventions which that culture made available to him for writing about or even conceiving of the female sex. With one foot in the Restoration and the other in the eighteenth century, he could tear away at the sentimentalizations of women that became fashionable in the reign of Queen Anne, but he lacked an appropriately comprehensive language or epistemology for embodying an alternative ideal in any but negative satiric terms. Such negatively conceived satire was, in some ways, a mode of liberation for Swift—a way of placing himself beyond (by, paradoxically, insisting on) the limits of both traditional and middle-class systems of value and the literary structures they engendered. Pope sought to revitalize classical ideals and literary forms by finding a way to make them accommodate and at the same time satirize the realities of eighteenth-century life. But in Swift's writing, classical and bourgeois values meet head-on in a form of mutually crippling confrontation.

Meaning, in Swift's texts, is generated not—as it is in Pope's—at the point of poised reconciliation between the contrary terms of a single epistemological or mythic structure (such as between the contradictory nature of Belinda as goddess and tease, or of man as glory and jest); it is produced, rather, at the point where two or more heterogeneous systems of signification meet, engage, and in interacting become the mutual critics of the logic of one another's terms. Conceiving culture as a relative phenomenon, Swift did not presume, with Pope, that anarchy would reign in the absence of social myths and conventions he considered valid or valuable, but rather recognized the potential efficacy of other kinds of orders. As a satirist, he sought less to defend any consistent personal position—any single “angle of vision,” to borrow another phrase from Maynard Mack—than to explore and thereby expose the limits of individual perspectives by juxtaposing them to alternative points of view.32 He hoped to remind us that at any given moment a normal-sized eagle seen at a distance might be far more prodigious a bird than we have ever seen, flying at a distance far greater than we know. In a Swiftian universe, there could be no “middle state,” for there could be no absolute or stable center.

The decentered character of Swift's vision—his studied refusal in his texts to establish reliable centers of authority or voice—was the source of a literary radicalism and irreverence in his writing that has much in common with the “exceptional freedom and pitiless gaiety” that Mikhail Bakhtin discovered in the writing of Rabelais.33 Like Rabelais, Swift lived and wrote at the historic intersection of two cultures, “on the confines” of two competing languages, and it is precisely on those borders that he situates his texts.34 Orwell once characterized Swift's radicalism as a reactionary form of iconoclasm, a passion inspired by devotion to a political interest that had already been effectually overthrown and that therefore could express itself only in “the irresponsible violence of the powerless.”35 But even as Swift despaired of the efficacy of the traditional literary language for which he yearned, he won a certain equivocal, spiteful victory in his writing over both the defeated culture that had failed him and the nascent culture he despised but had to face; turning his back on classical discourse with the vengeance of a disappointed son, he embraced the modern vision with something of a vicious stranglehold, pushed it to the point of self-unraveling excess.

To Ian Watt, the appearance of Richardson's Pamela in the 1740s marked a “very notable epiphany in the history of our culture: the emergence of a new, fully developed and immensely influential stereotype of the feminine role.”36 Standing at the threshold of the development of the novel, Swift and Pope were inescapably a part of the culture and intellectual climate from which this stereotype emerged. But—cognizant though Swift was of the waning efficacy of traditional literary and social conventions in an age of encroaching “modernism”—his writing remains, in the best tradition of literary anatomy, consistently analytic, resistant at every turn to the middle-class sexual ideology he saw crystallizing around him. By contrast, Pope managed the last great synthesis of bourgeois sexual values and ancient ideals before literary neoclassicism was exhausted. Confronting essentially the same tensions that plagued Swift, between ancient and modern values and between aristocratic and commercial attitudes, his most notable works on women, The Rape of the Lock and the “Epistle to a Lady,” serve rather to resolve and justify those tensions than to reproduce them angrily. Where Swift's position vis à vis the “modernism” of his day is radically uncompromising, Pope's work—virtually Miltonic in its capacity for synthesis—tends to naturalize the contradictions inherent in eighteenth-century economic individualism in a way that makes them seem utterly inevitable—indeed, commensurate with the order of the universe. This, in large part, is his great poetic achievement.

I do not wish to turn the conventional assessment of Swift and Pope upon its head. Although I applaud the recent rehabilitation of Swift's verse as a serious subject of critical inquiry, I am less interested in morally vindicating Swift at Pope's expense than I am in rethinking the terms of the analysis that has organized our perceptions of their writing about women. The concept of misogyny as it has been traditionally understood is itself constructed within the contextual limits of phallocentric norms and thus requires circumspect analysis.

I thus seek to shift the focus of critical inquiry away from the largely psychological question of whether, and to what extent, Swift's and Pope's poems show that they liked or disliked actual women; my interest, rather, is in analyzing the relationship of their writing to their culture's ideological imperatives regarding gender. A more strictly psychological emphasis persists even in the wealth of critical work published in the last ten years that has sought to rescue Swift's verse from the neglect of a New Critical establishment by whose formal standards it did not measure up. For whether recent readings implicitly confirm or deny Swift's misogyny, they are typically arrived at in the absence of any broad or systematic critique of the forms of culture that circumscribed his limits of expression. While the importance of women in the verse continues to be acknowledged, current discussions of it demonstrate little interest in socio-critical questions, in what Fredric Jameson has called the “ideology of form.”37

The formalism of Pope studies has similarly bypassed questions of sexual ideology. The reason for this in Pope's case seems to have been the apparent absence in his poems of what our culture would consider evidence of sexual pathology. Aesthetic integrity and the expression of psychosocially “healthy” attitudes have been read as ideological innocence. Moreover, when Pope's poetry has been contextualized, the context insisted on has been (as in Swift's case) personal rather than cultural, as if there were still some residual need to answer the Romantic charge of Pope's impersonalism on its own terms. Indeed, as Phillip Harth has seen, the recent impulse of Pope criticism to correct the distortions of New Critical “objectivism” has, in some ways, been no more than a swing back to the biographical methods that the New Criticism had endeavored to displace.38 Critical trends have been oscillating between rhetorical and personalist modes of inquiry without directly engaging the question of how the “personal” is itself shaped by conventional ideological imperatives.

Thus, by its interest in examining the ideological structures available to Swift and Pope for representing women, my approach seeks to depersonalize the charge of phallocentrism even as it refuses either to absolve writers from responsibility for the conventions they exploit or to allow those conventions to remain unanalyzed. The tacit and often inadvertent sanctioning of values already sanctioned by a period or a text is frequently supported by the claim that conventionality is itself an argument against its own critique. Such a “conventional fallacy,” what Wayne Booth calls the “apology by historical placement,” pervades a great deal of contemporary critical practice and is still summoned as an argument against feminist scholarship by those who allow criticism to be genuinely historical only when it demonstrates sympathy for texts and authors within the context of the values of their times.39

But such arguments for “sympathetic” historicism totter on the brink of justifying what is more familiarly a formalist imperative, namely, that literary texts ought to be taken “on their own terms.” Like Cleanth Brooks in The Well-Wrought Urn, they support a mode of interpretation in which the critic's highest aim is to merge effectively with a writer's work—to place him or herself as fully as possible inside the conventions and values a writer takes for granted in an effort to experience adequately the texture of that writer's art. Up to a point, surely, this process is central to any perspicacious critical endeavor; but in the absence of a rectifying process of self-differentiation of critic from poet, it finally reduces analysis to an act of exegesis or naive appreciation.

Brooks, for example, finds “a large element of amused patronage” toward Belinda in The Rape of the Lock, but “no contempt.”40 Pope's satire, he maintains, is supple and relaxed enough to accommodate multiple perspectives on its subject without ever undercutting the poem's status as dazzling literary compliment. As I shall argue in my discussion of the Rape, this reading begs the question of the underlying attitudes and assumptions—the broader structures of value and meaning—that made Pope's Belinda and Clarissa possible as literary archetypes at all. To Brooks, paradox is one way a skillful poet frees his language from the narrow biases of ideology. But paradox can also be a rhetorical strategy that, by creating the illusion of complexity, masks an ideological simplicity. Belinda's status as both goddess and tease depends as much on establishing a relation of sameness as of difference between those terms. It is true that despite the prevalence of irony in Pope, we never find Belinda disgusting, sinister, or terrifying; but this seems to me to be as much a function of the complacency with which Pope assumed her ultimate impotence as it is a reflection of his basically benign and delighted view of her. Indeed, the very strategies that enable Pope to maintain a tone of chivalry in the Rape at once depend upon and perpetuate a set of conventions in which the divine-though-all-too-human Belinda is at bottom negatively defined. The poem's graciousness itself belies contempt.

Thus, distinguishing my approach from the acontextual New Critical formalism that has dominated Pope studies on the one hand and from the excessively historicist orientation of Swift studies on the other, I seek to offer a series of rereadings of the verse of Swift and Pope that is at once textual and ideological in character. My readings are formalist insofar as they treat literary texts essentially as verbal structures. It should be clear from the analysis of literary and social history that I offer in Chapter 2, however, that I do not reject out-of-hand a reliance on historical material in the analysis of literary texts but rather proceed on the assumption articulated most persuasively in this country some years ago by Kenneth Burke, and reiterated in my epigraph from Barthes (which leads, neatly enough, straight back to Pope) that questions of the intrinsic and extrinsic in literature ultimately verge on one another.41 The effort to forge a point of contact between formal and sociopolitical concerns has a peculiar urgency for feminist criticism, which now finds itself potentially endangered on one side by the historical indifference of poststructuralist formalism and on the other by the prevalence of a naive faith in the power, and neutrality, of empiricist inquiry.42


  1. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), pp. 163-64.

  2. For an analysis of the laws of gender operating in Chaucer's portrait of the Wife of Bath, see Robert W. Hanning, “From Eva and Ave to Eglentyne and Alisoun: Chaucer's Insight into the Roles Women Play,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2, no. 3 (1977): 580-99. For readings of Richardson's Clarissa that focus on the sexual politics of the text, see Leo Braudy, “Penetration and Impenetrability in Clarissa,” in New Approaches to Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Phillip Harth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), pp. 177-206; Nancy K. Miller, The Heroine's Text: Readings in the French and English Novel, 1722-1782 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), chap. 6; Terry Castle, Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson's “Clarissa” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982); and Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

  3. On, among other things, women, individualism, and desire in the eighteenth century, see Mary Poovey's illuminating essay “Persuasion and the Promises of Love” in The Representation of Women in Fiction: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1981, n.s., no. 7, ed. Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Margaret R. Higonnet (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 152-79.

  4. This subject is treated in Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (Houston: The Elsevier Press, 1952; rev. ed. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Paul P. Appel, 1975), pp. 132-49; Christina Hole, The English Housewife in the Seventeenth Century (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953); Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1919; rpt., New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968); and Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640 (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1982), esp. pp. 31-70.

  5. See, for example, [Richard Allestree?] The Ladies Calling (London, 1673), pt. I, which calls each of its five chapters after one of these qualities. While more than half of all books for women published between 1475 and 1640 were practical guidebooks (Hull, p. 31), it is probably safe to assume that that proportion diminished as middle-class women became increasingly leisured and as the market for women's books diversified. Thus when the Spectator lists the books in Leonora's library, one is not surprised by his failure to mention even a single book of cookery. Aside from Culpepper's Midwifery, a spelling book, and a dictionary, the closest thing on Leonora's shelves to a manual of practical advice is La Ferte's Instructions for Country Dances (The Spectator, 5 vols., ed. Donald F. Bond [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965], vol. 1, no. 37). Although no statistical analysis of books for or about women after 1640 has yet been undertaken, an annotated bibliography of published materials by or about seventeenth-century women is forthcoming: see Hilda L. Smith and Susan Cardinale, eds., Women and Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography Based on Wing's Short-Title Catalogue (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, forthcoming).

  6. Charles Wilson discusses what he terms the “mobile confusion” of the distinction between country and city occupations in England's Apprenticeship, 1603-1763 (London: Longmans, 1965), esp. pp. 8, 18, and 204-5. For other general discussions of the mobile structure of English society of the period, see Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961), pp. 273-74, and Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), chap. 2. Lawrence Stone provides a more detailed analysis in “Social Mobility in England, 1500-1700,” Past and Present 33 (April 1966): 40-52.

  7. I would define ideology as any set of ideas or propositions whose implicit structure of values reflects and supports the interests of a particular society, class of people, or power structure. By following Roland Barthes in distinguishing ideology from myth on the one hand and art on the other, I seek to leave space for an investigation of ideology in its specifically aesthetic or poetic manifestations. I would reemphasize, nonetheless, that I consider the distinction to be ultimately a theoretical one. For not only do I conceive myth as a form of ideology, but I would say, too, that ideology, like art, is always mythic in some sense. Indeed, as Barthes defines it, mythology occupies the cultural space between art and history, the study of mythology being “a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is an historical science: it studies ideas-in-form” (Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers [New York: Hill and Wang, 1972], p. 112).

  8. See Barthes's Mythologies, esp. pp. 121-31.

  9. Man's World, Woman's Place: A Study in Social Mythology (New York: William Morrow, 1971), chap. 1.

  10. Barthes, Mythologies, pp. 129-31.

  11. Nancy Miller, The Heroine's Text; Janet Todd, Women's Friendship in Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980); and Rachel M. Brownstein, Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels (New York: Viking Press, 1982), pt. I, chap. 2. For a more recent analysis of how such ideological contradictions condition the plots of women's fiction in particular, see Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984).

  12. For Clarissa's vow of integrity, see Samuel Richardson, Clarissa or, the History of a Young Lady, 8 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1930), 6:45. For her banishment of herself from herself, see the same volume, p. 116.

  13. Braudy, “Penetration,” p. 202.

  14. See Maynard Mack, The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope, 1731-1743 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), esp. pp. vii, 8, and 100-13; Frederick M. Keener, An Essay on Pope (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), esp. pp. 1-17 and 183-89; and Dustin H. Griffin, Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), esp. pp. xi-xvii.

  15. Keener, p. 185.

  16. Although the concept of Swift and Pope as “Tory satirists” is becoming dated, it still significantly affects the way the work of these two writers is being taught. Historically, the concept grows out of a critical tradition that identified individual writers as belonging, categorically, to one or the other of what James L. Clifford, in his introduction to an anthology of modern critical essays on the period, called “two great streams of thought” dividing the eighteenth century and representing “basic and irreconcilable” differences in religion, philosophy, and aesthetics (Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism [London: Oxford University Press, 1959], pp. viii-ix). Louis I. Bredvold's landmark essay “The Gloom of the Tory Satirists,” which is the lead essay in Clifford's volume, perhaps reflects this dichotomized view of the age most emphatically. For some efforts other than my own to elaborate the differences between Swift and Pope, see C. J. Rawson, Gulliver and the Gentle Reader: Studies in Swift and Our Time (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. viii and 52-54; and Carole Fabricant, Swift's Landscape (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). In her introduction, Fabricant usefully reflects on the way the articulation of differences between Swift and Pope cuts across the bias of traditional interpretations of the Augustan age (pp. 3-5).

  17. The Garden and the City, p. 232.

  18. Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 76; Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p. 40.

  19. Said, p. 30.

  20. A Tale of a Tub … The Battle of the Books and the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, ed. A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith, 2d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 13 and 4.

  21. See “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” in The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, 14 vols., ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957), 4:5-21.

  22. Eagleton's Rape of Clarissa provides an illuminating analysis of the fetishized female in the fiction of the period. See also, my chap. 6.

  23. Pleasure of the Text, pp. 3 and 19.

  24. William K. Wimsatt, Jr., “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason” and “Rhetoric and Poems: Alexander Pope,” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), pp. 153-85; Cleanth Brooks, “The Case of Miss Arabella Fermor,” in The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1947), pp. 80-104; and Maynard Mack, “‘Wit and Poetry and Pope’: Some Observations on His Imagery,” in Pope and His Contemporaries, ed. James L. Clifford and Louis A. Landa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), pp. 20-40.

  25. Mack, “‘Wit and Poetry and Pope,’” p. 37.

  26. The device of the satiric persona, discussed in Mack's famous essay, “The Muse of Satire,” Yale Review 41. no. 1 (1951): 80-92, was a central concept in the Swift criticism of the late forties and early fifties, emerging most notably in Ricardo Quintana's essay “Situational Satire: A Commentary on the Method of Swift,” University of Toronto Quarterly 17. no. 2 (January 1948): 130-36. Martin Price's Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953) and William B. Ewald's The Masks of Jonathan Swift (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954) figure among the most prominent rhetorical studies of Swift from this period.

  27. The Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 1:xiii and xvi-xvii.

  28. John Middleton Murry, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1954), p. 439; Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), pp. 171, 277-85, 356.

  29. Manuscript. I am grateful to the author for sharing her text with me.

  30. John Crowe Ransom, “The Poet as Woman,” in The World's Body (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938), pp. 76-110.

  31. The source of Fetterley's phrase, which has also been used as the title of an anthology of poems by women called The World Split Open, ed. Louise Bernikow (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), is Muriel Rukeyser's poem “Käthe Kollwitz” from The Speed of Darkness (New York: Random House, 1960): “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” To the extent that Swift's voice is identified with a defeated political interest that, in its powerlessness, can assert itself only by exploding the discursive structures that prevail, it has an affinity with a radical female voice that can make itself heard only by failing to cooperate with the linguistic terms of its powerlessness. While Swift clearly does not give a voice to women, however militantly his writing disrupts the terms of the dominant discourse (see for this argument Susan Gubar, “The Female Monster in Augustan Satire,” Signs 3, no. 2 [Winter 1977]: 380-94), his habit of disruption does—as I argue in the final chapters of this book—deliver us before the unspoken, indeed “unspeakable,” possibility of a “significant” subversion of meaning more fully than Pope does when, for example, he appropriates the voice of Eloisa.

  32. The Garden and the City, p. 232.

  33. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968), p. 472. For Pope's famous allusion to Swift's affinity with Rabelais, see The Dunciad, I, 22. For an interesting recent study of the issue of authority in Swift's prose narratives, see Everett Zimmerman, Swift's Narrative Satires: Author and Authority (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).

  34. Bakhtin, pp. 471 and 473.

  35. “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels,” in In Front of Your Nose: 1945-50, vol. 4 of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 216n.

  36. The Rise of the Novel, p. 161.

  37. As David Vieth notes in his introduction to a special issue of Papers on Language and Literature 14, no. 2 (Spring 1978) containing presentations from an MLA special session on Women in Swift's Poems, the essays in the volume do not engage in feminist analysis, but rather pursue a line of inquiry more exclusively devoted to personal psychology: “Despite the transparent bid for topicality in the theme … [the] papers provide little fuel for feminist fires. Their emphasis, as each panelist independently worked out his or her interpretation, turned, not to the nature of women, but to the nature of Jonathan Swift as he responded in artistic form (or calculated formlessness) to a series of women. … Taken collectively, the five papers are rich in new insights into Swift's psychology” (pp. 115-16). One piece in this collection not included in the MLA panel, which focuses on matters of form and structure and meshes nicely with some of my readings, is Richard H. Rodino's “Blasphemy or Blessing? Swift's ‘Scatological’ Poems” (pp. 152-70). Several full-length studies of Swift's verse have offered interesting readings of specific poems about women, but none directly addresses itself to the issue of gender as a cultural construct in those texts: see, for example, John Irwin Fischer, On Swift's Poetry (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1978), pp. 110-51; Peter J. Schakel, The Poetry of Jonathan Swift: Allusion and the Development of a Poetic Style (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), pp. 97-120; Nora Crow Jaffe, The Poet Swift (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1977), pp. 85-120; and Anthony B. England, Energy and Order in the Poetry of Swift (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1980), pp. 106-221. One major recent exception to this trend of indifference to socio-critical questions in the analysis of Swift's verse is Carole Fabricant's Swift's Landscape. For Jameson's phrase, see “The Ideology of Form: Partial Systems in La Vielle Fille,Sub-Stance 15 (1976): 29.

  38. See “The New Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Poetry,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 3 (Spring 1981): 533.

  39. “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 9, no. 1 (September 1982): 67n. Paradoxically enough, such an apology also in some ways characterizes Felicity A. Nussbaum's recent volume on the tradition of English satires against women, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984). Nussbaum's study uses splendid source material and offers a multitude of valuable insights into individual texts and their literary contexts in an effort to help us distinguish between what is conventional and what is new or original in the major satires against women of the Restoration and the early eighteenth century. But, situating itself within a critical tradition that assumes an irreducible gap between literary convention and idiosyncrasy—a gap in which an individual poet presumably can mitigate the misogyny of misogynous conventions by personal complications and elaborations of them—Nussbaum's book does not confront the rather volatile question that seems to me implicit in its subject and that I have tried to address in what ensues: the question of the relation of rhetorical conventions and personal aesthetics to cultural ideology. By contrast to Nussbaum, I proceed on the premise that both the aesthetic and the mythic or conventional are functions of ideology and that, in order to be read responsibly, they must be contextualized in more than a purely literary way. Thus, although Nussbaum and I analyze some of the same texts by Swift and Pope (in Nussbaum, chaps. 6 and 8), our very different critical interests and the very different critical premises from which we begin lead us, predictably, to quite dissimilar conclusions.

  40. Brooks, p. 87.

  41. Kenneth Burke, “The Problem of the Intrinsic (as reflected in the Neo-Aristotelian School),” in A Grammar of Motives (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1945), pp. 465-84.

  42. For a theoretical analysis of the structures of power implicit in the practice of accumulating knowledge about women, see Peggy Kamuf, “Replacing Feminist Criticism,” Diacritics 12, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 42-47 and, on the dangers of poststructuralist historical indifference, see Nancy K. Miller's response, “The Text's Heroine: A Feminist Critic and Her Fictions,” in the same issue, pp. 48-53.

G. Douglas Atkins (essay date 1986)

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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 Criticism, already offers clear insight into a range of related issues. Here Pope treats not only reading but also language, the relation of language to thought, the relation of readers to texts, and much more. In discussing the Essay, I shall focus on this matter of relations, particularly the kinds of relation obtaining within the various differences that serve to structure the poem.


The remarkably rich commentary published on An Essay on Criticism both provides the occasion and prompts the desire to reread it. I begin with one of the strongest recent readings of the Essay, that by David B. Morris. Entitled “Civilized Reading: The Act of Judgment in An Essay on Criticism,” this study is important not only for its carefully considered argument that Pope's poem merits a place of some distinction in the history of literary theory but also for its own sensitive—and civilized—analysis of the poem as poem.1 As he perceptively focuses on the role of generosity in the poem and in the theory it elaborates, Morris reminds us of Pope's important use of the parts-whole problem,2 particularly in directing attention to the reader-text relationship thematized in An Essay on Criticism. Though he does not develop the point, Morris suggests that the poem, in discussing the act of reading, tells us how it itself is to be read.

Morris's account runs somewhat as follows: Interpreting pride as the virtual opposite of the generosity Pope advocates, Morris claims that the “effect of pride, within the context of Pope's Essay, is always a pressure toward partiality and fragmentation, blocking comprehensiveness of vision. In its pressure against wholeness, pride radically constricts understanding by attaching us to cherished opinions and to favored fragments.”3 Generosity plays the hero to the villain pride in this critical story, permitting the necessary attention to the whole. It makes possible “an equitable judgment by consciously rejecting whatever is incomplete and partisan.”4 Questions remain, however, as Morris recognizes. How, he asks,

can the critic gain access to the author's mental processes and undeclared purposes which are required for understanding the “Whole” work? Pope's answer to this difficult question is the power of sympathy. Sympathy, like friendship and virtue, is a necessary characteristic of the generous critic. As an aspect of generosity, it permits the critic to achieve a close emotional and intellectual kinship with the author under study: “No longer his Interpreter, but He.” The generous critic reads with a sympathetic understanding, which, when perfectly attuned, allows a presumptive reconstruction of authorial plans and purposes and processes which complement a judicious study of the text.5

In Pope's own words: “A perfect Judge will read each Work of Wit / With the same Spirit that its Author writ” (ll. 233-34). Even if the idea is parodied in A Tale of a Tub,6 all authors devoutly wish for such sympathetic involvement on the part of their readers.

This “civilized” position may be as attractive to readers as to authors. The call for generosity and sympathetic understanding suggests humanity as it entails a subordination of the individual (or to use Pope's term, the part) to the whole, a giving of the self to something outside and larger. Certainly it is consonant with Pope's thematic focus, not only in An Essay on Criticism but also in An Essay on Man and the later Dunciad, as well as with his insistence on the moral qualities of the poet, all of which links him to that humanism that Aubrey Williams and others have ably described. As Morris argues, the task that Pope holds out for readers is the difficult one of subordinating oneself to and melding with the “Spirit” of the author. This “generous” position perhaps calls to mind what I wrote in the opening chapter concerning the need to attend to authorial declarations, first of all reading with the grain. But if the parallel initially appears close between the two positions, it soon ends, since I go on to propose what is evidently contrary to Pope's theory. Indeed, the opposite of such generosity of spirit as Pope advocates would seem to be not only the partiality, prejudice, and pride that he explicitly condemns but also the (apparently) correlative effort I manifest, whereby, after first attending to authorial declarations, we proceed to read against the grain. If the strategy I labeled, immodestly enough, reader-responsibility criticism first reads “With the same Spirit that [the] Author writ,” it later sets out deliberately to violate that spirit. Ungenerously perhaps, it turns against the “Spirit” with which the author wrote, reading contrary to it, in fact.

If we read deconstructively, proceeding as I have urged, are we not then implicated in and convicted of the pride that Pope attacks? An answer to that question may not be so easy as supposed by those polemicists who regard “speculative” or “creative” criticism, and deconstruction in particular, as proud and overbearing, if not actually Satanic. This is not the place to debate the issue, but in passing I direct attention to, among other contexts for understanding deconstructive strategies and desires, Richard A. Lanham's account of “the rhetorical ideal of life,” defined as both dramatic and competitive.7 Here I shall argue that if we limit our reading of An Essay on Criticism to Pope's own declared “Spirit” and the principles he supports, we will not only miss much but also end with at best a partial—and impoverished—sense of the considerable achievement that is the Essay. At the same time, I insist that Pope has much to teach all readers about reading, including deconstructionists and traditional scholars. Reading “With the same Spirit that [the] Author writ” remains essential (at least as a first “step”).


I begin with what we might call, borrowing terms from Pope, the poem's “Gen'rous Converse” (l. 641). This phrase, which the Twickenham Edition glosses as “well-bred intercourse,” occurs toward the end of An Essay on Criticism as Pope describes the “ideal critic,” one who, while avoiding the pride and partiality the poet has lashed, bodies forth those qualities he has praised throughout. “Unbiass'd” and “Blest with a Taste … unconfin'd,” the “ideal critic” enjoys “A Knowledge both of Books and Humankind” (ll. 633, 639-40). A whole person himself, in other words, such a critic effects an intercourse between qualities not always found combined in one man: he is “Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know,” and “Tho' Learn'd, well-bred; and tho' well-bred, sincere; / Modestly bold, and Humanly severe” (ll. 632, 635-36).

An Essay on Criticism works toward a similar wholeness, blurring some distinctions too easily assumed to be absolute and seeking “Gen'rous Converse” between the various dichotomies it develops, including wit/judgment, poetry/criticism, sense/sound, and thought/language. The exacting scholarship on the poem has, of course, long pointed to the complementariness Pope works hard to establish between the poles of such dichotomies. Characterized by an apparent flexibility and a preference for “the complications rather than the simplifications of artistic truth,” Pope's poem may be said “to harmonize the extremes and variables of critical thinking,” aiming toward a “critical synthesis” and “the reconciliation of conflicting critical moods.”8 Complementariness, as well as generosity, appears when Pope declares, for instance, that “The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense” (l. 365) and that “The gen'rous Critick fann'd the Poet's Fire” (l. 100). Similarly, to take one more example, Pope writes that, even if “often … at strife,” wit and judgment are “meant each other's Aid, like Man and Wife” (ll. 82-83).

Pope's entire effort in the Essay may stem from a perceived threat to such “Gen'rous Converse,” That is, Pope addresses situations, mainly critical ones, of course, where complementariness has deteriorated into opposition. Thus he charges, for example, that if in a better past “The gen'rous Critick fann'd the Poet's Fire, / And taught the World, with Reason to Admire,” the present is different, indeed “fallen”:

Then Criticism the Muse's Handmaid prov'd,
To dress her Charms, and make her more belov'd;
But following Wits from that Intention stray'd;
Who cou'd not win the Mistress, woo'd the Maid;
Against the Poets their own Arms
they turn'd,
Sure to hate most the Men from whom they learn'd.

[ll. 102-7]

Against such antagonism Pope directs his efforts in the Essay, not only arguing, as we have already glimpsed, that wit and judgment are bound together, but also demonstrating that fact in writing criticism as poetry.

Noticing such attempts to effect complementary relations between dichotomous pairs, we approach an intellectual controversy that serves as a crucial backdrop against which An Essay on Criticism should be read. As is apparent in Pope's criticism of various tendencies to separate wit and judgment, language and thought, he challenges the attempts, in the work of philosophers and of members of the Royal Society alike, to drive a wedge between res et verba. As Aubrey Williams has written, “Slighting the theory that sense informs words, like the soul the body, the [seventeenth] century moves from Bacon's view that ‘words are but the images of matter’ to the Royal Society's repudiation of words in favour of things. From being the means to wisdom, words become obstacles, to knowledge.”9 The tendency to divorce words from things, leaving language only a secondary and decorative function, received powerful support from Peter Ramus's influential re-definition of rhetoric. Ramus diverted invention and disposition from rhetoric to logic, which left the former only the diminished duty of “gilding the matter, the function of mere ‘style’ and delivery.”10 In philosophers like Hobbes and Locke, the powerful drive to sunder words and things takes the form of a debate over the respective capacities of wit and judgment, though the result is the same: an implicit “trivialization of poetry itself.”11 In such philosophers, according to Williams, “the faculty of Wit and the figurative language it inspires are seen as unrelated to truth and real knowledge, to ‘things as they are.’ Since figurative language is of the essence of poetry, the denial of its ability to express truth is the denial of the value and dignity of poetry. At best, the main role of Wit or of poetry becomes (as in Ramistic theory) the mere ornamentation of those truths provided for it by the judgment.”12 Since the humanist considered “the ‘word’ as ‘wisdom’ expressed,” it was most important that any effort be confronted that would “empty eloquence of its wisdom, squeeze out of the word the thought it was believed to embody.”13 The way in which the humanist-rhetorical tradition regarded the word-thought relationship appears with particular clarity in the mid-century British Education, written by Thomas Sheridan, Swift's godson and father of the famous playwright. Stressing the “intimate connection between ideas and words,” Sheridan claims that “the union of the soul and body are [sic] not more necessary for any useful purpose in life, than the union of oratory and philosophy for their mutual welfare.” Somewhat more specifically, he writes, echoing Pope's particular concerns in An Essay on Criticism, that there is “such an intimate connection between ideas and words, language and knowledge, that whatever deficiency, or fault, there may be in the one, necessarily affects the other. … [May not the] corruption of our understandings [be owing] to those of our style? Are not our minds chiefly stored with ideas by words, and must not clearness or obscurity in the one, necessarily produce the same in the other?”14

In Dunciad IV, Pope presents as an accomplished fact the “decline of rhetoric into mere verbalism,”15 critic, schoolmaster, and Dulness herself joining together in proudly proclaiming that “on Words is still our whole debate” (l. 219) and that they thus wage “war with Words alone” (l. 178). In An Essay on Criticism it is, less dramatically, a real and present danger. Directly addressing the perceived threat to wit, poetry, and figurative language, Pope pointedly defines “True Wit” as

                                                            … Nature
to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er
so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd
at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind.

[ll. 297-300]

He is unsparing in lashing those who “unskill'd to trace / The naked Nature and the living Grace, / With Gold and Jewels cover ev'ry Part, / And hide with Ornaments their Want of Art” (ll. 293-96). Similarly, Pope rebukes those who “for Language all their Care express, / And value Books, as Women Men, for Dress” (ll. 305-6). Frequently employing the familiar metaphor of dress, which in fact becomes in the Essay the metaphor of metaphor, Pope follows a long and distinguished line of critics who so depict expression, Dryden, for one, writing that “expression … is a modest clothing of our thoughts, as breeches and petticoats are of our bodies.”16 In the Essay, Pope defines “true Expression” as that which, “like th' unchanging Sun, / Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon, / It gilds all Objects, but it alters none. / Expression is the Dress of Thought” (ll. 315-18).

Reading such declarations in the context of the humanist-rhetorical tradition and the various contemporary assaults upon it, Aubrey Williams finds only complementariness. For Pope, he maintains, words embody thought. On this argument, the same notion informs bodies, Nature itself, and “expression”; that is, just as Nature figures forth God, so,

In some fair Body thus th' informing Soul
With Spirits feeds, with Vigour fills the whole,
Each Motion guides, and ev'ry Nerve sustains;
It self unseen, but in th' Effects, remains.

[ll. 76-79]

Claiming that “the style is the man,” Williams evidently means that style, or “expression,” mirrors perfectly and reflects accurately what one is, just as words incarnate thought. By no means mere ornamentation (as Hobbes, Locke, and others had recently proposed), despite the inside/outside, contained/container dichotomies that the metaphor of dress implies, words and the expression they constitute are, in this rather “Christian” formulation, not detachable from thought, sense, and meaning, even if thought can somehow exist without, and precede, language.


But is the relationship one of embodiment and incarnation, as has been supposed? It is certainly true that at least at times in An Essay on Criticism Pope insists on the inseparability of thought and language, as well as of inside and outside. In one important passage, however, occurs a description establishing not the embodiment of preexistent thought in language but their interimplication. I refer to those verses in which Pope parallels poetry and painting, detailing the catastrophic effect of time on both media.17 As in one, so in the other, Pope declares; since we have only “failing Language,” “such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be”:

So when the faithful Pencil
has design'd
Some bright Idea of the Master's
Where a new World leaps out at his
And ready Nature waits upon his Hand;
When the ripe Colours soften and unite,
And sweetly melt into just Shade
and Light,
When mellowing Years their full Perfection give,
And each Bold Figure just begins to Live;
The treach'rous Colours the
fair Art betray,
And all the bright Creation fades away!

[ll. 482-93]

Though time initially exerts a positive effect on the artistic media, in fact mellowing “Colours” to “full Perfection,” they eventually “fade” and ultimately disappear. As the “Colours” do so, Pope admits, they “betray” and, indeed, un-create the art that they make. Such destruction is possible in written texts, “fair Art's” “Colours” being equally “treach'rous” in them, only if, of course, language and its figures do much more than enhance, dress, or gild thought. Rather than body forth a preexistent thought, “Colours” are inseparable from it because they create it.

But the interimplication described in this passage does not principally characterize the relationship that obtains between language and thought in the Essay. If it is not one of interimplication, it is not unproblematically of inseparable links, either. Consider carefully the frequent dress metaphor that we have already noted. This particular metaphor clearly suggests a dichotomy and, indeed, an opposition of words and thought, with the latter existing as the inside, the former the outside. This opposition appears in Pope's remark in 1726 in a letter to Broome that “the most poetical dress whatever, will avail little without a sober fund of sense and good thought.”18 Paralleling various comments in An Essay on Criticism, this statement points to a hierarchical opposition in which thought is not only depicted as distinct from language but also privileged as prior to its formulation and expression in language. As a “fund,” thought comes first, lies at bottom, and serves as ground. Repeating this familiar position, Williams writes that in the understanding of the humanist-rhetorical tradition “speech reproduced thought in words” (my italics).19 No matter the argument elsewhere concerning the inseparability of words and thought, this statement reveals not only the logo- and phonocentric privileging of speech but also the assumption that thought is distinct from, prior to, and possible apart from language.

Even if “'tis hard to say” (l. 1) what certain differences are and to make necessary discriminations, it is clear that Pope regards thought and expression as distinct, albeit related, entities. Consider, first, some lines I quoted earlier, perhaps Pope's clearest statement on the relationship of language and thought: “true Expression, like th' unchanging Sun, / Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon, / It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.”20 To echo Paul de Man writing in quite a different context, these lines must be read, not simply paraphrased.21 To begin with, note that, even if, in clearing, improving, and gilding the objects it shines upon, the sun does not “alter” those objects, it obviously changes their appearance and thus inevitably our perception of and reaction to them. With expression, in any case, the situation is different: to claim either that expression does not “alter” or that it does amounts to the same thing; it assumes that expression and thought or meaning are distinct and separable and that thought is prior to its “expression” in language.

Essentially the same position appears in the following couplet: “Launch not beyond your Depth,” Pope advises, “but be discreet, / And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet” (ll. 50-51). When read “analytically,” as de Man recommends, Pope's assumption emerges clearly: it is that such differences as those between sense and dulness are absolute and that, though at some point they meet, they remain distinct. If they meet at some point, it is only because they are absolute distinctions. Were they each other's différance, as Derrida has argued concerning all binary oppositions, they could not meet at a point. For Pope, clearly, the desire is to mark the place where meeting occurs, and his act of creating the opposition sets meaning in place and keeps it from what might truly permit “Gen'rous Converse” and fruitful (if not well-bred) intercourse.

There are, though, no clear, distinct, and absolute lines of demarcation between dulness and sense (which is not to say, of course, that they are indistinguishable). Meaning refuses to stay still and in place; instead, it skids, and so no “point” exists where sense or dulness is simply “itself” or where these differences meet as distinct entities, let alone oppositions. I am reminded of the blind/insightful Hack who comments in A Tale of a Tub upon “how near the frontiers of height and depth border upon each other,” how “one who travels the east [eventually runs] into the west,” and how “a straight line [is eventually] drawn by its own length into a circle.”22 It is not, then, that sense and dulness, like those other pairs of difference treated in An Essay on Criticism, are simply linked, for the idea of linking presupposes distinction and, ultimately, separation. Rather, they are always already interimplicated, bound together, and cross in a constant movement. That this is so, that meaning refuses to stay in place, becomes clear in the second verse of the couplet we are reading: “Mark,” Pope advises, “that Point.” A mark is, by definition, “a visible impression or trace upon something,” and “to mark” is, for example, not only to notice or to heed but also (therefore) to single out, to make distinct, to put a mark on, “to trace or form by or as by marks” (Random House Dictionary). If one marks a point, does that point exist prior to the act of marking? The point marked may be, in other words, constituted and brought into “being” by the mark. The mark is, of course, writing, and as mark, writing is creative in a manner and to an extent that Pope certainly does not declare. Pope's language establishes, however, that marking, that is, writing, is performative, as well as mimetic. Pope creates the point between sense and dulness.

Another couplet in the Essay makes even clearer the power of performance. I refer to lines 574-75, where Pope grants the performative nature of his own earlier claims that knowledge and “the Seeds of Judgment” are born with human being, though “by false Learning is good Sense defac'd” (ll. 20, 25): “Men must be taught as if you taught them not; / And Things unknown propos'd as Things forgot.” Rather than a faithful mirroring of reality, Pope's claims regarding inherent judgment and knowledge are propositions: one proposes that the unknown is what one knew but forgot. The inside thus loses its privileged status, for performance, supposedly an outside perhaps analogous to “dress,” emerges as creative in the same way as language.


The power of performance, as of language, appears in the textual description woven by An Essay on Criticism. Pope's declarations, however, constitute quite a different story. They tell, often at least, not of a complementary relationship, as has been claimed, but of a particular kind of ungenerous relationship between thought and language. That relationship Derrida depicts as characteristic of our familiar dichotomies. “In a classical philosophical opposition,” he writes, “we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand.” Crucial to dichotomies, according to Derrida, is “the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition.”23

The dichotomies that structure An Essay on Criticism participate fully in the situation that Derrida describes. Not only thought/language but also sense/sound, wit/judgment, poetry/criticism, and (hardly surprising) whole/part reflect this characteristic hierarchical and oppositional structure. Thus, if in “proper” poetry, “The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense,” the latter is privileged, given priority (both metaphorically and literally), and made dominant over sound, whose function is simply to repeat. The relationship Pope stresses between parts and whole captures that operative in the other dichotomies. That is, as he does later in both An Essay on Man and Dunciad IV, where the issue also figures prominently, Pope reverses the hierarchizing that installs a favorite part in the privileged position: “Most Criticks,” he writes in An Essay on Criticism, “fond of some subservient Art, / Still make the Whole depend upon a Part” (ll. 263-64). What matters, Pope insists, “Is not th' Exactness of peculiar Parts; / 'Tis not a Lip, or Eye, we Beauty call, / But the joint Force and full Result of all” (ll. 244-46). The part must, then, sacrifice itself and submit to the whole.

Even if at first it appears generous and complementary, the relationship of wit and judgment is characterized by the same hierarchical structure. Though Pope claims that they are “meant each other's Aid, like Man and Wife,” he precedes this complementary account with the somewhat less generous statement that wit contains within itself the judgmental faculty or ability: “Some, to whom Heav'n in Wit has been profuse, / Want as much more, to turn it to its use” (ll. 80-81). That judgment is thus subordinated to wit is perhaps even clearer in the version of these lines that appeared in the poem from 1711 to 1743: “There are whom Heav'n has blest with store of Wit, / Yet want as much again to manage it.” Unlike Hobbes and Locke, as well as certain of Pope's enemies who decried the alleged confusion in these lines, he obviously refuses to divorce wit and judgment. But the relationship between them is not so generous as is sometimes supposed.

Nor is that between poetry and criticism. As we have seen, Pope declares the complementariness between them: in ancient Greece, at least, “The gen'rous Critick fann'd the Poet's Fire.” But if “Criticism the Muse's Handmaid prov'd, / To dress her Charms, and make her more belov'd,” its function was nevertheless subordinate, subservient, and so parallel to that involving expression and thought. The dress metaphor establishes criticism as, like language and expression, an outside whose task is to enhance an inside. Criticism thus seems marginal.

Pope himself is, of course, writing criticism, but he does so—the obvious perhaps bears repeating—in poetic form, which indicates the privilege he affords poetry. Just as wit includes judgment, so poetry thus encompasses criticism. Indeed, from the beginning of the Essay, Pope contends that only those skilled in writing (poetry) should evaluate writing or teach others how to write: “Let such teach others who themselves excell,” Pope declares, “And censure freely who have written well” (ll. 15-16). Writing well is, then, for Pope a necessary license for a critic. In this regard, the ideal is Horace:

He, who Supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg'd with Coolness tho' he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.

[ll. 657-60]

Moreover, in writing criticism, Pope brings together wit and judgment, exhibiting wit in performing the critical function and demonstrating—indeed, embodying—the proper way to make critical judgments. As a matter of fact, Pope draws in the attributes of the “ideal critic,” amassing to himself the qualities he praises. If any doubts remain that the “speaking voice” of An Essay on Criticism embodies those features Pope singles out as crucial in a critic, they are surely dispelled as he ends the poem with an explicit account of himself. Acknowledging the support of his friend Walsh, Pope recalls the earlier portrait of the “ideal critic”:

The Muse, whose early Voice you taught to Sing,
Prescrib'd her Heights, and prun'd her tender Wing,
(Her Guide now lost) no more attempts to rise,
But in low Numbers short Excursions tries:
Content, if hence th' Unlearn'd their Wants may view,
The Learn'd reflect on what before they knew:
Careless of Censure, nor too fond
of Fame,
Still pleas'd to praise, yet
not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to Flatter, or Offend,
Not free from Faults, nor yet too
vain to mend.

[ll. 735-44]

Made clear in the poem's ethical appeal is Pope's intention to achieve in and by means of it what he describes Longinus as accomplishing:

          Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,
And bless their Critick with a Poet's Fire.
An ardent Judge, who Zealous in his
With Warmth gives Sentence, yet is
always Just;
Whose own Example strengthens all
his Laws,
And Is himself that great Sublime he draws.

[ll. 675-80]

The ideal is, then, inside An Essay on Criticism. The implications of this fact require careful consideration, especially as they bear on the parts/whole relationship. That fact, in turn, is related to the way the poem imperialistically seeks closure and totality. The Essay not only tells us how it is to be read (with the “Spirit” with which Pope wrote, properly subordinating parts, however interesting and compelling in themselves, to the whole), but it also closes in upon itself, reflexively. What is involved as a result we need now to consider.

As it aggrandizes, privileges, and celebrates poetry, An Essay on Criticism becomes what Cleanth Brooks has called, referring to another poem, “an instance of the doctrine which it asserts.” Like Donne's “The Canonization,” which Brooks discusses, the Essay, in other words, “is both [an] assertion and the realization of the assertion.”24 If we read the poem, as Pope evidently intends, as a self-reflexive embodiment of its own theoretical principles and thematic assertions, we perform, according to Jonathan Culler, the critical move “in which the text is shown to describe its own signifying processes and thus said to stand free as a self-contained, self-explanatory aesthetic object that enacts what it asserts.”25

For the New Criticism, of course, whose contribution to Pope studies has been quite impressive, a poem's performance, dramatization, or embodiment of its own doctrines and themes signals its wholeness, totality, and “organic unity.” Brooks's image for the free-standing, complete aesthetic object, which almost religiously fuses being and doing, is, of course, the well-wrought urn. Against such a possibility, Derrida, de Man, and others have recently mounted compelling arguments denying that discourse can ever fully account for itself, or become present to itself, in an act of self-referentiality or self-possession. Performative and constative, doing and being, it has been claimed, cannot coincide. Either an excess or a lack always prevents closure.

Why this is so, and one reason (out of two or three we shall consider) why An Essay on Criticism does not achieve the closure and totality it seeks, becomes clear with the help of Culler's discussion of Brooks's essay on “The Canonization.” Culler shows how, in Donne's poem, an excess prevents it from closing itself in. With “The Canonization”—the point applies equally to An Essay on Criticism—the excess occurs in the poem's becoming what it asserts and thematizes. The apparent unity and totality that Brooks labels a well-wrought urn exceeds “itself,” for in celebrating itself as whole, the poem incorporates into what it is that very celebration. It may even be, as Culler claims, that “if the urn is taken to include the response to the urn, then the responses it anticipates … become a part of it and prevent it from closing.”26 At any rate, a self-reflexive text like An Essay on Criticism becomes other than—because more than—that whole it celebrates itself for being. Produced is self-difference: as Culler puts it, “The structure of self-reference works in effect to divide the poem [from] itself.”27

Such self-reflexivity as characterizes Pope's Essay is produced by folds, by the poem's folding back upon itself, trying to fold itself up. When a text engages in such an effort, as Derrida has shown, “it creates … an ‘invaginated pocket,’ in which an outside becomes an inside and an inner moment is granted a position of exteriority.”28 Invagination Derrida defines as “the inward refolding of la gaine [sheath, girdle], the inverted reapplication of the outer edge to the inside of a form where the outside then opens a pocket.”29 The process of invagination is so complex that Derrida proceeds to “situate the place, the locus, in which double invagination comes about, the place where the invagination of the upper edge on its outer face …, which is folded back ‘inside’ to form a pocket and an inner edge, comes to extend beyond (or encroach on) the invagination of the lower edge, on its inner face …, which is folded back ‘inside’ to form a pocket and an outer edge.”30 Adopting Derrida's formulation, we might say that when An Essay on Criticism seeks to do and be what it describes and advocates, folding back upon itself, it creates an invaginated pocket. The outside thus becomes an inside, but if the outside comes inside, the inside is, then, not simply an inside. Nor is the outside merely an outside. As Derrida writes, putting the copula “under erasure,” “The Outside Is the Inside.”31 The implications should be clear as well for such oppositions as thought and expression, which enlist under the inside/outside figure. Since the parts of such dichotomies function not as opposed absolute distinctions but as each other's différance, a “trace” of the “one” always inhabiting the “other,” there is no point at which completion or closure is or can be attained.

One need not, however, subscribe to Derrida's deconstructive insights (as compelling as they seem) to reach the same conclusion. From quite another angle, in fact, we can appreciate how An Essay on Criticism fails to achieve wholeness and closure. Recall, to begin with, that as David B. Morris and others have suggested, the Essay instructs the reader in how to read it. But if it does so, in one sense as writing it violates its own instruction in reading. Despite, that is, Pope's reiterated insistence that the reader “Survey the Whole,” the poem fails to do what it asks the (its) reader to do: it does not subordinate all its parts to the whole. Indeed, the Essay as we have it could not have been written on Pope's declared principles, and if it is read only according to them, as Morris for one suggests, much is missed—so much that Pope himself obviously relishes. The point has to do with the purposiveness/play opposition that Pope sets up, and the best example of what amounts to a subversion (or deconstruction) of that opposition as well as of the whole/parts hierarchy occurs, ironically enough, in the poem's second section (lines 201-559). I say “ironically” because the whole/parts opposition is itself the center of discussion and in fact the organizing principle of the entire section, serving to link the seemingly disparate topics treated. Here the pyrotechnical display of wit and “expressiveness,” offered by an ambitious young poet, calls attention to itself, with the effect that the reader inevitably looks at it, rather than through it to some putative whole to which it contributes and supposedly submits.32 Interestingly, just before he discusses and demonstrates the “expressiveness” poetry can achieve, Pope criticizes those “Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear, / Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair, / Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there” (ll. 341-43). I quote the most strong-willed and unsubmissive lines:

These Equal Syllables alone
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call
a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness 
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd
like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rock's
vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words
move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours
the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the

[ll. 344-73]

These verses obviously problematize Pope's criticism of those who privilege language, conceits, numbers, and so forth, sacrificing a poetic whole to such parts. They in fact become excessive, Pope's own “part” here refusing, despite his repeated declarations, to subordinate itself to a reigning purposiveness. A purpose does, of course, exist for Pope's display of “expressiveness,” but no such purpose can account for the extent of that effort. Like the Alexandrine Pope ridicules, at least much of what he writes in the quoted verses is “needless.” In them, at least, play triumphs over simple purposiveness. But I do not suggest that this play represents some failure of critical judgment, that Pope “wanted, or forgot, / The last and greatest Art, the Art to blot” (Epistle to Augustus, ll. 280-81). Far from it; failure to appreciate the excess the lines represent is an impoverishment of Pope's achievement, which transcends any simple sense of unity and wholeness. One final point: The view of language implicit in this “excessive” passage differs from that Pope declares in the poem. Whereas he generally privileges thought and sense over “expression” and sound, here, in looking at rather than through language, he approaches the Dunces' concentration on words as such.


Of course, as we have seen, Pope typically reverses the hierarchy being established by philosophers and scientists and privileges wit at the expense of judgment, poetry at the expense of criticism. Yet at the same time he elevates thought above language and “expression,” which contradicts the “at” view of language implied in the long passage I just quoted. Indeed, the privileging of thought looks in a direction different from that implied in the privileging of wit and poetry; it looks away from poetry, in fact, and toward philosophy, the very position Pope is concerned in the Essay to confront and repudiate. Does Pope end up, then, doing what he indicts others for doing, threatening the very existence of poetry, in spite of himself?

The answer, confusingly enough, seems to be both yes and no. That is, an answer depends on whether you refer to the declaration or the (different) description. It would, I believe, be an oversimplification as well as a distortion to assume, therefore, that the equivocation or ambiguity results from Pope's immaturity, lack of control, or intellectual confusion, with all of which he has been (unfairly) charged and damned. The bottom line is that An Essay on Criticism equivocates; more, it oscillates, from one position to its supposed opposite. Even if such equivocation and oscillation are both more prominent and more blatant than in certain other texts, equivocation characterizes all texts, though the particular features and operation differ considerably. And even if Hamlet claims that “equivocation will undo us” (V.i.120-21), equivocation may be unavoidable.

Most important to grasp is the essential structure in all such oppositions as function in the Essay and Western thinking generally: the opposed pairs are not separable and distinct but interimplicated. Lest some misunderstanding remain, I repeat what the best scholarship on An Essay on Criticism has long maintained: at the “level” of declaration, Pope refuses to divorce wit and judgment, poetry and criticism, thought and expression. At the same time, however, the relationship between the “poles” in each dichotomy is not altogether complementary or simply generous. In each instance, in fact, a hierarchy appears, Pope normally reversing the privilege that at the time was being increasingly accorded to judgment and straightforward, referential language. With the dichotomy thought/language, however, Pope seems, in spite of his declarations to the contrary, on the side of his philosophical and scientific opponents. The latter position becomes clear through the kind of close reading that takes us beyond or behind Pope's declarations to the “counter” story being told by the textual description and that leads us not simply to a confirmation of Pope's declarations (i.e., oppositional terms are not separable) but to a position different from the declared one: namely, that the oppositional terms are not distinct but, rather, related as each other's différance. It is not, then, that wit and judgment can be combined and should be in order to prevent certain disastrous consequences. Rather, they always already are related, bound together, a “trace” of the “one” inevitably appearing in and inhabiting the “other.”


  1. David B. Morris, Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).

  2. I have elsewhere discussed the prominence of this problem in the Essay, especially the way it structures the second section; see “Poetic Strategies in An Essay on Criticism, Lines 201-559,” South Atlantic Bulletin, 44 (1979), 43-47.

  3. Morris, Alexander Pope, p. 67.

  4. Ibid., p. 68.

  5. Ibid., p. 69. The quotation is from Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, An Essay on Translated Verse (1684).

  6. See the Hack's advice that “whatever reader desires to have a thorough comprehension of an author's thoughts, cannot take a better method, than by putting himself into the circumstances and postures of life, that the writer was in upon every important passage as it flowed from his pen, for this will introduce a parity and strict correspondence of ideas between the reader and the author” (Jonathan Swift, “Gulliver's Travels” and Other Writings, ed. Louis A. Landa [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960], p. 265).

  7. See Lanham's recent books The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976) and Literacy and the Survival of Humanism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983). I do not mean to imply that Lanham is a deconstructionist, only that he and the rhetorical tradition he defines have affinities with deconstruction. Viewed in the light of Lanham's discussions, the refusal to rest satisfied with purposiveness alone is simply characteristic of the “rhetorical ideal.”

  8. Aubrey Williams, ed., Pastoral Poetry and “An Essay on Criticism,” the first volume of the Twickenham Edition of the Poems (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 212, 209.

  9. Aubrey Williams, Pope's “Dunciad”: A Study of Its Meaning (1955; n.p.: Archon, 1968), pp. 114-15. This classic study provides a valuable account of background pertinent to the Essay as well as to Pope's last major poem.

  10. Ibid., p. 115.

  11. Williams, ed., Pastoral Poetry and “An Essay on Criticism,” p. 217.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Williams, Pope's “Dunciad,” p. 112.

  14. Thomas Sheridan, British Education (London, 1769), pp. 107, 217, 220; quoted in Williams, Pope's “Dunciad,” pp. 113-14.

  15. Williams, Pope's “Dunciad,” p. 112.

  16. Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), I, 193.

  17. Cf. Wendy Steiner, The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982).

  18. The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), II, 378.

  19. Williams, Pope's “Dunciad,” p. 112.

  20. For Derrida on “expression,” see, for example, Positions, pp. 31-33 and 45, and Margins of Philosophy, esp. pp. 157-73.

  21. de Man, Foreword to Jacobs, Dissimulating Harmony, esp. pp. ix-x.

  22. Swift, “Gulliver's Travels” and Other Writings, pp. 324-25.

  23. Derrida, Positions, p. 41.

  24. Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947), p. 17.

  25. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 138-39. I am indebted, in the next few pages, to Culler's always illuminating discussions.

  26. Ibid., p. 204.

  27. Ibid., p. 205.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Jacques Derrida, “Living On: Border Lines,” in Harold Bloom et al., Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Seabury, 1979), p. 97.

  30. Ibid., p. 98.

  31. This is the title of a section of the text Of Grammatology, pp. 44-65. Derrida both uses and crosses out the copula. See also Derrida's “The Supplement of Copula: Philosophy before Linguistics,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 82-120.

  32. Here I use, and am indebted to, Lanham's important distinctions. See note 7, above.

Rebecca Ferguson (essay date 1986)

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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 letters to the Blount sisters and to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Both the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and Eloisa to Abelard, published in that year, are unique among Pope's works in presenting a direct and sustained engagement in emotion, forging an empathy between the reader and the ‘narrator’ of each poem which is not qualified by any dimension of irony; in this respect, they should be seen as complementary works. Byron's extravagant eulogy of Eloisa (‘if you search for passion, where is it to be found stronger?’)2 is reflected more soberly in Pope's letter of March 1716 to Martha Blount, in which he refers to the composition of the poem pointedly as though it embodied his own emotions:

I am here studying ten hours a day, but thinking of you in spite of all the learned. The Epistle of Eloise grows warm, and begins to have some Breathings of the Heart in it, which may make posterity think I was in love. I can scarce find it in my heart to leave out the conclusion I once intended for it.3

For Pope, the aim of both poems is to engage the reader sympathetically in their fluctuations of emotion,4 and in this affective and psychological emphasis their Ovidian cast is dominant; the influence is particularly striking in Eloisa to Abelard, which is closely modelled upon Ovid's Heroides.5 Alongside their affective emphasis, however, it is equally significant that Pope chose to moralise the Ovidian theme of love betrayed, to introduce what he terms in the ‘Argument’ to Eloisa ‘the struggles of grace and nature, virtue and passion’; these key terms express interests which are greatly elaborated in his hands, and the overall movement of both poems is designed to embody a crisis of values as well as an urgent emotional response. This synthesis has raised difficulties for the interpreter; the affective bias of Eloisa in particular seems to heighten its moral ambiguity, since through the dramatic vacillations between ‘virtue and passion’ Pope has been taken to draw the reader's sympathies towards irreconcilable values. There is no clear resolution to Eloisa's struggles, and thus the final significance of her dilemma has been the subject of some contention among recent critics, many of whom feel that the poem must reach a point of conclusion within its own moral terms.6 My central concern in this discussion is to consider the relationship between the moral framework and the emotive aim of both the Elegy and Eloisa, and in particular the correspondence of the human and the divine explored in each.

As one would expect from their Ovidian cast, both poems are especially sharply focused upon the experience of loss, which is encountered as a crisis in psychological and ethical terms, and death also provides the final perspective in both. However, Pope's deepening of these themes can perhaps best be characterised by observing that the subject of each of these poems is not so much the extinguishing of passion as its abiding potency and its value; the meaning of passion is explored in each with a dual emphasis on its overwhelming force in human nature and on its apparent tenuousness in the face of eternity. Thus the terms ‘virtue and passion’ set in relation to one another are crucial to both; Eloisa is directly engaged in the striving between Christian dictates and the dictates of her own nature, both of which call forth seemingly contradictory claims for what might be termed ‘virtue’, sacrifice and endurance, and although for the ‘Unfortunate Lady’ that crisis has already been resolved by suicide, the poet engages himself in these issues anew in a passionate defence of her heroism. It is the mind of the speaker which absorbs our attention and directs our responses throughout, and we are immediately made aware that his emotion is pitted against a very different, hostile order of values. Two aspects of the Elegy thus assume particular importance; the nature of the poet's close relationship to the Lady, and the view of her action of suicide (the subject of some outrage to Dr Johnson)7 which he puts forward.

It is the final verse-paragraph of the Elegy which overtly draws our attention to the poet, presenting a meditative close in which he resolves his diatribe against the Lady's persecutors to reflect upon his own mortality. D.C. Mell has argued cogently that the poem, following the theme of Lycidas, finally turns to the subject of the artist's own power of imagination and the tenuous standing of his creation, and that the wider problem encountered is that of universal impermanence.8 But he also acknowledges the central point of contrast with Milton's perspective, and that is the focus on the individual death of the Lady and the specific circumstances of her death from which these reflections take their root; it is the intensity and rhetoric of the poem, and the dramatic images of the Lady herself, which make the most forceful impression on the reader. The very extravagance of this intensity has led Howard Weinbrot to the doubtful suggestion that Pope meant to cast the ‘poet’ as the Lady's lover, fulminating against the hypocrisy of her relatives and of the established Church in a vain attempt to exorcise his own justified guilt at her death, an argument which serves to distance the emotionalism of the writing.9 The proposition is surely untenable, yet it does point towards what I would see as a carefully subdued intimation of love on the part of the poet for the Lady; for the greater part of the poem the reader is indeed held in doubt as to the speaker's identity and hence as to the grounds of his close concern in the Lady's fate. And it is through this intimation, consistently held in abeyance, that the closing verse-paragraph achieves a subtle and moving shift of tone and perspective; at that point the speaker comes forward in his personal identity as ‘poet’, whereas the lover is never mentioned within the poem at all. The poet here more firmly represents one who has a particular sensitivity to the Lady's plight and to the fact of her death, and the bond between them is such that he naturally relates the contemplation of her death to thoughts of his own mortality; the bond of mortality is thus in part a witness to the bond of humanity. We are left in no doubt that the Lady is ‘belov'd’ by the poet, but the meaning of the word as it appears in the final line is in fact more diffuse than before, and curiously more poignant. The poet has identified himself as the last feeling link between the Lady's memory and an indifferent world, and it is for this above all that we are made to feel that his voice is important. He does not emphasise his role as imaginative creator, or meditate upon the transience of his art as such, but upon the absolute finality of physical death and the rupturing of his tender and devoted relationship to the Lady as a consequence. The balanced half-lines which open the verse-paragraph are rhetorically structured to emphasise this fragmenting of a formerly close correspondence by the intervention of death:

Poets themselves must fall, like those they sung;
Deaf the prais'd ear, and mute the tuneful tongue.


Although that reflection has been raised to the abstract level, personal intimacy is again brought out in the lines which follow, stressing the painfulness of individual loss:

Ev'n he, whose soul now melts in mournful lays,
Shall shortly want the gen'rous tear he pays;
Then from his closing eyes thy form shall part,
And the last pang shall tear thee from his heart,
Life's idle business at one gasp be o'er,
The Muse forgot, and thou belov'd no more!


The poet's response is a magnanimity of tenderness rather than a recognition of duty; his is the ‘gen'rous tear’, in pointed contrast to the ‘mockery of woe’ already satirised in the world. In the pathos of this valediction, above all, the poem does indeed belong to the speaker.

Within the full range of the poem, the speaker's declamations are in a sense both personal and public, ‘sentiment in the heightened rhetorical style’,10 a fusion of voices which is particularly reminiscent of Ovid's manner. By this fusion, the Lady's own passion is as it were set forth on a public stage; she shares the fate of Ovid's heroines, of betrayal through ‘loving too well’, and as in the Heroides, ‘honour’ is an issue of vital concern. The conceptions of honour and of heroism towards which the poet guides us are unorthodox; Brower emphasises the predominantly ‘Roman’ ethos of the poem, the recognition of the dignity of suicide as an action demonstrating Stoic fortitude in the face of an intractable choice (here presented in terms of the choice between life-in-death rather than death-in-life). Yet this fortitude is impelled not by the Stoic's dispassionate rejection of life's fleeting values, but on the contrary by an acknowledged extremity of emotion; there is a deliberate complexity embodied in the lines which elevate and lament the Lady's actions:

To bear too tender, or too firm a Heart,
To act a Lover's or a Roman's


Passion and resolution are seen as closely analogous, and both are identified with a power of generous aspiration which is ambiguously referred to as ‘ambition’. Eloisa, in her outburst upon Abelard's enforced emasculation and retreat, makes a connection between the powers of love and of ambition in a relatively worldly sense:

There stern religion quench'd th'unwilling flame,
There dy'd the best of passions, Love and Fame.


and this conception seems to be distinguished from the clearly mundane and reductive ‘Fame’ (‘reputation’) of l. 80: ‘Fame, wealth, and honour! what are you to Love?’ The speaker of the Elegy takes up the issue of the Lady's ‘Ambition’, which has been invested in her capacity for overwhelming love and testifies to her heroism:

Why bade ye else, ye Pow'rs! her soul aspire
Above the vulgar flight of low desire?
Ambition first sprung from your blest abodes;
The glorious fault of Angels and of Gods:
Thence to their Images on earth it flows,
And in the breasts of Kings and Heroes glows!


The heterodoxy of this outcry is manifest, but the claim is made with a conviction and conscious daring which demand the reader's consent;11 the whole passage in its implications seizes on the contention of both the Elegy and Eloisa, that such greatness of spirit could not be merely a fortuitous and futile gift, but must in a mysterious way testify to the communion of the soul with heaven. The striking fusion of the Christian and pagan at l. 14 (‘The glorious fault of Angels and of Gods’) serves to strengthen the force of that contention. To accentuate the power of the passage, Pope contrives a shift of subject to the common order of the passive, lethargic world in satiric terms:

Most souls, 'tis true, but peep out once an age,
Dull sullen pris'ners in the body's cage:
Dim lights of life that burn a length of years,
Useless, unseen, as lamps in sepulchres;
Like Eastern Kings a lazy state they keep,
And close confin'd to their own palace sleep.


It is in fact the body which is said to blunt and constrict the soul of the unaspiring—the Lady's passions, far from having a fleshly bias (as her relatives and detractors might aver), bring about a sublimation above the ‘dregs’ of this earth and define the true quality of virtue. It is this concept of virtue, now tending towards the Platonic, which renders heaven the ‘congenial place’ of the soul rather than the haven forbidden to her in orthodox Christian terms; the reversal of values for which the poet argues extends to a redefining of the idea of salvation.

Passion and compassion are presented as naturally complementary, and the strength of compassion is matched by the strength of bitterness by which the Lady's enemies are as it were banished and exorcised. The poet's own compassion is imaginatively transposed to the ‘pitying sky’ and to the empathy of nature which adorns the grave: ‘There shall the morn her earliest tears bestow’ (l. 65). This universal tenderness has the power to transmute excommunication to a new sanctity, and death itself to a more serene and pervasive life than the living themselves can attain to. It is in fact the characteristic of the passionless living to be charged with death; the imagery of incarceration and the tomb at ll. 17-20 is trenchant, and rises to the retributive frenzy of death envisaged by the poet in his tirade against the persecutors (ll. 35-46):

So perish all, whose breast ne'er learn'd to glow
For others' good, or melt at others' woe.

By contrast, the second vision of the Lady herself (though at the point of death) is invested with all the attributes of vibrant life, and even of eroticism:

See on these ruby lips the trembling breath,
These cheeks, now fading at the blast of death:
Cold is that breast that warm'd the world before,
And those love-darting eyes must roll no more.


For the speaker, the pitch of his invective is in a sense cathartic and is gradually resolved into the conciliatory assurances to the Lady of ll. 47ff. and the resignation of the final paragraph; the structure of the Elegy, like that of Eloisa, is dominated by a succession of emotional responses brought out by a train of psychological association (the suggestion of ‘Race’ at l. 28 leads to the outburst of rage against the Lady's relatives, and her oblivion at l. 74 to the poet's own confrontation of death). Although the emotion is finally calmed, it is never in any final sense resolved into acceptance; unrequited loss remains the dominant theme, and above all the tragic forgetfulness which defines the moment and the meaning of death.

One feature of the Elegy which emerges most strongly is its structure as a poem of oppositions; varied oppositions are carefully woven into its developing imagery, expressing the dialectic of contradictory values within which the speaker voices his protest. The essence of this conflict could be expressed as a clash between the pagan, ‘Roman’ ethos invoked by the poet and the rigorous Christian doctrine by which his values (and the Lady's) are refuted, but such a reduction would I think be simplistic. The association of passion with ‘nature’, with kingliness and with liberty (ll. 15-22) is clearly of great importance, and in this the themes of the poem owe much to Ovid; at the same time, as ambition is shown to be ‘the glorious fault of Angels and of Gods’, so profound love is implicitly shown to be not only the attribute of ‘those who greatly think’ but also a link with the divine. Lines 67-8 positively suggest that the Lady's self-sacrifice will be uniquely acceptable to a ‘pitying’ heaven, identified at last with the Christian heaven, while charity is the quality conspicuously lacking in the Lady's guardian and his descendants, ‘whose souls the Furies steel'd’ and who are therefore cast into darkness. These inversions of the pagan and Christian within the dialectical framework of the Elegy are intended to be intellectually suggestive, turning upon the relationships (not the simple polarisation) of ‘grace and nature, virtue and passion’. This complexity is deepened still further in Eloisa to Abelard, which is based more overtly on an Ovidian model. It would be helpful in assessing the significance of the poem to consider briefly the treatment of Ovid in the hands of contemporary imitators and critics, and to examine more closely the qualities in Ovid which held Pope's interest.

Although Ovid's Epistolae Heroidum (Heroides) provided the formal model for Pope's Eloisa, his influence in Pope's work as a whole is widely diffused, reflecting Pope's youthful enthusiasm in translating ‘above a quarter of the Metamorphoses’.12 Joseph Spence, in the Anecdotes, makes note of Pope's early affection for Ovid (disapprovingly, as far as the Metamorphoses in particular are concerned) and describes some of his early poetic exercises as ‘imitations of the stories that pleased him most in Ovid’.13 Literary historians who have traced the fortunes of Ovid through the early eighteenth century emphasise the doubtful standing of his reputation, although the terms in which they account for the marked decline in his authority and popularity after about the mid-seventeenth century are inevitably vague and can only be summed up as an evident change of taste linked with Puritan and rationalist outlooks.14 Louise Vinge, however, in her study of the transformations of the Narcissus myth, stresses the very healthy number of translations of the Metamorphoses produced during the eighteenth century (the figures ‘exceed those of the previous century’),15 which should modify the impression that Ovid was altogether a neglected author, and burlesque treatments of Ovid were particularly flourishing. It seems clear than it is more specifically in the field of original serious literature that Ovid's influence pales, so that it becomes necessary to account for a prevalent unwillingness to adapt his work creatively to suit contemporary taste. An indication of one of the grounds of this unwillingness may be found in Addison's Spectator essay of 30 October 1712 (no. 523), in which he discusses the acceptability of myth to his age; here he takes a severe attitude to the use of ‘fable’ in the place of ‘Truth’, concluding with a mock injunction to any hopeful poets who may be contemplating writing an encomium:

I do hereby strictly require every Person, who shall write on this subject, to remember that he is a Christian, and not to sacrifice his Catechism to his Poetry. … In short, I expect that no Pagan Agent shall be introduced, or any Fact related which a Man cannot give Credit to with a good Conscience.

There was also a prevalent distrust of Ovid's ‘immorality’, a subject taken up by John Oldmixon in the ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ to his Amores Britannici (1703), an adaption of the Heroides to touching episodes in British history; he pleads that ‘I have taken Care, not to offend the Modesty of the Fair, and have banish'd those Sentiments, which as beautiful as they are in Ovid, wou'd be as dangerous to Manners, as agreeable for their Tenderness and Passion.’ In context, it is clear that there is an element of satire in his remarks, since he opens this paragraph with the observation that ‘these poems, may perhaps appear too Amorous in so Grave and so Wise an Age as this is’, but none the less he is forced on the defensive by public taste, which might question whether ‘those Sentiments’ are as appropriate to England in 1703 as they were to a pagan culture. Oldmixon does have the assurance to satirise Michael Drayton's adaption of the Heroides16 and Thomas Rymer's version of ‘Penelope to Ulysses’17 for their low style and descent into the burlesque, but he is careful to justify his own adaption of the Ovidian mode (following Drayton's example) to ‘our English History … to vary the Subject, and to instruct, as well as please, by this Variety’ (‘Epistle Dedicatory’).

If we turn to a more unreservedly sympathetic critic in Dryden (the ‘Preface’ to Jacob Tonson's 1680 edition of Ovid's Epistles, the collection to which Pope later added his Sapho to Phaon), we again find the charge of lasciviousness levelled at the ‘Elegies’ (Amores) and Ars Amatoria, but Dryden does go on to defend Ovid warmly as a poet of love:

yet this may be said in behalf of Ovid, that no man has ever treated the Passion of Love with so much Delicacy of Thought, and of Expression, or search'd into the nature of it more Philosophically than he … I know no Authour who can justly be compar'd with ours, especially in the Description of the Passions. … His thoughts … are the Pictures and results of those Passions.

He approves the Heroides above all as they are ‘tenderly passionate and courtly’, that is in so far as they treat of passion in a refined way. This defence is of great importance, and we may be certain that Pope would have read it with attention not only as the contributor of Sapho to Phaon but in view of Dryden's standing as a critic whose opinion carried great authority;18 perhaps the most suggestive claim of Dryden's critique is the view that the passion of love may be treated ‘Philosophically’ by a writer of perception, which implies that the analysis of emotion is as much a merit of Ovid as his power to be evocative.

From these comments, both reserved and commendatory, we can form some idea of the context informing Pope's reception of Ovid, and consider this in charting his steps ‘from translation to imitation, from imitation to creation’ (TE, [The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope,] I, 329). As the editors of Pope's early translations in the Twickenham Edition point out, his version of the ‘Polyphemus and Acis’ story from the Metamorphoses is marked by a refusal to descend into burlesque distortion and by a more ‘courtly’ tone; Pope is able to treat Ovid's myth seriously and with sympathetic engagement, and the same sympathy is more fully apparent in his rendering of the mysterious relationship between man and the natural world in the Vertumnus and Pomona translation (1712). The opening lines of this version (ll. 1-18) convey the idea of nature humanised as an innocent analogue to ‘Venus and the Nuptial Joy’, and the same consciousness underlies the latent eroticism embodied in natural description (ll. 59-62). The delicacy of the man/nature relationship is of course central to the Metamorphoses, and Pope's sensitivity in evoking the transformation of Dryope (The Fable of Dryope, 1717) is further evidence of his responsiveness to that concept; in an early letter to Henry Cromwell, he gives approval (after some prevarication) to the idea of ‘sensitive trees’ as ‘not only defensible, but beautiful’.19 These characteristics have some importance when we consider the suggestive effects of natural description in Eloisa to Abelard (written in the same year as the Vertumnus and Pomona translation). In a wider sense also, Pope finds means of infusing his poem with the imaginative dimension to which he is undoubtedly receptive in Ovid by giving full rein to the flights and range of Eloisa's ‘fancy’; hers is the power of the ‘visionary maid’ (l. 162), religious mystery and intensity of passion uniting within the psychological complexity which Pope explores.

It appears also that Pope was not especially perturbed by Ovid's alleged ‘lasciviousness’, as we may judge from one of his letters to Cromwell (July 1710):

I give you thanks for the Version you sent me of Ovid's Elegy. It is very much an image of that author's writing, who has an agreeableness that charms us without correctness, like a mistress whose faults we see, but love her with them all.20

Pope goes on in this letter to single out the eleventh Elegy of Book II, the eighth of Book III and the eleventh of Book III as ‘above all my particular favourites, especially the last of these’. The three which he has selected show Ovid developing a variety of modes: the first elegiac, a sustained lament at the pains of separation, the second satiric and cynical, dwelling upon the intrusion of materialism into the realms of free love, and the third a bitter dismissal of love succeeded by a contest of love and hate which is never fully resolved. Despite key differences of mood and attitude, it is this third choice of Pope's which is particularly interesting with relation to Eloisa to Abelard; the opening to the second section of this poem shows love's victim struggling vainly against the bewildering, contradictory forces of his own heart, a portrait which takes on some poignancy after the disillusionment expressed in the preceding section:

Luctantur pectusque leve in contraria tendunt
hac amor hac odium, sed, puto, vincit amor.
odero, si potero; si non, invitus amabo.

(‘Struggling over my fickle heart, love draws it now this way, and now hate that—but love, I think, is winning. I will hate, if I have strength; if not, I shall love unwilling.’)


sic ego nec sine te nec tecum vivere possum,
et videor voti nescius esse mei.

(‘Thus I can live neither with you nor without, and seem not to know my own heart's prayer’).


The poem provides a good example of Ovid's strength in exploring, not simply dominant moods, but the transition from one state of mind to another; Pope remarked upon Ovid's sense of design to Spence (Anecdotes, I, 226), probably following Dryden in referring to the principle of psychological movement which is so important in the Elegy and Eloisa. Further points which attracted his interest are well illustrated by his own translation of Sapho to Phaon, in which some of his striking elaborations are original, and a few derived from hints in Sir Carr Scrope's incomplete rendering, which had been first published in the 1680 edition of Ovid's Epistles.

The foremost feature of Pope's translation as against Scrope's is his heightening of the emotional tone to something less forced and freer in Ovid's manner, and that sense is reinforced when Pope boldly follows Ovid in making the erotic allusion of ll. 17-18 specific (Scrope evades these lines, and one of Cromwell's marginalia to the manuscript of Pope's version suggests that they should be suppressed for reasons of decency).22 Later Pope chooses to develop Ovid's passage describing sex (Ovid, ll. 43-50), in a style of hyperbole:

In all I pleas'd, but most in what was best;
And the last Joy was dearer than the rest.
Then with each Word, each Glance, each Motion fir'd,
You still enjoy'd, and yet you still desir'd,
Till all dissolving in the Trance we lay,
And in tumultuous Raptures dy'd away.


There are hints which link this rendering with Scrope's (cf. TE, I, 342-3), but altogether the effect is more direct than the more highly wrought Scropian manner, particularly in ll. 59-60 which attempt to convey a sense of urgency rather than of brooding sensuality. Pope heightens the idea of rapturous intensity far more than Ovid does, adding l. 58, emphasising by rhyme ‘fir'd’ and ‘desir'd’, and following Scrope in transforming Ovid's ‘ubi amborum fuerat confusa voluptas’ (49) into ‘all dissolving … / … in tumultuous Raptures', and it is in this stress on the very highest peaks of physical and emotional experience that there emerges a language closely bordering on the language of the spiritual. It is not incongruous to find Pope in the Essay on Man (I.278) setting forth the idea of angelic love as rapturous and consuming rather than serene, and the blending of the two orders of experience is brought out most clearly in comparing ll. 95-106 of Sapho to Phaon with Eloisa ll. 61-8, both of which share a language of adulation and hyperbole which embraces the ideas of sexual and spiritual love. For Sapho as for Eloisa this quality of experience is closely linked to the strength of imagination; Eloisa declares that in the first dawning of her love for Abelard ‘My fancy form'd thee of Angelick Kind’ (61) and in the dream-passage of Sapho (ll. 145-58), which does of course have vital relevance to the parallel passage of Eloisa (ll. 223-48), it is by the agency of ‘Fancy’ that the ‘visionary Charms’ are called to life in despite of physical absence. Ovid treats the dream more as an externalised apparition which arrives to comfort Sapho and then deserts her (l. 125: ‘illic te invenio …’), whereas Pope's interest in ‘Fancy’ leads him to retain the concept introduced in Scrope's version, ll. 64-5: ‘The dear deluding Vision to retain / I lay me down, and try to sleep again.’ Pope makes more dramatic use of the idea again in Eloisa ll. 239-41, where although Eloisa finds herself bereft of the power to invoke the ‘visionary’ her will is striving towards that power and the role of the imagination in achieving the fulfilment of desires denied by the world is selfconsciously understood.

This interest in the psychological complexity of love moves Pope to accentuate its central importance even more (if possible) than Ovid does; in ll. 73-80 he omits many of Ovid's details concerning Sapho's lifetime of suffering as an undesirable distraction from the central concern, and likewise at ll. 19-20 he abridges Ovid's enumeration of Sapho's former Lesbian loves into two lines:

All other Loves are lost in only thine,
Ah Youth ungrateful to a Flame like mine!

This could of course be an evasion for reasons of decorum, but since Pope has already not scrupled to be explicit regarding the ‘dear objects of my guilty Love’ (l. 18), that explanation seems inadequate. Instead we may suppose that Pope does not wish to divert the reader's attention from the overwhelming strength of Sapho's love, a strength of which she herself seems conscious with more assumed dignity than Ovid's reproachful Sapho (‘improbe, multarum quod fuit, unus habes’, l. 20); the force of Pope's ‘a Flame like mine’ brings to mind Eloisa's claim for pre-eminence in love: ‘[may] Saints embrace thee with a love like mine’ (l. 342). Another change in mood is the softer despair conveyed in Pope's ‘heav'nly Looks, and dear deluding Eyes’ (l. 22) in place of Ovid's more fierce ‘o facies oculis insidiosa meis!’ (l. 22). Pope continually exploits the source of pain which lies at the heart of Sapho's complaint, that love has the force to transform the soul irremediably from its former peace and self-sufficiency, preventing any return to former pleasures and comforts; Sapho's heightened lament of ll. 51-2 is centrally the source of anguish to Eloisa:

No time the dear Remembrance can remove,
For oh! how vast a Memory has Love?

The slightly altered phrase at l. 7, translating Ovid's ‘flendus amor meus est’ (7) as ‘Love taught my Tears in sadder Notes to flow’, also contains the seeds of the idea that love comes as a form of knowledge, and with this concept the presence of ‘shame’ (central throughout the Heroides) assumes great significance. Pope retains Scrope's rearrangement of lines 135-42 to give the full weight to Ovid's ‘non veniunt in idem pudor atque amor’ (121), ‘Such inconsistent things are Love and Shame!’. Equally interesting is Pope's couplet on the ‘shame’ of Sapho at her erotic vision, in which there seems to be a suggestion that guilt may actually testify to pleasure: ‘Then fiercer Joys—I blush to mention these, / Yet while I blush, confess how much they please!’ (ll. 153-4); by blushing, the ‘conscious Morn’ is also implicated in her guilt at l. 98. The distinction which might be drawn between private ‘guilt’ and public ‘shame’ does not in fact present the same acute dilemma for Sapho as for certain other Ovidian heroines (notably Dido, Canace, Phaedra, Deianira and Medea), whose sense of crime has as great a part in their anguish as the pain of loss. Pope's Eloisa shares all the intensity of Sapho's despair, but she shows also the more wilful recklessness which invites destruction as a necessary legacy of love; Oenone begs of Paris that he should ‘swiftly come to my undoing’ (‘ut venias in mea damna celer!’, Oenone Paridi, 58).

Pope is clearly interested in the force of an absolute commitment to love, and a generous triumph over the false dictates of shame, yet his handling of that concern is remarkable in bringing outbursts of defiant conviction into play beside Eloisa's very active sense of approaching spiritual damnation as well as personal guilt; her very insecurity gives emphasis to her capacity for heroism. The force of her will and her intellectual grasp on the nature of her dilemma are immediately apparent in relation to the conflict of love and honour as experienced by Ovid's Helen, for example, and if we note a further interesting analogy between her imaginary defence of Abelard from his attackers and Acontius' possessive frenzy in Ovid (Heroides, XX. 146-7), another distinctive dimension to her heroism is emphasised which will be discus sed more fully later, and that is her generosity in love. As with the Lady of the Elegy, sheer extremity of emotion can represent the feminine equivalent of valorous action, and the heroines of the Heroides undergo the fluctuations of response from high tragic passion to lachrymose despair which are so characteristic of Eloisa. Love, for the Ovidian heroine, is a complex force in that it absorbs all loyalties, all passions and all relationships into itself (compare Briseis Achilli l. 52: ‘tu dominus, tu vir, tu mihi frater est’, and Hermione Orestae l. 29: ‘vir, precor, uxori, frater succurre sorori!’, with Eloisa's ‘Come thou, my father, brother, husband, friend’ (1.152). Because of this there is a strong emphasis on passions conflicting in varying degrees of violence, and in Pope's Sapho to Phaon the syntax is very carefully balanced to stress oppositions of feeling:

I rave, then weep, I curse, and then complain,
Now swell to Rage, now melt in Tears again.


In adapting Eloisa to Abelard to the ‘heroical epistle’ form, however, Pope was introducing two essential deviations from the models of Ovid; he followed the path of Drayton and Oldmixon in treating of a known historical episode, and he introduced a Christian setting and morality in place of the pagan—the personification of Love at ll. 73-84 is the only significantly pagan reference of the whole poem. But as Pope gives the fullest possible scope to the range of Eloisa's imagination so he is able to heighten the very intensity of her passion and mental suffering by stressing the dilemma imposed upon her by Christian faith; this is not to argue that the Christian moral framework is of secondary importance within the poem, but the claims of religion cannot be approached by the reader except through the medium of Eloisa's intense feeling, and the nature of her response remains the focus of attention. Passion and imagination are so active throughout the poem that it becomes impossible to reach an objective vantage point from which to judge Eloisa's position. This greatly exalted interest in an acute moral dilemma clearly owes much to the ethos of the Restoration tragedies,23 in which love and heroism are closely identified and forge an alliance against the encroachments of a hostile (and sternly moralistic) world. One helpful analogy which can be drawn is suggested by Eric Rothstein in his study Restoration Tragedy: Form and the Process of Change (1967), in which he discusses the differences between the ‘heroic’ ethos of the earlier tragedies and the ‘pathetic’ of those which were written after the 1680s. With the movement towards pathetic tragedy comes a shift in values away from the high heroic ideals and the firm morality which attends them in favour of what Rothstein (p. 118) describes as a complex ethos of Epicureanism; there is a marked self-sufficiency on the part of the tragic hero or heroine which reflects the way in which ‘the plays are dominated by love, a refined hedonism’ (pp. 120-1). The morality thus entails a curious fusion of the Stoic and the Epicurean, emphasising self-reliance, and yet a prescriptive moralising emphasis is strikingly absent in the pathetic tragedies. There is, however, considerable emphasis on moral dilemma in the greatest of Otway's tragedies, and it is significant that Pope spoke to Spence with particular approval of his ‘two tragedies out of six that are pathetic’, observing that ‘'Tis a talent of nature rather than an effect of judgement to write so movingly’ (Anecdotes, I, 206).

A further point with important relevance to Pope's poem is that ‘pathetic tragedy gives the characters an imaginative, even poetic faculty that heroic heroes do not have’ (Rothstein, p. 134), and this faculty, which as I have already remarked is greatly intensified in Eloisa, is shown in its purest form in the projection of pastoral vision into the very heart of the drama. Rothstein isolates the pastoral ideal (which is always the exclusive province of the victimised protagonists) as again inherently Epicurean, depending upon the ‘exercise of the imaginative will’ and embracing a form of escape from the hostile environment of ‘necessity’ (p. 124). He relates the combined ideal of retirement and love to a passage of Aphra Behn's (cit. p. 122) treating of love in the Golden Age when pure reason was synonymous with ‘nature’ and love unrestrained by the invocation of artificial ‘Honour’. These ideals have a very close affinity with Eloisa's two imaginative projections of the ideal states of earthly love (‘When love is liberty, and nature, law’, ll. 92-8)24 and divine bliss (‘How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!’, ll. 206-22), and Brower (p. 80) points out the close link in phrase and thought between ll. 217-20 and Pope's pastoral Autumn, ll. 24-6. Eloisa's momentary breaking out of her dilemma to the terms of pastoral (she is brought immediately back to earth at l. 223) owes nothing to the Hughes translation of her letters25 and nothing directly to Ovid, but there is a significant allusion in her celebrated line, ‘The world forgetting, by the world forgot’ (208) to Horace's Epistle I.xi.9, on the retirement theme.26 It would seem that the immediate precedent for the ‘blameless Vestal’ passage may well be the conventions of the pathetic tragedy, although the ‘escape through imagination’ which the pastoral idyll offers to the protagonists of the drama is not fulfilled for Eloisa.

It is through the medium of Eloisa's imaginative consciousness that a pattern of suggestion is established which unobtrusively draws together on certain levels the apparently antithetical or disparate values of ‘grace and nature, virtue and passion’. By confronting the moral dilemma itself, Pope persuasively implies that such a rigid separation of ideals is by its very nature fraught with inconsistency; both David Morris and Henry Pettit27 have suggested that the terms of the Essay on Man, II. 81-6 have an important relevance to this false opposition, and, as different as the works are, the point is just. In reflecting on the oppositions between the erotic and the spiritual, eros and agape, the complexity of vision and values which Pope elaborates is deepened by the fact that the material of the Heroides and the content of Eloisa's letters from the Paraclete have remarkably close affinities, sometimes extending to very close parallels of detail. Eloisa's dream-vision of Abelard as related to Sapho to Phaon ll. 145-58 is one striking instance of this, as is the seeming coincidence of l. 152 (‘Come thou, my father, brother, husband, friend’), taken from the letters but already mentioned as a close echo of lines in Ovid. Both sources inevitably share a stress on lost experience and on importunate desires cruelly denied by circumstance, and although Eloisa's profound concern with salvation so deeply complicates the nature of her spiritual suffering, none the less we are constantly made aware that she, like Ovid's heroines, has been transformed by her experience of love and can only attempt to understand the nature of the world and of the spirit in terms of that overwhelming experience. Throughout the poem, however closely she approaches the resolution offered by divine love, it is never fully accepted as a compensation for the relinquishing of human feeling. Hughes speaks in the ‘Preface’ to the letters of the ‘most extravagant Passion’ which is their principal feature, and tempts the reader further with their ‘surprising Mixtures of Devotion and Tenderness, of Penitence and remaining Frailty, and a lively Picture of Human Nature in its Contrarieties of Passion and Reason, its Infirmities and its Sufferings’. Pope's drawing together of these observations into the succinct oppositions set forth in his ‘Argument’ to Eloisa subtly suggests a struggle which will take place on a higher idealistic plane; ‘grace’ and ‘virtue’ take the place of Hughes' ‘Devotion’ … ‘Penitence’ … ‘Reason’ (Pope was probably also thinking of Eloisa's fifth letter in the collection: ‘I am sensible of the Motions both of Grace and Passion, and by turns yield to each’, p. 200), and likewise ‘nature’ and ‘passion’ represent much more than ‘infirmities’ in his hands. The passion of Eloisa and Abelard is for Pope ‘unfortunate’; it is cut short by circumstance, and it is the force of irreversible circumstance that is most deeply felt in the convent and its setting. The delicate changes which Pope has made in his emphasis prepare us both for the force of aspiration and the driving intensity of despair to which he is so responsive.

The setting of the convent is used evocatively to express the heightened responsiveness of Eloisa's mind, a sensitivity which is accentuated by the condition of isolation, and which is brought into play from the moment when her memory of Abelard is reawakened. The ‘deep solitudes and awful cells’ to which she is confined bear an affinity with the Platonic ‘cave of the mind’, the source of oppressive memories and of the ‘lov'd Idea’ of sublimity. In its recesses lie the terrors of vacuity and of active nightmare, which are yet bound in with a mystic sense of the divine, and the poem dramatises the anguished fluctuations between these psychological extremes. Eloisa's consciousness is seen as intensely active; from Abelard's name alone, and from her own name inscribed in his letters, their ‘long train of calamities’ is recalled in all its potency and depth of emotional association, and emotion is transmuted by impulse into action (9-16), that is, the action of utterance in speech and writing, ambiguously distinguished in the poem. At certain key moments of crisis, Eloisa invokes her own name in the third person, which in itself represents a form of self-assertion; at such moments her name is made synonymous with the force of love, and within the rhetoric of the verses love is made synonymous with life itself. The tragic lament of l. 37, with its allusion to Dryden's version of Palamon and Arcite (‘Now warm in love, now with'ring in the grave’) associates sexual with physical death, and the elegiac note is restated in the lines which follow (39-40):

There stern religion quench'd th'unwilling flame,
There dy'd the best of passions, Love and Fame.

Hence the convent as ‘this last retreat’ embodies both death and the tomb, a burial in the self where no reciprocity is ossible. Likewise, emotion is presented metaphorically in physical terms as the essential vigour of the body, a conception which is brought out in figures of speech in the earliest lines of the lament: ‘What means this tumult in a Vestal's veins?’; ‘Nor pray'rs nor fasts its stubborn pulse restrain’.

Like Ovid's Hypermnestra, Eloisa takes comfort and strength from the mysterious power communicated by sympathetic grief, which in confinement can alone compensate for physical separation; Pope intensifies Eloisa's defence of this last remaining power to a degree which is expressed as devotional. This devotion is the more remarkable when we are reminded that Eloisa's incarceration in the convent is itself a sacrifice which she has chosen to make through love: ‘Sad proof how well a lover can obey!’ (172). The duty done to love is indeed a personal form of piety:

Tears still are mine, and those I need not spare,
Love but demands what else were shed in pray'r.


In this devotion Eloisa is extravagantly magnanimous (‘Ah more than share it! Give me all thy grief’), and both the warmth and the constancy of human dedication are in marked contrast to the forced and frozen enactment of Christian devotions; statues ‘learn to weep’, tears are ‘taught to flow in vain’. Constriction and deprivation exert an almost unbearable pressure on the mounting force of passion, not merely in the ‘gothic’ chill of the setting but in the emptiness of prayers unanswered; there is a double significance in Eloisa's outcry:

Relentless walls! whose darksome round contains
Repentant sighs, and voluntary pains.

For her at least, the acts of contrition are literally ‘contained’ in a cycle of futility, achieving no relation to any receptive presence outside the convent, and her confession of ll. 23-4 declaring the persistence of ‘rebel nature’ has something of the defiance of hopelessness (cf. Hughes, p. 129: ‘O Vows! O Convent! I have not lost my humanity under your inexorable Discipline!’). This sense of futility is above all contrasted to the felicity of human love, the greatest bliss being that of reciprocation:

All then is full, possessing, and possest,
No craving Void left aking in the breast:


It is Eloisa's emotional state, Brendan O'Hehir has argued, which is responsible for the ‘pathetic fallacy’ taking place at ll. 107-17 and again at l. 274, rhapsodies which he presents as visual distortions caused by her tears. Yet there is also an extraordinary reversal taking place in Eloisa's consciousness which makes the fallacy boldly double-edged in its implications. Eloisa's inspiration at both these moments is not her Christian piety but her devotion to Abelard and to the force of love:

Not on the Cross my eyes were fix'd, but you;
Not grace, or zeal, love only was my call.


Her avowal that ‘Saints with wonder heard the vows I made’ hence endows her love with a sanctity of its own in the very moment when it is ostensibly forsworn. Again, there is an underlying dignity and defiance in Eloisa's emphasis on her own passionate and enduring nature which greatly modifies the more confessional, ‘pathetic’ note which follows her evocation of ‘that sad, that solemn day’:

Still on that breast enamour'd let me lie,
Still drink delicious poison from thy eye,
Pant on thy lip, and to thy heart be prest;
Give all thou canst—and let me dream the rest.


The boldness with which Pope treats the passage extolling the freedom of love might be contrasted with the long discussion which is given to the issue in Hughes' introductory ‘History’, where he comments upon Eloisa's preference of love to marriage:

Indeed a Refusal of this Nature is so extraordinary a thing, that perhaps another Instance of it is not to be found in History. … It often happens that the Passion of Love stifles or over-rules the Rebukes of Conscience; but it is unusual for it to extinguish the Sensibility of Honour … but Heloise had a Passion so strong, that she was not at all concern'd for her Honour or Reputation. … An excess of Passion never heard of before, made her chuse to be Abelard's Mistress rather than his Wife.

(pp. 21-2)

Although Tillotson refers to Hughes' tone here as marked by a ‘slightly vulgar relish and insistence’ (TE, II, 325n.), there is also a feeling of astonished admiration which grows into the recognition that ‘Honour’ is a concept which appears to be outside the heroine's frame of reference, and Pope elaborates this feeling into assertive dignity. He also adds to the human basis of the argument the poetic evocation of love's divinity; love is spoken of as the ‘jealous God’, calling to mind the rival God (Exodus 20:5) vying for Eloisa's exceptional soul.

It is through her love for Abelard that Eloisa's first transition from the human sphere to the spiritual is represented, effortlessly and innocently by the agency of imagination (‘My Fancy form'd thee of Angelick kind’) and there is perhaps a deliberate ambiguity as to whether Abelard's ‘truths divine’ are in fact his doctrines as her instructor in religion or relate to the precept that ‘'twas no sin to love’ (l. 68); but we are made conscious of a certain moral courage in her setting aside of ‘Fancy’ to encounter the joys of physical reality:

Back through the paths of pleasing sense I ran,
Nor wish'd an Angel whom I lov'd a Man.
Dim and remote the joys of saints I see,
Nor envy them, that heav'n I lose for thee.


The telling shift here from past to present tense indicates what is still the direction of her commitment. In this passage there is an awareness that in some way her former ‘guiltless’ self has been left behind, but that state of innocence becomes pale beside the warmth of love. When Eloisa strives to regain innocence by contrition, it is inverted and condemned by her love as a sin:

Now turn'd to heav'n, I weep my past offence,
Now think of thee, and curse my innocence.


These central concepts of humanity and divinity, innocence and sin, are charged with suggestions of paradox throughout the poem. Innocence may be seen as a state of unknowing, undivided consciousness, or instead as the conscious refusal to embrace a false morality and to acknowledge ‘shame’. Among the passages which reflect upon guilt and self-expression, there is the interesting transition from the appeal to the artificial language of letters, which express the reciprocal ‘soft intercourse’ of love without betraying the physical signs of shame, to the ideal state of ‘shamelessness’ when intuition takes the place of speech, to the dramatically pictured scene of Abelard's castration, when literal speech is overcome in Eloisa and she is reduced to the now impotent language of the body: ‘By shame, by rage supprest, / Let tears, and burning blushes speak the rest’ (105-6).28 The powerful later passage on the unfettered violence of guilt (223-48) presents, both in its content and context, further depths; ‘conscience’ as modesty is set aside to make way for the soul's immersion in a rapture of the subconscious, which positively embraces consciousness of guilt:

All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee.
O curst, dear horrors of all-conscious night!
How glowing guilt exalts the keen delight!

The two meanings of ‘loose’ (unrestrained, and wanton) are equally apt. Structurally, this whole visionary rhapsody—evolving into nightmare—is strikingly set between two evocative passages on the peace of spiritual purity (207-22, 249-56), superficially variations on a similar theme of retired innocence. In the first, the pastoral and paradisal idyll of the ‘blameless Vestal’, reciprocity is discovered, desires are reconciled, emotion and imagination find understructive ends, and finally spiritual marriage is united with unalloyed pleasure. Thus the image of marriage is revitalised after Eloisa's earlier repudiation, and is set against the depiction of her marriage to the convent as a parody of sterile matrimony: (‘Sad proof how well a lover can obey! / Death, only death, can break the lasting chain’). By contrast with the imagery of physical consummation as the culminating bliss of the ‘vestal’, the release from passion which is Abelard's lot cannot fail to strike us with a sense of tragic deprivation, despite its premonition of a ‘promis'd heav'n’:

Thy life a long, dead calm of fix'd repose;
No pulse that riots, and no blood that glows.
Still as the sea, ere winds were taught to blow,
Or moving spirit bade the waters flow;


The word ‘ordain’ of l. 249 in context evokes a sense of fatality, of a rigorous and definitive sentence which suggests retribution as much as redemption. The whole passage resembles other lines of Pope's concerning passion as an animating force, in particular the images of still water as a negative metaphor for Stoic detachment within the Essay on Man, reinforced by the suggestion here of a regression to the time before Genesis (when ‘the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters'). The same metaphor in Hughes does not imply a negative ‘gain’: ‘The Punishment of your Body, has cured the deadly Wounds of your Soul. The Tempest has driven you into the Haven’ (p. 176). Eloisa herself speaks of Abelard's condition as a living death (251, 257, 261-2), and there is a logical link between the earlier recollection of the physical assault upon Abelard and the succeeding image of Eloisa and Abelard as sacrificial victims to religion (108). Yet ironically it is also Abelard who is the founder or ‘Maker’ of the Paraclete as a house of religion, and (as Eloisa recalls) the instructor or ‘creator’ of Eloisa as a lover. If he becomes merged in her consciousness with God, it is perhaps quintessentially as the source of her abiding passion, an emotional awakening into life, which persists even when he is metaphorically dead. The emphasis on faithfulness in the reference to Eloisa's ‘hopeless, lasting flames’ becomes clearer by analogy with her second letter in the Hughes collection: ‘When we love Pleasures, we love the living and not the dead. We leave off burning with Desire, for those who can no longer burn for us’ (p. 12). The connection of tombs with ‘dying lamps’ recurs again at ll. 303-8, and significantly the lamps fade at the time of Eloisa's taking the veil (112). Gradually fear begins to take precedence over courage, and the desire of flight gains in intensity; this fear for salvation is matched with a more personal sense of relationship in Eloisa's apprehension of God: ‘Thy image steals between my God and me’ (l. 268). Pope makes a rhetorical motif of Eloisa's strangely invoking/repelling call to Abelard to ‘Come … and solicite me to love you’ (Hughes p. 144) and adds to it the fiercer note of challenge ‘… if thou dar'st’ (281); he also intensifies the opposition between the rival claims on her soul in transferring Abelard's ‘Assist the Evil Spirits, and be the Instrument of their Malice’ to Eloisa's highly dramatic, ‘Snatch me, just mounting, from the blest abode, / Assist the Fiends, and tear me from my God!’ (287-8). One might see in this crisis Eloisa's final breaking-point, the point at which the terror of the consequences she is inviting upon herself bears down on her more forcibly than anything else, and her appeal to the powers of redemption immediately afterwards (297-302) is both impassioned and eloquent. In the same impulse, her repudiation of Abelard is still suffused with a spirit of (partly reproachful) generosity:

Ah come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.
Thy oaths I quit, thy memory resign.


As at several other points of the poem, Pope has transferred to Eloisa one of Abelard's fairly rare expressions of selflessness. Eloisa's state after this outburst is itself close to death (304), and consistent with her final letter in the Hughes edition in which it is the prospect of death made real during a long illness which acts most persuasively on her sense of her spiritual condition. The ‘Christianising’ of the spiritual apparitions which are familiar from the Heroides (appearing both to Sapho and Dido) is a remarkable stroke, and Pope has brought out a shift from the pagan to the Christian explicitly: ‘Love's victim then, tho' now a sainted maid’ (312). Yet the undeniable closeness of lines 333-4 to the conclusion of the Elegy restates the tragic note which has been present throughout, emphasising the sorrow of a love not only forgotten but lost to the memory of posterity:

See the last sparkle languish in my eye!
Till ev'ry motion, pulse, and breath, be o'er;
And ev'n my Abelard be lov'd
no more.
O death all-eloquent! you only prove
What dust we doat on, when 'tis man we love.


From fearing that the love of heaven may snatch Abelard from herself, Eloisa now comes to hope that the divine love extended to him may equal her own (342); this, and the concern with posterity and the earthly ‘fame’ invested in exemplary love, argues again a persistent value for human feeling. Pope elaborates this theme greatly in the final verse-paragraph, which owes nothing to the Hughes letters but which, like the ending of the Elegy, dwells upon the sharing of sympathetic grief; the ‘mutual pity’ and the ‘human tear’. The feeling of resistance in ll. 355-8, the return to a vision of religion once more in conflict with earthly sentiment, and the more unexpected appeal to ‘some future Bard’ for solace, all imply a recognition which is made explicit at l. 365; that the lover's ghost will still be ‘pensive’, that memory will disturb spiritual peace even after death.

Subjectivity is thus reasserted even in this final valediction; throughout the poem, the central tension of the earthly and the divine is seen as a subjective experience, with its shifting interchanges of memory, association and imagination. Perhaps the most eloquent lines in Eloisa express the irremediable nature of her conflict as rooted in the complexity of the mind:

How shall I lose the sin, yet keep the sense,
And love th' offender, yet detest th'offence?
How the dear object from the crime remove,
And how distinguish penitence from love?


Memory presents at once the firmest constancy to her human affections, and the most insuperable barrier between the soul and heaven; in the Hughes edition of the letters (p. 174), Eloisa refers to the extinguishing of the memory of pleasures as ‘the last violence to our Nature’. Forgetfulness is then a condition of mind which must be actively achieved (190), a psychological impossibility. The only countering force which may be invoked is direct intervention by God, portrayed as an act of violence (201-2) which parallels the imagery of physical rupture expressing Eloisa's human love (196). There are many indications that her capacity for love may be rivalled by her capacity for ecstatic religious experience; Joseph Warton appropriately commented on these lines (TE, II, 366n.): ‘here is the true doctrine of the Mystics. … There are many such strains in Crashaw.’ The mystic quality is a remarkable strength of Eloisa, reinforced by the element of ‘gothic’ gloom and psychological melancholy with which the poem is suffused, and which of course owes much to Milton's minor poems, notably Comus and Il Penseroso. The ‘gothic’ strain represents a deepening of that pathetic fallacy of scenes strongly coloured by mental association which Pope developed from Ovid (see Pope's Sapho to Phaon, 163-78), and it is brought out at a great many points of the poem. Pope was probably referring in part to the evocative power of setting when he wrote to William Cowper in February 1731/2: ‘I should not be sorry if you tryed your hand [as translator] upon Eloisa to Abelard, since it has more of that Descriptive, and, (if I may say so) Enthusiastic Spirit, which is the Character of the Ancient Poets.’29 The reflection of Eloisa's state of mind in her projection of the scenes around her is developed from the earliest passages on the convent, and is most powerful in the striking personification of ‘Melancholy’ in ll. 161ff.; the full extent of the passage, which effectively begins at l. 132, represents a series of settings which variously reflect Eloisa's changing spiritual vision, both of the past and the present. The image of the Paraclete as pastoral retreat, a ‘Paradise’ of spiritual aspiration amid the desert, gives way in Abelard's absence to the ‘noon-day night’ cast by its walls, recalling the images of the convent in the opening lines of the poem. The transition which has taken place in her mind is subtly developed and yet profound; in certain respects, Abelard comes to assume a dual role of lover and Christ-figure, although Eloisa is here alert to the distinction between eros and agape (‘Oh pious fraud of am'rous charity’). Her yearning towards the repose of contemplation is also a yearning for the fulfilment which has been lost through him, and is expressed in the delicate, slightly Spenserian lines which evoke an erotic, sensitive natural world:

The darksom pines that o'er yon' rocks reclin'd
Wave high, and murmur to the hollow wind,
The wandring streams that shine between the hills,
The grots that echo to the tinkling rills,
The dying gales that pant upon the trees,
The lakes that quiver to the curling breeze;


The quality of these lines, with their blending of sensuality with fine delicacy, has been described as ‘rococo’,30 and it is in contrast to this imaginary state of receptive motion that the ‘dread repose’ of the spectre Melancholy has such morbid power, a power which impels Eloisa towards thoughts of her own death and the ‘cold dust’ of eternity. This spiritual landscape represents the deepest point of the suffering and repression forced upon her; set against it are the moments of greatest emotional and imaginative exaltation, the dimension which is most aptly termed ‘mystic’. We are made aware of Eloisa's facility for high spiritualising of experience in the metaphysical terms of her first image of Abelard: ‘My fancy form'd thee of Angelick kind, / Some emanation of th'allbeauteous Mind’ (61-2), and Eloisa's conception both of the earthly and divine is throughout coloured by an emphasis on ecstasy and rapture. Thus her imaginative projection of the ‘blameless Vestal's lot’ culminates in rapture which seems distinctly sexual by analogy with the ‘marriage’ metaphor (219-22), and her first vision of her own death is also sensuous and finally climactic. Again, Eloisa pictures the death of Abelard in terms of a rhapsody of the divine (339-42), with the plea, ‘[May] Saints embrace thee with a love like mine.’ It might be possible to dismiss these conceptions as a poignant reminder of the strength of Eloisa's human bonds; but earlier in the poem her vision of the intensity of divine communion (‘Not touch'd, but rapt; not waken'd, but inspir'd’) has no hint of pathos or self-deception about it, and the ‘hopeless, lasting flames’ of human love are ultimately sublimated in a ‘firing’ of the soul, the ‘flames refin'd’ (320) which burn in heaven. The imagery of light and fire throughout the poem, though conventional, unites the conceptions of human and divine love, and it is significant that the full force of Eloisa's passion should overwhelm her in the very acts of Christian devotion. Despite the fact that Pope introduces a few lines of satire on florid extravagance in religion (135-40) which anticipate the redundant splendours of Timon's chapel, religious ceremony is used to express something more than external pomp and apparently deeper than the emotional fallacy which plays upon Eloisa's vision at ll. 111-14 and 271-6; if human passion is active here in bringing about a state close to divine ecstasy, there is at least an implication through the poetry that divine love has part in the experience:

Priests, Tapers, Temples, swim before my sight:
In seas of flame my plunging Soul is drown'd
While Altars blaze, and Angels tremble round.


Pope seems to have forgotten ‘such plain roofs as piety could raise’ in his vision of ceremony with its profusion of lamps and altars and incense rising in ‘clouds of fragrance’. He clearly has an interest in an exuberant descriptive and experiential dimension which can best be characterised as ‘baroque’. In this relation it would however be misleading to identify the baroque tendencies with counter-reformation Catholicism specifically, since Pope's conception of rapturous spiritual experience owes much to the verse of the Nonconformist Isaac Watts, to the point of a close debt in l. 275 (TE, II, 304). What is important is that the interest in ‘extasy’ in Eloisa does frequently tend towards the mystic, and this peak of spiritual experience is intimately linked with the quieter meditational note which significantly is much indebted to Crashaw (see lines 270, 300, 328 and the specific allusion of l. 212). Although Pope's response to Crashaw was in many respects unsympathetic,31 he did express his admiration for the ‘soft and pleasing’ verses of ‘The Weeper’, including stanzas 16 and 17, which contemplate the ‘kind contrarieties’ of the Magdalene's redemptive grief.32 As Austin Warren points out in his study of Crashaw, ‘Catholicism has persistently affirmed that, as the body, the senses, the affections and the imagination are integral parts of man, they must all collaborate in God's service’;33 this concern could be seen as dominant in the baroque, and in so far as Eloisa expresses the affinity between the earthly and divine in terms of a sublimated but pervasive sensuality, its devotional content seems distinctively to reflect Pope's Catholic sensibilities.

If Eloisa might be seen as sharing in part a ‘baroque’ sensibility, then certain elements in its conception—its complex sensuality, its often extravagant pitch of emotion, and the finally inconclusive nature of its moral emphasis—may seem less disturbing than many critics have found them. The greatest difficulty posed by the poem, it seems, lies in its subjectivity; Patricia Spacks, seeing Eloisa as ‘psychotic’, is highly critical of the fact that ‘the poet's voice … indicates no awareness of anything wrong with his central figure’ (An Argument of Images, 1971, p. 237). She alleges that Pope shows an inability to analyse the ‘imbalance’ displayed in Eloisa, and observes by a pejorative comparison with The Rape of the Lock that ‘he appeared unable to replace the complexity of satire with any other real complexity: the alternations of an emotional seesaw involve only shifts of attention, not of perspective’ (pp. 237-8). This assertion is profoundly misleading, since the complexity of Eloisa is on a quite different plane from that of the Rape, and lies within its subjectivity; it is achieved through the very enclosedness, the submergence of the poet's voice in the imagined experience and consciousness of his protagonist. The evocation of the relationship between ‘grace and nature, virtue and passion’ in terms of an extreme conflict is thus a means of exploration, and the urgency of the opposition is expressive of a struggle which does not point to mere confusion or capitulation on Eloisa's part, but a sustained moral idealism.


  1. Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: the Poetry of Allusion (Oxford, 1959), 64.

  2. Cited by Geoffrey Tillotson, Twickenham Edition of the Works of Alexander Pope, II, 301n.—volumes of this edition are hereafter referred to as ‘Te’; see List of Abbreviations.

  3. Correspondence, I, 338 (March 1716; the date assigned by Sherburn is conjectural). See List of Abbreviations.

  4. The representation of emotion in the poem is discussed in the light of contemporary aesthetics by Brewster Rogerson in his article, ‘The art of painting the passions’, JHI, 14 (1953), 68-94.

  5. See Tillotson, TE, II, 308-11, and Hoyt Trowbridge, ‘Pope's Eloisa and the Heroides of Ovid’, in Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, edited by Harold Pagliaro (Cleveland and London, 1973), III, 11-34.

  6. Robert P. Kalmey (‘Rhetoric, language and structure in Eloisa to Abelard’, ECS, 5 (1971), 315-18) sees the four traditional stages of penance—contrition, confession, absolution and purgation—as enacted in the course of the poem. Stephen J. Ackerman (‘The vocation of Pope's Eloisa’, SEL, 19 (1979), 445-57) argues that the Holy Spirit finally commands Eloisa's soul and enables her fully to distinguish eros from agape. Brendan O'Hehir (‘Virtue and passion: the dialectic of Eloisa to Abelard’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 2 (1960), 219-32) similarly concludes that at the close of the poem ‘no obstacles remain to the consummation of [Eloisa's] marriage to Christ’ (231).

  7. Johnson (Lives of the English Poets, edited by George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford, 1905), III, 226) refers bitterly to Pope's ‘illaudible singularity of treating suicide with respect’, and William Roscoe (The Works of Alexander Pope, 1824, III, 223) speaks of the poet's sentiments as ‘unpardonable’.

  8. D.C. Mell, A Poetics of the Augustan Elegy (Amsterdam, 1974), 39.

  9. Howard D. Weinbrot, ‘Pope's Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady’, MLQ, 32 (1971), 255-67.

  10. Rachel Trickett, The Honest Muse: A Study in Augustan Verse (Oxford, 1967), 165.

  11. Tillotson (TE, 363n.) points out an important analogue from Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel which lends authority to the concept.

  12. Spence, Anecdotes, I, 14; see List of Abbreviations.

  13. ibid., 232.

  14. See L. P. Wilkinson, Ovid Recalled (Cambridge, 1955), 439-44 and Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (Cambridge, Mass. 1937), 3-50.

  15. Louise Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature up to the Early Nineteenth Century (Lund, 1967), 253.

  16. Drayton, Englands Heroicall Epistles (1598-9).

  17. ‘Penelope to Ulysses’ was included in the 1680 Tonson edition of Ovid's Epistles, and Pope's own translation of Sapho to Phaon was added to a later edition of this volume in 1712.

  18. See An Essay on Criticism, ll. 458-65, and 482-3, in which Pope praises Dryden's critical powers.

  19. Correspondence, I, 97 (August 1710).

  20. Correspondence, I, 92.

  21. Amores, III. 11; I have quoted from the Loeb Library edition of Heroides and Amores, translated by Grant Showerman (London, 1921), which is used throughout this chapter.

  22. The manuscript of the translation is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

  23. The point is brought up by Tillotson, TE, II, 299, and by David B. Morris, (‘“The visionary maid”: tragic passion and redemptive sympathy in Pope's Eloisa to Abelard’, MLQ, 34 (1973), 247-71).

  24. Pope used l.92 once more in An Essay on Man, III. 208 to describe the ‘Origin of Political Societies’, as yet uncorrupted.

  25. John Hughes, Letters of Abelard and Heloise … Extracted chiefly from Monsieur Bayle; I have consulted the fourth edition (1722), to accord with the pagination of quotations given in TE, II.

  26. Stephen J. Ackerman (‘The vocation of Pope's Eloisa’) also remarks that ‘Pope portrays the life of the nun in terms characteristic of the Happy Man theme of Augustan literature’ (454), a life in harmony with nature which Ackerman, in accordance with his reading of the poem, represents as culminating in the apprehension of the ‘True Nature’ of Eden.

  27. Morris, ‘“The visionary maid”’, p. 262; Henry Pettit, ‘Eloisa to Abelard: an interpretationUniversity of Colorado Studies: Series in Language and Literature, 4 (1953), 67-74.

  28. An excellent article by Gillian Beer (‘“Our unnatural no-voice”: the heroic epistle, Pope, and women's gothic’, YES, 12 (1982), 125-51) considers the struggle to make language fill the void as presence, and ‘substitute for the potentialities of the whole body’ (141).

  29. Correspondence, III, 269.

  30. James E. Wellington, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ (Miami, 1965), 46.

  31. See Austin Warren, ‘The reputation of Crashaw in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’, Studies in Philology, 31 (1934), 385-407. Warren is so puzzled by Pope's apparent hostility to Crashaw that the postulates that he was contriving ‘to give an impression which he certainly could not have received,’ in order to mask his own Catholic sympathies. This conclusion is open to doubt, however, since Pope would certainly have found Crashaw's metaphysical strain over-ingenious and lacking in taste.

  32. Correspondence, I, 110 (December 1710).

  33. Austin Warren, Richard Crashaw (Louisiana, 1939), 66.

Unless otherwise stated, all texts listed below bear a London imprint.

A Note on Texts and Abbreviations

Unless otherwise stated, the text of Pope's poems used throughout is that of the Twickenham Edition (general editor John Butt; 11 volumes, 1939-69), abbreviated as TE, followed by volume number, as follows:

Volume I (1961)—Pastoral Poetry, and An Essay on Criticism. Edited by Émile Audra and Aubrey Williams.

Volume II (third edition, reset, 1962)—The Rape of the Lock and other Poems. Edited by Geoffrey Tillotson.

Volume III (i) (reprint, 1964)—An Essay On Man. Edited by Maynard Mack.

Volume III (ii) (second edition, 1961)—Epistles to Several Persons—Moral Essays. Edited by F. W. Bateson.

Volume IV (second edition, 1953)—Imitations of Horace, with An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Edited by John Butt.

Volume V (third edition, 1963)—The Dunciad. Edited by James Sutherland.

Volume VI (reprinted, 1964)—Minor Poems. Edited by Norman Ault, completed by John Butt.

Volume VII, VIII (1967)—The Iliad of Homer. Edited by Maynard Mack, Norman Callan, and others.

Volume IX, X (1967)—The Odyssey of Homer. Edited by Maynard Mack, Norman Callan, and others.

Volume XI—Index (1969).

Other abbreviations used are:

Anecdotes: Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes and Characters of Books and Men, edited by James M. Osborn (2 vols, Oxford, 1956).

Correspondence: The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, edited by George Sherburn (5 vols, Oxford, 1956).

Dryden, Poems: The Poems of John Dryden, edited by James Kinsley (4 vols, Oxford, 1958).

Dryden, Essays: ‘Of Dramatic Poesy’ and other Critical Essays, edited by George Watson (2 vols, 1962).

EC: The Works of Alexander Pope, edited by W. Elwin and W. J. Courthope (10 vols, 1871-89).

Spectator: The Spectator, edited by Donald F. Bond (5 vols, Oxford, 1965).

Swift, Prose Writings: The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Herbert Davies (12 vols, Oxford, 1939-55).


ECS: Eighteenth Century Studies.

ELH: English Literary History.

HLQ: The Huntington Library Quarterly.

JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

JHI: Journal of the History of Ideas.

MLN: Modern Language Notes.

MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly.

MLR: Modern Language Review.

PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America.

PQ: Philological Quarterly.

REL: Review of English Literature.

RES: Review of English Studies (n.s.: new series).

SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900.

YES: Yearbook of English Studies.

Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (essay date 1987)

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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 harmony is utterly defeated by urban squalor. The mirror passage in Windsor-Forest ends with energetic lines that modulate from the emblematic river to the real one:

Through the fair scene roll slow the ling' ring streams,
Then foaming pour along, and rush into the Thames.


In the Dunciad the same rhyme is expressive of wretchedness:

To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.


The lofty term disemboguing is dragged down from its heroic origins,2 and instead of the shepherd-poet musing on images of nature, we now have Grub Street hacks frolicking in urban nastiness:

Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the Weekly Journals bound.


All is not lost, of course. At many points in the Dunciad Pope laughs at the impotence of the ephemeral city poets:

Now night descending, the proud scene was o'er,
But lived, in Settle's numbers, one day more.
Now may'rs and shrieves all hushed and satiate lay,
Yet eat, in dreams, the custard of the day;
While pensive poets painful vigils keep,
Sleepless themselves, to give their readers sleep.


These writers are absurd weaklings, not Satanic monsters, and in themselves they are no threat to Pope. The burden of his lament is not that bad writing exists, but that bad wit is parasitical upon good and is rewarded by a culture that can no longer tell the difference. The Dunciad has rightly been called an exploration “not of meaninglessness but of the partial subversion of meaning.”3 Meaning was disturbingly rootless in this period, and Pope, just as much as the Grub Street writers, had to piece it together as best he could. Milton despised the godless culture of the Restoration, but it is inconceivable that Milton would have written a Dunciad.

“Earless on high, stood unabashed Defoe” (Dunciad II.147). Socially, politically, and culturally these two writers had virtually nothing in common. What would Pope have made of modern literary histories that give Defoe equal space with himself? Defoe's apparently artless narratives did mark one of the main paths into the future, and as Sitter has shown, so did a mode of private lyric whose maternal muse has curious affinities with Pope's goddess of Dulness.4 If one thinks of the three major kinds into which literature was traditionally divided—narrative, dramatic, and lyric—then it has to be said that Pope (like Johnson after him) was hostile to the direction all three were taking. But it should also be said that all three ran into deep trouble in the later eighteenth century, precisely because the relation between art and reality, with which Pope was so steadily preoccupied, continued to pose serious difficulties. The lyric in that period, as I have argued elsewhere, was compromised by fear of overt subjectivity.5 The best plays were preoccupied with the duplicities of acting and unmasking. The greatest narratives were in what a librarian would call nonfiction: Hume's History of England, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Johnson. The massiveness of these works deserves remark, reflecting a need to get it all in; details supply the life and justification of the narrative. These developments clearly flow from the problems that Pope faced, but he himself needed to retain more authorial control than such modes of writing would permit. Atossa, Sporus, and the rest are presented by the poet, not imagined in themselves. Fielding's Tom Jones, which asserts a classical ideal of the probable and glories in artifice, is the last Augustan narrative. But Tom Jones too is remote from Pope, for he is deeply resistant to narratively, preferring dynamic stasis to development.

In thinking about Pope's cultural situation, the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin are particularly suggestive. In The Dialogic Imagination Bakhtin distinguishes between the unitary language to which poems aspire, and the “heteroglossia” of mingled languages in the novel. Poetic language tends to seek “correctness” (perceived differently in different times and places) and is “ideologically saturated” in that it embodies a single ideology, rather than establishing tensions among disparate ideologies as the novel does.6 In the terms of Bakhtin's theory, one can say that the novelistic impulse in the eighteenth century extends very widely, not only in the multiple ideologies of epistolary novels like Clarissa and Humphry Clinker, but also in “factual” works that juxtapose competing versions of experience.7

Faced with a novelistic world, many eighteenth-century poets walled themselves off in a realm of poetic diction, whose status as poetry depended on its willed evasion of ordinary speech. Richard Rorty speaks of “poetic” moments as occurring at times when a culture ceases to converse in terms that are mutually agreed upon and begins to be conscious of neologisms or stylistic innovations that are explicitly contrasted with an older mode.8 “Gray thought his language more poetical,” Johnson said, “as it was more remote from common use.”9 In his youth, Pope certainly aspired to a style of high correctness, and poetic diction was certainly prominent:

To thee, bright goddess, oft a lamb shall bleed,
If teeming ewes increase my fleecy breed.

Winter, (81-82)

Similarly, Pope's Homer is not so much a translation into eighteenth-century speech as transubstantiation into an exalted “literary” language. But in his later poems it would be impossible to say that the high style suppresses the babel of contrary voices that rise from below. In Bakhtin's account of the ideal poetic style, “Each word must express the poet's meaning directly and without mediation; there must be no distance between the poet and his word. … Everything that enters the work must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts” (p. 297). In the novel, on the contrary, “all words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour” (p. 293). Heteroglossia comes to the fore in times of cultural breakup, when a standard language loses its stable support in religious, political, and ideological authority (pp. 370-71). Pope is a poet of just such an age, and unlike Gray he confronts the challenge instead of evading or escaping it: he imposes a poetic style upon a novelistic imagination, and tries to colonize the novelistic world with the authority of poetry.

As early as The Rape of the Lock, Pope uses comic dialogue to reproduce the slang, expletives, and inflections of particular types, “placing” his speakers with authorial irony much as Fielding or Dickens would place them.

(Sir Plume, of amber snuff-box justly vain,
And the nice conduct of a clouded cane)
With earnest eyes, and round unthinking face,
He first the snuff-box opened, then the case,
And thus broke out—“My Lord, why, what the devil?
Zounds! damn the lock! ‘fore Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on't! ‘tis past a jest—nay prithee, pox!
Give her the hair”—he spoke, and rapped his box.


To this inept splutter, the Baron responds with a cool irony that both invokes the “high” mode and pokes fun at it:

It grieves me much (replied the peer again)
Who speaks so well should ever speak in vain.
But by this lock, this sacred lock I swear,
(Which never more shall join its parted hair,
Which never more its honours shall renew,
Clipt from the lovely head where late it grew).


Pope's later poems are filled with brilliant recreations of particular modes of speech, which (as Bakhtin says) can be embodied in narration as well as in direct dialogue.

Sir Balaam now, he lives like other folks,
He takes his chirping pint, and cracks his jokes:
“Live like yourself,” was soon my lady's word;
And lo! two puddings smoked upon the board.

(To Bathurst, 357-60)

Papillia, wedded to her doting spark,
Sighs for the shades—“How charming is a park!”
A park is purchased, but the fair he sees
All bathed in tears—“Oh odious, odious trees!”

(To a Lady, 37-40)

“Lives like other folks,” “cracks his jokes,” and “live like yourself” are phrases from a bourgeois world that Pope satirizes by mimicking it; “doting spark,” “charming,” and “odious” are expressions from fashionable society.10

But it is not a trivial observation to say that in actual life Sir Plume and Sir Balaam's wife and Papillia would not speak in rhyme, let alone in the inexhaustibly supple rhythms of Pope's verse. Rhythm, indeed, according to Bakhtin, is precisely the means by which a poet gains control of his materials, destroying in embryo “those social worlds of speech and of persons that are potentially embedded in the word” (p. 298). And his conclusion from this observation reads like an analysis of Pope's satires: “We experience a profound and conscious tension through which the unitary poetic language of a work rises from the heteroglot and language-diverse chaos of the literary language contemporary to it” (p. 298). Ruskin's description of “sententious pentametre” exactly catches the way in which Pope, whom Arnold depreciated as a classic of prose, concentrates and adjusts prose into richer meaning:

In this kind of verse, the structure and rhyme (if rhyme be admitted) are used merely to give precision and weight to a prose sentence, otherwise sifted, abstracted, and corrected into extremest possible value. Such verse professes always to be the result of the writer's utmost wisdom and utmost care; it admits therefore of no careless or imperfect construction, but allows any intelligible degree of inversion; because it has been considered to the end, before a word is written, and the placing of the words may afterwards be adjusted according to their importance. Thus, “Sir Plume, of amber snuff-box justly vain,” is not only more rhythmic, but more elegant and accurate than “Sir Plume, justly vain of his amber snuff-box”: first, because the emphasis of rhyme is laid on his vanity, not his box; secondly, because the “his,” seen on full consideration to be unnecessary, is omitted, to concentrate the sentence; and with a farther and more subtle reason … that a coxcomb cannot, properly speaking, possess anything, but is possessed by everything, so that in the next line Pope does not say, “And the nice conduct of his clouded cane,” but of a clouded cane.11

Swift parodies his satiric victims with a kind of ventriloquizing, so that he himself disappears from view, the skillful counterfeiter of whom Kenner has written so provocatively.12 Where is the real narrator of A Tale of a Tub? When does Gulliver speak for himself and when for Swift? How are Swift's positive religious views expressed in these works, which notoriously offended many contemporary readers? In the Rabelaisian tradition, Bakhtin says, “Truth is restored by reducing the lie to an absurdity, but truth itself does not seek words; she is afraid to entangle herself in the word, to soil herself in verbal pathos” (p. 309). Thus Swift can mimic the rattling colloquialisms of a servant in The Humble Petition of Mrs. Frances Harris, and minor poets can similarly catch the tone of casual speech in a wholly un-Popean way:

—“Oh, Madam, I must beg your pardon there,”
The General cried, “for—‘twas in the year ten—
No, let me recollect, it was not then;
‘Twas in the year eight, I think, for then we lay
Encamped with all the army, near Cambray—
Yes, yes, I'm sure I'm right by one event,
We supped together in Cadogan's tent.”(13)

The unobtrusive rhymes are the poet's, but the words are the character's, in an altogether novelistic way. In Pope's poems, even when he adopts one or another “persona,” we can always see behind the mask, and truth always seeks words. The words it seeks, in contrast to the slang and jargon of the debased “dunces,” are inherited verities that are supposed to retain their immemorial cultural authority. Even while he brilliantly deploys the idioms of his culture, Pope strives to raise them to a level of civilized harmony, in the spirit of the modern saying “My language is the universal whore whom I have to make into a virgin.”14

It hasn't been sufficiently noted that when the Essay on Man was published anonymously, contemporary readers failed to recognize it as Pope's. Anonymity was in part a defensive maneuver to forestall hostile criticism,15 but it was also an assertion of universality: the poem was meant to speak for the ages as well as for Pope. But as Johnson comments sarcastically, “The reader feels his mind full, though he learns nothing; and when he meets it in its new array no longer knows the talk of his mother and his nurse.”16 It would be wrong to say that Pope has bungled his task; rather, he has attempted a task that is no longer possible. For as Bakhtin says,

The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher. It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers. … It is a prior discourse. It is therefore not a question of choosing it from among other possible discourses that are its equal. … It can be profaned. It is akin to taboo, i.e., a name that must not be taken in vain.

(p. 342)

All of this is true of Paradise Lost, which is deeply aware of competing ideologies but makes a virtue of the tension that they create, defining tension indeed as the fruit of sin. The Essay on Man constantly tries to harness tension and to make it productive, not to say domestic, and represents a sustained effort to put the cultural lid back on.

Much of the interest in Pope's poems arises, however, from the irrepressibility of the languages and ideologies that refuse to stay suppressed, and the thin-skinned anxiety of Pope the man as opposed to the equanimity of Pope the oracle. To quote Bakhtin once more,

We can go so far as to say that in real life people talk most of all about what others talk about—they transmit, recall, weigh and pass judgment on other people's words, opinions, assertions, information; people are upset by others' words, or agree with them, contest them, refer to them and so forth. … One must also consider the psychological importance in our lives of what others say about us, and the importance, for us, of understanding and interpreting these words of others (“living hermeneutics”).

(p. 338)

Pope's later poems are a medley of voices and modes, of attacks and counterattacks, immersed in a changing literary culture that reflects a changing world. He never stopped trying to control his rivals through language, embedding them like grubs in amber. But the obsessiveness with which he did so confirms the power of living hermeneutics, “what others say about us.” As Johnson magisterially observes, Pope's pose of Olympian detachment was only a pose:

He pretends insensibility to censure and criticism, though it was observed by all who knew him that every pamphlet disturbed his quiet, and his extreme irritability laid him open to perpetual vexation. … He very frequently professes contempt of the world, and represents himself as looking on mankind, sometimes with gay indifference, as on emmets of a hillock below his serious attention; and sometimes with gloomy indignation, as on monsters more worth of hatred than of pity. These were dispositions apparently counterfeited. … He passed through common life, sometimes vexed and sometimes pleased, with the natural emotions of common men.17

Pope's world of truth was empiricist, not Platonic, and try as he might, he could not compel language to reassume the authority it possessed during the Renaissance. Apart from the brief episode of high Romanticism, indeed, it has never succeeded in doing so again. Sidney said that nature gives us a brazen world and poetry a golden; in the eighteenth century it becomes obvious that poetry henceforth will be brazen too.

At the outset of his career Pope adapted Addison's prose description of St. Peter's (TE I, 268n) as a model for poetic achievement:

Thus when we view some well-proportioned dome,
(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine O Rome!)
No single parts unequally surprise;
All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.

(Essay on Criticism 247-52)

Pope's later poems reluctantly abandon this dream of perfect integration, or rather they confine it to the local perfection of the couplet. Single parts often surprise, the Dunciad grows to monstrous length, and if “the whole” appears bold it seldom seems regular.

There is an emblematic appropriateness in the “Gothic” analogy as used by Pope and later by Wordsworth. Pope ends his preface to The Works of Shakespeare with praise that is not so much ambiguous as perplexed:

I will conclude by saying of Shakespeare, that with all his faults and with all the irregularity of his drama, one may look upon his works, in comparison of those that are more finished and regular, as upon an ancient majestic piece of Gothic architecture, compared with a neat modern building. The latter is more elegant and glaring, but the former is more strong and more solemn. It must be allowed that in one of these there are materials enough to make many of the other. It has much the greater variety and much the nobler apartments, though we are often conducted to them by dark, odd, and uncouth passages. Nor does the whole fail to strike us with greater reverence, though many of the parts are childish, ill-placed, and unequal to its grandeur.18

Puzzlement at Shakespeare's “irregular” greatness was of course usual throughout the century, but it is interesting to see the Gothic analogy start to turn positive, remembering that “Goth” still had the pejorative connotations that “Vandal” does today:

A second deluge learning thus o'er-run,
And the monks finished what the Goths begun.

Essay on Criticism 691-92)

The Augustan ideal of luminous simplicity is breaking down, and Gothic strength begins to seem superior to Greek (or Georgian) elegance even if it entails darkness, oddness, and inequality.

Wordsworth too uses the Gothic analogy. The Excursion, he says, should be seen as subordinate to a larger whole:

The two works have the same kind of relation to each other, if [the author] may so express himself, as the ante-chapel has to the body of a gothic church. Continuing this allusion, he may be permitted to add, that his minor pieces, which have been long before the public, when they shall be properly arranged, will be found by the attentive reader to have such connection with the main work as may give them claim to be likened to the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices.19

Smallness and incompleteness are no longer drawbacks, as Pope had believed them to be. Fragments can have their own kind of adequacy. Yet Wordsworth too longed for a larger structure to which the fragments might be subordinated; but like Pope's Opus Magnum, the mighty Wordsworthian cathedral was never completed.

Looking into an uncongenial future, Pope sought to accept his deposition with Horatian equanimity.

Learn to live well, or fairly make your will;
You've played, and loved, and ate, and drank your 
Walk sober off, before a sprightlier age
Comes titt'ring on, and shoves you from the stage.

(Epistle II.ii. 322-25)

If in nothing else, Pope is at one with pedantic Bentley in his unsuitability to the frivolous world of the future:

In flowed at once a gay embroidered race,
And titt'ring pushed the pedants off the place.

(Dunciad IV.275-76)

But this vision turned out to be wrong. The future was more solemn than tittering, and a decade after Pope's death Warton, one of the lyric poets of the next generation, was regretting the absence of poésie pure in Pope's poems:

We do not, it should seem, sufficiently attend to the difference there is betwixt a man of wit, a man of sense, and a true poet. Donne and Swift were undoubtedly men of wit and men of sense: but what traces have they left of pure poetry?20

Warton dismisses the “Alps on Alps” analogy in the Essay on Criticism, which Johnson was to find so exact,21 as “too general and indistinct” and prefers a prose passage of rapturous sublimity from Shaftesbury (p. 142). “Poetry” begins to mean a heightened mode of language that purports to embody a heightened mode of experience. One realizes how much “Alps on Alps” is a metaphor of limitation, and how much deeper Warton's dislike runs than an objection to “indistinct” description. Whereas a Romantic poet would rejoice that there are always higher peaks to aspire to—Wordsworth suffers a kind of despair in the Prelude when crossing the Alps proves anticlimatic—Pope expresses weariness at a journey that never ends.

By the 1750s Edward Young, formerly the author of pallid Characteristical Satires, was proclaiming the new poetic ideal in terms that would have astounded Pope: “In the fairyland of fancy, genius may wander wild; there it has a creative power, and may reign arbitrarily over its own empire of chimeras.”22 Fancy, whose ambiguous relation to reality had so preoccupied Pope and his contemporaries, is now hailed as absolute master of its own creations, though perhaps of nothing else. Young's formulation is well on the way to Romantic notions of the poem as imaginary heterocosm and as revelation of its author's soul. Expressivism replaces mimesis as the basis of composition, and unconscious sources of imagery are suddenly of interest:

Few authors of distinction but have experienced something of this nature at the first beamings of their yet unsuspected genius on their hitherto dark composition: the writer starts at it as at a lucid meteor in the night; is much surprised; can scarce believe it true. During his happy confusion it may be said to him, as to Eve at the lake,

What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself.

(p. 288)

Pope's goal was a public self and a public poetry, expressed in Horatian verse bordering closely on prose; he would have found Young's allusion to Eve's narcissism all too apt.

Pope's career is a sustained acceptance of limits, which produces results very different from the post-Romantic crisis poem with its fear of losing one's visionary imagination. (Collins's Poetical Character, which seemed a very minor poem to his friend Johnson, becomes a seminal poem in the system of Harold Bloom.) Stooping to truth means accepting mundane subjects, diminished though they may be, and thereby achieving something of permanent value:

Truth guards the poet, sanctifies the line,
And makes immortal, verse as mean as mine.

(Epilogue II.246-47)

To compare Pope with the Romantics is to realize that if their aspirations were more exalted than his, their failures were more crushing. Pope left the Renaissance behind and knew he was doing so; it is really Romanticism, with its passionate longing for adequate symbols, that represents the last nostalgic echo of the Renaissance. But the Romantic project was fatally compromised by the simultaneous recognition that all “truth” is imprisoned in consciousness, a function of one's private world of imagination.

Platonic images of living unity are so pervasive in Western culture that one can quote phrases from the Essay on Man that sound exactly like Wordsworth: “blossoms in the trees … lives through all life … one nature … one common blessing” (I.272-73, III.117, IV.62). The crucial difference between the two poets is that Wordsworth has to ground his vision in subjective experience.

From Nature overflowing in my soul,
I had received so much, that all my thoughts
Were steeped in feeling …(23)

Pope speaks of “our soul” (I.275), not “my soul.” His aim is to utter universal truths, not to trace them up from his own inner life, and with his balanced parallelisms he stresses the correspondence of parts as well as the whole which they comprise:

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul;
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' aethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees …

(I. 267-72)

The difference lies in the greater ontological security that Pope enjoys. He grounds his Platonic vision in a received religion, deistically diluted though it may be, for which God is the soul of the universal body:

Heav'n breathes through ev'ry member of the whole
One common blessing, as one common soul.


Since religious truth lies deeper than any metaphor, the poet can celebrate God in all things without fearing that he has deified the created world. Wordsworth, on the other hand, is constantly haunted by the threat of irreligious pantheism. In the 1805 Prelude he wrote, “I saw one life, and felt that it was joy” (II.430). In a late revision this line disappeared and was replaced by orthodox pieties about “the Uncreated,” whom all created things must adore (1850 Prelude, II.413). Pope knows that one life flows through all things, and is free to feel it (“refreshes in the breeze”); Wordsworth feels that one life flows through all things, but fears that he does not know it.

Northrop Frye has remarked that the Bible has become fabulous just as, in early Christian times, the classical myths became fabulous.24 Wordsworth's hope is that fiction can be rescued from fictionality by being psychologized:

                                                                                          Paradise, and groves
Elysian, Fortunate Fields—like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic Main—why should they be
A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?(25)

But the Romantic solution turned out to be a very temporary one, whether one admires it as natural supernaturalism or dismisses it as split religion. The second half of the eighteenth century might best be seen not as a prologue to Wordsworth and Blake, but rather as an anticipation of our own time. Its history of departed things was founded on observation and investigation rather than on doctrine and myth. And its most memorable achievement—to invert Wordsworth's formulation—was an imaginative nonfiction of what really was.

Pope's poems are full of telling, and increasingly he tries to make us believe that they are inseparable from life as experienced, translated into rhetoric and form but not otherwise changed. “Unlike writing, life never finishes,” Lowell wrote,26 meaning perhaps that poems can have definitive endings whereas life stops but does not finish. But as Pope's veering and ever-surprising career reminds us, writing never finishes either, and Lowell's own career was much more like Pope's than like Spenser's or Milton's or even Yeats's. In his honesty and receptiveness to the events of his time, we can surely admire Pope, particularly now that idealizing modes of eighteenth-century scholarship are falling out of fashion. His critique of militarist rhetoric depends not only on a sense of the folly of Marlborough's wars, but also on an expectation that his readers will confirm his attitude from their own experience. The converse ought to hold when, in his late Patriot phase, Pope allowed himself to abuse Walpole for pacifism:

Lo! at the wheels of her triumphal car,
Old England's genius, rough with many a scar,
Dragged in the dust! his arms hang idly round,
His flag inverted trails along the ground!

(Epilogue I.151-54)

Keener's comment is admirable, in both its severity and its generosity: “Pope was bidding beyond his means, and we have bought whatever sensitivity we have on the subject at too dear a price ourselves.”27

If much in Pope seems to anticipate our own moment, cultural experience is always historically specific, and it is well to end by recognizing that his preoccupying themes were rooted in an age that was rapidly coming to an end. In his celebrated Speech for Conciliation of 1775, Edmund Burke reviewed the economic importance of America and then ascended a historical pinnacle to survey its deeper significance. Searching for a contemporary figure whose life might link the old Britain to the new, Burke singled out Pope's friend Bathurst. His celebratory rhetoric needs to be heard in its full amplitude:

We stand where we have an immense view of what is, and what is past. Clouds indeed, and darkness, rest upon the future. Let us, however, before we descend from this noble eminence, reflect that this growth of our national prosperity has happened within the short period of the life of man. It has happened within sixty-eight years. There are those alive whose memory might touch the two extremities. For instance, my Lord Bathurst might remember all the stages of the progress. He was in 1704 of an age at least to be made to comprehend such things. … Suppose, Sir, that the angel of this auspicious youth … should point out to him a little speck, scarce visible in the mass of the national interest, a small seminal principle rather than a formed body, and should tell him,—“Young man, there is America—which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men, and uncouth manners; yet shall, before you taste of death, show itself equal to the whole of that commerce which now attracts the envy of the world. Whatever England has been growing to by a progressive increase of improvement, brought in by varieties of people, by succession of civilizing conquests and civilizing settlements in a series of seventeen hundred years, you shall see as much added to her by America in the course of a single life!” … Fortunate man, he has lived to see it!28

Burke is the spokesman for a proto-Romantic conservatism that is very different from Pope's classical conservatism, and that helps to define the imaginative divide between Pope's generation and the next. To adopt the analysis of J. G. A. Pocock,29 Burke insisted that politics could not embody rational systems but must reflect a society's slowly evolving structure of relationships and obligations. History is a river that carries us constantly into the future, and the future is inevitably contingent. Institutions should never break irreparably with their past (as the French were to do in their revolution), but neither should they attempt to stand still (as Britain was seeking to do with respect to America). In Pocock's words, “Custom was constantly being subjected to the test of experience, so that if immemorial, it was, equally, always up to date, and … ultimately rooted in nothing other than experience” (p. 213).

This might sound congenial to Pope, but it is only superficially so. For Pope, experience is the basis of everything we know, but universal principles can and should be extracted from it. From psychological incoherence we extract the ruling passion, from political incoherence the structure of coordinate members. The mainstream view in the eighteenth century, against which Burke's evolutionary conservatism protested, is in Pocock's words “a quasi-classical image of ‘an ancient and balanced constitution,’ founded on principles from which … the present constitution was degenerate” (p. 265). The “corruption” that Pope constantly excoriates is not simply a concomitant of all institutional forms, but rather a destructive erosion of the one true form that men and women of virtue should return to. The subjective trend of later-eighteenth-century poetry, in Pope's eyes, would probably seem a symptom of the same corruption:

Find virtue local, all relation scorn,
See all in self, and but for self
be born.

(Dunciad IV.479-80)

And the baffling world of speculative finance somehow underlay it all, even if Pope had trouble defining the relation except in terms of selfishness and greed.

Pocock suggests elsewhere that Burke's evolutionary model was a product of an economy based on speculative exchange—the “paper credit” that Pope so abhorred—which has a stake in the openness and unpredictability of the future. Pope is not interested in the future. The older kind of republican virtue depends upon personal autonomy, which in turn depends upon “a material foundation in the form of property … the inheritable freehold or fee simple in land.”30 One thinks of Pope's passionate attachment to his Twickenham estate, and his regret that it was neither inherited from his parents nor transmissible to heirs of his own. But a paradox lurks just barely below the surface here, since autonomy based on property was manifestly the motive force of the hated credit economy, in which Defoe for instance was an eager participant. As Pocock puts it,

Culture and liberty, it began to appear, were ultimately incompatible; the Goths were both despicable as artists and admirable as freemen; and what raised man above the condition of the savage must ultimately sink him below the level of the citizen. Man's quarrel with his own history, that most characteristic feature of the modern mind, may be dated in England from about the foundation of the National Debt.

(p. 96)

The national debt was a symbol of the open and unchartable future, and Pope hated it.

The conflict between liberty and culture lies very deep in Pope's work, and as early as the Essay on Criticism it is explicitly related to literature. Gothic freedom not only led to feudal “tyranny” (687), but also was inseparable from obscurantist repression as “the monks finished what the Goths begun” (692). The renaissance of culture, however, was embodied in “rules” that were themselves repressive.

Thence arts o'er all the northern world advance,
But critic learning flourished most in France.
The rules, a nation born to serve, obeys,
And Boileau still in right of Horace sways.
But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despised,
And kept unconquered, and uncivilized.


Boileau played a servile Horace to Louis XIV, Pope an independent Horace to three successive Georges. But British independence seemed to be a thing of the past, and “pure poetry” might be seen as a shameless evasion of the social and political realities that give art its value and significance.

Confine the thought, to exercise the breath,
And keep them in the pale of words till death.
Whate'er the talents, or howe'er designed,
We hang one jingling padlock on the mind:
A poet the first day he dips his quill;
And what the last? a very poet still.

(Dunciad IV.159-64)

In league with political opportunism that only pretended to uphold liberty, Dulness had learned to exert a tyranny of its own that degraded language into an instrument of state power:

For sure, if Dulness sees a grateful day,
'Tis in the shade of arbitrary sway.


Without passing judgment on the historical accuracy of Pope's analysis, one can say that much more is involved here than neoclassical taste. Or rather, neoclassical taste reflects the largest possible concerns. Pope's formal style is very much an expression of his political and social world, just as Burke's sinuous and ever-evolving prose is expressive of his. But Pope's classical conservatism found itself paralyzed and helpless in the end:

The plague is on thee, Britain, and who tries
To save thee in th' infectious office dies.

(One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty, 75-76)

So Pope wrote in his final, unfinished satire, and there is perhaps an even deeper bitterness in the conclusion to the Epilogue to the Satires two years earlier:

Alas! alas! pray end what you began,
And write next winter more Essays on Man.


In the long run, the future belonged to Collins and Gray, and to blank verse poets such as Blair:

The wind is up—hark! how it howls! Methinks
Till now I never heard a sound so dreary.
Doors creak, and windows clap, and night's foul bird,
Rooked in the spire, screams loud.(31)

This is hardly Dejection: An Ode, but it belongs in the line that leads to Coleridge. That does not mean that Blair was a more significant poet than Pope, or even that Blair foresaw the future. Leslie Stephen remarks, “The deepest thinker is not really—though we often use the phrase—in advance of his day so much as in the line along which advance takes place.”32 Even if he could have seen the future, Pope would not have cared to join the line. His thoughts turned rather to the lines of filiation that connected his generation with the past. “Who sees not that De F——was the poetical son of Withers, T——te of Ogilby, E. W——rd of John Taylor, and E——n of Bl——k——re?”33 The same thought appears in verse as Dulness surveys her sons:

She saw old Pryn in restless Daniel shine,
And Eusden eke out Blackmore's endless line.

(Dunciad Variorum I.101-2)

As Christopher Ricks notes, this couplet hints at a very different “endless line” of succession that descends from Milton to Pope.34

Most of all Pope saw himself as the true heir of Dryden, just as Dryden saw himself as Jonson's heir. Garth says in praise of Dryden, “As the tyranny of rhyme never imposed on the perspicuity of the sense, so a languid sense never wanted to be set off by the harmony of rhyme.” That is exactly how Pope wanted his own verse to be admired, as also for “the peculiar delicacy of his periods”—the movement of phrases—that Garth goes on to describe.35 In contrast to this careful and subtle art, the twin criteria of the “dunces” are volume and duration:

All hail him victor in both gifts of song,
Who sings so loudly, and who sings so long.

36But however much he might equal or surpass Dryden in poetic skill, Pope could never hope to enjoy the cultural authority of his master. Dryden had plenty of enemies, of course, and his polemical Catholicism was politically much more inflammatory than Pope's. Still he was at the center of his age in a way in which Pope, for all his gifts, could never be. Dryden was deeply engaged in politics, whereas Pope was always politically marginal, and Dryden trusted in a conservative myth that seemed adequate to all requirements. He lived through great events, rode their current with intense feeling, and could even believe that he helped to influence them. And in addition to his role as poet, Dryden as play-wright stood at the center of Restoration court culture, to whose in-group members his superb prologues are addressed. Pope's career, after its confident beginnings, always betrays a sense of vicariousness and isolation. And it is from the struggle to come to terms with that situation—to become an insider or at least to speak as one—that Pope's imagination draws its deepest energies.


  1. See John E. Sitter, The Poetry of Pope's Dunciad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), ch. 2.

  2. Pope twice used this word in the Odyssey. See Max Byrd, London Transformed: Images of the City in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 54-55.

  3. Fredric V. Bogel, “Dulness Unbound: Rhetoric and Pope's Dunciad,” PMLA, 97 (1982), 847. I am not convinced, however, by Bogel's claim that Dulness is the “anterior” chaos (p. 852) from which meaning and order arise.

  4. John E. Sitter, “Mother, Memory, Muse and Poetry after Pope,” Journal of English Literary History, 44 (1977), 312-36; and see also Sitter's Literary Loneliness in Mid Eighteenth-Century England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).

  5. “Burns, Blake, and the Recovery of Lyric,” Studies in Romanticism, 21 (1982), 637-60.

  6. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. and tr. by Michael Holquist and Carol Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 270-71.

  7. Bakhtin's list of stylistic types in the novel applies precisely, for instance, to Boswell's Life of Johnson: direct narration by the author; stylized versions of ordinary oral narration and of semiliterary forms such as diaries and letters; extraliterary forms such as oratory, topographical descriptions, and memoranda; and finally, speeches by individual characters (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 262).

  8. “Deconstruction and Circumvention,” Critical Inquiry, 11 (1984), 4.

  9. Samuel Johnson, Life of Gray, in Lives of the English Poets, ed. G. B. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905), III, 435.

  10. When Mirabell mentions the child that may result from “our endeavours,” Millamant retorts, “Odious endeavours!” and a little later exclaims, “I toast fellows, odious men! I hate your odious provisos” (William Congreve, The Way of the World, IV.i). Johnson makes a female correspondent refer to “this odious fashion” of card playing in Rambler 15.

  11. John Ruskin, “The Pentametre,” Elements of English Prosody (1880), in The Literary Criticism of John Ruskin, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Doubleday, Anchor, 1965), p. 351.

  12. Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (New York: Doubleday, Anchor, 1973).

  13. Charles Hanbury Williams, Isabella: Or, The Morning, in The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 330. In the Gentleman's Magazine, where the poem first appeared, it is said to be printed “from the MS. written many years ago,” and has an epigraph adapted from Pope, “In serious talk th' instructive hours they passed” (Gentleman's Magazine, 35 [1765], 38; Rape of the Lock III.11)

  14. Karl Kraus, quoted by W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 23.

  15. Maynard Mack describes the embarrassment of Pope's enemies who were tricked into praising the Essay on Man before they knew who wrote it (Alexander Pope: A Life [New York: Norton, 1985], pp. 522-53).

  16. Lives, III, 243.

  17. Ibid., 209-10.

  18. Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope, ed. Bertrand A. Goldgar (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 175.

  19. William Wordsworth, Preface to The Excursion (1814), in Wordsworth, Selected Poems and Prefaces, ed. Jack Stillinger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 469-70.

  20. Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (1756), I, iv.

  21. See p. 253 above.

  22. Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), in English Critical Essays, ed. Edmund D. Jones, World's Classics (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 283.

  23. William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850 version), II.397-99.

  24. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 14.

  25. William Wordsworth, Prospectus toThe Recluse,” 47-51.

  26. Robert Lowell, History, in Lowell, Selected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), p. 159.

  27. Frederick M. Keener, An Essay on Pope (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 155. Keener quotes Burke in the Letters on a Regicide Peace: “For the war Pope sang his dying notes.”

  28. Speech Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, 22 Mar. 1775, in The Works of Edmund Burke (London: Rivington, 1826), III, 41-43.

  29. “Burke and the Ancient Constitution: An Essay on Traditions and Their Understanding,” ch. 6 in Pocock, Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (New York: Atheneum, 1973).

  30. J. G. A. Pocock, “Modes of Political and Historical Time in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Volume 5, ed. Ronald C. Rosbottom (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976), p. 95.

  31. Robert Blair, The Grave, in The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse, p. 369.

  32. English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Duckworth, 1904), p. 10.

  33. Peri Bathous, in Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope, p. 61. The references are to Defoe, Nahum Tate, Edward Ward, Laurence Eusden, and Richard Blackmore.

  34. “Allusion: The Poet as Heir,” in Studies in the Eighteenth Century III, ed. R. F. Brissenden and J. C. Eade (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), p. 235.

  35. Samuel Garth, Preface to the Translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1717), in The Works of Celebrated Authors, Volume the First (1750), p. 401.

  36. Dunciad Variorum II.255-56. The target is Blackmore once again.

20 TE VIII, p. 574.

A. D. Nuttall (essay date 1988)

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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 would have been horrified to discover’.1 Empson had critical designs on Popean zeugma which, he saw clearly, worked through a tension between apparent or formal symmetry and a latent asymmetry. The result is wit (not rationality), a contained wildness of the mind. My own design in this essay is to follow Empson's lead, to pursue further the idea of instability in stability, the dynamic imagination within the static.

It might be thought that the very last place in which we should look for such tensions is eighteenth-century translations of classical authors: to look, as Empson looked, for the fluid within the fixed is surely to seek the anti-Augustan within the Augustan; what is hinted at in such an enterprise is the possible presence of proto-Romantic elements in an otherwise firmly classical body of work; that part of the work which is actually derived by direct translation from classical antiquity will scarcely exhibit the required character. ‘Classic’ and ‘Romantic’ are terms which criticism can neither define nor do without. I will content myself here with a single observation and make no further use of them in this essay. It is impossible absolutely to confine either term to a given historical period. Broad areas of literature may seem to fall under one flag or the other, but then a narrower scrutiny of a single area will cause us to make the same distinction again, and then again. Thus it might be argued that the eighteenth century is classic while the nineteenth is Romantic, but then that, within the eighteenth century, the Graeco-Roman materials are alone truly classic. Or, to cast one's net differently, one might urge that the whole of European literature from the Middle Ages constitutes a Romantic antithesis to the authentic classicism of Homer and Virgil; but move back into the ancient period and Virgil with his celebrated ‘subjective style’, his dream-like fluidity, his sense of landscape becomes Romantic to Homer's classic; move back once more and the magical Odyssey is Romantic when set not with but against the austere Iliad. We shall do better if we drop these terms altogether and confine ourselves to the contrast between stability and flux, and in particular the literary extension of flux to that which is itself properly stable, as a means of expressing movement in the subject.

Let us begin, not with a Greek but a Roman. A strange poem called the Dirae (either ‘Curses’ or ‘Furies’) has been handed down to us as one of the works of Virgil. It appears in many good early manuscripts of Virgil and is listed as Virgil's by both Servius and Donatus. The Renaissance scholar Scaliger (who thought this poem was the work of Virgil's friend Varius) classed it separately, with certain other minor poems, as part of what he called the Appendix Vergiliana. Most modern scholars regard much of the Appendix as non-Virgilian. Although the Dirae is almost certainly not by Virgil himself, it is concerned with the special Virgilian experience of dispossession. Virgil, unlike Shakespeare, say, but like Dante, perceived a significant shape in his own life and projected it on the whole of human history in his major work.2 Like Aeneas he was first expelled from his own land and then brought home. Virgil never forgot the traumatic loss of his farm, requisitioned for veterans returning after the Battle of Philippi. ‘Traumatic’ is not too strong a word. The picture of Virgil which has come down to us is of one gauche in all things but poetry, at once rustic and over-educated, almost neurotically attached to a certain landscape. In Virgil's Aeneid the hero is unparadised from Troy and finds his way, through varying images of ruined pastoral and spectral cities to a home more anciently his than Troy had ever been. In the Dirae (as in certain of the Eclogues) we have the personal story. Grief and imprecation are strangely mixed. The poet does not curse those who threw him off his land. Instead in a sort of hysteria he curses the land itself, as certain suicides seek to involve their own loved ones in their self-destruction. The rough usurping soldiers are barely glimpsed, in a single, Marvellian line (I accept the conjecture succidet in place of the impossible succedet):

Militis impia cum succidet dextera ferro …
When with his iron the soldier's impious hand shall fell …

(l. 31)

The lines which follow accelerate the impending destruction of the sweet especial rural scene and then, abruptly, seek to retard the process of change:

Tardius a miserae descendite monte capellae
Ah, slowly, slowly now, my goats, come down from the hill.

(l. 91)

The most remarkable lines of all (and the more Latin poetry one reads the more startling they become) are those in which the poet describes his own departure from the place:

Hinc ego de tumulo mea rura novissima visam,
hinc ibo in silvas: obstabunt iam mihi colles,
obstabunt montes, campos audire licebit:
‘dulcia rura valete, et Lydia dulcior illis,
et casti fontes et, felix nomen, agelli’. 

(ll. 86-90)

From this mound I shall look for the last time at my lands and then go into the woods, now hills will block, now mountains, but the levels will still be able to hear, ‘Goodbye, sweet country places and Lydia sweeter still, goodbye, chaste springs and you little fields of happy name’.

These lines stand out from the relatively coarse, sub-Virgilian versification of the Dirae. Eduard Fraenkel went so far as to say that whoever wrote these lines, it could not be the poet of the Dirae, and to stress a connection, indirect but nevertheless intimate, with the authentically Virgilian fifth Eclogue.3 The passage is remarkable for its subtle hypallage from subject to object, not all of which can be conveyed straightforwardly in an English version. For example, the Latin does not actually say, ‘I shall look for the last time at my lands’; it says, ‘I shall look at my newest (latest) lands’; the character of the looking (looking for the last time) is ascribed to the thing looked at. This is not a mere trick or metrical convenience. It is used poetically.

Partly, the effect is of an extreme subjectivism: where the pathos of the viewer is as strong as this it can, so to speak, appropriate the object in act of wilful perceptual tyranny, but at the same time this is a poem about expropriation and we are aware that this small, defiant movement of the imagination is futile. The notion of a last embrace, hackneyed in English, but poetically powerful in the Aeneid, may lie behind the thought here. Thus, together with the rhetorical appropriation we sense the opposite of appropriation: that the subject is drained, that a richness of identity properly his has passed into the landscape. There is even a faint paradox within the single word novissima, where, because this is a time poem, we hear for an instant the basic sense, ‘newest’, before it is contested and defeated by the dominant sense ‘last’. But then we have a firmly personal assertion: ibo in silvas, ‘I shall go into the woods’, followed at once by obstabunt iam mihi colles. I translated these words, with all the inelegance of a studied neutrality, as ‘now hills will block’. In ordinary Latin obstabunt following ibo must mean ‘will bar my path’. But the context of intense subjective perception, of looking and listening (or being heard) ensures that we do not take it so. It is as if the poet is walking with head turned, so that obstabunt can mean (as the Loeb translator takes it) ‘will block my view’. The agency is mysteriously transferred, once more, from the subject moving through the landscape, to the landscape itself. We cannot quite say that the poet makes the hills move (these hills are not like the striding mountain in the first book of Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850, 1, l. 412). Yet the repetition of the verb and the changing scale of its subject (first hills then mountains) suggest as it were a covert action on the part of the landscape, as if the ground moves to interpose its masses when the poet is not looking. In these lines we have, then, a certain linguistic and logical oddity, deployed to a subtle literary effect. These hints are then allowed to flower in the full-blown poetical figure of the levels still hearing the poet's melancholy valediction, a version of the quintessentially Virgilian trope of the pathetic fallacy, since we infer sympathy in the listening fields.

If these lines are not by Virgil they are by someone who, as they used to say in the sixteenth century, was deeply inward with his work—though the Dirae never lost its place in the Virgilian corpus, it seems to have been little taught in the Roman schools and to have escaped the kind of learned commentary which accreted round his Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid. These lines especially are thoroughly Virgilian in their subtle manipulation of subject and object and in their heart-tearing sense of place. Virgil is rightly famous as the poet of idem in alio, who reworked the war and the wanderings of Homeric epic until they became instinct with futurity, with the divine history of a single city, Rome. At the same time, as I have suggested, Virgil was aware of a correlative personal history, of his own eviction, wandering and home-coming. This is picked up and accented in the Dirae, together (it must be confessed) with a quantity of sub-standard writing of quite another order.

I have explored this passage in some detail because it is a peculiarly rich example of something rare in Latin literature: a kind of poetry in which the moving subject implicitly imputes his own movement to the landscape, producing a strange effect of exacerbated, disorienting subjectivity. It is an effect which without further apology we may agree to call Virgilian, not least because it is given audacious expression in the Aeneid, where Italy flies before a pursuing Aeneas through a world of evanescent visions and ghost cities which rise and fall before our eyes. I chose the Dirae as my main specimen in preference to the more opulent tropes of the Aeneid because of the very smallness of the scale and the sharpness of the visual/spatial effect which go with such intimacy. I chose it because it is more Popean. Yet we cannot be quite certain that Pope ever read it. The Dirae is excluded from Daniel Heinsius's edition of the Works of Virgil (Leyden, 1636) which Pope is known to have possessed.4 It is included in Michael Maittaire's Opera et Fragmenta Veterum Poetarum Latinorum, a book Pope is again known to have owned (p. 459). But the Opera et Fragmenta did not appear until 1713, ascribes the Dirae not to Virgil but to the more readily negligible Valerius Cato and, most infuriatingly of all, prints nec adire in place of audire at line 88.5 This changes the sense from ‘the levels will be able to hear’ to ‘it will not be possible to reach the levels’, which in its turn reduces obstabunt, ‘will block (my vision)’ to the commonplace ‘will bar my path’. It would really be more to the point to ask whether the Dirae was known to Sir William Trumbull, the friend and mentor (especially in matters classical) of Pope's youth. Pope refers on a number of occasions to the Appendix Vergiliana but always to the Culex (never the Dirae).6 One particular early reference, in a letter of 11 November 1710, suggests (though we may remind ourselves that Pope liked to wear his learning heavily) a serious engagement with Virgilian dubia; he points out that a borrowing from the conclusion of the Culex occurs in the Prolusiones Academicae (1622) of Famianus of Strada (Correspondence I, p. 103). The question remains uncertain. I therefore offer the lines from the Dirae not as a source for Pope but as a remote, early parallel—another example of the fertilizing effect of Virgil's poetry. Of Pope's awareness of the grander, epic versions there can be no doubt, for these had been imperiously transposed and integrated in English literary culture through Dryden's translation.

… arva … Ausoniae semper cedentia retro 

(Aeneid III, l. 496)

appears in Dryden as:

‘Fields of flying Italy
to chase’ 

(Virgil's Aeneis III, l. 643)7


Italiam sequimur fugientem et volvimur undis 

(Aeneid V, l. 629)

appears as:

‘Through stormy sea
We search in vain for flying Italy’

(Virgil's Aeneis V, l. 819)8

The ancient poet who is not like this at all is, of course, Homer.

When Pope was about nineteen he worked up a free translation of a number of neighbouring passages in the thirteenth book of Homer's Odyssey. This we now know as ‘The Arrival of Ulysses in Ithaca’. By the second couplet we can see Pope Virgilianizing his author:

At once they bend, and strike their equal oars,
And leave the sinking Hills, and lessening Shores. 

(ll. 4-5)

The first line is Homerically objective, the second is like a Virgilian antiphony, at once mirroring and modifying the first, with its insinuation of a projected subjectivity. There is nothing in the Greek about sinking hills or lessening shores, nor is there in the English versions of Hobbes, Ogilby or Chapman.9 In a similar manner at lines 21-4 one couplet conveys the objective splendour of Homer (weakened only marginally by the faint personification of ‘promis'd’) while the next counters with a Virgilian moving landscape—not a diminuendo this time, but a crescendo:

But when the morning Star with early Ray
Flam'd in the Front of Heav'n, and promis'd Day
Like distant Clouds the Mariner descries
Fair Ithaca's emerging Hills arise.

There is, again, no warrant in Homer for the second of these couplets but, as Audra and Williams observe,10 Pope may actually have had Dryden's Virgil in mind at this moment:

When we from far, like bluish Mists, descry
The Hills, and then the Plains, of Italy.

(Virgil's Aeneis III, ll. 684-5)

11Because feelings are freer than facts, a certain easy extremism of language enters with the subjective style; hyperbole, in a manner, becomes merely natural. One result of this is that, while it is clear in the Greek that the vessel which conveys Odysseus in a magic ship, moving with preternatural speed, we are unsurprised when Pope tells us that the ship flew faster than an eagle (13-14); any ship may seem to do that. Here what is perhaps the finest image of the Odyssey, the sleeping hero whirled across the sea, is unforgivably reduced.

In Pope's version the Phaeacians set Odysseus/Ulysses ashore, as they do in Homer, and he hides his treasure so that no one can steal it. Here Pope does not elaborate but instead curtails his author. Homer is much more interested than Pope in the practical business of concealing the treasure, telling us, as Pope does not, that it was in a place aside from the road, where no wayfaring man would come upon it (Odyssey XIII, 123).

At line 55 we have the minor but still significantly un-Homeric hypallage, ‘solitary shore’, for strictly speaking it is the hero who is alone, not the shore, and then, with almost no warrant from the original, five lines of studied art, in which grief is expertly mingled with visual perception:

Pensive and slow, with sudden Grief opprest,
The King arose, and beat his careful Breast,
Cast a long look o'er all the Coast and Main,
And sought around his Native Realm in vain;
Then with erected Eyes, stood fix'd in woe.

(ll. 68-72)

Homer says simply that Odysseus ‘looked upon his native land’ (XIII, 197). Otherwise, of these lines only the second can be said to occur in Homer at XIII, 198 (though there the hero smites not his breast but his thigh). At line 224 Pope again adds a note of Virgilian visual pathos with the words, ‘Now lift thy longing Eyes’. The intruded line 133,

Where Troy's Majestic Ruins strow the Ground

is, once more, Virgilian in tone, though here it is a different strand in Virgil which is being drawn upon.

But not all Pope's departures from Homer are Virgilian. The adjectives at lines 106-7:

Her decent Hand a shining Javelin bore,
and painted Sandals on her Feet she wore

are not in Homer but are, so to speak, Augustan-Homeric: ‘painted’ is influenced by Homer's ποικιλοs which happens not to be used here but easily could have been. ‘Decent’ is indeed a Latinism, but the influence here is Horace rather than Virgil (say, decentes malas, Horace, Odes III, xxvii, ll. 53-4, transmitted through Milton, Il Penseroso, l. 36, ‘decent shoulders’). Elsewhere Pope's changes are in the direction of gentility, as when he introduces the ‘Peasant’ at line 124. Here the result is that the interest in farming on Ithaca, which for Homer is immediate, is distanced as the proper province of subordinate persons. Or else he is sententious, as at lines 86-7 where he offers the reader an elevated reflection on the rarity of virtue in the Great. He omits entirely the conversation of Zeus and Poseidon together with the turning to stone of the Phaeacian ship (XIII, ll. 125-87). The full list of omissions and additions is a long one but it is the Virgilian changes which most crucially affect the atmosphere of the whole and colour the poetry. Homer's ancient, magic world is humanized, refined, imbued with sensibility.

All the while Pope, the craftsman, is learning from this crossing of cultures. Every translator knows occasions when he is tempted to convey not only the sense but the linguistic character of the original, to drop the game of equivalences and instead to transpose, by a kind of bodily violence, vocabulary, idiom or syntax from the source language to the receiving language.12 Where a language is relatively poor, as was Middle English, say, when the Latin for ‘remorse of conscience’ had to be rendered by ‘again-bite of in-wit’, the receiving language is actually enriched and extended by such forcible incursions from the major culture. Later phases of transposition have subtler effects. The aureate diction of Sir Thomas Browne played the transposed polysyllables of Latin and Greek against Saxon simplicities to suggest a running ambivalence or balancing of equivalents in the world and in the mind. Milton's despotic transpositions of alien syntax and idiom created for all the poets who followed a strange secondary music in the given medium of literary English.

English-Augustan classicism is an altogether less radical, more urbane affair than Milton's. Its typical effect is a certain finesse, a precision which may look for a moment, but a moment only, like imprecision. Thus in calling his poem The Rape of the Lock Pope knew that the grosser, ordinary meaning of rape (which, by the way, the reader is never allowed quite to forget), inappropriate as it is to a lock of hair, must be swiftly replaced by the Latin sense, ‘seizure’ (now perfectly appropriate and free, after all, from any offence).

If all translators from the Latin and Greek had followed the implicit code of, say, the Penguin Classics, in which those quirks of linguistic and conceptual organization which may be deemed to be embedded in the ancient language as such are suppressed, the varying streams of more or less classicized diction would never have entered the language, to be poetically exploited in due course by such as Pope. Of course, as long as there were people about who knew the ancient languages, abrupt trans-linguistic allusions like Milton's ‘happy-making sight’ at line 18 of On Time were always possible (here the seemingly artless phrase is ponderously faux-naif; a Saxonised version of beatifica visio and so a small prize for the learned reader). But Pope, whose learning in ancient tongues was not profound, had nevertheless an ear sharply attuned to the literary effects of transposition, whether from Greek, Latin or from contemporary high-polish Romance cultures such as French. The writer of a radically classical style gives the reader a sense of an utterly hard infra-structure of meanings which are both alien to us and clear. Milton does so systematically and Pope does not. Jane Austen inherited certain verbal habits of precision from the classicizing eighteenth century but employed them without any sense of the original infra-structure. She is therefore classical in the comic form of her novels but not in their intimate verbal texture. In our own century Evelyn Waugh is found repellent by some not only because of his politics, but also because of the hard, alienating gloss of a radically, but not ostentatiously, classical style. Something must have gone into his head at Lancing College.

The distinction between translation and transposition is, it will be noticed, a rough and ready one, with further sub-distinctions lurking within it. The translator, unlike the transposer, selects from the receiving language equivalents which shall be wholly natural to the receiving language. Where the Latin poet says (indeed with no religious intention) that bulls ‘breathe Vulcan from their nostrils’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses VII, l. 104) the modern translator will say they ‘breathe fire’ (since that is what we would say). But at this point a certain sort of reader, curious as to how ancient poetry was actually pieced together, will resent the modification while another sort of reader will be gratefully acquiescent. It may be that this example artificially biases the argument in favour of the literalist transposer, for it is certainly true that an exaggerated fidelity to form and idiom can result in an utterly faithless and distorted rendering of meaning (now the notion of equivalence, the watchword of the translator, begins to look strong again). Yet—the argument oscillates more and more rapidly—this too can beget difficulties which arise from the fact that even fictional ancient literature is engaged at certain points with historical actuality. There will be times when praetor may be rendered ‘magistrate’ and times when the translator must write, even in English, ‘praetor’. In eighteenth-century England there was a perfectly clear cultural equivalent for Rome, namely London, yet to translate Juvenal's Roma, ‘London’, is to stretch translation so far as to turn it into what Dryden called ‘imitation’ (as opposed to ‘paraphrase’ or the still tighter ‘metaphrase’).13

The eighteenth century knew how to enjoy such ultra-translation just as it appreciated the opposite pleasure of linguistic transposition. If Johnson's London (a version of Juvenal's third Satire) may stand at one end of our continuum, the calque may stand as its polar opposite. A calque is a transference of a special, subordinate use of a given word in language ‘A’ to the corresponding word in language ‘B’ where that special use had not existed previously. ‘Foot’ in the sense of ‘metrical foot’ is a calque from Latin pes, which carried just such a subordinate technical sense. A calque is quite distinct from what is called borrowing, where the form of a word in language ‘A’ is simply replicated, with the minimum necessary adjustments, in language ‘B’. ‘Admonition’ is a borrowing from Latin ‘admonitio’ and preserves the form of the original almost exactly. Calques became less and less common as the English language developed and borrowings were felt to be more cultivated. They are most common in the Anglo-Saxon period.14 A learned freedom at the ‘imitation’ end of the spectrum (where the receiving culture is lavishly enfranchised) is answered at the other end by a tiny localized usurpation of the natural rights of the receiving language—not by the mere importation of the polysyllabic alien form of the word but by a more fundamental invasion of the seme, or meaning-structure. To refer to ‘the third foot’ of a line of verse is, even today, not quite natural English. Dickens makes a free and very coarse use of calques to convey the Frenchness of France in A Tale of Two Cities and at the beginning of Little Dorrit. Charlotte Brontë does the same thing, though less exuberantly, in Villette. Pope's touch is far too light for such gross effects.

Let us take, from nowhere, a Latin sentence: Et blaesa voce numeris locutus sum. This can be translated, ‘I lisped in verse-time.’ A bad case of form-transposition might give ‘I balbutiated metrically’ (where the borrowings are from other Latin words). Transposition of the subordinate sense gives, ‘I lisped in numbers’ and this, of course, is Pope. As soon as we read ‘in numbers’ we sense Augustanism and, if we enjoy it, what we are enjoying is a subtle counterpointing of semic systems. ‘Numbers’ is a calque, for here the English word is used in a way which is, still perceptibly, unnatural. It is used as numerus is used in Latin. For some learned readers the intuition of Latinity in ‘numbers’ would be strengthened by the fact that at this point in the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot Pope happens to be echoing a particular passage of Ovid (Tristia IV, x, ll. 21-6). Of course calques may be gradually naturalized by frequent use in the receiving language until they are no longer felt as calques—for example certain uses of chair influenced by Latin cathedra; or left in the political sense, influenced by French gauche. It is characteristic of Pope that he should use a partly naturalized calque with a surviving stylistic sense of its linguistic nature. It is not for him but for hardier spirits to introduce wholly new calques.

When the young Pope essayed the translation of Homer he brought to the task not the self-abnegating, objectivist zeal of the scholar but a civil art of interwoven tones and nuances. Was he not soon to be the foremost social poet of the age? He knew perfectly well that his job was to temper style with style, to gain point and dynamism by modulating from austerity to urbanity. But as soon as he began to write he found that such modulation did not work through a simple encounter of the (severe) ancient and the (polished) modern; ancient literature itself prescribed a startlingly rich variety of tone. The matter is further complicated—almost beyond analysis—by the varying mediations of existing translations, but for all that we continue to find an intelligible music of styles rather than a mere chaos. Certainly the Odyssey, as we hinted earlier, is deeply different from the Iliad. The later poem is spatially indistinct, magical, humorous, and to bring this out Pope found himself drawing on Virgil, who is different again. The result is not a faithful rendering of Homer (a thing worth chasing but impossible to hit) but a shimmering of styles and languages. To the eighteenth century (and still, to some extent, to us) the ancient world was marble: Vitruvian, regular, arched, pillared, founded in reason and nature. Where the modern world presents an obscure flux, the ancient presents a sunlit stability. Such is the ‘mental set’, the elementary binary codification of material from which we must begin. Pope's way with English poetry was always subtly to thwart or undermine seemingly stable structures, restoring harmony only at the last (and not always then). But when he engaged directly with ancient literature he found his way to what is perhaps the most imaginatively original element in Virgil: the rendering fluid of that which is normally the very paradigm of the stable, the earth under our feet, the buildings through which we move.

To be sure in the England of Pope's day the baroque was very much a living force. In the great sotto in su paintings of the period heroes, saints and demigods fly up on clouds above our heads and the architecture from which they rise, columns and pediments seen in an aggressively perspectival manner from below, seems to be on the point of following the figures up, wildly, into the firmament. Giovan Battisti Gaulli had painted his Adoration of the Name of Jesus on the ceiling of the Gesù in Rome before Pope was born, but Sir James Thornhill's Painted Hall at Greenwich was not finished until 1727. Borromini, the great architect of the baroque, took the rectilinear classical façade and caused it to undulate in serpentine curves. Strictly speaking, a curving wall is as stable and unmoving as a straight one but imaginatively, perhaps because in general we expect straightness, undulation immediately suggests movement. But the architects and architectural painters were not placed quite as Pope was placed. There was no real analogue within ancient literature for the spectacular subversions of stability they sought to introduce. Nevertheless Pope found, primarily in Virgil, a non-baroque precedent for his own less grandiose, more intimate subversions. I began with the Dirae as something separate and unique, neglected in the commentaries and yet exhibiting in a curiously poignant manner the imaginative trope of movement imputed to the landscape. Latin is, after all, capable of such things. Pope, from his side, infuses his translation of Homer with an imaginative fluidity which is recognizably akin to what we find, first, in the Dirae and then more largely in the Aeneid.

As early as the Pastorals, written in 1704, the verbs, always revealing in Pope, show this distinctive quality. Often they are inchoative, either in form or in sense:

Here where the Mountains, less'ning as they rise
Lose the low Vales, and steal into the Skies.

(Autumn, ll. 59-60)

The first part of Windsor Forest, that ‘which relates to the country’, was written at about the same time as the Pastorals. Here too we find the same note struck. The phrasing of line 24, ‘blueish hills ascend’, may seem unremarkable but the sense that even here the Virgilian influence may be at work is strengthened by the odd and beautiful word ‘blueish’ used, as we have already seen, of hills in Dryden's Virgil. A couple of lines earlier we have an intuition of a landscape which seems to shift and redispose itself as we move through it in the words ‘interspersed in Lawns and opening Glades’, where the important word is ‘opening’. At line 213 we have the marvellously judged classicism of ‘pendant’ in:

The watry Landskip of the pendant Woods.

First there is the latent linguistic precision of ‘pendant’, a precision not quite natural in English. Then, behind that, we have the imaginative precision-within-a-seeming-inappositeness of woods seen as hanging. In Virgil's first Eclogue the shepherd apostrophizes his goats:

Non ego vos posthac viridi proiectus in antro
dumosa pendere procul de rupe videbo.

(ll. 75-6)

No more, stretched out in some green cave, shall I watch you in the distance, hanging from a bushy crag.

Wordsworth's comment on pendere is famous. He observes doggedly that goats do not in fact hang as parrots hang, that rather the word presents ‘to the mind something of such an appearance, the mind in its activity, for its own gratification contemplates them as hanging’.15 Wordsworth is right on the essential point: that the character proper to the act of seeing is imputed to the thing seen, so that the passage contrives to be both about goats and about seeing at the same time. But of course there is more to it than that. Things threatened can seem more precious than things secure: that which hangs can fall. At the same time there is a contrary sense of a diminished reality, of a black-cloth suspended before the eye (for a visual presentation of a goat, however intense, is somehow less than the goat itself). Virgil more than any other poet taught this art to the ages which followed and Pope was not the least apt of his pupils. Thus Pope's pendant woods may owe something to the landscape description at Aeneid I, l. 164. The famous phrase, silvis scaena coruscis, translated by R. G. Austin as ‘a backdrop of quivering woods’,16 where the sense of a painted curtain becomes explicit, is followed by horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra (l. 165), ‘The grove hangs dark over it with its bristling shade’ (imminet is parallel in Latin to impendet and pendentibus itself appears in the very next line, applied to the hanging rocks of the cave).

There is a lesson in all this for us. The twentieth-century reader of Pope needs in a manner to have his ear educated by Virgil if he is to read the English poet with full understanding. Sappho to Phaon belongs to the same year (1707) as The Arrival of Ulysses in Ithaea. Here the dominant influence is Ovid, but Virgil is not wholly absent. The silvis scaena coruscis passage is perhaps the most influential piece of natural description in all ancient literature and its fainter echoes persist even where direct influence is unprovable. Let us try to catch the more fleeting Virgilian affinities in the following lines:

As if once more forsaken, I complain
And close my Eyes, to dream of you again.
Then frantick rise, and like some Fury rove
Thro' lonely Plains, and thro' the silent Grove,
As if the silent Grove and lonely Plains
That knew my Pleasures, cou'd relieve my Pains.
I view the Grotto, once the Scene
of Love,
The Rocks around, the hanging Roofs above … 

(ll. 157-64)

Here we do not have the trope of imputed movement, but the subject's progress through plains and conscious (in the old sense) woods is reminiscent of the Dirae, while the word ‘Fury’ evokes the stricken and sleepless Dido, roving maddened through the night at the beginning of Aeneid IV (uritur infelix Dido totaque vagatur / urbe furens, ‘Unhappy Dido burns and wanders fury-like through the whole city’). Meanwhile the ‘Grotto’, the ‘scene’ of love and the ‘hanging’ rocks take us back to silvis scaena coruscis, felt through Ovid, Heroides XV, ll. 135ff. We must concede, I think, that Pope's ‘scene’ is a degree or two less assertive of the theatrical metaphor than Virgil's scaena; one can watch the word weakening in successive English imitations of Virgil before Pope. Milton at Paradise Lost IV, l. 137, writes ‘sylvan scene’ and then goes out of his way to make sure that the image is kept alive by ‘woody theatre’ immediately afterwards. Dryden, translating Aeneid I, l. 164, writes ‘a Sylvan Scene’ / Appears above’17 and we sense that the word is paler than it was. But in both Dryden and Pope the word scene certainly retains the theatrical image more strongly than it does today. Virgil's poetry was then still feeding the word.

The case is similar with the (for us) unremarkable ‘Alps on Alps arise’ which occurs in the Essay on Criticism, l. 232, in a sharply visual context (‘tire our wandring Eyes’ ends the preceding line). The line about the Alps can be linked with Eloisa to Abelard, l. 290: ‘Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll’, where we are discernibly in the world of the Dirae (obstabunt montes, the mountains which interpose themselves between the subject and the loved object).

Sometimes indeed the effect is more full-blown and closer to the baroque. Take the ascending, swelling, bending architectural splendours of Windsor Forest, ll. 375-80:

Behold! th'ascending Villa's on my Side
Project long Shadows o'er the Chrystal Tyde.
Behold! Augusta's glitt'ring Spires increase,
And Temples rise, the beauteous Works of Peace.
I see, I see where two fair Cities bend
Their ample Bow, a new White-Hall

It may be said that this is at best an impure specimen of the trope since the buildings to which Pope referred were actually rising. The point is less important than it appears. Even when a building is being raised the eye does not see it rising in the accelerated manner of these lines. When we come to the two fair bending cities, the reader is not sure whether the sense is that building works are joining them (as in fact they were) or whether they simply appear thus. It is characteristic of such poetry that questions of this sort do not trouble us but are instead merely suspended. Some may have been reminded of Aeneas at the site where Rome is later to rise, Aeneid, VIII, ll. 355-6, especially as in the Latin the word oppida, ‘towns’ is mildly surprising, occurring when, metre apart, we might rather have expected some such word as arces, ‘citadels’:

Haec duo praeterea disiectis oppida muris
reliquias veterumque vides monumenta virorum.

In Dryden:

Then saw two heaps of Ruins; once they stood
Two stately Towns, on either side the Flood.

(Virgil's Aeneis VIII, ll. 467-8)18

The same, more grandiose, manner appears but this time with a downward motion in:

… Tow'rs and Temples sink in Floods of Fire

(The Temple of Fame, l. 478)

Years later Pope could not resist a Virgilian expansion when he translated the lament of Andromache for Hector (Iliad XXIV, l. 725-45). Homer makes her say that, before her child will grow up, πóλιs ηδε κατ ακρηs / περsεται (ll. 728-9), literally ‘This city will be destroyed from the top down.’ The phrase which I have rendered, ‘from the top down’ is however less vivid in the Greek than in the English and Lang, Leaf and Myers have some justification in translating it simply as ‘utterly’.19 But Virgil, contrariwise, blew on the spark and made it blaze, not once but twice:

Ruit alto a culmine Troia.

(Aeneid II, l. 290)

Down from her high pinnacle Troy is falling.
… divum inclementia, divum
… sternitque a culmine Troiam.

(II, l. 603)

The gods, the merciless gods scatter and lay low Troy from her pinnacle down.

Translating the original Greek phrase, Pope writes, surely with a sense of the Latin ruit in his ‘Ruin’:

For Ilium now (her great Defender
Shall sink, a smoaking ruin on the plain.

(Pope's Iliad XXIV, ll. 916-17)

Compare with this Pope's Odyssey III, ll. 614-18 (the third book of the Odyssey is one of the books which Pope undertook to translate himself, without waiting for a prior version by Fenton or Broome):

Beneath the bounding yoke alike they held
Their equal pace, and smoak'd along the field.
The tow'rs of Pylos sink, its
views decay,
Fields after fields fly back, till close of day:
Then sunk the Sun, and darken'd all the way:

The Greek here is rendered, almost word for word, by Butcher and Lang as follows:

Nothing loth the pair flew toward the plain and left
the steep citadel of Pylos. So all day long they swayed
the yoke they bore upon their necks.
Now the sun sank and all the ways were darkened.(22)

In Pope's version the bounding yoke and the darkened way are both reasonably Homeric. The words ‘alike’ and ‘equal’ may look like a sheer importation of Augustan order and balance into the headlong motion of the original but in fact Pope may here be responding to the dual form of the verb and αμϕιs (= ‘both’ or ‘the pair’). The rest is a compound of Virgil and Pope's own, unsubduable gift. This passage is linked to the one previously cited by ‘smoak'd’, but its chief interest is that it returns us to the trope of imputed motion. The towers sink as Telemachus and Pisistratus leave them behind. Virgil's fields of flying Italy are somewhere in the penumbra of the poetry but meanwhile the startling phrase, ‘views decay’ is very much Pope's own. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, with no lyric intent, called imagination itself ‘decaying sense’.23 Pope's use of the word is full of lyric sensitivity but is at the same time in a manner neutral (there is no sinister suggestion). He may be writing in a classicizing mode, with an awareness of the word's remoter derivation from Latin decidere, ‘to fall’. What he writes is certainly poetry. Later the word is to appear again in the terrific conclusion of The Dunciad, in which creation itself runs backwards to a hell of un-being:

gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.

(1742, IV, ll. 631-2)

This time the implication of corruption and malaise is admitted by the poetry. Within five lines we have the finest, and the most disquieting line Pope ever wrote:

The sick'ning stars fade off th'ethereal plain.

(l. 636)

In The Dunciad Pope is no longer teaching himself by cross-breeding his predecessors but is writing at the height of his powers. The auditory relativity of Virgil is thoroughly transformed, appearing now in the fully Popean evocation of London, the sounding city, flooded and overwhelmed by a rising tumult:

But far o'er all, sonorous Blackmore's strain;
Walls, steeples, skies, bray back to him again.
In Tot'nam fields, the brethren, with amaze,
Prick all their ears up, and forget to graze;
Long Chanc'ry Lane retentive rolls the sound
And courts to courts return it round and round;
Thame wafts it thence to Rufus' roaring hall,
And Hungerford re-echoes bawl for bawl.

(1742, II, ll. 259-66)

Pope can be seen in training for this passage in his early version of Statius (1703), with its echoing cities and remurmuring riverbanks (ll. 164, 166) followed by the baroque exhilaration of the ‘guilty Dome’ and the bright pavilions invaded by obscuring clouds (ll. 172-3). That Statius should himself sound like Virgil is, of course, scarcely surprising. Now, however, the language is thoroughly naturalized, not least as a result of the London place-names. It will be said that they are there for bathetic effect and are intended to contrast, according to the ordinary rule of mock-heroic, with an implied array of Roman names. Yet the sheerly heroic energy of the lines is too strong. If ever Pope were, against all the odds, to be comparable with Blake, it would be here.

In The Dunciad the verbs are as important as ever:

Thro' Lud's fam'd gates, along the well-known
Rolls the black troop, and overshades the street,
'Till show'rs of Sermons, Characters, Essays,
In circling fleeces whiten all the ways:
So clouds replenish'd from some bog below,
Mount in dark volumes, and descend in snow.

(1742, II, ll. 359-64)

The simple forward motion of ‘rolls’ is overtaken by the inchoative ‘whiten’. ‘Whiten’ is used many times in the translation of Homer, mostly in descriptions of the sea, and ‘blacken’ is commoner still (twenty-four instances), usually with reference to storm and clouds. In the early (1707) translation of ‘the Episode of Sarpedon’ from the Iliad, an army of warriors, likened to a storm, is seen as ‘black’ning in the field’ (l. 58). In the Dunciad passage, the recurrent Homeric formula, ‘All the ways were darkened’ is working somewhere in the back of Pope's mind. ‘Blacken’ is used most powerfully in The Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady (1717):

While the long fun'rals blacken all the way.

(l. 40)

In The Dunciad blackening and whitening are combined and the combination is at once brilliantly mirrored in the ascending darkness of the clouds followed by the falling pallor of the snow.

Both the passages I have cited from The Dunciad will stand as spectacular examples of dynamic townscape, but in neither of them do we find the radical figure of imputed movement. There is perhaps a kind of vertigo in the image (from the second passage) of flying manuscripts filling the streets, which links it to certain baroque conjurings of flying buildings, but in both passages London itself remains rooted, while the human chaos swirls through it. In the vision of the Fall of Rome in Book III the movement of the buildings is not imaginatively imputed but is actual, a real fall brought about by barbarian hands:

See, the Cirque falls, th' unpillar'd Temple nods,
Streets pav'd with Heroes, Tyber choak'd with Gods.

(1742, III, ll. 107-8)

Yet, even though all this actually happened, it is given a dreamlike quality, an air of licentious imagination by the surrealism of the second line.

Some thirty lines further on the poetry gathers to a head in the ancient figure, known as the adynata or impossibilia24 (fishes in the trees, suns in the sea) in which nature herself runs lunatic. This special, cosmic version of imputed movement has its own literary history and I have done my best to keep it out of this essay. But six lines must be quoted:

Thence a new world to Nature's laws unknown,
Breaks out refulgent, with a heav'n its own:
Another Cynthia her new journey runs,
And other planets circle other suns.
The forests dance, the rivers upward rise,
Whales sport in woods, and dolphins in the skies.

(1742, III, ll. 241-6)

Here the landscape moves mightily, as it does in the Epistle to Burlington where the golden corn flows over and buries Timon's vanity (ll. 173-6). The splendour of the lines quoted is quite untouched by the distinctive colouring of subjective visual perception we found earlier. They are as much Greek as Roman (look at Herodotus v, 92a); they are as Horatian (look at Odes I, ii, ll. 5-10) or as Ovidian (Metamorphoses I, ll. 293-303) as they are Virgilian.

To rediscover the subjective inflection we must leave the major sonorities of The Dunciad and go back in time. In Eloisa to Abelard the shrines tremble (l. 112) with Eloisa's trembling consciousness and when Abelard's image rises in her mind,

Priests, Tapers, Temples, swim before my sight.

(l. 274)

Otherwise, we may turn to that almost perfect minor poem, the Epistle to Miss Blount, on her leaving the Town, after the Coronation, written in 1714. The poet, in a reverie, standing in a London street, imagines Miss Blount in her tedious country exile, imagining (in her turn) the metropolitan splendours of the court. The poem is thus an intricate Chinese box of imaginings within imaginings. Then, to represent the evanescence of an image as it is replaced by common perception, Pope uses the image of a suddenly moved fan, imputing the visual occlusion and revelation occasioned thereby, as movement, to the objects, imagined or perceived. So much for the hard, marble clarity of Augustan verse.

In some fair evening, on your elbow laid,
You dream of triumphs in the rural shade;
In pensive thought recall the fancy'd scene,
See coronations rise on ev'ry green;
Before you pass th' imaginary sights
Of Lords, and Earls, and Dukes, and garter'd Knights;
While the spread fan o'ershades your closing eyes;
Then give one flirt, and all the vision flies.
Thus vanish sceptres, coronets, and balls,
And leave you in lone woods, or empty walls. 

(ll. 31-40)

I have argued that ‘scene’ in Pope carries a stronger theatrical connotation than is always perceived by modern readers. In these lines (perhaps because of their historical relation to the Coronation) Pope seems to be thinking partly of a pageant or masque and masques were of course remarkable for their transformation scenes. Stage scenery, unlike mental imagery, is part of the physical fabric of the public world, but that does not mean that the whole tenor of this passage is merely objectified, as when the falling towers really fall, toppled by the barbarian hordes. Because scenery consists of picturings, more or less flimsy and impermanent, it is naturally analogous to mental imagery. Several scholars have sensed an allusion to masque in the most famous of all the moving-architecture passages of English poetry, the rising to music of Pandemonium in Paradise Lost (I, ll. 710-17).25 In Miss Blount's reverie it is not ‘Doric pillars overlaid / With golden architrave’ that whirl from her but ‘sceptres, coronets and balls’, things which are in any case mobile in themselves. When, however, we are returned to the consciousness of Pope himself, the very streets assail him and clamorously usurp his dream:

Gay pats my shoulder, and
you vanish quite;
Streets, chairs and coxcombs rush upon my sight. 

(ll. 47-8)

I have at times in this essay written of these effects as if they were heroic or sublime. But where they are unequivocally placed as free-floating imaginings they are of course immediately diminished. Pope—jealous to preserve, especially in a potentially sexual context, his own lightness of manner—is often anxious to secure this very diminution. Gay's hand on Pope's shoulder enables him to show Miss Blount that he is not, after all, her abject slave but an urbane man with friends and interests of his own. Pope skilfully curtails the flirtation (remember that this word has to do, as the poem itself shows us, with the use of the fan) and contains his own, briefly vagrant imagination. But the rushing streets are not a dream or an illusion: they are reality itself, importunate and loud. Thus Pope resists the easy baroque sublimity which by his day was virtually inherent in the trope of imputed movement. It is common, everyday London, not heroes and palaces, which is here behaving so uncommonly. One searches in vain for a just analogue in painting: something like Thornhill's ceiling if it had been painted instead by Hogarth. Gillray was later to draw mock-baroque tableaux with caricatured political personages and I am sure that Pope would have been delighted by Cruikshank's picture of London spreading into the surrounding countryside, squirting smoke and bricks in fountains. But both these examples (quite apart from the fact that they post-date Pope) are far too coarse in their technique.

I have tried to show how, when Pope entered the altered landscape of another culture, he chose not only to translate classical meanings into English meanings but also to transpose certain alien habits of speech and thought. He did this because, like all great poets, he cared about language and form, and knew that the language of English poetry itself would be strengthened and enriched by the minor violations to which he was willing to subject it. He also found that the ancient world itself was far from being a uniform field. I have written about Pope's Virgilianizing of Homer as if it were a matter of strenuously artificial interference. In fact it would have required a most artificial vigilance on Pope's part to keep Virgil out. Pope, who never published a set translation of Virgil, had Virgil in his bones and accepted the consequence. This was a dynamic, ever moving modulation of tone. The whole can be seen, thus far, as a marvellously managed interplay of cultural perspectives. But then we notice that the Virgilian passages are all actually about individual, perspectival seeing and perceptual relativities. Pope found, in the ordinary practice of translation, that a Virgilian subjectivity could quicken his page. He had to make the landscape of the past live and move and, lo, there within that very landscape was a poet who made the natural landscape live and move. Meanwhile there is a certain analogy with the situation in English poetry. Johnson said that Dryden found English literature brick and left it marble.26 Not, of course, that Dryden is uniformly marmoreal. Johnson himself observes, earlier in the same Life, ‘Sometimes the marble relents, and trickles in a joke.’27 Elsewhere, one might add (a little more warmly) Dryden is full of life and energy. Nevertheless, Pope following Dryden may well have sensed that, stylistically, English poetry had been fixed in a classic mould. He knew that he must both defer to this and oppose it with his own more delicate genius, and the Virgilian infiltration of the objective epic showed him one way in which this might be done. There is, all the same, a certain irony in the fact that Virgil reached Pope partly through Dryden's version.

Pcpe was not the only poet to employ the trope of imputed movement any more than Virgil was the only Latin poet to do so. But there is a sense in which the fluid, subjective mode remains Virgil's property. If it is found in the Appendix Vergiliana it is because whoever wrote those passages loved and wished to be like Virgil. If it is in Ovid it is because he learned not only from the Hellenistic poets but also from Virgil. As for Statius, his debt to Virgil is immense. When Pope writes

Then Marble soften'd into life grew warm
And yielding metal flow'd to human form.

(The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated, i.e. ‘The Epistle to Augustus’, ll. 147-8)

he owes nothing to Horace, a little to Virgil (Aeneid VI, ll. 847-8) but most of all to Ovid (for example, Metamorphoses X, ll. 283ff.). Pope utterly lacks Virgil's love of his own soil, his religious intensity, his special pathos. Yet, in an age of mannered aggression and social vigilance Pope found a way to keep poetry alive, and Virgil helped.


  1. Seven types of ambiguity (London, 3rd edn., 1963), pp. 68ff.

  2. Many scholars now doubt the biographical reference of the first Eclogue. See the copiously documented discussion by I. M. le M. du Quesnay, ‘Virgil's First Eclogue’, in Francis Cairns (ed.), Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 3 (1981), 29-182, esp. pp. 30-5.

  3. ‘The Dirae’, Journal of Roman Studies 56 (1966), 142-55; p. 152.

  4. See Collected in Himself, p. 424.

  5. Michael Maittaire (ed.), Opera et Fragmenta Veterum Poetarum Latinorum, 2 vols. (London, 1713), II, [pp. 1588-9]. The sequence of pages 1525-1612 occur twice in this volume, the earlier run being distinguished by square brackets.

  6. See, for example, Pope's Essay on Homer, TE, VII, p. 52, and his letter to Jervas of 29 November 1716, in Correspondence, I, p. 376.

  7. In Dryden, Poems, III, p. 1136.

  8. Dryden, Poems, III, p. 1193.

  9. Thomas Hobbes, The Iliads and Odysses of Homer, 2 vols. in one (London, 1677); John Ogilby, Homer his Odysses (London, 1665); George Chapman's translation (complete version 1616, but preceded by earlier versions) is best consulted in Chapman's Homer, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the lesser Homerica, A. Nicoll (ed.) 2 vols. (London, 1957).

  10. TE I, p. 466.

  11. In Dryden, Poems, III, p. 1137.

  12. See C. A. Martindale's admirable discussion in his ‘Unlocking the word-hoard. In praise of Metaphrase’, Comparative Criticism, 6 (1984), 47-72.

  13. See his Preface to Ovid's Epistles, Translated by several hands (1680), in John Dryden, Of dramatic poesy and other critical essays, ed. George Watson, 2 vols. (London, 1962), I, 262-73.

  14. See Barbara M. H. Strang, A history of English (London, 1970), esp. p. 316.

  15. Preface to Poems (1815) in William Wordsworth, Stephen Gill (ed.), The Oxford Authors (Oxford, 1984), p. 631.

  16. P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos, Liber Primus, with a commentary by R. G. Austin (Oxford, 1971), p. 73.

  17. Virgil's Aeneis, I, ll. 233-4, in Dryden, Poems, III, p. 1070.

  18. Dryden, Poems, III, p. 1274.

  19. The Iliad of Homer, trans. A. Lang, W. Leaf and E. Myers (London, 1914), p. 500.

  20. The Odyssey of Homer, trans. S. H. Butcher and A. Lang (London, 1903), p. 46.

  21. Leviathan, Part I, chapter ii, A. R. Woller (ed.) (Cambridge, 1904), p. 3. Pope is known to have owned a copy of the Leviathan; see Collected in Himself, p. 414.

  22. See Ernst Robert Curtius, European literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (London, 1979), pp. 95ff. and A. D. Nuttall, ‘Fishes in the trees’, Essays in Criticism 24 (1974), 20-38.

  23. See Fowler's note ad loc. in The poems of John Milton, Carey and Alastair Fowler (eds.) (London, 1968), p. 502.

  24. Lives of the English poets, G. B. Hill (ed.), 3 vols. (Oxford, 1905), I, p. 469.

  25. Lives of the English poets, I, p. 438.


I am indebted for criticisms and suggestions to C. A. Martindale. All references, unless otherwise specified, are to John Butt (ed.), The poems of Alexander Pope, a one-volume edition of the text of the Twickenham Edition (London, 1968). References to Homer are to D. B. Monro and J. W. Allen (eds.), Homeri Opera (Oxford, 1917-19), those on Virgil are to R. A. B. Majors (ed.), P. Vergili Maronis Opera (Oxford, the corrected 1972 reprint of the 1969 edn.). References to the Dirae are, except for one specified case, to the edition by E. J. Kenney in the Appendix Vergiliana, W. F. Clausen, F. R. D. Goodyear, E. J. Kenney and J. A. Richmond (eds.) (Oxford, 1966).

Valerie Rumbold (essay date 1989)

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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 effect, he can write at length about the human race as if it were entirely masculine. Furthermore, when his attention is not specifically drawn to some female friend or heroine, his casual references to women frequently relapse into dismissive commonplace.

This was a period in which women of the middle and upper classes learned to see themselves less as skilled housewives or assistants in the family business than as leisured companions.1 Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, writing in The Spectator, repeatedly urged women towards the ideal of a sex ‘created as it were for Ornament’, ‘formed to temper Mankind’, and endowed with ‘gentle Softness, tender Fear, and all those parts of Life, which distinguish her from the other Sex, with some Subordination to it, but such an Inferiority that makes her still more lovely’.2 Yet if women's elegant leisure was the natural destiny of a sex created for men's delight, it was also, in line with motives less easily professed, a proud declaration of the wealth that allowed husbands and fathers to maintain wives and daughters in idleness, as conspicuous consumers of the luxury goods which so excited the commercial imagination of the age. The extravagance and frivolity with which contemporary moralists taxed women were in effect the occupational hazards of a role which it suited men to have them play; and against this background outright misogyny became less acceptable than the politely patronising attitude expressed in such characteristic expressions as ‘the fair sex’.3 Although Pope was to an extent insulated by the old-fashioned style of housekeeping which persisted in many Catholic families, this was nevertheless the ordinary view of women in the wider culture for which he has often been cast as prime spokesman. Yet, ironically, as far as contemporary definitions of gender were concerned, he found himself in a peculiarly difficult situation.4

Religion, politics and illness combined to bar Pope from the full enjoyment of the privileges reserved for men in his society. If, as he states in Characters of Women, it is the distinction of woman to develop her personality to the full only in private life, his disqualifications from public life brought him to a condition in that respect parallel to hers, despite his easy assumption that he belongs to the busy world of men:

But grant, in Public Men sometimes are shown,
A Woman's seen in Private life alone:
Our bolder Talents in full light display'd.
Your Virtues open fairest in the shade.(5)

As a Roman Catholic Pope was excluded from the universities, from public office, and from the inheritance or purchase of land, all three factors which traditionally distinguished upper-class males.6 Pope's characteristic eagerness to belittle the advantages he lacked should not blind us to the actual importance of such deprivations: critics of his Homer translation were quick to claim that he ‘doth not understand Greek thoroughly, for he never was at any University’; and when he attacked the sterility of university education he was surely in part reassuring himself that he had missed nothing worth having.7 Others might have frowned on an enthusiasm for the classics in which translations encountered in childhood had played so large a part, but Pope rather congratulated himself on having learned to read for the meaning, to discern ‘the greatness of Homer's beauties through all the rags that were flung over him’.8 Exclusion from public office, like exclusion from university, helped to foster a derisive attitude which is at least partly defensive. The post most appropriate to his talents would have been the laureateship; but the impression given by the Dunciad is that the unobtainable distinction is beneath contempt. As consolation for the impossibility of a paternal inheritance in land he turned to Horace and asserted the sufficiency of a rented home for a rational life of hospitality and decent frugality:

… not happier …
In Forest planted by a Father's hand,
Than in five acres now of rented land.(9)

He ridiculed the conventional patriarchal motive in acquiring property:

“Pity! to build, without a son or wife:
“Why, you'll enjoy it only all your life”.

(Satires, II.ii.163)

And he went on to detail with glee the pitfalls that beset fathers intent on transmitting estates to their posterity. Yet despite such disclaimers, his letters show that his lack of an heir was frequently in his thoughts, and in the end he compromised by leaving a newly purchased house to his old and dear friend Patty Blount, a choice of heir which enraged his half-sister by its denial of the claims of family.10 Catholic disabilities cast their shadow even over this last tribute to the most enduring of his friendships: ‘I must desire you to say nothing of what I tell you concerning my purchase of the House in town, which is done in another's name’, he wrote to Hugh Bethel.11

In addition to his exclusion from public life as a Catholic, Pope shared the long eclipse of his Tory friends after 1714, exchanging the brief glamour of association with men in high office for systematic contempt for a court life identified with corruption.12 His heroes are men denied office, set apart from the artificial supports to self-esteem implicit in the public life that is now as closed to them as it is to Pope. To the first Earl of Oxford, once Queen Anne's Treasurer, he writes:

In vain to Desarts thy Retreat is made;
The Muse attends thee to the silent Shade:
'Tis hers, the brave Man's latest Steps to trace,
Re-judge his Acts, and dignify Disgrace.
When Int'rest calls off all her sneaking Train,
And all th'Obliged desert, and all the Vain;
She waits, or to the Scaffold, or the Cell,
When the last ling'ring Friend has bid farewel.(13)

In this talk of ‘Desarts’ (not the most obvious term for a country house full of admiring family and friends) we have an echo of the poetry of retirement as it flourished among Royalists after the Civil War, when the implied alternative of a public life was no longer real.14 Yet even defeated Royalists, once they had compounded for their estates, were better off in many ways than Pope.

In particular, Pope was to suffer chronic ill health from adolescence until his death at the age of fifty-six: the privacy doubly forced on him as a Catholic and a Tory was further limited by Potts' Disease, a tubercular infection of the bone which progressively disabled him.15 Because of this he could not seriously think of emigrating as his friend Edward Blount did after the collapse of his scheme for procuring Catholic civil rights (although he soon repented of the idea and came home).16 Indeed, Pope's family could see no point in his learning modern languages as it was obvious to them that he would never be strong enough to travel, and envy of opportunities he would have known how to use to the full plays its part in his satire of the English fop on the Grand Tour: ‘Europe he saw, and Europe saw him too’.17 If resettlement in a Catholic country was the most obvious escape from internal exile, an alternative or supplementary compensation (also practised by Edward Blount) could be the cultivation of a satisfying family life in rural retirement (Corr., I, 425; II, 86). This was the path taken by Pope's friend John Caryll, whom Pope delighted to praise as a patriarch and upholder of old-fashioned social virtues. However, Caryll's preoccupation with the interests of his relations sprang from a strong identification with family, supported by a happy and fruitful marriage which Pope was prepared to praise but not to imitate.18 Less than five feet tall and deformed by curvature of the spine, he was acutely conscious of being ‘that little Alexander the women laugh at’; and he declared, ‘I have no way so good to please 'em, as by presenting 'em with any thing rather than with my self’ (Corr., I, 114; II, 290). This was no basis for seeking a wife; and when Caryll offered to give his god-daughter Patty Blount a dowry if that was all that stood between them, Pope made clear the limits of their relationship: ‘I have no tie to your God-daughter but a good opinion, which has grown into a friendship with experience that she deserved it’ (III, 75).

Thus the interests and responsibilities of a husband and father were no more available to him than the public reinforcements of masculine self-esteem denied by his religion and politics; and it is poignant that his image of his role in his own family, after his father's death, places him as mother, with all the gain in tenderness and eclipse of autonomy which maternity implies:

Me, let the tender Office still engage
To rock the Cradle of reposing Age.(19)

For many years he made strenuous efforts to live up to expectations of male robustness: at the first onset of chronic illness in adolescence he went riding regularly in the hope of preserving his health; as a young man he actively sought the reputation of a rake; one hot day in 1735 he exhausted himself by surrendering his coach to a woman with a broken arm and walking three miles into Oxford; and in the next year he was dragged into the Thames when Catherine Talbot missed her footing while he was helping her into a boat.20 All this was really beyond him; and he admitted as much when he wrote in anticipation of a visit to the second Earl of Oxford's Cambridgeshire home at Wimpole that ‘while you used Manlyer Exercises’ he would ‘nod over a Book in your Library’ (Corr., III, 53). As he declined with age into increasing dependence, he confessed more readily his need for a quiet, regular, passive existence (IV, 68, 147, 179, 419). He needed a nurse more than a valet; and it was a female attendant who was able to reveal the detailed indignities recorded in Johnson's Life:

Most of what can be told concerning his petty peculiarities was communicated by a female domestick of the Earl of Oxford, who knew him, perhaps, after the middle of life. He was then so weak as to stand in perpetual need of female attendance; extremely sensible of cold, so that he wore a kind of fur doublet, under a shirt of very coarse warm linen with fine sleeves. When he rose, he was invested in a bodice made of stiff canvass, being scarcely able to hold himself erect till they were laced, and he then put on a flannel waistcoat. One side was contracted. His legs were so slender, that he enlarged their bulk with three pair of stockings, which were drawn on and off by the maid; for he was not able to dress or undress himself, and neither went to bed nor rose without help. His weakness made it very difficult for him to be clean. … The indulgence and accommodation which his sickness required, had taught him all the unpleasing and unsocial qualities of a valetudinary man. He expected that every thing should give way to his ease or humour, as a child, whose Parents will not hear her cry, has an unresisted dominion in the nursery.21

It is suggestive that this corseted, querulous figure makes Johnson think not just of a spoilt child, but of a spoilt female child. Lord Bathurst had shown similar intuition when he upbraided Pope for neglecting his health: ‘Is it not enough to have the headache four days in the week, and to be as sick as a breeding woman the other three?’; and Pope himself exclaimed when his plans were curtailed by illness: ‘Would to God I were like any other thing they call a Man!’ (Corr., III, 299; IV, 293). In effect, like ‘a breeding woman’, he had to plan his activities around the whims of his body. It cannot have been easy to accept that ‘Manlyer Exercises’ were not for him.


Pope's beautifully poised ‘Ode to Solitude,’ allegedly first written at the age of twelve, and later carefully revised, is a fine example of a poem that generalises about the human condition from an essentially male viewpoint. It makes a good place to start an exploration of women's place in his work at large, for, despite its precocious origins, it concerns itself with an ideal that remained dear to him throughout his life:

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
          In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
          In winter fire.
Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
          Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night: study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
          With meditation.
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
          Tell where I lye.

(TE, VI, 3)

The first stanza alone raises two major issues which affected women's standing in the eighteenth century: education and inheritance.

Education is, ironically, the theme that the contemporary woman reader—Pope's mother, for example—would be most likely to miss. Not being schooled in the classics, she would probably not register the Horatian echo in the first line by which the poet places his poem in its tradition. To be deaf to such allusions is to experience eighteenth-century writing in a muted, often puzzling way; yet this, however mitigated by translations, was the condition of most of the period's female readers. There is, for example, the cautionary tale of young Mrs Pilkington, helping Swift to sort his letters from Pope:

‘But, Sir’, said I, ‘here is a Latin Sentence writ in italics, which, I suppose, means something particular; will you be so kind as to explain it?’ ‘No’, replied he, smiling; ‘I will leave that for your husband to do’.22

The tag turned out to be embarrassingly indecent, so female curiosity was duly punished (Pilkington, p. 67). For educated men the classical languages were a symbol of their cultural superiority, marking their graduation from the female tutelage of the nursery to the male world of public life. When Fanny Burney's father expressed disapproval of Dr Johnson's offer to teach her Latin, their mutual friend Hester Thrale commented tartly, ‘because then She would have been as wise as himself forsooth’.23 She may have been remembering a Johnsonian remark that caused Boswell characteristic disquiet:

Whether he meant merely to say a polite thing, or to give his opinion, I could not be sure; but he said men knew that women were an overmatch for them; and therefore they chose the weakest or most ignorant. If they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as much as themselves. I must have this more amply discussed with him.24

The second of the factors highlighted in the first stanza of the ‘Ode’ is, however, by far the more important, since the complex of customs and beliefs evoked by the phrase ‘paternal acres’ lies at the heart of long-established assumptions about women's role and function. The belief that property belongs by nature to men and that their sons are its natural heirs may have been immemorial, but it was nonetheless vividly present to the imagination of the age: Richardson brings Clarissa to her death through her brother's rage at seeing his ‘natural’ dependant made a proprietor in her own right, and Jane Austen uses the dispossession of women in favour of men as a trial of female character in Pride and Prejudice.25 Pope himself was caught up in a similar situation when his old acquaintance Michael Blount, admittedly with the full sanction of custom, required his mother and sisters, including Pope's beloved Patty, to leave home on his marriage, and subsequently failed to pay regularly the allowances on which they were expected to maintain themselves. In this case Pope was fired by indignation and exerted himself over many years to obtain adequate support for Patty (see chapter 5.3).

An important though by no means universal rationalisation of the restriction of inheritance to males is expounded by Boswell, whose obsession with the perpetuation of estates in the male line led him into a protracted disagreement with his father:

My father and I had a warm dispute at night on male and female succession. I argued that a male alone could support a family, could represent his forefathers. That females, in a feudal light, were only vehicles for carrying down men to posterity, and that a man might as well entail his estate on his post-chaise, and put one into it who should bear his name, as entail it upon his daughter and make her husband take his name … I fell upon a most curious argument which diverted my own fancy so much that it was with difficulty I could preserve my gravity when uttering it. ‘If’, said I, ‘you believe the Bible, you must allow male succession. Turn to the first chapter of Matthew: “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob”, &c. If you are not an infidel, if you do not renounce Christianity, you must be for males’. Worthy man! he had patience with me. I am quite firm in my opinion on this point. It will not do to say a grandson by a daughter is as near as a grandson by a son. It leads into a nice disquisition in natural philosophy. I say the stamen is derived from the man. The woman is only like the ground where a tree is planted. A grandson by a daughter has no connection with my original stock. A new race is begun by a father of another name. It is true a child partakes of the constitution of his mother, gets some of his mother's blood in his veins. But so does he as to his nurse, so does he as to the ox whose beef he eats. The most of the particles of the human frame are changed in a few years' rotation. The stamen only continues the same. Let females be well portioned. Let them enjoy liberally what is naturally intended for them: dowries as virgins, a share of what their husbands have while wives, jointures when widows. … In every age some instances of folly have occurred to humble the pride of human nature. Of these, the idea of female succession is one of the most striking.26

Elsewhere he refers tellingly to ‘the opinion of some distinguished naturalists’:

Our species is transmitted through males only, the female being all along no more than a nidus, or nurse, as Mother Earth is to plants of every sort; which notion seems to be confirmed by that text of scripture, ‘He was yet in the loins of his father when Melchisedeck met him’ (Heb. vii. 10); and consequently, that a man's grandson by a daughter, instead of being his surest descendent, as is vulgarly said, has, in reality, no connection whatever with his blood.27

To the ancient world the female contribution to conception had been far from obvious. In the Eumenides of Aeschylus, Apollo upholds Orestes' claim that he is not kin to the mother he has murdered; and his reasoning is essentially the same as that outlined by Boswell.28 Aristotle, offering a theoretical account of conception, likens the process to carpentry: the father is the carpenter, the mother the wood, and the child the finished product; and this model is taken up by Thomas Aquinas, who stresses its hierarchical implications:

The generative power in a female is imperfect in relation to that which is in a male. And so, just as in the arts, an inferior art disposes the matter while the superior art imposes a form, as said in the Physics, so female generative power prepares the matter while male active power fashions the matter which has been prepared.29

The pervasive metaphorical pattern insists that women are not originators. For Boswell woman is soil to the seed, for Aristotle and Aquinas she is the raw material to the craftsman, and behind both analogies we sense her affinity with primeval chaos awaiting the male word of God in creation. Indeed, both levels of this metaphor are brought together in Aquinas's account of the conception of Christ, in which he is at pains to establish the passivity which Mary shared with all women: ‘either she effected something, which would make her the father of Christ, or she effected nothing’ (LII, 55). Not suprisingly, researchers down to Boswell's time frequently assumed that the natural order must display this hierarchy—hence the hostile response of John Cook to William Harvey's equally erroneous but dissection-based claim that the mother, not the father, produced the preformed embryo:

As the Earth seems a Nidus for all Seeds of Vegetables, so the Ova of the Female serve for the like Use … to think otherwise would be making Woman the chief Person in the Creation, in as much as she is supposed to contain her Species, both materially and formally, in her self, and needs only a little of the Spirit of the Male Sperm to set those Animalcula in Motion; so that instead of God's giving Woman for a Help-mate to Man towards Procreation, he is thus made Woman's Help-mate; and so hath the least share in this Action; whereas by Nature he was designed the chief Agent in it, and that from his Loins should proceed all Mankind … which the Text of St. Paul well alludes to, when he says of Levi, that he was yet in the Loins of his father, when Melchisedeck met him.30

More in accord with the assumed order of things was the rival animalculist (homunculist) theory, which identified the preformed embryo in the male spermatozoa, a theory familiar to modern readers from the opening of Sterne's Tristram Shandy.31 It was also familiar to Mrs Pope, who was shown ‘some of the semen masculinum with animalcula in it’ when her son took her to Mr Hatton's clock and microscope shop (Corr., I, 465). Perhaps even for those few mothers who understood the implications of the supposed homunculus it was too academic a theory to impair their sense of relationship to their children; but if they needed a theory that would enable them to take the credit, or—perhaps more likely—the blame for the way their children turned out, they could turn to the belief that offspring were also influenced by their mothers' behaviour and disposition before birth and by their milk afterwards. The latter notion provides grounds for maternal self-congratulation in the verse epistle which Pope, or perhaps Swift, put into the mouth of Bounce, Pope's Great Dane bitch:

Before my Children set your Beef,
Not one true Bounce will be a Thief;
Not one without permission feed,
(Though some of J—'s hungry
But whatso'er the Father's Race,
From me they suck a little Grace.(32)

Although the chimerical homunculus owed its ‘discovery’ to the new technology of the microscope, its power lay in old-fashioned assumptions about the structure of society—hence its appeal to the reactionary sentiments of Boswell and the fictional Walter Shandy. From such a point of view the order implicit in the social organisation of England before the Civil War was still valid:

So long as a person occupied an inferior status within a household—as a child, servant, apprentice, or even as a wife—and was subordinated to the head, his social identity was altogether vicarious. The family was represented to the larger community by its head—its patriarch, as it were—and thus those whom he commanded were ‘subsumed’ in his social life. Thus, the father-master of each family was both its link with society as a whole and its authority, and his status was universally recognised.33

Despite radical attempts during the Civil War to form an understanding of society on new foundations, this old-established order still underlay the mainstream of political theory; and therefore debate about the nature of parenthood had distinct political overtones.34 This, rather than any zeal for women's rights, is clearly the principal reason why John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government (composed before 1683, published in 1689), makes claims favourable to the status of wives and mothers.35 His context is Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha (composed in the early 1640s, published in 1680), a defence of Stuart absolutism on the grounds that God gave Adam a fatherly power over his descendants which was absolute, and that all present kings enjoy the same power either by inheritance or by usurpation.36 Under the pressure of the Exclusion Crisis Locke attempted to undermine the doctrine of Adam's sole authority by arguments as relevant to the domestic as to the political hierarchy: he showed that if Adam's authority rested on having begotten his children it could not logically have extended to Eve; he pointed out that Filmer's use of the commandment ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’ (Genesis 20:12) to support sole paternal power involved supressing the mother's right; and he cited numerous other Biblical texts in which the rights of mothers paralleled those of fathers (Locke, pp. 231, 201-4). Indeed, the assertion that mothers also have authority is useful by definition to advocates of contractual obligation, since the existence of natural rights not acknowledged by existing social arrangements suggests that those arrangements must be contractual rather than natural. Even Hobbes, who as a defender of absolutism might be expected to deny the authority of mothers, finds it convenient to attribute power over their children to mothers in the state of nature. In this scheme the father gains authority over the child only by the mother's consent to marriage, which places her and her belongings in his power.37

In the politics of the state, the revolution of 1688 constituted a blow to hereditary absolutism, yet in most families and in society at large the heirs of Adam, in whose supremacy Filmer's thinking had its roots, reigned relatively unshaken. Mary Astell, realising that political and social doctrines were out of step, takes a polemical delight in restating the orthodox connection:

Again, if absolute Sovereignty be not necessary in a State, how comes it to be so in a Family? Or if in a Family why not in a State; since no Reason can be alledged for the one that will not hold more strongly for the other? If the Authority of the Husband, so far as it extends, is sacred and inalienable, why not that of the Prince? The Domestick Sovereign is without Dispute elected; and the Stipulations and Contract are mutual; is it not then partial in Men to the last Degree, to contend for, and practise that Arbitrary Dominion in their Families, which they abhor and exclaim against in the State? For if Arbitrary Power is evil in it self, and an improper Method of Governing Rational and Free Agents, it ought not to be practis'd any where, nor is it less, but rather more mischievous in Families than in Kingdoms, by how much 100,000 Tyrants are worse than one.38

Yet, however illogical, patriarchy in the home was to endure long after its abandonment as a justification for absolutism in the state.

The remaining stanzas of the ‘Ode’ further reveal the importance of male privilege in Pope's conception of the Good Life. His Happy Man has the air of having stepped fresh from Filmer's world, endowed like Adam with a divinely given rapport with his environment:

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
          In winter fire.

He does not simply possess his ‘paternal acres’ but relies on them to serve his needs, without, as far as the rhetoric is concerned, any necessity for laborious human mediation. Secure at the apex of the hierarchy that sustains him, he rests in a vision of the fruitful earth in which work is at most a peripheral concern. Indeed, the way language works to suggest that the land is his willing servant is reminiscent of Carole Fabricant's perception that landscape is in effect seen as female in this period, requiring from the owner discipline and protection in return for service and pleasure.39 Sustained in this way, the Happy Man lives as if the Fall had never happened.

Although men, if rich enough, could avoid the curse of work laid on Adam after the Fall, women had for the most part to accept their curse in full:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception: in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

(Genesis 3:16)

After the dissolution of the monasteries this was the only career available to well-born Englishwomen; and its consequences constitute the most obvious impediment to those aspects of the Good Life that Pope's poem next commends:

Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
          Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night: study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
          With meditation.

The careers of Alice Thornton and Hester Thrale show vividly the distance between their sex and Pope's Happy Man.40 Mrs Thornton bore nine children between 1651 and 1668, of whom six died at birth or soon afterwards; and of the thirteen borne by Mrs Thrale between 1763 and 1781 only four survived. Even when not actually incapacitated, these women were absorbed in the constant distractions of life with small, often ailing children, and only in widowhood did they enjoy anything approaching the quiet that the Happy Man takes for granted. The best commentary is by Mrs Thrale herself, responding to criticism for not having recorded more of Dr Johnson's sayings:

Little do these wise Men know or feel, that the Crying of a young Child, or the Perverseness of an elder, or the Danger however trifling of any one—will soon drive out of a female Parent's head a Conversation concerning Wit, Science or Sentiment, however She may appear to be impressed with it at the moment: besides that to a Mere de famille doing something is more necessary & suitable than even hearing something; and if one is to listen all Eveng and write all Morning what one has heard; where will be the Time for tutoring, caressing, or what is still more useful, for having one's Children about one: I therefore charge all my Neglect to my young ones Account, and feel myself at this moment very miserable that I have at last, after being married fourteen Years and bringing eleven Children, leisure to write a Thraliana forsooth;—though the second Volume does begin with Mr Johnson.

(Thraliana, I, 158)

It is hardly surprising that the women Pope loved best had either completed their families or never had children at all.

Another factor which tended to set women apart from the calm of the Happy Man was the use of space in the home. Although Mrs Thornton and Mrs Thrale escaped the literal confinement to a shared sitting room deplored by Virginia Woolf, we still have the sense from their writings that their husbands were peripheral to life in the home, pursuing outside interests or retiring to privacy inside, while their wives stood at the centre, overseeing children and servants and entertaining all comers.41 When Jane Austen, herself notoriously constrained by the publicity of the family sitting room, makes Mr Bennet rebut his wife with the zeugma ‘first, that you will allow me the free use of my understanding on the present occasion; and secondly, of my room’, she ironically affirms the link that Mr Bennet's wit denies (Austen, p. 101). Even in the Pope household the contrast between chaotic female community and calm male retirement could be sharply defined:

His Mother quite childish … fell out of her Chair, as she was fuggeling her clothes that did not sit easy under her, into the fire, upon the Fender, her head broke in Three places; Mrs Racket sitting working in the Window—Mr Pope never knew either, tho' in the house.42

The vignette easily takes on archetypal overtones: while the man whose activities give prestige to the household applies himself unhearing to his central concerns, his married sister sits with her sewing, keeping his mother company.

Yet finally, despite the ‘Ode's’ uncritical investment in the male privilege that alone can offer ‘paternal acres’ to be enjoyed in alternate ‘study and ease’, the genre in which Pope is working points him towards implications of retirement which he develops in ways ironically closer to the acceptable behaviour of women than of men. Although ‘innocence, which most does please, / With meditation’ is in full harmony with the programme of serious reading urged on women by The Spectator, it is in marked tension with much that Pope was to spend his life doing, especially when seen in the context of the desire to be ‘unseen, unknown’; for however one part of him may yearn for retirement and simplicity, the author in him needs a place in the public eye (The Spectator, I, 152-59). Similarly, in his final refusal to pay tribute to his individuality (‘not a stone / Tell where I lie’) he suggests that to do otherwise would imply a moral taint, a scruple which is far closer to the contemporary reality of female than of male decorum. What the ‘Ode to Solitude’ does is to give Pope a space in which to indulge the choice of being as women have to be, secluded from the world in which men make names for themselves, for like all such retirement poems its ostensible purpose is to repudiate the world of business, power and status. Thus the ‘Ode’ takes its place in his life with the other contexts which he established for the ideal of self-effacing virtue: his retirement to Twickenham, his devotion to his aged mother, his repudiation of court favour, and his limitation of his own memorial to a brief note of his death on the stone on which he had commemorated the virtues of his parents.43 Here, as if he had never been famous, he denies any identity beyond that of his parents' son, yet his officious literary executor William Warburton, incapable of honouring a sentiment so contrary to the public status of a great poet, imposed upon this simple monument a grandiose and tasteless claim:

Who never flattered folks like you.
Let Horace blush, and Virgil too.(44)

These were indeed Pope's words; but with the title he had given them, ‘Epitaph For One who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey’, they were carefully distanced from autobiography: their appearance on his tomb as a public claim to have surpassed the integrity of the great poets of antiquity would have horrified him. The contrast between the intended and the actual memorial points the irony of his relation to the world in which he was so anxious to distinguish himself; for despite the appeal of a pure, powerless self-abandonment, that world remained the necessary context for his poetry.


In taking a wider view of the place of women in the poems not specifically concerned with gender it is convenient to begin with three ambitiously generalising works: the Essay on Man, the Essay on Criticism and Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men.

In the Essay on Man, which seldom registers the existence of more than one gender, God, the representative human being, ‘the poor Indian’ and the representative child are all male; and Pope's propositions about human nature are illustrated for the most part with examples from the public life of men, notably from history and the professions (TE, III.i). The process is clear in his enumeration of the ‘happy frailties’ proper to various sub-groups of the species:

Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,
Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,
To kings presumption, and to crowds belief.

(Essay on Man, II.242)

Since all a woman can do is marry or wait to marry, her doings naturally require less coverage.

When in Epistle III Pope considers the origin of society, he begins with the impulse to procreation in which women were supposed to find the significance of their lives. His treatment of the mating of animals stresses mutuality: ‘Each sex desires alike’; and when the young are born ‘the mothers nurse it and the sires defend’, a division of labour which he does not explicitly interpret as a hierarchy (lines 119-26). Human couples are initially differentiated from the animals by the longer association required by their offspring's prolonged helplessness, from which distinctively human social feelings grow:

And still new needs, new helps, new habits rise,
That graft benevolence on charities.

(line 137)

As an account of marriage this is remarkably free from implications of subordination; but later, when Pope returns to the family to trace from it the origins of government, women have simply disappeared, and ‘father’ and ‘son’ alone represent the experience of family life (lines 211-34). As authority is now vested in the father, the invisible mother must belong to the subordinate off-spring caste, despite the inability of the myth to explain how she got there. It is evident that the apparent equality of mother and father in the animal kingdom can have no place in a myth of the human family which justifies the basic hierarchy of society. Although Genesis does not figure in this non-Biblical account of social and political origins, its justification of female subordination and the reflections of the doctrine in traditional social structure are implicit in Pope's assumption that this is not an issue.

Whereas the Essay on Man looks to the first principles of human life, the Essay on Criticism looks to a highly developed world of literary culture (TE, I, 239-326). It is a poem which fully bears out the envious words of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea: ‘Happy the race of men / Born to inform or to correct the pen.’5 Although the summarising statement that ‘Most men are born with some Taste, but spoil'd by false Education’ may be understood of people in general, the use of terms like ‘Taste’ and ‘Education’ suggests that the real subject is men—and men of the upper classes at that. The poor are hardly less represented in this world than are women, who appear only as personifications, sexual chattels or examples of poor judgement. As personifications they uniformly extend their patronage to male achievers, as if female authority can be countenanced only symbolically: ‘High on Parnassus’ Top her Sons she [Greece] show'd’ (line 94). Even for a personification, female gender entails the risk of sexual appropriation: once Criticism is personified as the Muse's handmaid, sexual harassment is inevitable: ‘Who cou'd not win the Mistress, woo'd the Maid’ (line 105). Metaphor too assumes a system in which women are chattels:

A Muse by these is like a Mistress us'd,
This hour she's idoliz'd,
the next abus'd.

(line 432)

What is this Wit which must our Cares employ?
The Owner's Wife, that other Men enjoy.

(line 500)

Women also figure as silly, corruptible creatures: only fools ‘value Books, as Women Men, for Dress’ (line 305). In the reign of Charles II, which exposed them to libertine amusements, they showed by their easy corruptibility that the only female virtue is the virtue which has never known temptation:

The Fair sate panting at a Courtier's
And not a Mask went un-improv'd
The modest Fan was lifted up no more,
And Virgins smil'd at what they blush'd before.

(line 540)

Political interference, in metaphor as in fact, goes hand in hand with sexual transgression as Pope condemns the age when ‘Jilts ruled the State’ (line 538).

Perhaps the most striking example of a poem which professes to consider the species but actually focuses on the male sex is Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men.46 In this context, ‘men’ evidently means ‘people’, for Queen Caroline forms a quartet with three men, and of the six sketches which close the poem, two are of women; but the catalogues which define the diversity of the species are, in effect, relevant only to the sex which experiences the status of bishops, judges, chancellors, ministers or kings; the education of squires, tradesmen, soldiers, scriveners or churchmen; and the variety of mood produced by business, gambling, hunting and parliamentary debates. There is the usual tendency to regard women as accessories (‘If Fortune or a Mistress frowns’) and as fools (‘What made. … Europe a Woman, Child, or Dotard rule?’, ‘Women and Fools must like him or he dies’); while as phenomena they rank with the most perplexing objects of curiosity unveiled by the theory of the ruling passion: ‘Priests, Princes, Women, no dissemblers here’.47 It has often been assumed that Characters of Women was written as a pendant to Characters of Men, but the secondary status of the former is even more striking when it is realised that it was in all probability the first to be conceived: the option of leaving Characters of Women in first place and presenting Characters of Men as a pendant considering the male sex ‘only as contradistinguished from the other’ clearly does not exist for Pope.48

Various passages throughout Pope's poetry remind us that the systems which structured public life operated for the most part on the assumption that all full members of society were male: ‘the whole Course of Modern Education … which confines Youth to the study of Words only’ attacked in Dunciad IV, and the political system which it supports, are primarily the business of men, as is the world of commerce, and in the latter connection it is noteworthy that the only women shown as active financial agents are Phryne and Sappho (Sir Robert Walpole's mistress Maria Skerret, and her friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), whose usurpation of a male role merely confirms their disgrace as creatures of a corrupt court.49 It is more surprising to find that when Pope turns to his own family, it is his father rather than his mother who emerges as an individual. Adapting Horace's autobiography to his own, he focuses on his father's moral worth, although Horace here makes no direct reference to his father:

Besides, my Father taught me from a Lad,
The better Art to know the good from bad
For Right Hereditary tax'd and fin'd,
He stuck to Poverty with Peace of Mind.(50)

Yet there is no reason to think that his mother was a less loyal Catholic, or less impressive in her moral influence. Even in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, in which Pope recalls the praise which Horace bestows on his father, once we penetrate the aura of affectionate reverence which surrounds both parents, we find that the stress falls squarely on his father: all we learn of his mother's character is, ‘that harmless Mother thought no Wife a Whore’.51 Nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest that this shows a lack of interest in his mother, as the end of the poem amply demonstrates: the difference in emphasis is a sign of the general hiddenness of female identity in a culture rich in precedents for exploring the qualities of men.

Complementary to the male-centredness of Pope's culture is the fact that the women who do figure in it often do so as objects comparable to other things that a man might wish to possess:

And Curio, restless by the Fair-one's side,
Sighs for an Otho, and neglects his bride.(52)
And if we count among the Needs of life
Another's Toil, why not another's Wife?(53)
Think we all these are for himself? no more
Than his fine Wife, alas! or finer Whore.(54)
Why, if the Nights seem tedious—take a Wife.(55)
For, mark th'advantage [of money]; just so many score
Will gain a Wife with half as many more,
Procure that beauty, make that beauty chaste,
And then such Friends—as cannot fail to last.(56)

The moralist points the absurdity; but the stress falls squarely on male folly rather than on any claim for women's autonomy. Similarly, there seems to be no particular irony in Pope's rendering of Horace's ‘amabilis hospes, / Comes in uxorem’ as ‘fond of his Friend, and civil to his Wife’, although the line could easily be read out of context as a gibe at a complacent husband.57

Whatever the precise weighting of this strain in Pope's satire, it is obvious that at least in casual references he has no difficulty in accepting the associated doctrine that whether women succumb or chastely resist, their energies are centred on sexual relationships with men. In his epigram ‘To a Lady with the Temple of Fame,’ which he inscribed in Patty's presentation copy, the joke underlines this assumption.58 The only females in the Temple itself are the fickle goddesses Fame and Fortune; and women's absence is only to be expected, since the nearest they come to fame is the good repute of preserving their chastity:

What's Fame with Men, by Custom of the Nation,
Is call'd in Women only Reputation:
About them both why keep we such a pother?
Part you with one, and I'll renounce the other.

Like Pope's poem, The Tatler's project for a table of fame had honoured only men; and ironically the only female considered is the Roman Lucretia, whose status as the heroic wife who, unable to avoid rape, expressed her refusal by suicide confirms what Pope's joke suggests, that the whole drama of a woman's life is contained within her relation to the other sex.59 Yet Lucretia more than anyone would be sensitive to the impropriety of publicity, so it is only to be expected that Mr Bickerstaff should offer an implicit rebuke to the woman who had proposed her: ‘I did not think it proper to place her there, because I knew she would not care for being in the Company of so many Men without her Husband’.

Women's physical allure accounts for their sole representation in the summary of the glories of Rome which Pope admires in Addison's medals:

In one short view subjected to your eye
Gods, Emp'rors, Heroes, Sages, Beauties, lie.(60)

Helen of Troy understandably had a place in Horace's summary of the deeds that have inspired great poetry; but in Pope's paraphrase of this passage the discussion is moved to a higher and therefore an entirely masculine plane:

Sages and Chiefs long since had birth
E're Caesar was, or Newton nam'd,
These rais'd new Empires o'er the Earth,
And Those new Heav'ns and Systems fram'd.(61)

In a system that confines women within sexuality, chastity is necessarily woman's characteristic virtue and lust her characteristic vice. Of chastity in itself Pope has very little to say, except for the paradoxical praise of married love: ‘Chaste as cold Cynthia's virgin light, / Productive as the Sun’.62 Moon and sun are to become increasingly potent symbols in Pope's writing about women; but the flimsiness of this enthusiasm for chilly fecundity helps to explain why chastity figures less as a theme than as the assumption behind satirical condemnation. As early as his adolescent imitation of Rochester's ‘On Nothing’ Pope was conscious that desire was simply inadmissible for women when he praised silence as ‘the only Honour of the wishing Dame’.63 The problem of chastity and the value set on it is also crucial to the ‘Epilogue to Jane Shore’, written for the actress Anne Oldfield, herself notoriously a kept woman, to be spoken at the conclusion of her portrayal of Jane Shore, mistress to Edward IV.64 Pope makes her begin in mock surprise that virtuous ladies are prepared to applaud the representation of a whore; but then she reflects that it is only ‘wicked custom’ that makes them pretend a horror of unchastity that they are far from feeling. Moreover, despite the value set on it by custom, chastity cannot in her view be equated with virtue:

The godly dame who fleshly failings damns,
Scolds with her maid, or with her chaplain crams. 

(line 21)

That there are more deadly sins than one comes very well from a woman who lives by disregard for that one, and it is fitting that she should conclude with an ironic reference to the conventional equation of virtue with chastity when she refers to the royal mistress as ‘in all the rest so impudently good’ (line 48; my italics). On the other hand, although Pope makes Mrs Oldfield suggest that women have vices and virtues to which chastity is completely irrelevant, the very fact that he presents her as so concerned to play down its value may confirm for the women in the audience that brazen it as she may, sexual continence is still properly the mainspring of their moral universe. A similar underlying morality is found in the irreverent satire ‘A Roman Catholick Version of the First Psalm, For the Use of a Young Lady’; for here a text which recommends religion to men as a means of attaining prosperity is travestied as one which recommends chastity to women as a means of attaining sexual satisfaction, as if this means to a woman all that material and spiritual prosperity means to a man.65 As in the words written for Mrs Oldfield, Pope plays with the recognition that society seems to preach a ludicrously narrowing morality to women; yet one effect of the self-consciously wicked pose is undoubtedly to focus women's attention on sexuality as their proper realm.

A similar libertine knowingness emerges in representations of girls torn between chastity and desire, which clearly has nature on its side:

Th'advent'rous Lover is successful still,
Who strives to please the Fair against her Will.(66)
As some coy Nymph her Lover's warm Address
Nor quite indulges, nor can quite repress.(67)
While a kind Glance at her Pursuer flies,
How much at variance are her Feet and Eyes!(68)

Although in more soberly moralising contexts Pope may condemn the mature sensuality which enables fortune-hunters to ‘win rich Widows by their Chine and Brawn’ (it is not in any case nearly as flattering to the conqueror as the melting reluctance of the ‘coy Nymph’), he is positively repelled by women who can suppress their sexuality not through virtue, but, as he sees it, through avarice:

In Love's, in Nature's spite, the siege they hold,
And scorn the Flesh, the Dev'l, and all but Gold.(69)
Shall One whom Nature, Learning, Birth, conspir'd
To form, not to admire, but be admir'd,
Sigh, while his Chloe, blind to Wit and Worth,
Weds the rich Dulness of some Son of earth?(70)

However powerful the ideal of chastity may have been for the female decorum of the period, the libertine tradition of the Restoration wits remained a powerful influence for Pope, and the image of the girl whose chastity fights a losing battle remained deeply attractive to him. In contrast with the vices of cold calculation, seductibility at least proved that a girl's heart was in the right place.

This vein of feeling is closely allied to the familiar notion of women's softness, a major premise of Pope's Characters of Women. This is the characteristic that enables women to be tender mistresses, mothers and general comforters, but it also confirms their deficiency in the mental powers on which humanity prides itself. Proper judgement depends on firmness: hence it is natural to Pope to couple ‘women and fools’ to denote the unthinking part of mankind. In his imitation of Horace's essay on the practicalities of extra-marital sex, for example, Pope uses this phrase where Horace mentions only fools, after which Pope launches into a satire on extremes in women's dress for which there is no parallel in the original.71 The phrase also appears in a revealing context in Characters of Men, when Wharton's inconsistent behaviour is explained by his compulsion to win praise even from those whose praise is not worth having:

Born with whate'er could win it from the Wise,
Women and fools must like him or he dies.

(line 182; TE, III.ii, 30)

In the Dunciad the degeneracy of the aristocracy is blamed in part on the silly mother, who, with her addiction to fashionable frivolity, ‘begg'd the blessing of a Rake’; but Pope sounds bitterest in his reflections on the memorial poems that women ask him to write:

Each Mother asks it for her Booby Son,
Each Widow asks it for the Best of Men,
For him she weeps, and him she weds agen.(72)

For such women all values are levelled in the corrupt flux of their bodily affections. Women are regularly associated with fluidity, men with firmness, and in Pope's view, the hack writers who flatter the royal family understand all too well the distinction between manly panegyrics (‘Rend with tremendous Sound your ears asunder, / With Gun, Drum, Trumpet, Blunderbuss & Thunder’) and mellifluous feminine vacuity:

Then all your Muse's softer Art display,
Let Carolina smooth the tuneful Lay,
Lull with Amelia's liquid Name
the Nine,
And sweetly flow through all the Royal Line.(73)

Pope's crowning example of female softness is the ‘Harlot form’ of Opera, who, with her insistence that music should be concerned less with meaning than with pretty noises, leads the attack on order in Dunciad IV.74 This epitome of frivolity and dependence provides not so much a softening of the cares of state as a subversion of legislative duty:

By singing Peers upheld on either hand,
She tripp'd and laugh'd, too pretty much to stand.

(line 49)

Although the style of femininity that Pope so contemptuously associates with prostitution and cultural decline in this passage was brought into particular prominence by the contemporary aspiration to bring up daughters in genteel idleness, and by the role of moneyed women as consumers of the silks, china and tea that consolidated family status in polite society, it was also a logical development of a long physiological tradition. Hippocrates had declared that ‘a woman's flesh is more spongelike and softer than a man's’; and Aristotle had used the criterion of temperature to account for the deficiencies he perceived in women, assuming that men must be hotter to account for their unique ability to ‘cook’ the dynamic semen to perfection:

Everything reaches its perfection sooner in females than in males—e.g., puberty, maturity, old age—because females are weaker and colder in their nature; and we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature. While it [the female foetus] is within the mother, then it develops slowly on account of its coldness, since development is a sort of concoction, concoction is effected by heat, and if a thing is hotter its concoction is easy; when, however, it is free from the mother, on account of its weakness it quickly approaches its maturity and old age, since inferior things all reach their end more quickly.75

Not surprisingly, Aristotle found a general lack of robustness characteristic of female animals:

Again, the female is less muscular and less compactly jointed, and more thin and delicate in the hair—that is, where hair is found; and, where there is no hair, less strongly furnished in some analogous substance. And the female is more knock-kneed, and the shin-bones are thinner; and the feet are more arched and hollow in such animals as are furnished with feet.76

Since the human race is nature's highest work, the natural distinction of sexes is there developed to its greatest extent:

The fact is, the nature of man [i.e. the species] is the most rounded off and complete, and consequently in man the qualities or capacities referred to are found in their perfection. Hence woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment.

(IX. 1. 608b)

For European women the ancient consensus gained additional authority by its transmission through the New Testament in the doctrine of ‘the weaker vessel’.77 Thus, by the time Pope teased Patty Blount with the definition of her sex as ‘matter too soft a lasting mark to bear’, the complex of physiological, mental and moral assumptions which had accumulated around the polarisation of firm male and fluid female was generally accepted as part of the natural order.78 It remained, however, an ambivalent distinction: despite Swift's vehemence in declaring that ‘there is no Quality whereby Women endeavour to distinguish themselves from Men, for which they are not just so much the worse’, he still felt the need to confirm that the dearest of his women friends had a proper softness as well as the less conventional qualities for which he respected her: ‘With all the softness of temper that became a lady, she had the personal courage of a hero’.79 For Pope too the myriad associations of the notion of women's softness were to provide grounds for responses ranging from utter loathing, through irritation, amusement and patronising compliment, to sympathy, admiration and devoted love.


  1. For varying interpretations of this change, see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London, 1977), pp. 199-201, 325-404; Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (Chicago, 1985), pp. 1-76; Laura Brown, ‘The Defenceless Woman and the Development of English Tragedy’, Studies in English Literature, 22 (1982), 429-43.

  2. The Spectator, edited by Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1965), I, 242, 433; II, 70.

  3. Katharine Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (London, 1966), pp. 166-80.

  4. On the role of the Catholic mistress of the house, see Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (London, 1985), pp. 28-29. Old-fashioned housekeeping is a virtue for which Pope praises his Catholic friends Elizabeth and John Caryll. (See Howard Erskine-Hill, The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope: Lives, Example and the Poetic Response (London, 1975), pp. 80-82.) The Blount Papers include letters and recipes of Mary Eugenia Blount which emphasise the managerial role of a Catholic housewife on a country estate in the generation after Pope (Blount Papers, c. 65).

  5. Epistles to Several Persons (Moral Essays), II.199 (Epistle to a Lady: Of the Characters of Women, hereafter Characters of Women); The Twickenham Edition of the Works of Alexander Pope, 11 vols. (London, 1939-69), III.ii, 66-67 (hereafter TE).

  6. For a summary of Catholic disabilities, see John M. Aden, Pope's Once and Future Kings: Satire and Politics in the Early Career (Knoxville, 1978), pp. 3-20.

  7. J. V. Guerinot, Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope 1711-1744: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York, 1969), p. 40; Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes and Characters of Books and Men, edited by James M. Osborn, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1966), nos. 14-31.

  8. Spence, no. 29; for the influence of Cowley's versions of Latin verse, see TE, VI, 4-5.

  9. Imitations of Horace, Satires, II.ii.133, 135 (TE, IV, 65).

  10. No-one ever seems to have called Martha Blount ‘Martha’; and I have therefore adopted the diminutive ‘Patty’ which was used by everyone who was on first-name terms with her. For the house Pope gave her, see chapter 9.5; for Pope's half-sister, Magdalen Rackett, see chapter 2.2.

  11. The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, edited by George Sherburn, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1956), IV, 509 (hereafter Corr.). For an account of Bethel, an old mutual friend of Pope and Patty, see TE, IV, 346-47.

  12. See for example the triumph of Vice which concludes Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue I, lines 141-70 (TE, IV, 308-9).

  13. Epistle to Robert Earl of Oxford, line 27 (TE, VI, 239-40).

  14. Maren-Sofie Røstvig, The Happy Man: Studies in the Metamorphoses of a Classical Ideal, 1600-1760, 2 vols. (Oslo, 1954-58), I, 60-62.

  15. Marjorie Nicolson and G. S. Rousseau, This Long Disease, my Life: Alexander Pope and the Sciences (Princeton, 1968), pp. 7-86.

  16. Eamon Duffy, ‘“Englishmen in Vaine”: Roman Catholic Allegiance to George I’, Studies in Church History, 18 (1982), 345-65 (pp. 347-62); Corr., I, 424-25; II, 176. (Edward Blount was only remotely related to Patty.)

  17. Spence, nos. 26, 51; Dunciad B, IV.294 (TE, V, 373).

  18. Erskine-Hill, Social Milieu, pp. 72-82; Corr., I, 123.

  19. An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, line 408 (TE, IV, 127).

  20. Spence, nos. 69, 71; Norman Ault, New Light on Pope, with some Additions to his Poetry hitherto Unknown (London, 1949), pp. 301-307; Corr., III, 493; The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, edited by Harold Williams, 5 vols. (revised edition, Oxford, 1965), IV, 528 (hereafter Swift Corr.)

  21. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, edited by George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1905), III, 197-8.

  22. Memoirs of Mrs Pilkington, 1712-1750, Written by Herself (London, 1748-54; reprinted 1928), p. 62.

  23. Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776-1809, edited by Katharine C. Balderston, 2nd edition, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1951), I, 502.

  24. Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., edited by Frederick A. Pottle and Charles H. Bennett (London, 1936), p. 118; cited by Mrs Thrale, Thraliana, I, 171-72.

  25. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa; or, the History of a Young Lady, edited by Angus Ross (Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 53-54, 56, 77-78; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, edited by Frank W. Bradbrook and James Kinsley (Oxford, 1970), pp. 23, 54, 62.

  26. Boswell in Search of a Wife 1766-1769, edited by Frank Brady and Frederick A. Pottle (London, 1957), pp. 270-72.

  27. Boswell's Life of Johnson, edited by George Birkbeck Hill and revised by L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1934-50), II, 414.

  28. Aeschylus, with an English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (London, 1957), II, 335.

  29. Aristotle, Generation of Animals, with an English translation by A. L. Peck, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1963), I.xxi-xxii; St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Latin text and English translation, 61 vols. (Blackfriars, Cambridge, 1963-76), LII, 55.

  30. John Cook is quoted in Louis A. Landa, ‘The Shandean Homunculus: The Background of Sterne's “Little Gentleman”’, in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Essays in Honour of Alan Dugald McKillop, edited by Carrol Camden (Chicago, 1963), pp. 49-68 (p. 57). For an account of the various theories see Joseph Needham, A History of Embryology, 2nd edition, revised with the assistance of Arthur Hughes (Cambridge, 1959), pp. 37-44, 205-11.

  31. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, edited by Ian Campbell Ross (Oxford, 1983).

  32. ‘Bounce to Fop’, line 49 (TE, VI, 368); for attribution see Pat Rogers, Eighteenth Century Encounters: Studies in Literature and Society in the Age of Walpole (Brighton, 1985), p. 36.

  33. Gordon J. Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought: The Authoritarian Family and Political Speculation and Attitudes Especially in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1975), pp. 65-66.

  34. For refusal of the patriarchal model, see Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom and Other Writings, edited by Christopher Hill (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 77-78.

  35. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett, 2nd edition (Cambridge, 1970), p. 51.

  36. Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works, edited by Peter Laslett (Oxford, 1949).

  37. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott (Oxford, 1960), ch. 20, pp. 129-31.

  38. Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, 5th edition (Dublin, 1730), p. 66.

  39. Carole Fabricant, ‘Binding and Dressing Nature's Loose Tresses: The Ideology of Augustan Landscape Design’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 8 (1979), 109-135.

  40. The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton, edited by Charles Jackson, Surtees Society, 62 (Durham, 1873); Mary Hyde, The Thrales of Streatham Park (Cambridge, Mass., 1977).

  41. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 2nd edition (London, 1931), pp. 99-100.

  42. George Sherburn, ‘New Anecdotes about Alexander Pope’, Notes and Queries, 203 (1958), 343-49 (p. 348).

  43. For the significance of Pope's retreat to Twickenham see Maynard Mack, The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope (London, 1969); for his care of his mother see chapter 2.3-4 below; for his instructions for the addition to his parents' monument, see his will, printed in The Prose Works of Alexander Pope, edited by Norman Ault and Rosemary Cowler, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1936-86), II, 506.

  44. For Warburton's impact on Pope and his circle, see chapter 9.1, 5; for the monument see TE, VI, 376.

  45. The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea, edited by Myra Reynolds (Chicago, 1903), p. 100.

  46. Epistle I of the Epistles to Several Persons (Moral Essays), addressed to Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (TE, III.ii, 15-38: hereafter Characters of Men).

  47. Characters of Men, lines 55, 152, 183, 177.

  48. Miriam Leranbaum, Alexander Pope's ‘Opus Magnum’ 1729-1744 (Oxford, 1977), pp. 64-65, 76-77, 79.

  49. Dunciad IV, note on 501 (TE, V, 391); Epistle to Bathurst: Of the Use of Riches, lines 121-24 (TE, III.ii, 101-2).

  50. Imitations of Horace, Epistles, II.ii.54, 64 (TE, IV, 169).

  51. Horace, Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica, with an English translation by H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1929), Satires; To Arbuthnot, line 384 (TE, IV, 126).

  52. To Mr. Addison, Occasioned by his Dialogues on Medals, line 43 (TE, VI, 204).

  53. To Bathurst, line 27 (TE, III.ii, 88).

  54. Epistle to Burlington: Of the Use of Riches, line 1 (TE, III.ii, 136).

  55. Imitations of Horace, Satires, II.i.16 (TE, IV, 5).

  56. Imitations of Horace, Epistles, (TE, IV, 241-42).

  57. Imitations of Horace, Epistles, II.ii.189 (TE, IV, 179).

  58. The Temple of Fame (TE, II, 253-89); ‘To a Lady with the Temple of Fame’ (TE, VI, 127-28).

  59. The Tatler, edited by Donald F. Bond, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1987), II, 34.

  60. To Mr Addison, line 33 (TE, VI, 203).

  61. Imitations of Horace, Odes, IV.ix.9 (TE, IV, 159).

  62. ‘Two Choruses to the Tragedy of Brutus’, II, line 23 (TE, VI, 153).

  63. ‘On Silence’, line 26 (TE, VI, 18).

  64. TE, VI, 113-15; for a detailed account of Anne Oldfield, see DNB.

  65. TE, VI, 164-66: the title is a malicious addition by the publisher Edmund Curll, for whose relations with Pope see TE, IV, 356-57.

  66. ‘Prologue design'd for Mr. Durfy's Last Play’, line 5 (TE, VI, 101).

  67. Windsor Forest, line 19 (TE, I, 150).

  68. Pastorals, ‘Spring’, line 59 (TE, I, 66).

  69. Imitations of Horace, Epistles I.i.131 (TE, IV, 289); The Second Satire of Dr. John Donne, line 23 (TE, IV, 133).

  70. Imitations of Horace, Epistles, (TE, IV, 239).

  71. Imitations of Horace, Sermones, I.ii.27-34 (Sober Advice from Horace) (TE, IV, 76-79).

  72. Dunciad B, IV.286 (TE, V, 372); Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II, line 107 (TE, IV, 319).

  73. Imitations of Horace, Satires, II.i.25, 29 (TE, IV, 7).

  74. Dunciad B, IV. 45-70 (TE, V, 345-48).

  75. Ann Ellis Hanson, ‘Hippocrates: Diseases of Women’, Signs, 1 (Winter 1975), 567-84 (p. 572); Aristotle, Generation of Animals, I.xx (p. 103), IV. vi (pp. 459-61); and see Suzanne Said, Women and Female in the Biological Treatises of Aristotle (Odense, 1982).

  76. Aristotle, Historia Animalium, translated by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (The Works of Aristotle, edited by J. A. Smith and W. D. Ross, IV; Oxford, 1910), IV.11.538b.

  77. Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1984), pp. 1-6.

  78. Characters of Women, line 3 (TE, III.ii, 46).

  79. Jonathan Swift, ‘A Letter to a Young Lady, on her Marriage’, Irish Tracts and Sermons, edited by Herbert Davis and Louis Landa (Oxford, 1968), p. 93; ‘On the Death of Mrs. Johnson’ (i.e. Esther Johnson, affectionately known as Stella), Miscellaneous and Autobiographical Pieces, Fragments and Marginalia, edited by Herbert Davis (Oxford, 1969), p. 229.


Corr.: The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, edited by George Sherburn, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1956)

DNB: Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, 63 vols. (London, 1885-1900)

EC: The Works of Alexander Pope, edited by Whitwell Elwin and William John Courthope, 10 vols. (London, 1871-86)

HW Corr.: The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, edited by W. S. Lewis, 48 vols. (London, 1937-83)

Hervey: Lord Hervey's Memoirs, edited by Romney Sedgwick (London, 1952)

LM Essays: Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy, edited by R. Halsband and I. Grundy (Oxford, 1977)

LM Letters: The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, edited by Robert Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1965)

LM Life: Robert Halsband, The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, corrected edition (Oxford, 1961)

Lothian MSS: Report on the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Lothian Preserved at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, Historical Manuscripts Commission (London, 1905)

Prose Works: The Prose Works of Alexander Pope, edited by Norman Ault and Rosemary Cowler, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1936-86)

Spence: Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes and Characters of Books and Men, edited by James M. Osborn, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1966)

Suffolk Corr.: Letters to and from Henrietta, Countess of Suffolk and her Second Husband the Hon. George Berkeley, edited by J. W. Croker, 2 vols. (London, 1824)

Swift Corr.: The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, edited by Harold Williams, 5 vols. (revised edition, Oxford, 1965)

TE: The Twickenham Edition of the Works of Alexander Pope, 11 vols. (London, 1939-69)

Felicity Rosslyn (essay date 1990)

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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. An effect is clearly looked for, but it cannot be supplied. We feel the stress of the intention, but we do not know how to respond.

One such word in Pope's culture is “reason”. We need only to glance at the Essay on Man to see the word doing more work there than it has ever been asked to do since. Even in his translation of the Iliad, which we might expect to be free of Pope's own philosophical preoccupations, “reason” is the word he launches at Achilles as the severest rebuke for his barbaric behaviour to Hector's corpse: “Brave tho' he be, yet by no Reason aw'd, / He violates the Laws of Man and God” (24, 68-69).1 The idea of anyone's being “awed” by Reason makes us sharply aware of the cultural gulf that divides us from this state of mind. What we are looking at is not a word denoting “the ordinary thinking capacity of the human mind in a sound condition” (OED), but the glowing centre of a whole plan of belief—two radioactive syllables.

I propose in this short paper to exhume another such term which has received less attention than “reason”, perhaps because its meaning seems not to have shifted so far: “good humour”. It deserves our scrutiny because, in spite of appearances, I do not think it means now what it meant to Pope—nor did it, even to the generation after his. It is not so much that its meaning has shifted, as that it is no longer the nexus of the same number of important thoughts; and without its radioactive charge, the term has undergone a startling diminution of significance—a fact which also throws interesting light on the general shift of sensibility after Pope that led to Romanticism, as I hope to show.

I should begin by giving you an instance of the term at its glowing best. The difficulty here is choice, for Pope uses it again and again at climactic moments; but perhaps the usage that concentrates most meaning is the famous one in the Rape of the Lock, where Pope puts it in the mouth of Clarissa. She is making the speech he deliberately inserted “to open more clearly the MORAL of the Poem” (5, 7n)—a brilliant parody of the speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus in the Iliad, by which she attempts to end the unseemly wrangle between Belinda and the Baron over the lock of hair:

Then grave Clarissa graceful
wav'd her Fan;
Silence ensu'd, and thus the Nymph began.
          Say, why are Beauties prais'd and honour'd
The wise Man's Passion, and the vain Man's Toast?
Why deck'd with all that Land and Sea afford,
Why Angels call'd, and Angel-like ador'd?
Why round our Coaches crowd the white-glov'd Beaus,
Why bows the Side-box from its inmost Rows?
How vain are all these Glories, all our Pains,
Unless good Sense preserve what Beauty gains:
That Men may say, when we the Front-box grace,
Behold the first in Virtue, as in Face!
Oh! if to dance all Night, and dress all Day,
Charm'd the Small-pox, or chas'd old Age away,
Who would not scorn what Huswife's Cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly Thing of Use?
To patch, nay ogle, might become a Saint,
Nor could it sure be such a Sin to paint.
But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey,
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid;
What then remains, but well our Pow'r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate'er we lose?
And trust me, Dear! good Humour can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding 
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

(5, 7-34)

In this comic context, where small-pox and greying locks are the worst evils Clarissa has to confront, it may not be immediately obvious that “good Humour” carries any other meaning than the modern one. Is she not saying something like, “Put a brave face on it” or, “Keep smiling through”?

I can only persuade you otherwise if you suspend for a moment the conviction that mock-epic is less serious than epic, and entertain the possibility that, like other playful forms, it can bring painful truths closer to home. If it is true, as Schiller says, that “Man is perfectly human only when he plays”, it may be equally true that Pope's intelligence is most human when he uses it in an unserious context—and it is only here that he manages to express how central he takes “good Humour” to be to human happiness. I am on the side of Dr Johnson, who would not accept that The Rape of the Lock lacked an adequate moral. On the contrary, it had a better one than Boileau's mock-epic on the French clergy, he said:

The freaks, and humours, and spleen, and vanity of women, as they embroil families in discord, and fill houses with disquiet, do more to obstruct the happiness of life in a year than the ambition of the clergy in many centuries. It has been well observed, that the misery of man proceeds not from any single crush of over-whelming evil, but from small vexations continually repeated.2

The Rape of the Lock, for all its fantasy, is firmly rooted in the world of “small vexations continually repeated”. It is a world where women fritter away their happiness in habits as addictive as ratafia and opium—in obsessive vanity, and recrimination, and small-mindedness, and those hysterical joy-rides that terminate in the psychic collapse Pope calls “Spleen”. Their pleasure is not in maintaining reason and sanity, but in flouting them. In this context “good Humour” is not a matter of wearing a smile, but of something much better—the inner state of unconditional acceptance which then expresses itself in smiles. “Good Humour” is strong enough to stand up to the facts of life: deformity from small-pox, the locks that turn to grey, and the necessity to marry, or “die a Maid”. It is well acquainted with bleakness; and therefore it can be gay. It dissolves egotism, and obsession, and rage. It brings with it a perfect sense of proportion—and, since “painted or not painted, all shall fade”, it accommodates even Death. It is the practical face of goodness.

On this showing, Pope considers “good Humour” to be a mighty thing. (It would be his version, indeed, of Eliot's injunctions, “Datta. Dayadhvan. Damyata”.) But it is interesting to observe that he does not do so to the accompaniment of drums and trumpets. Just the opposite. He puts his best advice in the mouth of a coquette who would much prefer to “dance all Night, and dress all Day”, and who, far from being nobler than Belinda, is the person who lent the Baron the fatal scissors.4 Not only is the speaker quite unaware of the value of what she says, her audience pays it no attention at all:

          So spoke the Dame, but no Applause ensu'd;
Belinda frown'd, Thalestris call'd her Prude.

(5, 35-36)

I take it that this reflects no kind of anxiety on Pope's part—the desire to deflate the idea before anyone else does—but on the contrary, that it is the result of his best wisdom. Ideas, like all organic things, flourish only in the appropriate climate, and “good Humour” cannot flourish as part of a lecture. (It would not survive the treatment he gives “reason” in the Essay on Man, for example.) Disowned and inverted, it glows with all the more radiance—for we see that Pope himself is treating the idea with good humour, with just the kind of relaxed conviction that the idea implies. He leaves us good-humouredly free to examine the idea from all sides, to note that the speaker does not believe what she says, and to observe in the rest of the poem the consequences. We are being put in a spirit of good humour ourselves—so that the conviction, if and when it comes, will do so to minds in which it can strike root. Pope is doing here what he told Swift he was aiming to do in the Essay on Man: “to make mankind look upon this life with comfort and pleasure, and put morality in good humour” (Corr. 3, 117). And he is doing it, I would venture to say, much more successfully.

We may dwell a moment on the thought that a great poet might consider it his vocation to “put morality in good humour”, because it is an idea with a long and splendid ancestry, and because it is not an idea that lingered in English poetry after Pope: this is its swansong. This is not the occasion to offer more than a sketch, but perhaps you will follow me if I sum up the problem like this: after Pope, morality became a matter too serious to be treated with good humour (understood in the diminished sense)—while before Pope, there was an idea abroad that morality was too serious not to be so treated. In the ancient world, the standard-bearer of this idea was Horace. We can trace the same conviction in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in Montaigne's supremely good-humoured Essais, in Erasmus's Praise of Folly, in Shakespeare's early comedies, in Ben Jonson, and in John Dryden. But it is conspicuously lacking in Milton; and it is Milton, with his sense that when morality smiles it is with a very serious smile, who really colours the mainstream of English poetry after Pope. Morality embraces seriousness with fervour in Young and Thomson, Cowper and Gray. Burns and Byron fight a splendid rearguard action for good humour, but they are divided even against themselves, and the world is not with them. A Horatian individual, like Sydney Smith, may recover the force of the idea by instinct; but English poetry gives it no admittance. Morality must sound like Wordsworth in The Prelude: even-toned, reverential, and quite out of reach of Clarissa's ears.

Since one of the pleasures of conferences is to start contentious ideas, and then to make one's escape, I will acknowledge that I wanted to draw your attention to the idea of good humour because it gives us a glimpse of how much better poetry is for us than religion—and how unfortunate it was for English culture that religion overrode the wisdom of poetry in this instance. (I assume, from the preponderance of Milton in this genealogy, that the victory went to the Puritan strain in poetry, so evident in Cowper and Wordsworth.) If you are wondering quite what it is I grieve for, I can bring it better into focus by returning to Dr Johnson, who so appreciated the moral of the Rape of the Lock, you remember—but who thought, along with our other puritans, that religion and good humour could not go together. Boswell records a telling conversation in which Mr Murray, the Solicitor-General of Scotland, “praised the ancient philosophers for the candour and good humour with which those of different sects disputed with each other”. Johnson replied:

Sir, they disputed with good humour, because they were not in earnest as to religion. Had the ancients been serious in their belief, we should not have had their Gods exhibited in the manner we find them represented in the Poets. The people would not have suffered it. They disputed with good humour upon their fanciful theories, because they were not interested in the truth of them: when a man has nothing to lose, he may be in good humour with his opponent. … Every man who attacks my belief, diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy (April 1776).

This, like everything else Johnson says about religion, is the cry of a man in pain. Religion for Johnson is a matter of attack and defence, of confidence, or anger and unease: the keynotes of his Christianity are earnestness and guilty self-recrimination. It does not take a very profound insight to observe that his earnestness and his guilt are two sides of the same coin, and both of them are induced by the stress that he associates with belief. It is because the ancients showed no signs of that stress that he cannot believe they cared about truth: “when a man has nothing to lose, he may be in good humour with his opponent”. But as we noted above, Horace might well have replied to this that morality was too serious a matter to be treated with anything else. Truth is too volatile a quantity to be beaten into our opponent with clubs. Do we not show our respect for it best by treating even error with good humour—on the same basis that the ancients offered hospitality to a beggar, that he might really be Zeus in disguise?

What I grieve for, then, is that seriousness came to be equated with solemnity in the later eighteenth century, with terrible effects both for seriousness itself, and for English poetry. Poetry begins to mope—in Gray and Cowper, Wordsworth and Coleridge, on through Tennyson and Arnold, and down (if I may say so) to Eliot. It is unhappy as Johnson is unhappy—because it can neither believe nor disbelieve, and it supposes that in the past things were otherwise:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar …

(“Dover Beach” 21-25)

What Arnold actually heard, I take it, was the low groan of a legion of Oxford undergraduates examining the Thirty Nine Articles, and realizing that they didn't believe them literally, but only poetically. Had they been members of the Orthodox Church this need not have bothered them in the least. But they were members of a schism of the Catholic Church which had not infrequently burnt heretics in the past for such difficulties; and so they wept, and called themselves unbelievers. This is why I said earlier how much better poetry is for us than religion—for no-one has ever wept (or been burnt) over not believing a poem.

But I suggested just now that the equating of seriousness and solemnity had a disastrous effect on seriousness itself; and if you will permit me one more paradoxical formulation, the seriousness that turns laughter sternly from the door is much less serious than it supposes—for it betrays by that how far it is already on the defensive, how unwilling it is to be scrutinized by a disinterested intelligence. To observe the damage this does in poetry we need look no farther than the next English poet to attempt epic and mock-epic after Pope, William Cowper, who has many of the age's virtues (and not a few of Pope's artistic powers), but is marked throughout by this kind of over-serious seriousness. You may object that no man who can begin a long Miltonic poem with the words, “I sing the Sofa”, can be wholly lacking in good humour—and indeed there are exquisite flashes of it in all his lighter works—but it is a good humour kept strictly in its place, and not allowed to irradiate any serious subject. The poem in question is called, after all, The Task,4 and it begins:

I sing the SOFA. I, who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touch'd with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,
Escap'd with pain from that advent'rous flight,
Now seek repose upon an humbler theme …

(1, 1-5)

We might gloss this: “I sing the sofa, because when I write about more serious things I begin to feel myself going mad.” Seriousness, for Cowper as Johnson, is synonymous with a stress so intense it can hardly be borne. Good humour is only a palliative, not a solution; it has no moral prestige. The high ground is fully occupied by the truths of Christianity—truths which gave birth to that most terrible poem, “The Castaway”,5 in which Cowper sees the image of his own moral despair and damnation in the fate of the sailor who fell overboard:

He shouted: nor his friends had fail'd
          To check the vessel's course,
But so the furious blast prevail'd,
          That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.
At length, his transient respite past,
          His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev'ry blast,
          Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
          No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
          We perish'd each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

(19-24, 43-48, 61-66)

You may think me fit company only for Clarissa when I say that, pathetic as I find the poem, I think it is more serious from Cowper's point of view than ours. If the keynote of the kind of seriousness I am looking for is that an idea is entertained with mental freedom—that we are invited to walk round it, to scrutinize it from the back, and draw our conclusions at perfect liberty, in a spirit of good humour—then this poem has nothing to do with it. It is written from prison, by a prisoner who cannot even touch the walls confining him. Cowper's despair is too precious to him to be questioned—and therefore he never comes near the discovery of how much he himself is contributing to sustain it, how he hugs it to him even as he drowns. Of course, Cowper's fragile mental stability, his inveterate melancholia, make him a special case. But he figures in my argument as someone who was supremely in need of the notion that good humour had moral prestige, but could not make use of it. Evengelical puritanism had battened too firmly on his poetical and spiritual values. Had he ever encountered Sydney Smith, to whom evangelicism was anathema, we can only imagine him rolling his large, liquid eye in pain, as the good-humoured Reverend gave it as his considered opinion that “the luxury of false religion is to be unhappy”.

The corollary of my suggestion that this kind of solemn seriousness is not the real thing is that its polar opposite, lightness of heart, is not quite the real thing, either. As a child picking my way through Palgrave's Golden Treasury, I remember shrinking instinctively from poems that adjured me to “be gay”, because they always seemed to be winking away a tear; and it was to the late eighteenth-century sensibility which preferred its smiles to be veiled in tears that Cowper seemed to be such a great poet. When unhappiness is a sort of luxury, and happiness is a sort of woe, we cannot expect poetry to keep a grip, in any straightforward sense, on life as it is lived. And though it is more common to speak of Pope's age as the age of artificiality, and Cowper's as the age of advancing “nature” in poetry, I am inclined to think it was the other way about. When I look at The Task, for instance, I am struck by how much of it is translated Pope—Pope translated into a more natural idiom, but a more unnatural significance. You may remember Pope's elegy for the ageing Belindas and Clarissas of his society, in the Epistle to a Lady:

Beauties, like Tyrants, old and friendless grown,
Yet hate Repose, and dread to be alone,
Worn out in public, weary ev'ry eye,
Nor leave one sigh behind them when they die.
At last, to follies Youth could scarce defend,
It grows their Age's prudence to pretend;
Asham'd to own they gave delight before,
Reduc'd to feign it, when they give no more:
As Hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spight,
So these, their merry, miserable Night;
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour dy'd.

(227-30, 235-42)6

In The Task Cowper also has a meditation on these card-playing, dropsical ghosts of beauty, who haunt the public assemblies:

Others are dragg'd into the crowded room
Between supporters; and, once seated, sit,
Through downright inability to rise,
Till the stout bearers lift the corpse again.
These speak a loud memento. Yet ev'n these
Themselves love life, and cling to it, as he
That overhangs a torrent to a twig.
They love it, and yet loath it; fear to die,
Yet scorn the purposes for which they live.
Then wherefore not renounce them? No—the dread,
The slavish dread of solitude, that breeds
Reflection and remorse, the fear of shame,
And their invet'rate habits, all forbid.

(1, 478-90)

There is a grotesque credibility about the old dame who cannot get up under her own bulk—but we know that we are not fully in the land of the real from that dreadfully “poetical” comment, “Yet ev'n these / Themselves love life”. And the doubt is justified by the cure Cowper proposes to these haggard victims of Spleen. Pope's cure, you recall, was good humour at its best—a blend of relaxation, intelligence, a sense of proportion, and an acceptance of death. Cowper's cure is “Flora”:

The spleen is seldom felt where Flora reigns;
The low'ring eye, the petulance, the frown,
And sullen sadness, that o'ershade, distort,
And mar the face of beauty, when no cause
For such immeasurable woe appears,
These Flora banishes, and gives the fair
Sweet smiles, and bloom less transient than her own.

(1, 455-61)

The great thing, we see, is to take country walks. It is only a short step from here to the Lake District, and Wordsworth's rapturous affirmation that “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her”; an affirmation I am inclined to reject, like others before me, when I remember that the Dorothy to whom it was addressed became a crazy old woman who muttered obscenities as she poured the tea.

My underlying thesis, you may begin to see, is that without good humour, English poetry became increasingly odd; odd in feeling and odd in philosophy. I am at one with Matthew Arnold, who heartily disliked the Victorian note of automatic melancholy, even while he was contributing to it, and felt morally bound to suppress his own poetry because he found it deleterious. When he tried to express what was lacking, he turned to German culture, and quoted Schiller:

“All Art … is dedicated to Joy, and there is no higher and no more serious problem, than how to make men happy. The right Art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.”

(Preface to Poems, 1853)7

I see this as Arnold's attempt to work his way back to the position I found in Pope—that seriousness and joy are not incompatible, and art does not become significant by shutting the door on humour. But this is mere assertion, and I can probably make the point much better by confronting you with a stark contrast. English poetry drove Arnold into the fold of the Germans, and I am taking his hint by offering you, as proof of what I have been suggesting, a glimpse of how different things were for Goethe. It is a poem with the winds of joy blowing through it from end to end. It is ebullient with good humour—and yet its subject is really goodness, located where Cowper could not have borne to look for it, in human sexuality. It is not quite a poem of the eighteenth century—it dates from 1810—but I like to think it is a poem that the best insights of the eighteenth century made possible. It is “Das Tagebuch” (“The Diary”) and when I say that its subject is Love and Duty, you may wonder why it was that it was thought to be unpublishable and lingered in manuscript long after Goethe's death. But this is Love and Duty conceived in the most shockingly good-humoured manner.

The narrator of the poem is a happily married man who is travelling on business, and unexpectedly held up on the return journey by the breaking of his carriage axle. He is forced to take a bed for the night in a country inn, where he whiles away the time by trying to write his diary, which his wife loves to read. But he cannot concentrate. The country girl laying the table and bringing in his supper is too distractingly fresh and delightful—her deftness, her bare arms, her obedience, add up to a provocation he cannot resist. Before he knows it he has embraced her, and before she wriggles away, she whispers that she will come to him at night—as she does, full of trust and naive passion. She has never said “yes” to a man before, and she confides herself to him with a bewitching mixture of happiness and timidity. They kiss, they twine their toes—and then, nothing. The narrator finds himself entirely unmanned; while he berates himself inwardly, and temporizes by smiling and kissing, the girl (who thinks love has nothing more to offer) goes blissfully to sleep, after her hard day's work. The narrator cannot sleep at all, and as he looks down on the dreaming girl, his mind goes back to his wife, and the rapturous courtship that united them both in uninhibited passion—a passion of body and soul, the real thing. At the memory of their glorious lovemaking, he finds himself suddenly aroused, and leans over his country girl to kiss her awake. But, no—the excitement disappears as rapidly as it came and, torn between defeat and delight, he recognizes that it is his wife alone who has the power to stir his inmost passion. He sits up in bed and writes this entry in his diary:

Sitzt, schreibt: «Ich nahte mich der heimischen Pforte,
Entfernen wollten mich die letzten Stunden,
Da hab ich nun, am sonderbarsten Orte,
Mein treues Herz aufs neue dir verbunden.
Zum Schlusse findest du geheime Worte:
Die Krankheit erst bewähret den Gesunden.
Dies Büchlein soll dir manches Gute zeigen,
Das Beste nur muss ich zuletzt verschweigen.»
Da kräht der Hahn. Das Mädchen schnell entwindet
Der Decke sich und wirft sich rasch ins Mieder.
Und da sie sich so seltsam wiederfindet,
So stutzt sie, blickt und schlägt die Augen nieder;
Und da sie ihm zum letzten Mal verschwindet,
Im Auge bleiben ihm die schönen Glieder:
Das Posthorn tönt, er wirft sich in den Wagen
Und lässt getrost sich zu der Liebsten tragen.
Und weil zuletzt bei jeder Dichtungsweise
Moralien uns ernstlich fördern sollen,
So will auch ich in so beliebtem Gleise
Euch gern bekennen, was die Verse wollen:
Wir stolpern wohl auf unsrer Lebensreise,
Und doch vermögen in der Welt, der tollen,
Zwei Hebel viel aufs irdische Getriebe:
Sehr viel die Pflicht, unendlich
mehr die Liebe!


Now, that is what I call good humour!


  1. TE VIII, 538.

  2. The “Life of Pope” in Lives of the Poets, The World's Classics edn, 2, 317.

  3. Or did Pope create this paradox by accident when he inserted Clarissa's speech in 1717? The question is much debated; see Howard D. Weinbrot, “The Rape of the Lock and the Contexts of Warfare” in The Enduring Legacy, eds G. S. Rousseau and Pat Rogers, Cambridge and New York, 1988, 40-41.

  4. William Cowper, Poetical Works, ed. H.S. Milford, revised 4th edn, London, 1967 (Oxford Standard Authors), 127 ff.

  5. Poetical Works, pp. 431-32.

  6. TE III ii, 66-67.

  7. Matthew Arnold, Poetical Works, eds C.B. Tinker and H.F. Lowry, London, 1950 (Oxford Standard Authors), xviii.

  8. 8. The complete poem is published with an English translation in Goethe: Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Middleton, Boston, 1983, 180-89; and in Goethe: Selected Verse, ed. David Luke, Penguin, 1964, 202-211.

Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1990)

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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 his Mind, and could do no otherwise.”1 His commitment to this point of view signals his moral error. Although he recurs to his hypothesis throughout the novel in order to elucidate the behavior of those around him, his ultimate conversion to orthodox Christianity as a result of reading Isaac Barrow's works involves his repudiation of the theory. “I never was a rash Disbeliever,” he explains; “my chief Doubt was founded on this, that as Men appeared to me to act entirely from their Passions, their Actions could have neither Merit nor Demerit” (511). The virtuous clergyman, Dr. Harrison, horrified, postpones discourse on the subject but emphasizes the importance of regard for true religion, which provides objects, he points out, for the powerful passions of hope and fear.

Fielding himself presumably shared Dr. Harrison's view. In characterizing such figures as Colonel James and Colonel Bath, however, he relies heavily on the idea of a ruling passion. The two colonels act always on the basis of passion, and their individual passions show unvarying consistency. Lust dominates James, intense concern for his honor rules Bath. These figures' utility in the plot, like that of the nameless “noble Lord,” depends on the predictability of their motives. Descended from Elizabethan “humour characters,” such monomaniacal personages in their instant recognizability provide authorial conveniences. Their comic or sinister obsessiveness generates action and makes it comprehensible.

Twenty years before Amelia, in the Essay on Man (1733-34) and the Epistles to Several Persons published between 1731 and 1735, Alexander Pope had elaborately explored the fictional possibilities of the ruling passion. Unlike Fielding, Pope in his authorial persona supports the notion for its interpretive power.

Search then the Ruling Passion: There, alone,
The Wild are constant, and the Cunning known;
This clue once found, unravels all the rest …

(“To Cobham,” 174-75, 178)2

The interpreter, of course, can make mistakes: (“in this search, the wisest may mistake, / If second qualities for first they take” [“To Cobham,” 210-211]). We never dependably judge ourselves: all too often “Our spring of action to ourselves is lost” (“To Cobham,” 42). The predilections of the observer may distort his or her observations. Nonetheless, these poems claim, both tacitly and explicitly, the validity and the value of the ruling passion as spring of human behavior.

The explanatory power of asserting a single passion's control over the actions of a human being need not correspond to explicit truth-claims for the idea. In Amelia, the finally discredited notion of ruling passions in fact helps to clarify the chaos of competing motives that shape the plot. As long as Booth believes that passion controls action, he demonstrates the point. (When his belief changes, he presumably becomes capable of acting from principle.) Even Amelia in all her virtue appears governed by her praiseworthy connubial and maternal feelings as often as by articulated principle. Dr. Harrison, who speaks for principle, can act on the basis of the moment's passion. And the many characters who consistently diverge from the standard of “goodness” behave as they do because of the passions that control them. The doctrine stated to be false, in other words, frequently appears in practice true—not universally true, but revealing. In fact “false” doctrine serves as an organizing fiction to convey the novel's moral and psychological “truth.”

Despite the speaker's insistence on the ruling passion's force as explanatory hypothesis, Pope's poems, conversely, do not necessarily persuade the reader that the notion altogether elucidates such events as it allegedly interprets. Theoretically unpersuasive in several respects, the doctrine in Pope's verse too works more fruitfully as fiction than as “truth.” All poetry, of course, depends on its fictions. Dubious doctrine produces compelling verse by working as fictions work. The ruling passion, the interpretative concept alleged to make apparent human eccentricity comprehensible to the informed observer, however inadequate as psychology, constitutes a useful controlling fantasy. It allows Pope to convert his contemporaries into phantasms of consistency, to tell coherent stories about them. To think about the ruling passion as facilitating fiction, testable less by its utility in understanding actual people than by its value in generating a poetic text, helps elucidate the moral and dramatic operations of the epistles.

Pope himself, we know, did not conceive the ruling passion as a fiction, any more than Fielding considered it truth. The poet's serious intellectual claims for his notion, however, like the fact of its honorable genealogy in Renaissance tradition, have little necessary bearing on twentieth-century perceptions of how the theory actually works for readers of the poems. For Pope as for Fielding, the ruling passion functions as a fiction of coherence. F. W. Bateson suggests, acutely, that Pope gets into trouble in the moral epistles—judged as coherent philosophy—because he is interested in so many different things, not only in the theory he purports to illustrate (“Introduction,” Pope, Epistles, xxv). Incoherent philosophy, however, can help to account for coherent poetry. It can even create poetic coherence by serving fiction's purposes. Fiction, to be sure, may be considered a form of truth. As Dr. Johnson was to explain in a notable fable, it originates in truth “dressed and painted by Desire” to create its temporary resemblance to falsehood.3 The unifying fiction of the ruling passion answers to human Desire.

The claim of truth Pope makes is essential to the working of the kind of fiction it inhabits, even if we do not consider the theory of ruling passions persuasive. Within its poetic contexts, that theory must be accepted even by twentieth-century readers—through the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith—as an “as if” dictum revealing the truth of fiction that Johnson perceived. Preoccupation with the real-world truth-claims of the ruling passion—or, for that matter, the Great Chain of Being—can interfere with our ability to read Pope's poems. For many readers now, the notion of the ruling passion, like that of the flawlessly structured moral universe, registers as fiction in a negative sense (or lie, delusion, error, foolishness). To accept it as imaginative reality can begin to reveal its positive functions.

Detailed examination of how the idea of the ruling passion works in the moral epistles will help to show what I mean. Fielding helps alert us to the organizing power of this notion for presenting character. In its most obvious poetic function for Pope, the idea of a ruling passion supplies the focused simplification necessary to satiric characterization. The “rev'rend sire, whom want of grace / Has made the father of a nameless race,” who “envies ev'ry sparrow that he sees” (“To Cobham,” 228-29, 233); the woman who “Sighs for the shades,” only to weep when she actually possesses her “odious, odious Trees” (“To a Lady,” 38, 40); the hypochondriac female evoked by the rhetorical question about whether riches can “in gems bid pallid Hippia glow” (“To Bathurst,” 89)—such cartoon versions of human perverseness claim little mimetic verisimilitude. They thrive on the freedom of comic invention. A reader's experience of the poems that contain such figures centers on their energetic evocations of richly various forms of human vitality; the reductive notion of the ruling passion, paradoxically, facilitates the imagining of variety.

The opening of “To Cobham,” the epistle that specifies most clearly the theory of the ruling passion, raises a question about the role of individual perception in assessing and comprehending character:

                                                  the diff'rence is as great between
The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
All Manners take a tincture from our own,
Or come discolour'd thro' our Passions shown.


The warning about the importance of “The optics seeing” calls attention to the fact that the ruling passion is, precisely, a way of seeing. Its utility for the perceiver exceeds its value for illuminating the object of perception. Belonging to a vision of universal coherence, the notion serves specifically to order psychological impressions. Analogous, the Essay on Man suggests, to “the lurking principle of death” (2:134)4 born with each human being, the ruling passion, “The Mind's disease” (2:138), likewise grows through the stages of human development, an unfailing principle of consistency. The asserted presence of the dominating passion makes chaotic experience comprehensible.

The value of the ruling passion as organizing fiction becomes particularly striking in Pope's characterizations of actual people—the duke of Wharton, the Man of Ross, Blount, and the rest. The tour de force presentation of Wharton, in “To Cobham,” provides a vivid instance. The duke had died, at the age of thirty-two, less than three years before the publication of Pope's poem. His short life had been conspicuously, notoriously, chaotic, a manifold tissue of contradictions. Marrying, against his father's will, at sixteen, he deserted his wife soon afterwards. He attached himself to the Pretender, then returned to England, became a member of the Irish House of Peers at the age of nineteen, and spoke ardently in support of the existing English government. A denouncer of vice in public, he was nonetheless—or consequently—president of the Hell-fire Club and involved in other disreputable organizations. Bankrupt in England, he rejoined the Pretender on the Continent, announced his conversion to Catholicism, fought against the English at Gibraltar, was indicted for treason, and ended his life “in a state of beggary, drunkenness, and almost complete destitution.”5 With great personal gifts and financial resources, he yet found it impossible to pursue a single course or to achieve lasting distinction. To discover a unifying principle in such a life might challenge any psychologist: the career itself denies unity.

Pope, however, declares as Wharton's ruling passion “the Lust of Praise” (180), recapitulates, at least allusively, many salient facts of his biography, and insists that all exemplify the same emotional bias. If one responds to the poet's assertions as literal explication of a life, the ruling passion theory seems reductive, arbitrary, and as obsessive as the character it describes. As a poetic characterization, on the other hand, the brilliant account of Wharton depends on its obsessive scheme. Pope uses the idea of a passion for praise to reveal the self-cancelling nature of all Wharton's experience. With innate abilities qualifying him to win approval from the wise, the young man seeks instead the admiration of “Women and Fools” (183). He wants to shine both as a Cicero and as a Rochester, to be hailed alike by dignified senates and frivolous clubs, to win the applause of whores and of priests. Like Tithonus's insufficiently imagined desire—for immortality but not for eternal youth—Wharton's indiscriminate yearning constitutes hubris, the failure to acknowledge innate limitation, and guarantees destruction.

By a crucial paradoxical link, Wharton's “Passion” opposes his “Life”:

His Passion still, to covet gen'ral praise,
His Life, to forfeit it a thousand ways.


In other words, experience frustrates desire. The man who covets praise must forfeit it because, as the cited individual instances indicate, the desire's intensity and scope forbid its fulfillment. “Passion” characterizes a longing untamable by experience; “Life” designates the repetitive, chastening process that thwarts longing. The same oppositional pattern, repeated until death, will mark all avatars of the ruling passion. Thus Wharton, bizarre in his individuality, can function also as a poetic type of the universalized vanity of human wishes.

The climax of Pope's account of Wharton develops through an extraordinary suspended sentence, fourteen lines long, full of elaborate qualifiers and dependent clauses, describing a man of bitter paradox, and ending in his death. It begins with its subject's gifts “of nature and of art” (192), nullified by his lack of “an honest heart” (193): the hunger for praise necessarily compromises integrity. Then, with increasing speed and emphasis, it evokes the futility of the gifted man's life, demonstrating the moral inadequacy and the structural inconsistency implicit in Wharton's dependence on others' evaluations:

A Fool, with more of Wit than half mankind,
Too quick for Thought, for Action too refin'd:
A Tyrant to the wife his heart approves;
A Rebel to the very king he loves …


Only in a dependent clause (“he loves”) does the duke figure as subject of an active verb. The sentence's main verb explodes in the line immediately following: “He dies. …” This ultimate action, unwilled and uncontrollable, concludes Wharton's career. In the perspective of the inevitable dénouement, one understands that all actions of the man compelled by lust for praise take place equally without his control.

Once incorporated into a poem, Wharton's life itself becomes a fiction. Disunified experience, given the hypothesis of the ruling passion, generates unified poetry. When Swift (probably) wrote of Pope's dunces, “The Poem was not made for these Authors, but these Authors for the Poem,6 he called attention to the process of conversion by which living human beings become fictional constructs enacting the artist's will. The character of the duke of Wharton too is “made … for the Poem”—made into something for the poem (presumably with hints from Dryden's portrait of Zimri).

As the conversion of Wharton into fiction illustrates, the concept of the ruling passion generates forms of fiction beyond itself. In the moral epistles, it makes possible the narrating of life stories. The miniature biographies that energize the poems—narratives about such wholly or partly invented characters as Balaam, Atossa, Timon—depend on the simplicity and the complexity of the ruling passion as idea.

Balaam, “Religious, punctual, frugal, and so forth” (“To Bathurst,” 343), who shares with other characters in the third moral epistle a strongly acquisitive nature, inhabits a small didactic “tale” which gains not only coherence but poetic power from its constant implicit reference to the ruling passion. Here as in the Wharton story, the fiction of the ruling passion constitutes what the Jesuit thinker William Lynch calls, in quite another connection, “an activating paradigm.”7 Provoking the imagination, the concept makes things happen, in the mind and on the page. Balaam values everything in concrete terms; his passion for wealth makes dreadful things happen. The ostensibly neutral narrator does not directly challenge Balaam's system, which converts even the members of his family into property, claimed by Satan, whose rhetorical association with the king suggests intense political overtones of Pope's fable:

Wife, son, and daughter, Satan, are thy own,
His wealth, yet dearer, forfeit to the Crown:
The Devil and the King divide the prize.


But the narrative does not just demonstrate how the ruling passion can explain an imagined career. It also shows how such an explanation, for all its unifying power, provides a surface gloss over chaos (a point implicit also in the duke of Wharton story). Like Freud's fiction of the unconscious mind as composed of id, ego, and superego, the notion of the ruling passion carries hierarchical implications. Just as the putative control of the superego implies the insubordination of the id, Pope's theory of a ruling passion, insistent on the ordered subservience of many to one, contains anxiety about the unruly. The idea of rule implies the possibility of misrule, and of rebellion. Pope's adroit manipulation of its poetic possibilities exploits tensions implicit in the concept. Thus the helter skelter of Balaam's life course infuses the poetic text with its rush of energy and reveals itself as fearsome moral disorder, while the explanatory hypothesis continues to control its presentation:

My Lady falls to play; so bad her chance,
He must repair it; takes a bribe from France;
The House impeach him; Coningsby harangues;
The Court forsake him, and Sir Balaam hangs.


Two couplets can contain a multifarious sequence of events because Balaam's story has established its own laws of cause and effect. The course of disaster, from the point of view of the knowing narrator (whose “neutrality” comes to seem increasingly stern) and the audience he has instructed, is inevitable. From Balaam's point of view, on the other hand, senseless misfortune has overtaken his life. Unlike Job, he has not been persuaded of divine wisdom: he can only curse God and die. The victim of a ruling passion suffers that passion as disease; only the spectator can employ it as rationalizing structure. The ruling passion provides the analyst of character with an illusion of order, but it also enables the poet to present narratives of dramatic disorder, disorder that can be imagined as threatening the entire social fabric.

Occasionally in the moral epistles Pope depicts a character whose asserted ruling passion functions as virtue. On the whole, such characters seem relatively unpersuasive as imagined figures. Cobham, for instance, gets rather perfunctory attention at the end of the poem addressed to him:

And you! brave cobham, to
the latest breath
Shall feel your ruling passion strong in death:
Such in those moments as in all the past,
“Oh, save my Country, Heav'n!” shall be your last.


The poet does not bother to imagine or to report evidence of characterological consistency; he only asserts it, in a spirit of compliment. Cobham seems hardly more than a rhetorical device. (As Hannah More points out, Pope did not prove a good prophet with this particular fiction. In Cobham's last moments, she reports, “not being able to carry a glass of jelly to his mouth, he was in such a passion, feeling his own weakness, that he threw jelly, glass and all, into Lady Chatham's face, and expired.”8)

A more fully realized virtuous exemplar of the ruling passion is the Man of Ross. Twentieth-century research has fully supported Pope's claim of his actual existence and has documented the facts to which the poem alludes,9 yet (at least for twentieth-century readers) he lacks the vitality of such imaginary personages as Balaam. Although his ruling passion, like Atossa's, is never explicitly identified, it manifests itself as benevolence. He exemplifies an eighteenth-century ideal of active sympathy, subordinating self-interest to concern with others' good. Pope saw him as a ready-made “Good Example” and proclaimed, in a letter to Hugh Bethel, that everything he had written about the man's “Good Works … is to a Tittle true.”10

To a Tittle true: yet despite his literal authenticity the Man of Ross as poetic character possesses less fictional authority, less “truth” on the page, than do his more reprehensible counterparts in Pope's poems—not because good is inherently less persuasive than evil but because this idealized figure, unlike Atossa, say, is rendered entirely by means of reported action rather than dramatized emotion. The narrator implicitly deduces a ruling passion from its effects. The notion's theoretical status thus becomes all too vividly apparent; the inherent artifice of fictionmaking, corresponding to the manifest artifice of the rhetoric of religiosity and sentimentality used to evoke the moral grandeur of the generous man, may begin to trouble the reader.

“Fictions are for finding things out,” Frank Kermode has written, “and they change as the needs of sense-making change.”11 Obviously a means of sense-making, like the paradigms of science, the fiction of the ruling passion, applied to an Atossa or a Wharton, serves to change our perceptions of character. It directs attention to irrational components of human action, demands that we take the irrational seriously, insists that the sum total of an individual's experience makes sense, often, only from the perspective of an outside observer equipped with a theory. The ruling passion as a fiction provides a way to acknowledge—even to delight in—ominous emotional forces, and a way artistically to contain them. Applied to the Man of Ross, the concept of the ruling passion seems more literally plausible than it does in relation to, say, the duke of Wharton. The works this Christian hero left behind him indeed testify to the unity of his life. Yet the notion of a controlling passion here calls attention to no powerful irrational impulse. It becomes a mechanical device for reiterating conventional pieties.

On the whole, though, the moral epistles present themselves as poems of discovery: thus of change. Their fictions operate dynamically, through large narratives as well as miniaturized stories. They tell the story of “the optics seeing” as well as of “the objects seen”—a story not of literal but of metaphoric “optics”: of consciousness. In this story, the speaker plays an important part. The different voices, vocabularies, tonalities he adopts, his range of social registers and references, dramatize the diversity of individual personality. The implied character of the speaker in its complexity counterpoints the proclaimed unity of those figures who supply the nominal subjects of the poems. The dialogic richness Bakhtin considers typical of the novel—“the internal stratification of language, … its social heteroglossia and the variety of individual voices in it”—and which he finds ordinarily missing from poetry animates the moral epistles.12 Dialogue takes place not only between speakers, implicitly and explicitly, but among the various voices of the single speaker controlling the textual representations of character. “To Bathurst,” for instance, opens in a bantering tone, moves to satiric indignation expressed partly through Biblical allusion (“Yet, to be just to these poor men of pelf, / Each does but hate his Neighbor as himself” [109-10]), then high seriousness (“Ask we what makes one keep, and one bestow? / That pow'r who bids the Ocean ebb and flow” [165-66]). With the Man of Ross, Pope takes an excursion into sentimental religiosity:

Who taught that heav'n-directed spire to rise?
The man of ross, each lisping babe replies.


With his accounts of Buckingham and Cutler, he returns to the energies of satire. The story of Balaam proceeds from comic casualness to ostensibly non-judgmental reportage. And my cavalier summary ignores several tonal modulations along the way.

This account of dialogical diversity does not reiterate the view that Pope utilizes various personae in constructing a satiric poem. Voices are not personae, though they convey personhood. Inasmuch as the poet figures as a character in his poem, his voices, expressing a range of social and personal possibilities, remind us that a human being need not survive only in his or her obsessions. The obsessional simplifies personality, making it possible for a poet—a maker of fictions—to claim the comprehensibility of character. But the more covert dialogic aspects of the moral epistles, the rendered awareness of different levels and tones of discourse, dramatize the liberating potential of attention to a world (predominantly a human world) outside the self. The narrator as character demonstrates a saving alternative to obsession. The fiction of the ruling passion calls attention to the universal presence of obsessiveness; the fiction of the wisely (but not unemotionally) observant self, the self that speaks in and through many voices, reminds us of fuller potentialities. Pope manipulates both to generate the rich texture of the moral epistles.

He thus takes his place with Fielding and the other novelists of the eighteenth century as one who understands an important fiction of character—the fiction of unity conveyed by the idea of a ruling passion—and understands its poetic workings. His deft deployment of shifting tonal registers, changing strategies of speech, in the voices of his speakers throughout the moral epistles provides a more ambiguous way of rendering complexity. Unity may be hard to find, these poems suggest. Hard to find: but we need its reassurance.13


  1. Henry Fielding, Amelia, ed. Martin C. Battestin (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1983), 32.

  2. All references to the Epistles are taken from Epistles to Several Persons (Moral Essays), ed. F. W. Bateson, vol. 3:2 of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (London: Methuen, 1951).

  3. Rambler 96 (16 Feb. 1751), The Rambler, ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, vol. 4 of The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969).

  4. An Essay on Man, ed. Maynard Mack, vol. 3:1 of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (London: Methuen, 1950).

  5. The Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Wharton, Philip, duke of Wharton.”

  6. “PREFACE prefix'd to the five imperfect Editions,” The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland, vol. 5 of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (London: Methuen, 1943), 205.

  7. William F. Lynch, S. J., Images of Faith: An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1973), 19.

  8. Letter to an unspecified sister, 1780, in William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More, 3 vols. (London, 1834), 1:175.

  9. See Howard Erskine-Hill, The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope: Lives, Example and the Poetic Response (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), 15-41.

  10. 8 Sept. 1731, The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), 3:227.

  11. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), 39.

  12. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 264.

  13. I am indebted to Howard Erskine-Hill and Aubrey Williams, whose comments helped me greatly in revising this essay.

James R. Aubrey (essay date 1992)

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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 perfect paradigm of the picturesque garden that would come into fashion later in the century. Others see Pope's practices more as an extension of classical and Renaissance gardens, as Pope understood them.

An idea from traditional literary theory, that there is a hierarchy of kinds, or genres of poetry, may have enabled Pope to avoid recognising what we tend to see as inconsistencies in his attitudes towards gardens. Renaissance critics differed about how many kinds of poetry there were, and how the kinds should be ranked, but Dryden's translation of Boileau's Art of poetry contains a typical arrangement of poetic categories, in this ascending order: pastoral, elegy, ode, epigram, satire, tragedy, and epic. Such a hierarchy of kinds provided a conceptual framework which helped to constitute Pope's thinking about poetry, which he considered a sister art to gardening as well as to painting. Joseph Addison had applied the idea to gardening in The Spectator no.477, where he suggested that ‘there are as many Kinds of Gardening, as of Poetry’. Since Pope tended to evaluate art on the basis on hierarchical assumptions, and since he considered gardening to be a sister art to poetry and painting, he may also have regarded the diverse parts of his garden like the various kinds of poetry.

In his Discourse of pastoral poetry, Pope associates pastoral poems with the tradition of the ‘Golden Age’. His own Windsor Forest can be seen as an English pastoral representation of an idealised, fecund countryside. Pope's quotation of Homer's pastoral interlude from the Odyssey in the 1712 Guardian essay ‘On gardens’ indicates that Pope senses an opposition between formal topiary gardens and productive gardens with social utility. In his own garden at Twickenham, according to John Serle's plan of 1745, Pope devoted about one-tenth of the space to a ‘Kitchen Garden’, where he would have grown fruits, herbs and vegetables. The adjoining vineyard would have provided associations with Rome, as well as fruit and wine. These areas were of a different kind from the rest of Pope's garden, like a farm in a larger landscape, or like a Georgic in a corpus of poetic works, or like a pastoral interlude in an epic poem.

As Pope's works include an Elegy to the memory of an unfortunate lady, his garden contained an elegiac spot, where he erected an obelisk to the memory of his mother. This part of the garden would have provided a locus for meditation on elegiac themes of loss and mortality, as a ruined arch planned for the entrance to the grotto also would have done, at the opposite end of the garden from the obelisk.

Above pastoral and elegy is the lyrical ode, poems such as the one Pope claimed to have written at the age of twelve and which anticipates his situation at Twickenham: ‘Happy the man, whose wish and care / A few paternal acres bound.’ Even though his site was only five acres in extent, Pope created the illusion of more space by planting darker trees, and closer together, as they were farther from the house, so that his garden could generate pleasures similar to those felt when one looks at a landscape painting—or at a similar view of the countryside. Likewise, Pope's raising of mounts seems meant to express and multiply his pleasure in the broken views of the Thames which they afforded. Other pleasurable sensory surprises were available in the grotto, Pope's tunnel leading to the garden, under his house and the London road. Such devices, for expression and manipulation of the feelings, constituted the gardening equivalent of a lyrical ode.

In the middle of the Boileau-Dryden hierarchy is the epigram. Addison had referred to ‘makers of Parterres and Flower-Gardens as Epigrammatists and Sonneteers in this Art’, evidently for their analogous formal control. Pope is not known to have planted flowers at Twickenham, but he seems to approve of them in the line from his Epistle to Burlington where, of Villario's pleasant garden, it is said that ‘A waving Glow his bloomy beds display.’ The open space on Serle's plan of Pope's garden, labelled the Bowling Green, resembles a parterre, and the area laid to lawn between the house and the river was called ‘a parterre’ by a visitor in 1747. But Pope's use of open space seems less deliberate than, say, Le Nôtre's at Versailles. As in the best epigrams, Pope's artistry was disguised, or at any rate did not call attention to its artificiality as formal gardens tend to do.

Satire is above epigram, and the perversions of good gardening described in Pope's Epistle to Burlington are verse representations of satirical gardening. His description in The Guardian of a hedge sculpted to look like St George slaying the dragon but lacking a season's growth before the lance will quite reach its target, is satirical gardening in prose. Satire in gardening in practice is rare, if one looks for an ironic witty dimension, but such a dimension can be found in the gardens of Stowe, the place Pope holds up for praise as ‘a work to wonder at’, where the Temple of Modern Virtue is built as a ruin and the Temple of British Worthies has a subversive inscription to a canine ‘Signor Fido’. Several features at Twickenham were, like satire, intended to arouse the beholder's moral sense and to guide his or her thoughts in a socially responsible way. The statues evidently included busts of Dryden and Newton, a satirist and a theorist, both of whom were able to envisage an order of things beyond the historical moments in which they were living.

The second highest kind of poetry Dryden calls ‘Tragic’, though another seventeenth-century critic refers to the genre as ‘Dramatic’. Pope's Eloisa to Abelard is a dramatic monologue about a tragic situation, but how Pope might have imagined analogies between dramatic or tragic poems and gardens is difficult to determine. He did sometimes personify landscapes, as if a garden were the residence of a deity or spirit presiding over the site, as he advises the would-be gardener to ‘Consult the Genius of the Place in all’; to design a landscape garden might require such deities to act in concert, like characters in a well-conceived dramatic production. In a less fanciful sense, Twickenham included dramatic gardening as it invited people who walked in it to respond as if they were an audience at a play, or even characters participating in a drama. The unlabelled oval area in Serle's plan appears to have been an amphitheatre, perhaps an execution of Pope's advice in Epistle to Burlington to ‘scoop in circling theatres the Vale’. In yet another sense of the word theatre, Romances are theatrical, are dramatisations; Dryden does not mention the Romance as a genre, but it would be a sub-genre of dramatic poetry. Addison mentions four devices as elements of Romance gardening: ‘Bowers and Grottos, Trelliages and Cascades’. Pope mentioned an enchanted bower in a letter, sketched a trellis on a manuscript, and built a grotto with an artificial rill—all four of the devices mentioned by Addison.

The highest-ranking in any hierarchy of genres is the epic. Pope's work with this kind of poetry includes his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the fragment of his intended epic Brutus, and his ironic epics The Rape of the lock and The Dunciad. The gardening equivalent of an epic, according to Addison, was the work of London and Wise, royal gardeners to Queen Anne, but Pope would have considered their formal gardens conceptually misguided and not examples to the nation, as an epic poem should be. Near the end of his Epistle to Burlington, Pope praises him ‘Who plants like Bathurst, or who builds like Boyle’. Boyle's—that is, Burlington's—architecture is said to be ‘worthy Kings’, and Bathurst's gardening may be inferred likewise to be a model in that his 5,000-acre estate with its oak forest could supply the Royal Navy with timber. Another way of gardening on an epic scale is to sculpt the landscape, as Pope once proposed doing with a Welsh mountain so that it would resemble Alexander the Great reclining.

There is another kind of epic gardening, akin to the sub-genre of sacred epic, in which a poet or painter represents sacred themes. At Twickenham, when Pope returned to work on his grotto late in his life, he was not just adding more shells but imagined himself to be creating a miniature earthscape. He wanted exotic minerals to be arranged as they would be found in a mine, he explained in a letter, so that his grotto would re-create the processes of nature without owing anything to chisel or polish. In the sense that Pope's garden artistry was re-creating divine Creation, Pope's grotto was sacred gardening of the highest order.

Ralph Cohen has observed that eighteenth-century critics ‘saw the forms as hierarchical, comprehensively embodied or capable of being harmoniously embodied in the drama or epic’. Pope demonstrated his virtuosity as a poet by writing in the different kinds of poetry, and his villa at Twickenham likewise demonstrated his versatility as a gardener, where the diverse kinds of garden are unified harmoniously in his comprehensive, epic gardening statement. Pope's garden was worthy to serve as a revolutionary prototype, though Pope probably saw what he was doing as traditional, partly in terms of the hierarchy of genres. However he thought of what he was doing, the landscape garden Pope constructed became a model for the nation in his lifetime.

Raymond Stephanson (essay date 1992)

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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 Phaon (1707),‘On the statue of Cleopatra, made into a fountain by Leo the Tenth’ (1710), Eloisa to Abelard (1716)—have received relatively limited attention. I want to suggest that Pope's imagining himself as female is a strategy or a symbolic drama—perhaps not always fully concscious—by which he can both represent and to a certain extent cope with the insecure nature of his own sexuality, his vacillating atitudes towards women, and the complex relationship between his unfulfilled sexual desires and the poetical character.

In Eloisa to Abelard Pope's identification with Eloisa has often been noted, as has the other obvious identification of the crippled, sexually inactive Pope with the castrated Abelard. What does it mean, then, for Pope to imagine his own sexual desires through a nun's sexual longing for a castrated man? On the one hand, impersonating Eloisa allows Pope to participate in a fiction of intense desire which lets him appropriate the female sexuality he is imagining. On the other hand, Eloisa's unmet sexual desires allow expression of his fears of denial by Lady Mary and the Blount sisters. A more intriguing problem is the psychological circuitry in Eloisa's desire for a castrated man. The fact that Pope's fantasy of female sexual desire is directed to an impotent male is perhaps a covert drama through which the poet imagines not how he will satisfy his own patriarchal projection of female sexuality, but rather how he will fail to do so. This feature of the poem represents a troubling encounter with phallic failure, and it is revealing that Pope should have deleted from the 1736 edition the couplet (after line 258 in the 1717 edition) that most poignantly records the poet's anxiety about his virility:

Cut from the root my perish'd joys I see,
And love's warm tyde for ever stopt in thee.

The deletion was Pope's response to charges of immodesty, but one might also think of the self-censorship as a kind of male silencing or figurative castration. I return to this idea in a moment.

Pope realises that in the absence of the lover's body or of sexuality itself there remains only language as a substitute (see ll. 51-54). If one cannot use one's natural voice to beckon and call forth the willing object of desire, then one must become a silent voice and write; but if that writing in turn is unanswered or unheard, then the idea of impotence is double. Part of what Eloisa's situation represents to Pope is not just the failure of the body but the failure of language, of poetry, as a surrogate for physical passion.

These male projections are partly about a patriarchal re-affirmation of the subordination of women, but Pope also seems to feel that the paradoxically silent voice of woman is ultimately linked to a failure of patriarchy itself. That is, the male voice and the phallus which authorises its power have become impotent—casualties of patriarchal violence, as the story of Abelard's castration makes clear—and left behind is a completely unsatisfactory space in which male, but especially female, voices cannot openly communicate their desires for a shared sexuality. Pope's impresonation of Eloisa's voice of course allows male power silently to re-enter the lonely world of the poem, but only to confront itself as a kind of lack or absence: the phallic ‘root’ is gone. Pope's imagining himself as both the female voice which will not be heard and the phallus that cannot respond is an intricate conjunction with implications for his attitudes towards femaleness and patriarchy.

In ‘On the statue of Cleopatra’ Pope sympathetically presents the attempt by woman to give expression to selfhood. The curious puzzle here is that the poem's primary and secondary titles (the latter being ‘Cleopatra speaks’) suggest that the change in the statue's function has already taken place, and yet the dramatic moment of the statue's ‘speaking’ presupposes a time antecedent to this change—a time, in other words, before she can ‘speak’. Where, then, does the voice come from? And why does Pope engineer the anachronistic space between title and dramatic moment? The answer to the first question is that the voice comes from within, another instance of silent speech sequestered in ‘This breathing stone’ (l. 26) or in ‘a glorious ghost’ (l. 17). The answer to the second question is that Pope wants to call attention to the transaction between female selfhood and dominant male culture in which being allowed to speak as a woman is already to have been consigned to a limbo of calcified or insubstantial self-expression. The three male figures in the poem make this condition absolutely clear. Octavius as figure of the artist-tyrant, Antony the lover-husband, and Leo X as father-God-Christ serve as a kind of shorthand for the patriarchal agents that confront the female who would give voice to the self within: either ‘Cleopatra speaks’ and no one hears, or she speaks a silent pseudo-language of the body defined by its serviceability to male needs.

What is striking in Sapho to Phaon is Pope's suggestion that poetical utterance and capacity depend directly on erotic, physical fulfilment. The poet Sapho's burning sexual passion for Phaon has been rejected, and the result is a poetic silence (see ll. 228-29, 240). As a figure of self, both sexually and as poet, the black, diminutive, less-than-charming Sapho represents the marginalised status that Pope's physical condition condemned him to all his life (see ll. 37-41). What Sapho and Pope both possess to offset their physical limits, however, is their wit as poets, and at its best wit can be an aphrodisiac, triggering off sexual desire in the beholder (see ll. 54-62). The poem dramatises the fear that this powerful transformation of verbal, poetic energy into sexual fulfilment will be rendered ineffectual. What remains is language, of course, but it is paradoxically silent and unheeded speaking, transferred to the body where words are internalised as ‘silent Tears’ (l. 200) and sexual frustration. The only place left for Sapho to give voice to a language of physical desire is in the erotic dream released by her nocturnal fantasy-world (see ll. 145-54). What draws Pope to Sapho's plight is similar to what he finds compelling in Eloisa's condition: poetry and ‘Fancy’ can supply a version of the sexuality that ‘Absence’ (l. 146) has denied, but the potency and efficacy of that poetic desire are likened to the fate of female speech. This idea is focused in Sapho's pointed reference to Philomela (see ll. 177-78). The equation is a telling one: to imagine himself as Sapho and then as Philomela—the woman raped, violently silenced by Tereus, and metamorphosed into the singing nightingale—is to align his poetic and sexual selves with a female figure whose poetic birdsong (itself a sign of both voice and silence) is the result of sexual victimisation and dismemberment. Philomela can ‘sing’, but it is a female voice singing the record of its own sexual silencing.

As Pope seems to realise in these early poems, within the dominant modes of patriarchy the female voice exists only as a retreat into the body, where it is locked up, unheard, and unmet. Pope identifies himself strongly with this condition, finding in the silenced woman a version of his own anxious position on the periphery of male sexual mastery where a successful assertion of the desiring self is unavailable to the dwarfed, crippled male except in a poetic language that is about unfulfilled physical passion. But there are moments of compensation that reveal the other side of Pope and the silenced woman. David Clay Jenkins published in The Scriblerian (8 (1976), p. 77-78) an epigram written in Pope's own hand on the verso of the autograph manuscript of Sapho to Phaon:

Poor Gellius keeps or rather starves two Maids,
Seldome he feeds, but often f—s ye Jades.
He stops one Mouth that tother may not mutter
So what they want in Bread, they have in Butter.

Pope may have identified his anxieties about sexuality and poetry with a Philomels or Sapho or Eloisa, but he also needs to reassure himself of his ability to exercise the phallic aggression that will put him closer to the centre of a patriarchal norm from which he most often felt excluded. The ‘mouth’ of woman and her speaking in this epigram are figured as genital realities only, about physical and sexual need which, if satisfied or filled by the male member, will generate the silence that is demanded by male prerogative. But it is a prerogative which, as in the case of Octavius, is only ‘impotently great’ (l. 20).

Pope's imagining himself as both Sapho and the potent phallus—just as he imagined himself as both Eloisa and the castrated Abelard—reflects his complex awareness that the performance of gender and the cultural roles imposed by patriarchy on women and men issue in a metaphorical silence—of bodies, of selfhood, of desire.

Stephen W. Brown (essay date 1992)

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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 telling one and shows us a young man compulsively fascinated with the public presentation of himself. Pope's posturing in his early letters causes Wycherley to wonder at times whether he is ‘more Complimented than abused’ by Pope, and even to observe that he finds Pope ‘a man of too much fiction’ in their correspondence with one another. Wycherley's is an interesting phrase, and his insight into Pope's peculiar need to fictionalise his correspondence as early as 1706 gives us real indication of how pervasive the instinct for self-fashioning was in Pope's letter writing. And it is crucial that we understand Pope's highly idiosyncratic concept of ‘a fiction’ if we are to grasp the significance of his approach to the publication of his letters in their various collected forms between 1728 and 1742.

‘Fiction’ is a word that Pope uses on only a few occasions in his published work and for which in each instance he has a specific and technical meaning in mind. In all (including forms such as ‘fictitious’) Pope employs the word eight times in his poetry and four times in his prose. His Odyssey translations account for half the occurrences; the Epistle to Arbuthnot and the Rape of the lock supply the other prominent examples. In all cases, however, Pope situates his meaning for ‘a fiction’ delicately on the isthmus between the reality of lived experiences and the negation of that reality by lies. A fiction for Pope is a thing in every instance and is, in that sense, materially real, its reification tied directly to and wholly dependent upon its textuality; that is, fictions are real for Pope because they are artefacts of publication. Bibliography confirms their material existence. It is as lies (as the Epistle to Arbuthnot illustrates) that murder fictions. The distinction that Pope makes in Arbuthnot and in the preface to the Rape between fictions and lies is, in the first instance, a distinction between text and tongue, or print and rumours; and in the second, it is more importantly a distinction between legitimate, quality printing and piracies or cheap editions. In one sense (as the preface to the Rape suggests), Pope thinks of all print publications no matter what their content as necessarily fictions. Thus the names and repeated words of actual individuals once committed to the printed page take on an independent material existence that clearly separates them from sources outside their text. Pope accordingly reassures Arabella Fermour that the characters of Belinda and the Baron are as ‘fictitious’ as the machinery of the Sylphs; print is its own material reality.

Pope's distinction between fiction and lies as a matter of booksellers' credentials and printers' production values also colours his idiosyncratic use of the word ‘fib’. To Pope ‘fibs’ are truly airy nothings because they are always oral expressions and thus attempts in every instance to use oral culture to undermine legitimate print values. Again ‘fibs’ like ‘lies’ are at odds with the power and authority of the print culture. In Pope's usage, a fiction is distinguished from a lie or a fib because unlike them it is a product with physically measurable and quantifiable values. Pope's ‘fictions’ are thus defined by their condition of being manufactured objects, products of technical sophistication. The best example of this meaning of ‘fiction’ in Pope's own usage is the appearance of the word in his translation of Penelope's description of her device of weaving to fool the suitors. Fiction, in Penelope's case, is both the action and the product of weaving; that is, the thing is as much a fiction as the purpose to which it is put. Pope's translation on this point differs completely from those of both Chapman and Hobbes. Even the modern translation by Fitzgerald refers to Penelope's ‘trick’.

Pope's etymology for the word ‘fiction’ is historically and classically justifiable, but his insistence upon divorcing the meaning of ‘fiction’ from deception and thereby freeing his usage from any moral implications is at odds with most common English usage and especially Johnson's definition of the word. Johnson's Dictionary stresses the moral ambiguity of all fictions, emphasising fiction's distance from the real and its contradiction of the true. Johnson is utterly Platonic in his attitude towards fictions.

I suggest that for Pope ‘a fiction’ is primarily a well-made object or thing; or, in more literary terms, a printed text whose legitimacy as fiction has more to do with the quality of its mode of production than with its professed literary or moral purpose. If it is fiction's imitative obsession with and dependence upon the material world that primarily troubles a Johnson or a Plato, Pope's definition of his letters as fictions is wholly predicated upon the essential importance of their materiality to their value as art. Pope's concept of fiction as constructed artefact is particularly evident in the contrasting formats of the 1735 and the 1737 editions of his Letters.

The relative pastoralism of Pope's identity in the 1728 Wycherley volume of correspondence is replaced in the mid 1730s not by one but by two fictions of the self: Edmund Curll's vulgar lie and Pope's own socially correct response. The letters in each volume, the 1735 Curll and Pope's 1737 folio and quarto, are in almost all aspects of content the same. Where they differ is in the important point of physical presentation. Curll's is cheap, plentiful, and intended for a wide faceless readership; and his first volume of genuine Pope letters gives way to five succeeding volumes of dissipating miscellanies, a fiction, that is, made over into a series of lies. Pope's own edition is elegant, expensive, singular, and destined for a subscription readership. Curll's frontispiece for the 1735 Letters is a poor copy of an out-of-date portrait of the poet; Pope's frontispiece in 1737 is a newly commissioned profile of himself by Jonathan Richardson. Pope designed his 1737 Lettres as a companion volume to his collected works: its title page reads, ‘The Works of Mr Alexander Pope, In Prose’. But Pope's self-fashioning through the fiction of his published correspondence was not yet complete. It required a return to private life from the public subjects of the 1737 Letters, back to something like the pastoralism of mentoring friendship that characterised the Wycherley Letters in 1728. This last fiction Pope would devise with the Swift correspondence in 1741.

Collecting and publishing one's letters is for Pope a conscious artifice; it is no more an act of exhibitionism than sitting for a self-portrait would be. We might do well in fact to think of Pope's various editions of his letters as so many literary self-portraits, the equivalent in words of the many drawings, paintings and busts done of Pope in his lifetime. By making his four published volumes of the Letters into kinds of self-portraiture, Pope put the emphasis for the intimacy they shared with the reading public on his fictional self-narrative, and not on the private lives of his correspondents. Wycherley, Gay, Oxford, Lady Mary, Martha, and Swift all become characters participating in Pope's four epistolary constructions, distinguishable from their actual and historic namesakes by their placement between the manufactured covers of Pope's various books. This is not just a case of Pope's constructing a narrative within which to provide fictional personae for historic and actual people; fictionalisation for Pope is completed and legitimised by the print format. Characters cannot inhabit a fiction until that fiction is defined by typeface, paper, and endboards. Pope's Letters are just a particularly idiosyncratic instance of Pope's fictionalisation of himself and his contemporaries in all of his published work. Manuscript letters set in type, impressed on paper, and bound between covers become public objects and cease to be private confessions despite their apparent intimacies. When Pope names names or draws recognisable portraits of himself and others in his satires and his letters, he takes literary possession of those identities; those identities then belong to Pope's text—and become his copyright. The act of printing that text then achieves a sort of metamorphosis through which the actual and historic becomes the printed fiction. Pope, thus, is a Pygmalion with a twist: he turns various Galateas into statues—and then claims copyright.

David Wheeler (essay date 1993)

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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, I send you my Temple of Fame, which is just come out: but my sentiments about it you will see better by this Epigram:

What's Fame with Men, by custom of the nation,
Is call'd in women only Reputation:
About them both why keep we such a pother?
Part you with one, and I'll renounce the other.

(Correspondence, 1: 280)

Playful and serious, these comments reveal Pope's ambivalent attitude about fame: it is transient; it is dependent upon the views of others; it possesses a commercial value, which one can at least offer to exchange for happiness; and Pope is willing to renounce it. We can only guess at Martha's reaction when she read the poem and discovered the professed denunciation of fame in it, but of the significance the question of fame had for Pope at this stage of his career, there can be no doubt.

In a recent review essay Frederick Keener makes on observation with which most of us who study Pope would concur: “the main movement in Pope studies of the past decade and more has been the effort to see the works in relation to the life, and especially to see both works and life as affected by historical circumstances” (81). While some of the recent historical/ideological studies have properly included readings of Pope's earlier works, most of the psychological/biographical scholarship, however, has concerned itself primarily with the later, satiric phase of Pope's poetic production, where the poems, such as the Epistle to Arbuthnot and the Horatian Imitations, are more obviously autobiographical and where the complex issue of satiric persona presents itself so intriguingly.1

We now have, therefore, a fairly good idea of Pope's voice, his “Horatian stance,” in these later poems; whether we feel that the stance is sincere and genuinely moral or politically posed and hypocritical, we know it is Popean and recognize it when we see it, or when we hear it. But who is the Pope who could compose such disparate works as An Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, and Eloisa to Abelard? In these poems, critics, like their New Critical forebears, seem far more comfortable discussing formal elements, from verse paragraphs to antithetical tensions to Pope's famous couplet art. Yet this second decade of the eighteenth century, witnessing the end of the Stuart monarchy, was crucial not only to Britain's history but also to Pope's life. During this time Pope experienced his first encounter with notoriety (with all the good and bad that the term implies), enjoyed the company of the politically mighty and then watched it scatter, and embarked on the literary project that would drain his energy yet make him famous and rich. For a young poet, especially for one living in such a politically and sociologically transitional period, these events produce both thrills and anxiety that cannot be repressed from the poetry, regardless of one's theoretical poetic. Pope's The Temple of Fame is one poem of this early period that is psychologically self-revelatory.

Unfortunately, this personal dimension of The Temple of Fame is largely ignored. Even Dustin Griffin, in his effort to trace a personal presence throughout Pope's career, glances quickly at The Temple of Fame and moves on. Of the little scholarship that exists on the poem, most can be classified as what we call “source studies,” examinations of poetic portraits of fame by writers preceding Pope, and, more frequently, comparisons between Pope's poem and Chaucer's unfinished Hous of Fame, Pope's most obvious and direct source, which he generously acknowledges.2 Such studies are useful but exhaustible; as in navigating an uncharted river, the source is eventually found and explorations cease. Maynard Mack typifies critical response to the poem: “Chaucer's poem,” Mack asserts, “… is pruned and reshaped to make a rounded moral parable” (164). Comments by Griffin and Donald Fraser are equally brief and somewhat unsatisfying. Fraser perceives that “the style of the poem is an intriguing mixture of Pope's grand manner and contemporary satire, but [that] his conclusion has a surprisingly personal tone” (286). He then states that in the poem's concluding lines “the youthful poet himself appears to be offering this manifesto as his genuine personal opinion on this topic” (Fraser 287). Griffin echoes this recognition of the personal and genuine in the conclusion: “he adds an epilogue to Chaucer's unfinished poem in order to provide a natural conclusion and ‘a Moral to the Whole’ [from Pope's note to 1. 497]. … He concludes not by forswearing fame, but by cautiously specifying the terms on which he would seek and accept it” (89).

From such commentary, sparse though it is, there comes to be something of a standard reading of the poem, a reading based largely on the poem's structure and the prefatory and annotational apparatus Pope appends to it. Structurally, The Temple of Fame consists of four seemingly distinct parts: 1) a short, introductory, section, obligatory in such dream vision poems, that establishes the speaker and sets up the dream vision, a frame; 2) a description of the temple of fame; and 3) a description of the house of rumor—these two sections constituting the dream vision; and 4) a final, apparently reflective section where the speaker seems to be interpreting the dream and applying its lesson directly to himself, what Fraser calls a “manifesto” and Griffin calls an “epilogue.” Such terms imply a distinctness for the final section, removing it from the poetic vision and placing it in a more realistic realm of the “genuine” and the “natural.” This interpretation derives, I suppose, from Pope's prefatory “advertisement” defending his use of allegory: “Some modern Criticks, from a pretended Refinement of Taste,” Pope writes, “have declar’d themselves unable to relish allegorical Poems. ‘Tis not easy to penetrate into the meaning of this Criticism; for if Fable be allow'd one of the chief Beauties, or as Aristotle calls it, the very Soul of Poetry, ‘tis hard to comprehend how that Fable should be the less valuable for having a Moral.” Combined with Pope's note to line 497 (quoted by Griffin above), which identifies precisely the “moral,” this definition of allegory allows us to separate fable from moral, or, in this case, dream from reality, fiction from truth, poem from epilogue.

So the “standard” reading goes something like this: a young poet (the poem's speaker) falls asleep and has a dream about fame. He discovers that fame is both good and bad, and that it comes only at a price. He learns a valuable lesson and, in the final four lines, offers the following prayer:

Then teach me, Heaven! to scorn the guilty Bays;
Drive from my Breast that wretched Lust of Praise;
Unblemish'd let me live, or die unknown,
Oh grant an honest Fame, or grant me none! 


3Such a summary, of course, reduces the standard reading and the poem, but that such a summary comes so easily suggests, perhaps, why The Temple of Fame is often overlooked: it is so “lucid, coherent, and objective,” G. Wilson Knight claims, “a child could understand it” (94).

But I think that Pope's poem is much more interesting than this summary or Knight's confidence would suggest and that we should beware, here as in The Dunciad or even in the famous note to the Clarissa speech in The Rape of the Lock, of simply accepting at face value Pope's self-commentary. If we accept, however, Pope's claim that The Temple of Fame was written in 1711,4 then we find Pope writing, in the same year he found fame thrust upon him with the publication of An Essay on Criticism, a poem about a young poet's contemplation of fame. And its publication date of 1715 finds Pope actively engaged in the enormously ambitious task of translating Homer, the completion of which would establish not only his reputation but his fortune. To read the poem anyway but personally seems, to my mind, almost irresponsible.

Pope's poetry and correspondence abound with observations on the moral ambiguity of fame and its effect on the self. Since, as Douglas Patey makes clear, the “Popean self … is defined from without (by providence), it is essentially constituted by its roles, and so by the moral ends (in the broadest sense of ‘moral’) that those roles embody” (367-68). In his later career the role of famous poet permits Pope to pursue vigorously his moral goals, as he and his ideology define them. We see this attitude proudly exhibited in statements such as these from the Epilogue to the Satires (1738): “Yet may this Verse (if such a Verse remain) / Show there was one who held it [‘Villany’] in disdain” (Dia. I, 171-72) or “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see / Men not afraid of God, afraid of me” (Dia. II, 208-9). Here is the Popean “voice” we are accustomed to, and it is made possible by Pope's fame—his substantial wealth and the poetic reputation that allow him to associate with the politically and financially powerful and to speak himself with the authority of power.

Earlier in his career Pope's voice is different. Upon his first publication, that of his Pastorals in May 1709, Pope, in a letter dated 17 May 1709 to William Wycherley, expresses an attitude toward fame that he would repeat in The Temple of Fame: “I shall be satisfy'd if I lose my Time agreeably in this way, without losing my reputation: As for gaining any, I am as indifferent in the Matter as Falstaffe was, and may say of Fame as he did of Honour, If it comes, it comes unlook'd for; and there's an ‘End on't’” (Correspondence 1:59). Also present in this statement, in addition to the announced indifference toward fame, is an instance of Pope's often-articulated view of writing as a leisure activity. This aristocratic view of writing may be found throughout Pope's writings. In what is perhaps his most directly autobiographical poem, the Epistle to Arbuthnot, we find the poet referring to his craft as an “idle trade” (l. 129) and playfully (and ironically) asking, “was I born for nothing but to write?” (l. 272).

If this notion that writing was properly a part-time aristocratic activity seems ironic coming from a poet who made so much money from his craft, we must remember that it was an attitude forged early in Pope, while living at Binfield in the first decade of the century. Mack notes that, as a merchant, Pope's father “had prospered.” At his retirement in the year of his son's birth, “he was worth some £10,000—a fortune in those days” (24). In today's inflated currency that fortune would be worth several hundred thousand pounds; it enabled the family to live a life of ease in the country near Windsor Forest. Pope's early influential friends—William Walsh, John Caryll, Samuel Garth, and William Trumbull—were wealthy and politically astute men who had withdrawn from London for what was then called a “private life.” Conversing with Pope on morality and poetry and always encouraging the young poet with his verse-making, they were men of an older generation and instilled in Pope the view that one did not write to make money or to seek fame. Pope was later to tell Spence of this period, “I still look upon these five or six years as the happiest part of my life.”5

But Pope, at about this time, was also introduced by friends such as Wycherley and Henry Cromwell to the bright life of literary London. Of the contrast offered between the private life of the country and the worldly life of London, Mack colorfully notes that as Pope made “these forays into the London world of taste and fashion on which literary success depended, the realization must often have come home to him that between the House of Holiness and Vanity Fair there is a great gulf fixed” (27). Additionally, Pope began somewhat contradictorily to view writing poetry as a profession. In a letter dated 17 December 1710 to Cromwell, during this period the correspondent with whom Pope most frequently discussed the technical matters of poetry, we find this comment on poet Richard Crashaw: “I take this Poet to have writ like a Gentleman, that is, at leisure hours, and more to keep out of idleness, than to establish a reputation: so that nothing regular or just can be expected of him … no man can be a true Poet, who writes for diversion only” (Correspondence 1: 109-10). Establishing a reputation, posed here as a desirable (perhaps even necessary) function of writing, contrasts sharply with Pope's previously expressed indifference, an indifference that was impossible to maintain when reputation followed quickly the publication in May 1711 of An Essay on Criticism, a poem that Addison called in Spectator 253 “a Masterpiece in its kind.” Mack remarks that “one of the special delights of Pope's Essay, in fact, is the sharply drawn picture it gives of the bustling, contentious, opinionated London scene, conveyed in an idiom that retains something of the informal sparkle as well as the high spit and polish of the best comic speech of the stage” (168). Pope learned this idiom, as well as the numerous critical commonplaces present in the Essay, not only from his reading but from coffee-house chat with critics, poets, and pretenders to those names.

Clearly London was attractive, and it was where fame was housed. A generation earlier, in his optimistic and patriotic justification of locating the Royal Society in London, Thomas Sprat supplied the metaphor: “It [London] is the head of a mighty Empire, the greatest that ever commanded the Ocean: It is compos'd of Gentlemen, as well as Traders: It has a large intercourse with all the Earth: It is, as the Poets describe their House of Fame, a City, where all the noises and business of the World do meet” (87). If this “House of Fame,” this “Vanity Fair,” formulated itself for Pope as an object of desire in that heady year of 1711, the year that Pope claims to have composed The Temple of Fame, by 1715, the year of the poem's publication, the city had displayed as well its dangers.

Spending much of his time in London, Pope, in late 1712, wrote his friend Caryll, proclaiming that “to be uncensured and to be obscure, is the same thing” (Correspondence 1: 154). And he wrote from experience. The Essay on Criticism had brought with fame the onset of the nearly constant barrage of attacks that plagued Pope throughout his career. John Dennis, whom Pope portrayed disparagingly in the Essay, published his well-known Reflections on that poem in June of 1711. By 1715, when Pope was at work on his Homer, he had fallen out with Addison and the Buttonians, their attacks in that year constituting, according to George Sherburn, “something like an organized effort to discredit Pope upon the appearance of the first volume of his Iliad” (139). Pope had also witnessed the break-up of the Scriblerus Club, as Swift relocated in Ireland and Harley was imprisoned. The ascendancy of George I, the return to power of the Whigs, and the failed Jacobite uprising of 1715 fueled, as his letters indicate, considerable anxiety in the young Catholic poet. Writing to Martha Blount, in a letter Sherburn tentatively dates 1715, Pope contrasts the country and city life: “a true relish of the beauties of nature is the most easy preparation and gentlest transition to an enjoyment of those of heaven; as on the contrary a true town life of hurry, confusion, noise, slander, and dissension, is sort of an apprenticeship to hell and its furies” (Correspondence 1: 154).

“The early eighteenth century was,” as Brean Hammond reminds us, “a transitional period in the economics of writing, because it witnessed the gradual change from art commissioned to art marketed (a process to which Pope himself was a catalyst)” (86). If the publication of Pope's Pastorals had been largely commissioned, or at least urged and assisted by his aristocratic friends, the publication of his Iliad, when Pope became (to borrow one of Mack's section headings) “essentially his own publisher” and his correspondence to his friends hawking subscriptions sounds like that of a sales manager to his field reps, was full-scale marketing. It seems that between these events Pope found himself at a crossroads, seeking at once acceptable definitions of poet and self. What we know of Pope's life makes clear that his desires include the ever-conflicting ideals of becoming a rich and famous poet and remaining a virtuous gentleman detached from professional, political, and commercial strife. In The Temple of Fame Pope constructs a mythology that offers ideally the best of both worlds—an “honest fame.” The impossibility of realizing that ideal is Pope's constant fear, a fear articulated in his poem.

Pope opens the poem by establishing the time of year in which the dream occurs:

In that soft Season when descending Showers
Call forth the Greens, and wake the rising Flowers;
When opening Buds salute the welcome Day,
And Earth relenting feels the Genial Ray.


We might well wonder why, since the speaker is ostensibly asleep, establishing a season, extrinsic to the action of the poem, is necessary, but I think this opening is suggestive in several ways. It alludes, no doubt, to the most famous lines in Chaucer, the opening of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, but also, and more importantly, to Pope's first published poem, the pastoral “Spring,” which opens using the same combination of spring and morning imagery and using many of the same words. In “Spring” Daphnis' first lines are

Hear how the Birds, on ev'ry bloomy Spray,
With joyous Musick wake the dawning Day!
Why sit we mute, when early Linnets sing,
When warbling Philomel salutes the
Why sit we sad, when Phosphor shines
so clear,
And lavish Nature paints the Purple Year?


Here spring/morning transforms the mood of the young swains and inspires the song/poetry that takes the form of competition between them.

Yet in The Temple of Fame it seems curious that images of awakening are employed as prologue to a dream. It is true that the dream is a morning dream, and I will address that issue shortly, but metaphorically both spring and morning connote youth, the youthful poet; moreover, “genial” not only suggests congenial—the sun's rays being agreeable to greens, flowers, and buds—but also signifies the adjectival form of genius. Additionally, the term “relenting,” applied here to earth, probably means not just the customary “softening” but an actual transformation from solid to liquid, a melting under the influence of heat. The OED, though labeling it obsolete, gives this definition as the primary one for “relent” and cites Pope's “Spring” as an example. Thus, with the double meaning of genial, we have a double meaning for the line: just as the warm spring sun transforms the earth, thawing the frozen ground of winter, so too does the poetic genius have a capacity for transformation, for re-creation. Just as with the awakening by the season and morning of the poetic capabilities of Pope's earlier created shepherds, we have here an announced awakening of a young poet's genius, a genius with transformative capabilities.

If the poet's self is lost in sleep, a poetic Other is awakened or born, an event that, as we shall see, is at once positive and negative, exciting and dangerous. (Pope, in his Preface to the 1717 Works, combines the metaphors of season and infancy with reputation: “the reputation of a man generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world, and people will establish their opinion of us from what we do at that season when we have least judgment to direct us” [TE 1:5].) Citing the OED, Dustin Griffin points out that “about 1700, new meanings of ‘self’ as a noun began to be needed, as designating not only the authentic person, but also an identity that might vary from time to time or be divided against itself” (28). A dream vision, especially one related at a later time, necessarily creates just such a division.6

To return now to the notion of a morning dream—the speaker introduces the dream with the following lines:

As balmy Sleep had charm'd my Cares to Rest,
And Love it self was banish'd from my Breast,
(What Time the Morn mysterious Visions brings,
While purer Slumbers spread their golden Wings)
A Train of Phantoms in wild Order rose,
And, join'd, this Intellectual Scene compose. 


Evident in these lines is a distinction between deep sleep, balmy and soothing, which puts cares to rest and banishes love, and morning sleep, which brings with it mysterious visions and a train of phantoms, arguably a more troubling sleep. Syntactically, the “joined” of the final line here refers ambiguously both to the joining of the train of phantoms and, more provocatively, to the joining of the purer slumbers (deep sleep) with the phantoms or visions. In the latter case, we have an interesting situation of “in-betweenness” with the purer slumbers spreading wings to leave (or stretching themselves awake?) and the phantoms on the rise, a state between deep sleep and wakefulness, where cares and love, no longer safely removed, can return to the subconscious, a state where the self and the other mingle. Such a state produces a confusion suggested above in the oxymoronic image of “wild order” and the lines that immediately follow:

          I stood, methought, betwixt Earth, Seas, and
The whole Creation open to my Eyes:
In air self-ballanc'd hung the Globe below,
Where Mountains rise, and circling Oceans flow;
Here naked Rocks, and empty Wastes were seen,
There Tow'ry Cities, and the Forests green:
Here sailing Ships delight the wand'ring Eyes;
There Trees, and intermingl'd Temples rise:
Now a clear Sun the shining Scene displays,
The transient Landscape now in Clouds decays. 


If we are standing “betwixt earth, seas, and skies,” where are we? Moreover, this nebulous geographic location is qualified by the “methought,” or does the “methought” modify “stood,” the speaker unsure of both his location and his posture? And note the wild order. The speaker perceives “the whole Creation,” but his description is of a creation other than his own—God's creation, if you will. Stylistically, these lines remind us of the more familiar description of concordia discors in Windsor Forest, where the world is “harmoniously confus'd: / Where Order in Variety we see” (14-15). But if there is harmony in this creation, it is a harmony more like the one in the famous lines in Book I of the Essay on Man, “not understood”; with this apparent loss of control, the descriptive emphasis is clearly on the wild. Wildness is present in the rapid movement of the view and in its transience, present in the juxtaposition within single lines of antithetical elements—mountains and oceans, rocks and wastes, cities and forests, trees and temples.

By describing the scene poetically, the speaker, however, is afforded the exciting opportunity for re-creation. Indeed, the order seems present only in the poetry itself: in the repeated initial where, here, there; in Pope's familiar use of antithesis and caesura; in the highly ordered texture of Pope's couplet art. As with the use of “genial” above, here we find combined the natural world of extrinsic reality with the fictive world of poetic genius. Read in this self-referential context, these lines cast a curious light on the “joined” and “compose” above. Ordering, joining, and composing are all performed by the poet as he practices his craft. The “intellectual scene” or “allegory” that is to follow is composed not just in a confused state between sleep and wakefulness but also as a product of the psychological construct of the poet—his cares, the worries to which a young poet (or anyone) is subject; love (most likely self-love, or ambition); and his creative vision. Seen in this light, the vision of The Temple of Fame is not merely an abstract moral allegory describing fame and rumor; rather, like a real dream, it combines elements of extrinsic reality with those of the imagination, revealing in a very profound way the psyche of the young poet.

Later in his career, Pope would characterize the descriptive and allegorical poems of this period as works of imagination, the creation of them as “wandering in Fancy's Maze”; he contrasts this youthful phase with a maturity when he “stoop'd to Truth, and moraliz'd his Song.” But the poet is present in the creations of both periods. Consider the descriptions of the temple of fame and the house of rumor. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the highly ordered nature of fame's temple. Gone is the wild disarray of the initial lines of the dream, and the order now in this poetic creation resides in the described object, in the vision itself as well as in the descriptive verse. The visual, geographic movement of the description is upward and inward (away from the earlier description of creation); the architecture is regular and largely classical, though always appropriate to its residents; and the persons described reflect an ordered hierarchy of heroes, as we witness a progression from soldiers to political leaders to philosophers to martyrs to the six great writers in the center, with Homer occupying the central place. The writers are supported by columns depicting scenes from their works, their fame clearly dependent upon their writing. Donald Fraser notes that “in Chaucer's Hous of Fame, the pagan writers ‘bear up’ their subjects on their shoulders, whereas in The Temple of Fame Pope elevates his writers above their subjects. … Their literary works serve as the foundation of their individualized fame as authors, … as if authorial fame were ultimately supreme” (291). We might also note that all of the pre-publication publicity would have forced, for Pope's contemporary audience, an obvious identification of Pope with the centrally deified Homer and that the lavish description of material wealth present in the temple might be construed (at least for us with the benefit of hindsight) as prophetic. Contrasting with the slippery slope of the mountain upon which the temple sits, the temple is permanent, not subject to the influence of time; here “Grav'd o'er their Seats the Form of Time was found, / His Scythe revers'd, and both his Pinions bound” (147-48).

The scene shifts with the blast of a trumpet to one more frighteningly real than that of the ideal temple, and the speaker now views “millions of Crowds” of petitioners, judged by fame's “blind Sister, fickle Fortune.” The order of the previous scene vanishes: there is no apparent hierarchy to the petitioners; fortune's judgments are arbitrary; the previously predominant sensory perception of sight becomes one of sound—dialogue, shouts, blaring trumpets; permanent fame dissolves into mere reputation and rumor. The prevailing effect is again one of confusion:

          This having heard and seen, some Pow'r
Strait chang'd the Scene, and snatch'd me from the 
Before my View appear'd a Structure fair,
Its Site uncertain, if in Earth or Air;
With rapid Motion turn'd the Mansion round;
With ceaseless Noise the ringing Walls resound. 


As we enter the house of rumor, its description recalls the initial confusion of the dream, and the disorder increases until at last truth and lie are inexorably linked:

At last agreed, together out they fly,
Inseparable now, the Truth and Lye;
The strict Companions are for ever join'd,
And this or that unmix'd, No Mortal e'er shall find.


Important here is that just as truth and lie are always mixed, so too are the Temple of Fame and the House of Rumor flipsides of the same construction; fame and rumor are never independent, and the temple itself is rendered a fanciful artifice.

The descriptive vision ends at this point, and the speaker becomes an active participant:

                    While thus I stood, intent to see and hear,
One came, methought, and whisper'd in my Ear;
What cou'd thus high thy rash Ambition raise?
Art thou, fond Youth, a Candidate for Praise? 


The remaining twenty-four lines of the poem relate the speaker's reply to the questions, and though it is tempting to read these lines as a conventional dream vision framework, or “epilogue,” there is no evidence to indicate that the dream has ended, no return to the bedroom where the dream originated. Rather, the observer has now merged with the vision, and the vagueness of the “one” who whispers and of the “methought” recalls that same state of “betwixt” that we witnessed in the poem's first section.

Significantly, the speaker's reply addresses not only fame but also a sense of self. Admitting that he, too, came “not void of Hopes,” that he, too, is a petitioner to fame, the speaker acknowledged the difficulty of attaining his goal:

But few, alas! the casual Blessing boast,
So hard to gain, so easy to be lost:
How vain that second Life in orders' Breath,
Th' estate which Wits inherit after Death! 


Ostensibly, the young poet laments the unreliability of seeking immortality through poetic reputation, but there is more going on here. The second line above—“So hard to gain, so easy to be lost”—is quite different from a line that would read “so hard to gain, so easy to lose.” Granted, Pope needs the additional syllable, but, given his care in revising his work and his stated objections to employing “expletives” to fill out a line, we must acknowledge that the line refers, in addition to fame, potentially to the self—so easy to be lost.

“To be lost” could be construed in the moral sense—that is, to be morally lost, or corrupted, the seeking of fame long associated with corruption. But as Douglas Patey points out, “corruption [is] a word never far, at this period, from its Latin sense of division into parts” (366). It is this latter sense—that of self-fragmentation or loss of self—that is most intriguing in this Popean (con)text. In the twentieth century, loss of self is a commonly-expressed idea: Eliot claimed that “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (7). But in the early eighteenth century, when thinkers were just beginning to digest the implications of Locke's remarks on individuality and consciousness, the idea was fairly new and quite threatening. As Christopher Fox ably demonstrates, “when Locke argues ‘that the self is not determined by the identity … of Substance … but only by Identity of Consciousness,’ he is shattering that old substantial vision.” Locke's theory, according to Fox, led to a “conclusion which many of Pope's contemporaries found highly disturbing: that the self is, in [Joseph] Butler's words, ‘not a permanent, but a transient thing’” (10). Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot would joke about this theory of consciousness in the Memoirs of Scriblerys, composed about the same time as The Temple of Fame,7 but it seems clear that the fear of a fragmented self is lurking in Pope's psyche.

In the long, impressive essay that Anthony Wilder appends to his translation of Lacan's Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (originally published in 1968 as The Language of the Self), he offers this analysis for a situation in which I think Pope found himself in the years 1711-1715:

Since the discovery of the lack of object is for Lacan the condition and the cause of desire, the adult quest for transcendence, lost time, lost paradise, lost plentitude, or any of the myriad forms that lack of object might take … can be reduced, if one wishes, to the question at the root of neurosis and psychosis, the question asked by Oedipus: “Who (or what) am I?” The subject, like Oedipus, always knows the answer, but the distinction between knowledge (savoir) and truth repeatedly emphasized by Lacan points up the function of meconnaissance and reconnaissance in human life. Truth for the subject is not knowledge but recognition.


In Pope's quest for transcendence—a vision where he positions himself petitioning for admission to an illusory temple of fame—we find the poet reconstructing a mythology of immortality, of “honest fame,” and failing to recognize the impossibility of coalescing that mythology with the reality of rumor-ridden London. Thus Wilder's Oedipal question above is appropriate because the “death” mentioned in 1. 506 is not only a physical death, for which immortal fame (if it could be separated from rumor) might be just recompense, but a division of self into a poetic other, who both creates poetic fictions and lusts after fame, subjecting himself to definition by public perception, “that second Life in others' Breath.”

Discussing Pope's later “Epitaph on Himself” (1741), David Morris observes that

no longer did fame pose simply the familiar moral question of whether the artist (tempted by pride) would remain uncorrupted. For Pope fame added a psychological dilemma far more perplexing: could the artist remain unsplintered or whole? Fame, in the new era of print and publicity, splits off from the artist a sizable fragment of character that sometimes seemed to attain nearly an independent existence. Pope belongs in the forefront of a distinct group of writers, including Sterne, Byron, and Wilde, whose contemporary fame created in effect public alter egos.


Pope publicly expresses this fear most directly, perhaps, in the Preface to the 1717 edition of his Works, which contains the curious remark, “in this office of collecting my pieces, I am altogether uncertain, whether to look upon my self as a man building a monument, or burying the dead?” (TE, 1: 9). Of significance here are two things: that Pope can step aside and view a “self” that is composing and publishing poetry; and that this self at once creates a monument—a permanent memorial to his genius, providing, perhaps, a kind of immortality—and kills and buries him. As Pope says earlier in the Preface, whatever a writer's “fate in Poetry, it is ten to one but he must give up all the reasonable aims of life for it.”8 It seems that The Temple of Fame conveys at a deeper textual level much of the same fear of not merely sacrifice but self-annihilation: if publication (the act of going public) involves a kind of death, then “Th' estate which Wits inherit after Death,” “that second Life in others' Breath,” is not merely reputation in the common sense of that term, but a life created and defined by the public.9

The poem attempts a solution to this problem confronting all poets, but it does not reside, as standard readings suggest, in the poem's final, hopeful lines. Since there is no internal evidence to indicate that the final section should be separated from the vision, I see the speaker, naively and idealistically, ignoring the double nature of the vision which inextricably links fame and rumor, and requesting an honest fame or none, requesting the impossible. If Pope's great fear is loss of self, then his desire is to suppress the poetic Other, the youthful bard, now demoted to just another petitioner for fame, and to place his own quest for immortality on what he thinks is firmer ground than mere reputation. The vision has demonstrated that if there is permanence here, it resides not in fame—always subject to fickle fortune—but in its highly ordered temple, in the poetry itself: the ordered couplets; the artistic, fictive construction of the new; the fabled works that hold up Homer, Virgil, and the others. His petition is the poem, The Temple of Fame.

In 1700 the minor poet Thomas Yalden published The Temple of Fame: A Poem to the Memory of the Most Illustrious Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, a poem linking death and fame as an elegy to Anne's only heir, whose death in 1700 prompted in the following year passage of the crucial Act of Settlement designating the Protestant House of Hanover as successors to the throne after Anne's death. Like Pope's poem, Yalden's Temple provides a twofold vision: in this case, a grim and gloomy abode for the countless forgotten dead and then a glorious temple providing immortality to select soldiers, poets, and monarchs:

Here Fame presides, here jealous Honour stands,
To guard their Off-spring from the Tyrant's hands;
To keep the Heroe's boasted Name alive,
And make the Glorious after Death survive. 


Yalden patriotically portrays William, who died young, as a kind of martyr to fate, which prevented his attaining his potential. The poet pledges to immortalize the prince in verse: “What Fate deny'd, the grateful Muses give, / And make thy Name to Endless Ages live.” Significantly, then, the immortalizing temple exists both within and without the poem: there is the mythological temple (a poetic commonplace), home for a select few for whom fame cheats death and creates eternal life, to whose ranks Prince William may enter; and there is Yalden's poem, which will also preserve William's name. The poem is both a means to the monument and a monument itself. Yalden's Dedication to Anne makes this point clear:

Behold the glorious Shrine of Fame display'd,
Whilst Death withdraws its formidable shade:
See where your God-like Ancestors in State
Elude the Grave, and triumph over Fate.


The shrine is both the visionary description of the temple and the poem that follows the dedication. Something of the same sort exists in Pope's poem.

Though we customarily identify this notion of permanence in art with Romantics like Keats and Shelley, it was Horace who boldly proclaimed:

I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the Pyramids' royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind can destroy, … I shall not altogether die, but a mighty part of me shall escape the deathgoddess. On and on shall I grow, ever fresh with the glory of after time.


We should also recall that The Rape of the Lock, the Epistle to Jervas, and Eloisa to Abelard, all composed during this same period of Pope's career, end with suggestions of the immortalizing power of art. However much Pope would like to believe in the permanence of art and an established hierarchy of great poets, constructed by centuries of proper critical judgment as outlined in An Essay on Criticism, such a belief was being rendered untenable by the changing economics of writing. A new generation of professional classical scholars, whom Swift had attacked in A Tale of a Tub and the Battle of the Books and whom Pope would assail in the Dunciad, was chiseling away at the sacred texts: “the interest in the fragmentary, in dictionaries and compilations, in ancient commentators, and in the obscure constituted,” according to Penelope Wilson, “a real threat to the stable system of literary values expressed in the very concept of the Temple of Fame. The monolith was being turned into a collection of atoms” (86).

What Pope fails to realize, of course, is just how unstable poetic texts are; literary texts are consumer items not just for professional scholars but for succeeding poets as well. If poets are subject to how others perceive them, to “that second Life in others' Breath,” their works are also subject to such second lives. Indeed, in reworking Chaucer's material, Pope is re-creating Chaucer for himself. In translating Homer, his current project, Pope creates what we still call “Pope's Homer,” at once contributing to the Greek's immortality and reconfiguring him into some other for his own purpose and profit. Later, of course, Pope would turn his attention to Horace's monuments themselves.

As David Morris notes, commerce “supplied a set of economic metaphors for literary production at a time when literature was just beginning to redefine itself as a commodity. It is not coincidental that Pope was the first English poet to earn a living from the sale of his works or that borrowing (perhaps his most characteristic literary trait) refers, like commerce, to an economic process” (7). And Pope was well aware of the commodification of literature, especially with regard to imitating works of previous authors. In a 2 July 1706 letter to William Walsh, on “borrowing” for his Pastorals, Pope remarks, “a mutual commerce makes Poetry flourish; but then Poets like Merchants, shou'd repay with something of their own what they take from others; not like Pyrates, make prize of all they meet” (Correspondence 1: 20). In a capitalistic world, like Pope's, poetic texts are public commodities, available for use. If, by adapting Chaucer, Pope raised his own name on “the fall'n Ruins of Another's Fame,” (ll. 519-20), turnabout ensued quickly with the appearance in March 1715 of the anonymous burlesque Aesop at the Bear-Garden: A Vision. … In Imitation of the Temple of Fame, a Vision, By Mr. Pope. Thus, Pope's temple is deconstructed barely a month after its publication, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Pope's contemporaries. Thomas Burnet, writing in Grumbler 14 (6 May 1715), remarked that “the inferior Class of Writers is addicted to catching at Applause and Admiration. … Let the unwary take warning from Pope, who not long ago raised a Temple of Fame to himself, which was no sooner finished than it fell to the Ground and buried the Architect under its Ruins” (Guerinot 33). In his Life of Pope, Johnson summarizes the poem's eighteenth-century reputation: “it never obtained much notice, but is turned silently over, and seldom quoted or mentioned with either praise of blame” (3: 226). Thus, if the text of the poem shatters the concept of honest fame, the poem's historical context shatters the concept of permanence in art. Pope would have his immortality, but he would owe it to poems other than this one.

How much Pope understood the fears and anxieties present in The Temple of Fame is, of course, a matter of mere speculation. I do think it is obvious, however, that this early poem is every bit as personal as Pope's later works, and that the naïve hopefulness of the concluding moral lines contrasts sharply with the world-weariness of, say, Epistle I, i (To Bolingbroke, pub. 1738). As Tillotson's textual notes make clear, subsequent editions of The Temple of Fame did not incorporate many substantial changes. We do find, however, Pope substituting in the 1736 Works (and later editions) third person for the earlier first person pronouns in the following lines:

Ease, Health, and Life, for this [fame] we [they 1736]
          must resign

(l. 507)


All luckless Wits our [their 1736] Enemies profest.

(l. 511)

Whatever Pope's attitude toward fame at the height of his career in the 1730s, he appears to have a better understanding of the subject. Fame is still fame, but his vantage point is somewhere more advantageous than at the visionary threshold of the temple, and the young petitioners are now more clearly “others,” against whom Pope's loyal servant John might shut, shut the door.


  1. Recent books treating Pope from a historical or psychological perspective include: John Aden, Pope's Once and Future Kings: Satire and Politics in the Early Poems (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1978); Laura Brown, Alexander Pope (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985); Leopold Damrosch, Jr., The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope (Berkeley: U of California P, 1987); Dustin Griffin, Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978); Brean Hammond, Pope and Bolingbroke: A Study of Friendship and Influence (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1984) and Pope (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1986); and Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985). To this list must be added numerous articles by Howard Erskine-Hill.

  2. See, for example, Geoffrey Tillotson's introduction to the poem in vol. 1 of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, 2nd ed., rev. (London and New Haven: Methuen and Yale UP, 1954); A.C. Cawley, “Chaucer, Pope, and Fame,” Review of English Literature 3 (1962): 9-19; G. Wilson Knight, Laureate of Peace: On the Genius of Alexander Pope (New York: Oxford UP, 1955); and Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), esp. pp. 163-67. Notable exceptions to “standard readings” are John Aden, “Pope's Temple of Fame and ‘dark Politicks,’” Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973): 138-44; and Wallace Jackson, Vision and Re-Vision in Alexander Pope (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1983), pp. 32-39.

  3. Quotations from Pope's poetry are from The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt, et al., 11 vols. (London and New Haven: Methuen and Yale UP, 1938-1968). Hereafter cited TE, with volume and page number.

  4. The poem existed at least by 12 Nov. 1712. In a letter of that date, Steele compliments Pope on the poem, but it is clear from his comments that the poem was quite different from its published form. See Correspondence 1: 152.

  5. Spence 1: 12 (Item #24). Perhaps the poem that best reflects Pope's positive attitude toward an idyllic, rural life is the “Ode on Solitude,” which Pope sent to Cromwell on 11 July 1709, claiming to have composed it “when I was not Twelve years old” (Correspondence 1: 68-9). The poem begins:

    Happy the man, whose wish and care
    A few paternal acres bound,
    Content to breathe his native air,
              In his own ground.
  6. For a full discussion on the debate over the meaning of “self,” see Christopher Fox, “Locke and the Scriblerians: The Discussion of Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 16 (1982): 1-25.

  7. In Chapter 12 of the Memoirs Martin endeavors to discover “the Seat of the Soul” and receives a letter from the Secretary of the “Society of Free-Thinkers.” For a discussion of this episode and its relation to the current controversy on consciousness and the immateriality of the soul, see Fox and the notes by Charles Kerby-Miller (280-93). The following two chapters of the Memoirs—those involving the amusing case of the Siamese-twin mistress—may also owe something to the debate on identity. See Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, ed. Charles Kerby-Miller (New York: Oxford UP, 1988).

  8. TE 1: 5. Pope frequently uses a death metaphor in reference to publication. Referring to a delay in publication of the Pastorals, Pope tells Cromwell, “I have been mercifully repriev'd by the Sovereign Power of Jacob Tonson [his publisher], from being brought forth to publick Punishment and respited from Time to Time from the hands of those barbarous Executioners of the Muses. … If often happens that guilty Poets, like other guilty Criminals, when once they are known and proclaim'd, deliver themselves into the hands of Justice only to prevent others from doing it, more to their disadvantage; and not out of any Ambition to spread their Fame by being executed in the face of the world, which is a Fame but short of Continuance” (1 Nov. 1708; Correspondence 1: 51-52). Similarly, Pope refers, in a letter to Parnell, to printing his 1717 Works as “making my last will and testament” (March or April 1717 [?]; Correspondence 1: 396).

  9. Though Johnson was probably correct in his assertion that “no authors ever had so much fame in their own life-time as Pope and Voltaire” (Boswell 3: 332), fame, for Pope (as well as for Voltaire), was not always happy fame. Pope had also used the expression “second life” to refer to fame in An Essay on Criticism (1. 480) but apparently did not realize how soon after publication of that poem the “second life” would begin. Following Pope's poem by barely a month was Dennis's Reflections Critical and Satyrical, Upon a Late Rhapsody, Call'd An Essay Upon Criticism, the first full-blown, serious attack on Pope and his writing. While some of Dennis's assaults hit their marks, references to Pope as “a pedantick Slave to Authority and Opinion” (398), “a hunch-back'd Toad” (415), and a “downright Monkey” who differs “so much from human shape” (417) must have stung the young poet. Adding “in others' Breath” to “that Second Life” in The Temple of Fame likely alludes to Dennis's Reflections and the countless attacks preceding the appearance of the first volume of Homer in 1715. (Pope later repeats the expression in the Essay on Man: “What's Fame? a fancy'd life in others breath” [IV, 237].) For an account of the anti-Pope publications in 1715, see J.V. Guerinot, Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope, 1711-1744 (London: Methuen, 1969), esp. pp. 20-34.

I wish to acknowledge the National Endowment for the Humanities, the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, and the University of Southern Mississippi, without whose generous support research for this project would not have been possible.

Works Cited

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. Ed. George Birkbeck-Hill. Revised and enlarged by L.F. Powell. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1934-1950.

The Correspondence of Alexander Pope. Ed. George Sherburn. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

Dennis, John. The Critical Works of John Dennis. Ed. Edward Niles Hooker. 2 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1939.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932.

Fox, Christopher. “Locke and the Scriblerians: The Discussion of Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 16 (1982): 1-25.

Fraser, Donald. “Pope and the Idea of Fame.” Writers and their Background: Alexander Pope. Ed. Peter Dixon. Athens: Ohio UP, 1975. 286-310.

Griffin, Dustin. Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Guerinot, J.V. Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope. London: Methuen, 1969.

Hammond, Brean. Pope. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1986.

Horace. The Odes and Epodes. Trans. C.E. Bennett. Loeb Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978.

Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the English Poets. Ed. George Birkbeck-Hill. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1905.

Keener, Frederick. “Descrying Pope.” Modern Language Quarterly 46 (1985): 81-88.

Knight, G. Wilson. Laureate of Peace: On the Genius of Alexander Pope. New York: Oxford UP, 1955.

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

Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. Ed. Charles Kerby-Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Morris, David B. Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

Patey, Douglas Lane. “Art and Integrity: Concepts of Self in Alexander Pope and Edward Young.” Modern Philology 83 (1986): 364-78.

Pope, Alexander. The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt, et al. 11 vols. London and New Haven: Methuen and Yale UP, 1938-1968.

Sherburn, George. The Early Career of Alexander Pope. Oxford: Clarendon, 1934.

Spence, Joseph. Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men. Ed. James M. Osborn. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Sprat, Thomas. The History of the Royal-Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London: J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1667.

Wilder, Anthony. Introduction, “Lacan and the Discourse of the Other.” Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. By Jacques Lacan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Wilson, Penelope. “Classical Poetry and the Eighteenth-Century Reader.” Books and their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England. Ed. Isobel Rivers. Leicester and New York: Leicester UP and St. Martin's, 1982. 69-96.

Yalden, Thomas. The Temple of Fame: A Poem to the Memory of the Most Illustrious Prince William, Duke of Gloucester. London: Tho. Bennet, 1700.

Martin Blocksidge (essay date 1993)

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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 reputation has been defined largely in terms of his apparent enmities and hatreds. He has had many detractors over the centuries, particularly among those readers who enjoy trying to score moral points over authors.1

Superficially, it is easy to see why Pope can produce hostility: his satire can be cruel, blunt and unforgiving. It frequently directs itself at individuals who are, as it were, dismembered and left bleeding. Several of Pope's contemporaries have come down to posterity with reputations permanently crippled as a result of Pope's efforts on their behalf. It is difficult not to see the fulminatory nature of some of his writing as excessive and gratuitous, and it is tempting to seek some kind of explanation for his aggression.

A few facts about Pope are well-known and can, by those who choose, be used in easy evidence against him. As a result of a tubercular illness contracted in his boyhood, Pope's growth was severely stunted. He attained a height of little more than four feet. The long-term effects of the illness were severe and inhibiting. They involved curvature of the spine, weakness of the heart and lungs, frequent fevers, and inflammation of the eyes. He was no stranger to pain, exhaustion and the sick room, and was obviously denied many of the pleasures of a ‘normal’ life, not least as far as mobility and sexual relationships were concerned.2 Additionally, as the son of two Catholic converts, he was debarred by his religion from the normal processes of education and advancement. Technically Catholicism was illegal and attracted penalties. Although these were often not very systematically enforced, there were perpetual reminders: Catholics were subject to double taxation, and were not allowed to own property. They were associated with political subversion.

Hence, a traditional view goes, Pope had much to be bitter about. He was as twisted psychologically as he was physically. That he wrote satire with such malicious glee was hardly surprising. He was one of nature's outsiders and thus easy prey to rancour and jealousy.

This reading of Pope has always recommended itself to those who take a one plus one attitude to literary biography, and look for easy correspondences between authors' works and their lives. However, to see Pope as the frustrated dwarf venting his spleen on the human race is to ignore the bulk of the known facts about him and to devalue the ease, sociability and sheer busyness of his life. The Pope who emerges from the hands of his biographers is a complex, more rounded and more civilized figure than the caricature who has been appropriated by those who dislike him. Indeed, in examining the facts of Pope's life one is more often struck by its normality and energy than by any kind of pathological bitterness.

It is interesting that many of the least flattering opinions and images of Pope were constructed during his lifetime by his own contemporaries. Where satire was concerned, Pope was much more written about than writing. Think of this, from Edmund Curll in 1728:

A little scurvy, purblind elf;
Scarce like a Toad, much less himself
Deform'd in shape, of Pygmy stature;
A proud, conceited, peevish, creature
The stinking venom flows around
And nauseous slaver hides the ground.(3)

Edmund Curll knew and had reason to dislike Pope: most of those who wrote against him in his own lifetime had never met him. They wrote against him because they were hired for the task. Pope was born into a literary world whose apparent bad manners take some understanding.

He lived from 1688 to 1744. Though Catholic in background, there is little evidence that he himself was particularly devout, but the allegiances of his parents determined much about his early development. In particular, he was denied access to university and received relatively little by way of formal schooling. Like many a literary figure before and since he was blessed with the advantage of a bookish father. Mr Pope senior was a retired linen dealer. The poet had access to Mr Pope's library, and was given every encouragement by him to follow his poetic ambitions. Having left London, the family settled at Binfield in Windsor Forest, where the young Alexander easily took to an isolated, precocious existence. As his older half-sister put it ‘… he did nothing but write and read’. Significantly, in view of the shape his subsequent work was to take, he imitated English poets and translated Latin ones. His father took an interest in his development insisting always on the highest standards of technical accuracy. Pope acquired an assured poetic voice at a very early age.4

Like many precocious children before and since Pope found himself more frequently in the company of adults. His first companion was a local landowner and retired diplomat, Sir William Trumbull, with whom he used to ride in Windsor Forest. Trumbull was a man of literary interests too, beguiled by the talented boy. ‘The little creature is my darling more and more’, he was to say, showing the mixture of pride and patronage with which the older generation soon came to view the strangely gifted little figure from the country.

Trumbull had literary acquaintances in the capital, and soon Pope's fame had spread widely amongst the venerable generation of literateurs to whom the old gentleman had been able to introduce him. Pope was never to forget this early encouragement from the senior members of the literary establishment:

                                                                                          Granville the polite,
And knowing Walsh, would tell me I could write;
Well-natur'd Garth inflam'd with early praise,
And Congreve lov'd, and Swift endur'd my Lays;
The Courtly Talbot, Somers, Sheffield, read,
Ev'n mitred Rochester would nod the head,
And St John's self (great Dryden's friends before)
With open arms receiv'd one Poet more.

(An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot 135-142)

It is not surprising that Pope became enormously confident of his poetic abilities. He had had blessings and status conferred upon him by some eminent men. He had written a set of four Pastorals. They were eventually published in 1709 but had been originally composed when Pope was about sixteen, ‘Granville, the polite’ was subsequently to write of their author that ‘… he is not above Seventeen or Eighteen Years of Age, and promises Miracles: If he goes on as he has begun, in the Pastoral way, as Virgil first try'd his Strength, we may hope to see English Poetry vie with the Roman …’.5 The genre of pastoral poetry, with its rather stylized presentation of shepherds and flocks and warbling pipes, may well strike a modern reader as insipid, not to say, derivative. Pope's Pastorals are hardly among his most exciting works. But Granville made an important point when he compared Pope with Virgil. Virgil's earliest surviving poetic efforts were in the pastoral vein. In the hierarchy of importance which traditional classical taste attributed to various poetic kinds, pastoral came relatively low. It was the genre with which a poetic career might start. Virgil subsequently became celebrated for a great epic. Hence much was being said about Pope's promise.

The Pastorals themselves were printed by Jacob Tonson in one of his Miscellanies, which is to say a substantial volume containing work by several poets. Apart from other work by Pope and some by Swift, this edition actually included another set of pastoral poems by Ambrose Philips. There was clearly no reason why the two authors had to become rivals, but rivals they eventually became. Pope's initial response to Philips's work was cordial and appreciative, but when Philips, over the next few years received rather more praise from the literary establishment (he was something of a toady) than Pope himself, it is not surprising that Pope felt hurt. If his pride in his own abilities seems highly developed, we have to admit that Philips's poetic reputation was very soon to sink without trace. Indeed he was to gain, as a result of his writing of pastoral verse, the unflattering nickname of ‘Namby Pamby’ Philips. It is difficult to take him very seriously as an author, but he clearly had influential friends and a rivalry between the two authors was encouraged. Within a very few years Philips was reported as having described Pope in conversation as ‘… the little crooked bastard …’6 One notices the irrelevance of the criticism and the way in which the man rather than the work is attacked. It was a pattern which was to continue.

In 1711, at the age of twenty-three, Pope published his Essay on Criticism. It is a remarkable poem for a young man of not much more than undergraduate age, not simply in terms of its technical accomplishment, but for its assured, assertive voice and its rather reactionary defence of classical values. It partly provides a reading of literary history, and partly a guide as to how literature should be read. Its tone is often advisory, and more than a little omniscient:

You then whose Judgment the right Course wou'd
Know well each ancient's proper
His Fables, Subject, Scope, in ev'ry Page,
Religion, Country, Genius of his Age:
Without all these at once before your Eyes,
Cavil you may, but never Criticise.
Be Homer's Works your Study and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night


Chiefly, though, Pope seeks to define the manifold qualities which he thinks the proper critic of poetry should possess. He does not mince his words in talking about the shortcomings of certain contemporary critics:

Some ne'er advance a Judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading Notion of the Town;
They reason and conclude by Precedent,
And own stale Nonsense which they ne'er invent.
Some judge of Author's names, not Works, and
Nor praise nor blame the Writings but the Men.


A modern reader is free to be exhilarated by this zestfully opinionated poem but it is not surprising that Pope managed to ruffle a few contemporary feathers, in particular those belonging to a prominent literary critic called John Dennis. Dennis's public manner was both grave and choleric. He was much given in conversation to the use of the exclamation ‘tremendous’. This finds its way into Pope's poem. Dennis appears under the pseudonym ‘Appius’:

Twere well, might Criticks still this Freedom take;
But Appius reddens at each word you speak,
And stares Tremendous! with a threatening Eye
Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry.


It says something for the precarious nature of the literary life of this period, that Dennis the guardian of literary propriety was to fall on hard times and die in destitution. But he enjoyed his power while he had it, and was unamused by this young upstart Pope. He reddened indeed, and went straight into print:

‘As there is no Creature in Nature so venomous, there is nothing so stupid and so impotent as a hunch-back'd Toad …’7

And so on. Again, it was the shape of things to come. Pope's reference to Dennis in The Essay on Criticism was mischievous and gratuitous. It was teasingly hidden behind a nickname (a character from an unsuccessful tragedy of Dennis's own). Yet it provoked a torrent of immoderate abuse. Part of the pattern of Pope's literary life had been decided. This particular kind of situation was to be replayed numerous times.

‘The life of a Wit’, Pope was to remark with some worldweariness in the Preface to his 1717 collection of poems ‘is a warfare upon earth.’ He was then still in his twenties, and the worst was to come, but it certainly seemed as though the precociously gifted and highly assured young poet possessed just the right qualities to irritate other labourers in the field. Pope was never, as a literary figure, quite able to rest comfortably again. There was always controversy in the air, though Pope's response to it was seldom predictable; sometimes he held his fire, other times he found means of counter-attack.

For example he was unable to let the apparent animosities with Philips and Dennis pass. There is no reason to believe that Pope felt any great personal hatred for these men, but he was never too happy when being sniped at by people whose literary abilities he felt to be less than his own. He disdained the kind of rank abuse that he had himself suffered from Dennis, in favour of something more subtle. His responses were strategic, indirect, and involved making himself as invisible as possible. They centre on two particular documents, both of which shed as great a light on the literary habits of the age as they do on Pope himself.

The first of them returned to the question of pastoral poetry and the person of Ambrose Philips. It was perhaps inevitable that Pope, with a growing number of poetic successes to his credit (the first version of The Rape of the Lock had appeared in 1712) was going to become uneasy about being bracketed with a man of such obviously inferior talent. Indeed when Pope subsequently came to write his Peri Bathous or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, a satirical text book of how not to write, Philips was several times quoted.

Matters came to a head in the early months of 1713 when Richard Steele had published in his periodical The Guardian, a series of essays on pastoral poetry. They had, as was customary, appeared anonymously and this made it easy for Pope to submit an additional essay of his own. Whoever had written the preceding essays (probably Thomas Tickell) had shown no great desire to praise Pope. Indeed his own Pastorals were scarcely mentioned, though those of Philips frequently were. Pope consequently felt moved to produce one of his characteristically ambivalent pieces, an essay on Pastoral, written in that indulgent tone which the practised reader of Pope inevitably finds suspicious, apparently praising Philips to the skies, and only at the end involving ‘Mr Pope … whose eclogues … are by no means Pastorals but something better.’ They were mentioned alongside those of the best Greek and Roman practitioners.8

The second foray of 1713 was directed at Dennis who had rushed into print with some deprecatory comments about Joseph Addison's tragedy Cato, then enjoying considerable public success because of its perceived relevance to current political issues. Pope responded with a document which apparently criticized someone else, The Narrative of Doctor Robert Norris, Concerning the Strange and Deplorable Frenzy of Mr John Dennis. Norris was an infamous ‘quack’ psychiatrist, and Pope's pamphlet, in dialogue form, presented a mock examination of Dennis by Norris, in which the former becomes obsessed to the point of gibbering lunacy by ‘Cato's’ infringement of literary propriety. It has considerable potential as a theatrical sketch and is very close to the world of modern television satire.9

The indirectness of both these pamphlets has been already noted: in the first one the satire rests in the skilful manipulation of an apparently inappropriate tone; in the second, the author disappears from the scene completely, leaving his fiction to do the work. Both these strategies were quintessential characteristics of Jonathan Swift whose friendship with Pope had begun about this time. Swift was twenty-one years older than Pope and his relationship with the younger man could partly be seen as an extension of those relationships with literary father figures which Pope had already enjoyed. This relationship, though, rapidly became one between equals and collaborators. Swift was an Irish clergyman who had spent several years in England during the reign of Queen Anne pursuing patronage and involving himself with Tory politics. Indeed, he had hoped to enlist Pope as a political writer for the same cause. Pope's relish of polemic was considerably less well-developed than Swift's, and it was not a role in which he could easily see himself. Swift liked clubs and was the leading light in the foundation of the Scriblerus Club in 1713, to which Pope also belonged in company with John Arbuthnot, John Gay, William Fortescue and Thomas Parnell.

John Arbuthnot (to be especially commemorated in Pope's Epistle of 1735) was physician to Queen Anne and came from a family loyal to the House of Stuart. This, together with Swift's background in pamphleteering, and Pope's praise of the Queen in his poem Windsor Forest, appeared to give the club a political focus but its purposes quickly changed to the collaborative production of satire. The importance of the club to English literary history is out of all proportion to its actual functioning as a club, lasting as it did only a matter of months, before the death of the Queen in 1714 sent Swift, complainingly, back to Ireland, all hopes of advancement lost, and removed Arbuthnot from his official residence at St James's where the meetings were probably held. Various ‘Scriblerian’ texts, normally the work of diverse hands, have survived, most notably Pope's The Key to the Lock, a mock-hostile criticism of his own Rape of the Lock;Three Hours After Marriage, a farce subsequently performed in 1717; Peri Bathous, which was published in 1728, and The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, whose publication Pope was to oversee in 1741. More importantly, Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Pope's Dunciad were both the ultimate result of Scriblerus Club initiatives, and the genesis of the latter poem, along with its Scriblerian indebtedness is discussed in greater length in Chapter 3.10

That Pope and Swift had a stimulating effect on each other cannot be denied. Pope was to remind Swift of all this in his dedication to The Dunciad. Likewise, a certain common ground can be discerned between this poem and Gulliver's Travels both of which in their own way seek to ridicule ‘the works of the unlearned’. Nevertheless, the association was cut short by events, and seminal though Swift's influence on Pope was to be, Pope was not to return to sustained satirical writing for some time, though one small foray in particular is worthy of note, concerning as it does the publisher and bookseller Edmund Curll who has already been referred to.

Curll, perhaps more than anyone else, embodies all those qualities of the contemporary literary world which Pope came most to dislike, and it is largely through Curll's activities that Pope's relationship with that literary world came to be defined. Curll was the very epitome of all that is meant by the term ‘Grub Street’. First and foremost, of course, this term denotes a specific location in London. Grub Street, hard by Fleet Ditch and other insalubrious parts of the city was the home of the ‘hackney writer’, which is to say the writer who wrote for money at a customer's request. His was not a respectable calling. For a start, the income was precarious and the debtors' gaol never far away. Secondly, it was considered professionally demeaning for an author to earn his living by his writing. A gentleman obviously didn't need to, though for the less fortunate the age of private patronage had largely passed. The lowest echelons of the literary world were fast becoming part of a vigorous economy in which a man of Edmund Curll's entrepreneurial confidence and capacity for self-advertisement could do very well, especially if he wasn't afraid of dishonesty and deceit.11

Curll had an eventful life: imprisoned three times for his unprincipled publishing activities, occasionally having to go to ground to avoid recriminations, and possibly acting as some kind of informer for Prime Minister Walpole. For all this his business prospered hugely. He ‘kept’ a number of hackney writers of his own, including at various times John Oldmixon, Charles Gildon and John Breval, all of whom were to find their way eventually into Pope's Dunciad, and all of whom were available to write whenever they were asked. There were, of course, many other practitioners of exactly the same sort. In an age in which the concept of copyright hardly existed, they obviously had considerable freedom, which a corrupt bookseller like Curll could exploit to the full.12

Basically, Curll specialized in forgeries. These might take one of several forms. He might pass off inferior work by one of his own authors under the name of Swift or Pope or Gay; he particularly specialized in the publication of scandalous biographies or wills and testaments of the recently deceased which, as Arbuthnot quipped, added a new terror to death. Additionally there were ‘keys’ purporting to explain recently published works, letters by supposedly famous people, and historical treatises on subjects such as flogging or impotence, in which (quite arbitrarily it would appear) historical and contemporary figures were implicated.

Pope and Curll crossed swords for the first time in 1716, over a relatively trivial issue. Curll had published a collection of Court Poems, probably written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu but passed off by Curll as the work of Pope. Pope's initial response to this was non-literary. He asked his publisher Lintot to effect a meeting with Curll, and then administered an emetic to the unsuspecting guest. Even in an age which greatly relished and often practised practical jokes, this was a somewhat childish act, perhaps, but Pope was to make a great deal of capital out of it subsequently, not only by knowing references to the incident in The Dunciad and An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, but also in a pamphlet, published anonymously of course, called A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr Edmund Curll, in which an exceptionally lurid (and doubtless greatly exaggerated) account of the event was given, rather in the style of The Narrative of Dr Robert Norris.

Curll did not have to do very much thinking to identify the author of this piece, and the consequences were obvious. Attacks on Pope became an ever growing part of his publishing business. In particular, Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad was beginning to appear and Curll had abundant opportunities to torpedo ‘Mr Pope's Popish translation … as best he and his hireling authors could. Pope thus became one of Curll's leading literary butts for the next twenty years. When the first version of The Dunciad was published in 1728, Curll was quick to produce a so-called ‘Key’ to it, which pronounced Pope ‘… a scoundrel and a blockhead, who has, at one time or another betrayed or abused almost everyone he has conversed with. … Yet now he kicks and winces because his arrogance and insolence have been exposed …’ A few years later, Curll was to advertise a Life of Pope which would seek to demonstrate and explain ‘… that Natural Spleen which constitutes Mr Pope's temperament …’14

Again we see the same situation being replayed and replayed just as it had been during the time of Pope's contretemps with Dennis. A cantankerous and irreverent gesture by Pope, who was prepared usually to be amused before he was offended by the works of Grub Street, would provoke an immoderate and abusive response, always quick to attack the person rather than the writing, and to do so in rather predictable ways. Obviously Pope himself was not above employing Grub Street methods against those whom he disliked, but the difference in kind and degree is always noticeable. Pope's contributions are high-spirited and marked by genuine wit. Their targets are clear and their grounds of criticism at root moderate. They keep their distance from gratuitous insult. In literary terms they are invariably more sophisticated than the attacks which he had to suffer himself.

Even so, they highlight a curious contradiction in Pope who, on the one hand held a most exalted view of literature and the poet's calling, yet on the other was prepared to use literature for the most frivolous of purposes. His next major political undertaking was his translation of Homer, a task which could hardly be entered into lightly. It is unlikely that Pope saw himself as ‘the English Homer’, as his enemies liked to think, but in offering a translation of the classical poet whom he most venerated, Pope was setting himself up as the voice through which Homer might speak to the eighteenth century. He was also, presumably, conscious of the weight of Dryden's translation of Virgil in the previous generation. If the greatest poet of that age could translate Virgil, then, by implication, the greatest poet of the next could translate Homer.

His translation of Homer's Iliad was to occupy him for a further six years, the task being finally completed in 1720. After this, he translated the Odyssey, which he finished in 1725, the year in which he was also to publish an edition of the works of Shakespeare.

These three ventures accounted for a decade of Pope's creative life. He was, at various times, to complain of the drudgery involved, also to claim that he no longer wished to write poetry. Yet the years which were given to these works of translation and editing were the years in which the pattern of Pope's poetic life became set. In 1717 he took the lease of a villa at Twickenham where he lived with his widowed mother until her death in 1733, and his own eleven years later. A thorough-going programme of building and gardening ensued so that the villa came to embody all Pope's tastes in architecture and landscaping, and indeed was to be something of a showpiece, as well as a symbol of his own poetic eminence. He began to live the life of a wealthy country gentleman. This life was to be largely supported by the considerable fortune which Pope's translations of Homer were to make for him. His relationships with Grub Street were certainly made no easier by this huge commercial success. For one whose enmity towards hackney writers was so acute, his own acquisition of wealth as a result of a literary undertaking has its irony. To the hackney writers, endeavouring to catch as many pennies as they could, it was particularly provoking. And Pope was prepared to be open about the matter, for example in his Imitation of the Second Epistle of the Second Book of Horace (1736):

But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,
Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive …


It is not therefore very surprising that Pope's Homer should have proved one of the most controversial undertakings of his career, for by the time he came to work on it, Grub Street was more than ready to make as much trouble over it as was possible. We have already seen some evidence of Curll's early efforts. Others followed, none more significant than the rival translation by Thomas Tickell which was probably embarked upon with Addison's support and encouragement, and which showed the way in which literary production at this time was influenced by the politics of personalities and factions.

Other criticism were voiced, too: in particular that Pope in setting himself up as the English Homer was aiming above his station; and that, not having a university education he was not sufficient of a scholar to do the job properly. Indeed the fact that he employed two young poets, William Broome and Elijah Fenton, as assistants seemed to indicate this very point. By the time Pope was working on The Odyssey, there was no shortage of Grub Street writing to suggest that Pope's Homer was not his own.

His foray into Shakespearean scholarship was a mistake. Pope was ill-equipped for the task from the start. His knowledge of Elizabethan theatre in general was thin, and his understanding of Shakespeare's language and usage was limited.15 It was not at all difficult for Lewis Theobald in his pamphlet Shakespeare Restored: Or A Specimen of the Many Errors As well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late Edition of this Poet to point out these shortcomings. Theobald's attack was of a different sort from the ones Pope had been used to receiving. It was a moderate document from a more learned man (who had reputedly read 800 Elizabethan plays) and was less personal in its tone than most attacks from Grub Street had been. Perhaps this was why it irritated Pope so much: its criticisms were sound and would stick. Although it was in the right, more than any of the other attacks hitherto received, it was the one that needed a reply.

The Dunciad appeared in the month of Pope's fortieth birthday, and was perhaps the major literary watershed of his life, for the direction of his writing certainly changed thereafter. By 1728 Pope had a considerable reputation as a poet. This reputation was based on the early Pastorals,An Essay on Criticism,Windsor Forest, the rather grandiosely entitled Works of 1717, which included the final version of The Rape of the Lock, and the Homer translations. With the exception of The Rape … all of these undertakings were entirely serious, and none of them had addressed itself in any way to Pope's critics and opponents. Satire had not been the dominant mode of Pope's poetry, indeed his output had been of a rather more lofty kind. Such isolated ripostes as he had chosen to make Grub Street, had been made in pamphlets and in prose. If Pope was to grow tired of being a butt for less refined and capable authors then he was not in a hurry to show it. We know that he kept many of the pamphlets written against him in bound volumes for his own reference, but to see the author (as many of his contemporaries wished to) as perpetually spitting venom against his enemies is a gross simplification. He waited for his moment, and it was the coming together of a number of different considerations which brought out the first version of The Dunciad in 1728. The poem, comprehensively savage though it is, is no doggerel. It is multiply allusive and exceptionally wide-ranging using a language dense with literary suggestiveness against a mighty cast of rogues and rabble. Pope, the reader feels, has taken on the whole of Grub Street man by man.

For all its literary sophistication the poem hit its victims hard, and consequently provoked even more of the kind of caterwauling from Grub Street that it had been calculated to stop. Pope was being naive when he wrote to Swift that ‘This poem will rid me of those insects.’16 It didn't. It merely increased hostilities, to the extent that Lord Oxford was to comment to Swift that ‘Pope stands by himself Athanasius contra mundum.’ His half-sister Magdalen reported that Pope never dared to venture out without the company of his Great Dane and with pistols in his pockets.17

Yet it was in the years following the publication of The Dunciad that Pope began to present himself in his work, not as the literary hostage beseiged by the rabble, but as the man of culture, retired from the fray into an innocent country world reminiscent of the Roman poet Horace's Sabine farm. The picture which it is very easy to construct of Pope in permanent discord with the lesser mortals of the literary world does not quite fit the facts of the next few years, which were certainly Pope's busiest. Much of his writing, it must be said, had a satirical thrust, but the fertility of Pope's mind in the early 1730s meant that he had a great deal of other work on hand too.

The Dunciad was in effect the apotheosis of Pope's Scriblerian satire, which is to say satire directed against the world of writing. He was to return to the poem in 1742 and 1743 in order to extend and adapt it, but with the important exceptions of An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot and parts of To Augustus, Pope's work from now on was to concern itself with broader issues and take a much more explicitly moral stance.

Much of the poetry of the first half of the decade takes its colouring from An Essay on Man, which was published in instalments in 1733 and 1734. At a time when Pope's every move was the subject of malicious pamphleteering from Grub Street, the anonymously presented Essay on Man was a huge success and met with little immediate opposition. It clearly answered to a good many contemporary expectations of what a poem should be. To a modern reader it seems easily the most dated part of Pope's oeuvre. A quasi-philosophical exploration of Man in his relationships with himself, society and God, it owes a great deal to the ideas of Pope's venerated friend Henry St John Bolingbroke. Pope saw it as merely the introductory part of a much larger study of humanity which would encompass treatises on government, education and so forth, and which like many of the larger poetic plans of literary history, never came to fruition. It had off-shoots, though, into the four Epistles which were subsequently entitled Moral Essays. Indeed, one of the most striking features of Pope's work in the early 1730s is the way in which his poems take their life from each other. The Epistle to Cobham, (published as the first of the Moral Essays) was written partly to exemplify certain theories of human behaviour explained in the Essay on Man, whilst it is likely that some of Pope's thoughts on education found their way into the New Dunciad, the fourth book which Pope added to that poem in 1742. Likewise, the poems which we know collectively as the Imitations of Horace were written at various times throughout the 1730s, the earliest of them being contemporary with the Moral Essays. The Horatian tone which Pope was seeking was also discernible in parts of An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot.

If the 1730s were Pope's poetically most productive years they were also the most productive years in the pamphlet war against him. 1733 saw at least twelve separate published attacks, all anonymous of course. They were also the years in which the attacks grew more elaborate. Fiction and fantasy tended to replace rank personal abuse. Hence, readers could discover how Pope had supposedly been flogged or tormented or had committed suicide or murdered a woman. There were pictures of him, too, notoriously the engraving which had accompanied the pamphlet Pope Alexander's Supremacy of 1729, and which had pictured Pope's head attached to a monkey's body. Pope was to acknowledge the multifarious strategies of his critics in An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot:18

The distant Threats of Vengeance on his head,
The Blow unfelt, the Tear he never shed;
The Tale reviv'd, the Lye so oft o'erthrown;
Th'imputed Trash, and Dulness not his own;
The Morals blacken'd when the Writings scape;
The libel'd Person, and the pictur'd Shape;
Abuse on all he lov'd, or lov'd him spread,
A friend in Exile, or a Father, dead


Perhaps the most significant charge against Pope, which stuck for a long time, was that in the Timon's Villa section of his Epistle to Burlington, he had been ungraciously criticizing the Duke of Chandos and his estate at Canons in Berkshire. Pope was thus tarnished with charges of malicious ingratitude and lack of respect to an important figure. It showed the way in which a misrepresentation of Pope's writing could rapidly acquire the characteristics of gospel truth. Indeed when, half a century later, Dr Johnson came to write Pope's life, the myth still held as biographical fact.

It was no doubt partly as a result of the anti-Pope industry that Pope was to proclaim insistently in his later poetry his own independence

‘Un-plac'd, un-pension'd, no Man's Heir
or Slave'

(Imitations of Horace, Satire, II i, 116)

Let Lands and Houses have what Lords they will,
Let Us be fix'd, and our own Masters still.

(Imitations of Horace, Satire, II ii, 179-80)

Pope's satire in the 1730s gains greater refinement and applicability. Although Arbuthnot urged Pope to refrain from mentioning actual names in his satirical writing (a point which Pope dramatizes crucially in his Epistle …), Pope's response was that ‘… general satire in times of general vice has no force … it is only by hunting one or two from the herd that any examples can be made.”19 Pope's satire in the 1730s finds out its own ideology and consequently its own victims with increasing accuracy. Pope becomes more concerned with the lineaments of the ‘general vice’ which he sees around him, a vice rooted not simply in Grub Street, but in the whole political culture of the age.

Two of his Moral Essays, those addressed to Bathurst and Burlington had borne the subtitle Of the Use of Riches and whilst it is true that both of these poems attack individuals, they are also evidence of a response to national issues. Pope is beginning to deal not merely with offensive individuals, but with ‘society’ in general. The economic tone of the age was speculative and expansionist. One of the consequences of this was that whilst huge fortunes were being gained and lost, the Whig nobility were busy constructing huge country houses and gardens for themselves. It was as an offence against order, nature and good taste that Pope saw this environmental profligacy:

You show us Rome was glorious, not profuse
And pompous buildings once were things of Use.
Yet shall (my Lord) your just, your noble rules
Fill half the land with Imitating Fools;
Who random drawings from your sheets shall take,
And of one beauty many blunders make;
Load some vain Church with old Theatric state,
Turn Arcs of triumph to a Garden-gate;
Reverse your Ornaments, and hang them all
On some patch'd dog-hole ek'd with ends of wall

(Epistle to Burlington 22-32)

Burlington, as the passage suggests, was an architectural luminary, and Pope as an ardent disciple in the business of building and landscape gardening was an authoritative source of criticism on these matters of public aesthetics.

The Epistle to Bathurst probes more deeply in its analysis of the age's economic ills. It addresses itself to the Whiggish city gentlemen and financiers who had done so well during the years of Walpole's premiership, yet whose standards of personal morality left much to be desired. Pope sees:

                                                                                          … Riches in effect
No grace of Heav'n or token of th'Elect;
Giv'n to the Fool, the Mad, the Vain, the Evil,
To Ward, to Waters, Chartres, and the Devil.

(Epistle to Bathurst 17-20)

Politically, Pope had never been quick publicly to take sides. By reason of his Catholic background and consequent supposed loyalty to the House of Stuart, he was associated with the backward looking and often rather sentimental Toryism whose influence was extinguished with the death of Queen Anne. His friendship with the Tory Swift, and with figures such as Bolingbroke and Atterbury, both of whom were tarred with the brush of Jacobitism, seemed to place him in a definite political camp. Pope was temperamentally much more of an equivocator than he was a partisan, and fought shy of making public statements of position or loyalty:

In Moderation placing all my Glory,
While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory

(Imitations of Horace, Satire II i 67-8)

Indeed, in the 1720s Pope's relationship with Sir Robert Walpole had been cordial. However, like nearly all contemporary authors, Pope grew increasingly hostile to the corrupt and philistine government that the well-nigh impregnable Walpole sustained on behalf of King George II. Once upon a time the English court had been a nursery of art and artists. George II's indifference to most cultural manifestations was well known, and formed the starting point of Pope's imitation of the First Epistle of Horace's second book, subtitled To Augustus. King George is addressed in the same tones as Horace addressed his patron Augustus (and Augustus, by happy coincidence was George's second name). But where Horace's words were written in sincere appreciation of Augustus, Pope's embody huge ironies:

While You, great Patron of Mankind, sustain
The balanc'd World, and open all the Main;
Your Country, chief, in Arms abroad defend,
At home, with Morals, Arts and Laws amend;
How shall the Muse, from such a Monarch, steal
An hour, and not defraud the Publick Weal?

(To Augustus, 1-6)

Even though Pope was unprepared to claim himself as a political writer, his Imitations of Horace certainly take up a political standpoint, and Pope can be seen as writing out of a genuine concern for public virtue rather than out of any kind of personal pique.

Although his attitude to being seen as ‘the English Homer’ was ambivalent, Pope suffered no such doubts about becoming the English Horace. The development of the Horatian persona is discussed further in Chapter 5. Pope was open about the fact that he found the figure of Horace answerable to his needs of the 1730s. Horace, the man retired from city life, bore obvious resemblances to Pope at Twickenham. Horace was also valued for his spirit of quiet moderation. He wrote satire without bitterness or rancour, he expressed the moral concerns of the reasonable man. Pope, though not so much as Swift, perhaps, had always liked masks. Whether presenting himself as Esdras Barnivelt in A Key to the Lock, as Dr Norris in the spoof account of John Dennis's apparent lunacy, or as Martinus Scriblerus in The Dunciad notes, he had kept his own identity partly hidden. The Imitations of Horace are very characteristic (some would say vintage) Pope, as even a cursory reading of them will show, though the poet clearly enjoys the obliquity inherent in the idea of imitation.

The tone of Horatian urbanity, however, did not serve Pope to the very end. The satirical writings of the final phase of his life are amongst his most urgent. In particular, the huge allegory of the Chariot of Vice at the end of the first part of Epilogue to the Satires (1738):

Lo! at the Wheels of her Triumphal Car,
Old England's Genius, rough with many a Scar,
Dragged in the Dust! his Arms hang idly round,
His Flag inverted trails along the ground!


These two dialogues, Pope was to state, would be his last works. He had decided to publish no more. The 1730s had found him engaged with the exposure of vice and folly, though he had come to find the activity futile. The power against which the later Imitations were pitched looked impregnable, and had buttressed itself considerably by introducing censorship in 1737 as a means of vetting all publications for libel against the government. It looked as if the position of the satirist was rapidly becoming marginalized in a self-confidently corrupt age. Pope was prepared to admit defeat, but he did so with characteristic pugnacity:

Ask you what provocation I have had?
The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.
When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
Th'Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be

(Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II, 197-200)

The final years of Pope's life were, in poetic terms, generally quiet ones. This is partly explained by the deterioration in his health. The diverse symptoms which had often plagued him throughout ‘this long Disease, my Life’ inevitably grew more acute as he grew older, and a prolonged physical decline, horrifying by modern standards, was a source of concern to those close to him. Nevertheless, he continued to visit, as well as to be visited, to enjoy his friendships, and probably to eat and drink too much (a life-long habit). In the company of William Warburton, he worked on revisions of his texts for the collected edition of his works which Warburton was supervising, and which finally appeared in 1751.

But there was one final foray into satire, which was also by way of being a journey into the past. Colley Cibber, an undistinguished comic actor and theatre manager, had contrived, by dint of connections in high places, to be appointed Poet Laureate in 1730. Cibber was in general an unassuming man, presumably being as aware of the incongruity of his appointment as anybody else. Swift had remarked, of the Laureateship, in a letter that the competition for it was ‘… between Concanen or Theobald or some other hero of The Dunciad’.20 He perhaps spoke more than he knew. Cibber had made a fleeting, indirect appearance in the 1728 Dunciad. In the revision of the poem which Pope published in 1743, he had chased Theobald from the Dunces' throne completely, and become the hero of the new poem himself. It has been often enough pointed out that, at root, Cibber was a much more obvious candidate for the Kingship of the Dunces than Theobald anyway. He was a man of very little talent who had been elevated far beyond his deserts. What, presumably, had kept his presence in the 1728 version marginal is that he and Pope had had no very profound reason to cross swords. Their relationship had not been without its difficulties, but like so many of Pope's supposed literary animosities, it is difficult to disentangle fact from fiction in the affair, especially when the most crucial document is a pamphlet from Cibber in the best Grub Street vein. Having been hurt by recent references to him in the New Dunciad, he decided to retaliate in A Letter from Mr Cibber to Mr Pope21 which ostensibly outlines a whole history of conflict between the two men. It leans on the kind of anecdotal evidence that is very reminiscent of the kind of fantasies about Pope which had circulated widely in the 1730s. It was basically an unexpected and unprovoked attack. Certainly any derogatory comments which Pope had made about Cibber were less offensive than the things which Cibber decided to write about Pope. It was a return to the tone and the tactics of an earlier period of Pope's life, though it did provoke the final version of The Dunciad which is the one that has always been most widely read. Cibber kept up occasional sniping against Pope until his death.

The Cibber affair is a neat reminder of the literary world in which Pope was forced to live. Partly as a result of the economics of authorship and of printing, partly as a result of unprecedented political contention, the literary world of the early eighteenth century was not a polite one. Pope was by no means alone in receiving hostile treatment from the gutter press. Certain things about him made him a particularly easy target: his shape and his religion were obvious ones. But there was also his self-conscious assumption of the role of great poet and guardian of traditional literary values. There was his vast wealth, gained from translating Homer, and his retirement to cultured ease at Twickenham. Also there was his espousal of the cause of virtue, moderation and loyalty and his coterie of distinguished friends.

Just as Pope was, literally, the subject of grotesque drawings in his lifetime, so his posthumous reputation has often been reduced to the cartoon-like tiny figure, spattering the world with his malicious couplets. This is, of course, a considerable simplification. Pope's satire (particularly that of his later period) is as much a response to a particular cultural moment as is the recalling of a personal bitterness. Pope was a regular object of satire long before he got into the habit of seeking objects himself. Although he cast many stones, he seldom cast the first, and he was unfortunate to live in an age in which personal abuse was a minor art form in itself. What was unusual about Pope is that his response to such abuse became so important a part of his work. Perhaps the golden boy from Windsor Forest with his prodigious technique and laureate ambitions, could hardly have foreseen the way in which his poetic career was to develop, and that his future fame was to be so closely bound up with his response to ridicule and scorn. It is interesting that the two serious attempts at epic poetry which Pope undertook remained incomplete, whilst The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad exist for all to see.


  1. James Reeves The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope (1976) offers a predominantly hostile treatment of Pope's works and his posthumous reputation.

  2. See M. Nicholson and G.S. Rousseau: This Long Disease, My Life: Alexander Pope and the Sciences (1968).

  3. See Farmer Pope and his Son. Quoted in J.V. Guerinot: Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope 1711-1744 (1969) p155.

  4. For a more detailed treatment of the events of Pope's early life, see George Sherburn: The Early Career of Alexander Pope (1934) Chaps 1 and 2. Also, Maynard Mack: Alexander Pope: A Life (1985) Chaps 1 to 8.

  5. Quoted by Sherburn p52.

  6. Ibid p150.

  7. Quoted in Guerinot p3.

  8. Reproduced in its entirety in Paul Hammond (Ed) Selected Prose of Alexander Pope (1987) pp40-45.

  9. Hammond, pp62-73.

  10. For the life of Swift see David Nokes: Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed (1985). The history of the Scriblerus Club is discussed at greater length in Charles Kerby-Miller (Ed) The Memoirs … of Martinus Scriblerus (1950).

  11. For the phenomenon of Grub Street see Pat Rogers: Grub Street, Studies in a Subculture (1972).

  12. See R. Straus: The Unspeakable Curil (1928).

  13. The ‘Key’ is discussed by Guerinot, p114. For the ‘Life’ see Straus, p156.

  14. An account of Pope's contribution to Shakespearean scholarship can be found in Gary Taylor: Reinventing Shakespeare (1990), pp81-87.

  15. Letter to Swift, quoted by Rogers pp181-2.

  16. See Mack Life pp489-90.

  17. The growth and development of the pamphlet war against Pope is discussed in detail by Guerinot in his introduction to Pamphlet Attacks.

  18. See Mack Life p636.

  19. To John Gay, quoted by Kenneth Hopkins The Poets Laureate (1954, rev 1973) p73.

  20. See Guerinot pp280-294.

13. See Hammond, pp131-135 for the full text of the pamphlet.

A Note on Texts and Sources

All quotations from Pope's poems in the text are taken from the one volume Twickenham edition of 1963, edited by John Butt. This is not only the best, fullest and most authoritative text, it is also an accessible one to students, being available in paperback.

Butt's edition is, however, an abridgement of the original seven volume Twickenham edition (1939-1961) and it is from this edition that all references to editorial material (including Pope's own notes on his poems) are taken.

Pope's correspondence was edited by George Sherburn (five volumes, 1956), but I have, in general, when quoting from the letters, directed readers to the more easily accessible secondary sources where the letters are quoted. A complete bibliography can be found at the end of the book.

Claudia N. Thomas (essay date 1994)

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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 Alexander Pope (1985) and Ellen Pollak's feminist The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (1985) have analyzed Pope's poems from specific, late twentieth-century points of view.1 Their perspectives emphasize Pope's role as a spokesperson for his culture, both writers arraigning him for opinions less defensible today than 250 years ago. Pope appears a straightforward misogynist in both studies: according to Brown, he trivialized and commodified women; in Pollak's account, he insulted and oppressed them.

Brown's and Pollak's books have inspired provocative rereadings of Pope and his contemporaries. Ruth Salvaggio's Enlightened Absence (1988), for example, has applied French feminist theory to works by Newton, Swift, Pope, and Anne Finch, although Salvaggio regards the male poets with more pity than anger.2 All three studies raise questions about the sufficiency of modern insight to elucidate eighteenth-century texts. If Pope was a brutal misogynist, why did contemporary enemies dismiss him as a women's toy, and his writings as a ladies' pastime? If Pope deemed women inconsequential, why did he bother to cultivate a female audience? Why did he sympathize with women's limitations in such poems as “Epistle to Miss Blount, with the Works of Voiture” (1712)? And how did eighteenth-century women readers receive his writings? These questions demand a more extensive and accurate context than current opinions provide.

The women who read and responded to Pope's writings formed a prominent aspect of that context. In “Engendering the Reader: ‘Wit and Poetry and Pope’ Once More” (1988), Penelope Wilson has advocated a reader-response approach to the sexual politics of Pope's rhetoric. Complaining that few contemporary women readers' responses to Pope survive, Wilson nevertheless argues that the most fruitful area for feminist studies of eighteenth-century writings examines images of the woman reader.3 Wilson observes that applications of current theory to Pope's poetry risk anachronism. She claims, however, that without a significant sample of women's responses, reader-response criticism will remain confined to studies of textual images and gendered rhetoric. More recent studies have moved beyond this impasse. Valerie Rumbold's Women's Place in Pope's World (1989) has studied Pope's relationships with women, observing their responses while filling some of the lacunae in Maynard Mack's Alexander Pope: A Life (1986).4 Several inconsistencies in Pope's attitude toward women become coherent in Rumbold's context. His frequent blend of sympathy and disdain, for example, grew from volatile relationships with particular women rather than from philosophical dismission of womankind. Donna Landry's The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (1990) includes a Marxist analysis of Pope's significance to laboring-class women poets.5 Rumbold's and Landry's books demonstrate that, as Wilson predicted, contemporary women's responses uniquely illuminate Pope's writings, but also that, contrary to Wilson's fears, those responses are eminently recoverable.

A surprising amount of testimony survives to illustrate the ways eighteenth-century women read Pope. The poet courted their responses: contemporaries identified Pope's work with the growing audience of female readers, and Pope sometimes chose genres conventionally associated with women, such as the heroic epistle. Women referred to, quoted, and commented on Pope's poems and letters in diaries, letters, travel books, translations, essays, and novels. Women addressed poems commendatory or critical to Pope and designed companion pieces to his poems. Women poets learned their craft by studying English poets, especially Pope. Their poems refract his themes, language, and imagery through feminine experience and opinion. Pope's women readers, moreover, ranged from laborers to aristocrats, encompassing responses influenced not only by gender but by social and economic status.

These responses should prove crucial to feminist analyses of Pope's writings. They confirm the extent to which Pope's poems and prose merely reiterated feminine stereotypes or expanded the contemporary horizon of expectations. They determine whether women received Pope's work passively or resisted its constructions of femininity. Women's responses reveal which aspects of or possibilities latent in Pope's work caught their attention—sometimes unpredictable from a late twentieth-century point of view. Contemporary women's responses clarify both Pope's work and its relation to cultural history. Equally important, they advance feminist criticism and women's literary history and help to reconstruct the female experience and perception of eighteenth-century culture. As I hope to demonstrate throughout Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers, a response to Pope was, for many women, a response to cultural issues ranging from women's emotional and intellectual qualities to their creative capacity.


Pope, at least in his youth, associated romantic or sexual feelings for women with creativity, and both with natural settings. His poignant “Hymn Written in Windsor Forest” (1717) bids farewell to both his home and the romantic aspirations of his youth.6 Pope commemorates Windsor's woods as the “Scene of my youthful Loves” (2), then as the scene of his dedication to poetry after realizing that he might “love the brightest eyes, but love in vain!” (8). Henceforth, the energy other men might direct toward business, political preferment, or love would be lavished on his muse, a creative spirit emanating in this hymn from the natural world that inspired his earliest published poems.

Five years later, having completed his initial landscaping at Twickenham, he confided in “Epistle to Mr. [John] Gay” his identification of the garden with romantic or sexual longing.

Joy lives not here; to happier seats it flies,
And only dwells where Wortley casts
her eyes.
What are the gay parterre, the chequer'd shade,
The morning bower, the ev'ning colonade,
But soft recesses of uneasy minds,
To sigh unheard in, to the passing winds?


Hopelessly attached to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Pope claimed to have created a bower in which “to die” like a wounded deer, “the arrow at his heart” (12). But literally, he had created a retreat in which to craft poems expressing his emotions. As Pope aged, his emotions were most often stimulated by friendships, ethics, and politics, rather than by romantic love. But his garden and grotto remained the site of creative inspiration, haunt of the same muses who pressed his hand in Windsor Forest “and said, Be Ours!” (“Hymn,” 4).7

This relationship between Pope and his natural surroundings was understood by generations of Pope's readers, who denoted sparkling stones to pave his grotto during the poet's life, and who made so many pilgrimages to Twickenham after his death that Baroness Sophia Howe, its weary proprietor, tore down the villa and defaced the grotto and garden in 1807.8 What Mack has called “a Pope-and-Twickenham legend” evoked such poetic tributes as Robert Dodsley's to “the solemn Place, / From whence [Pope's] Genius soar'd to Nature's God” (Garden, 266-67). Women readers, too, identified Pope's garden with his genius, as well as with their own relation to creativity.

But women's responses to Pope's garden were necessarily more complicated than, for example, that of the Frenchman who identified with Pope (“Comme toi, je chéris ma noble indépendance”) and invoked him as muse “dans ces bosquets par ta muse habités.”9 Twickenham enshrined the association between “husbanding” a landscape and “fathering” verse, recognized at some level by Pope himself in his Windsor “Hymn” and “Epistle to Mr. Gay.” Pope cultivated the image of Horatian philosopher, determined to write poems that “pleas'd by manly ways” (“Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” 337). While women admired Pope's writings as avidly, their identification with the poet was never as straightforward as men's. Their relation to Twickenham as a symbol of creativity likewise required considerable adjustment. Pope's home represented not just a particular poet's achievement but a gendered conception of genius that discouraged female emulation. It is not surprising, therefore, that of responses written by two prominent women during Pope's lifetime, one was inimical; the other, covertly ambitious.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was simultaneously complimented and embarrassed by Pope's tribute in “Epistle to Mr. Gay.” She sent a copy of the verses to her sister in Paris, but she explained she had “stiffle'd them” in England, and she requested that Lady Mar do the same. Lady Mary characteristically felt the impropriety as much as the flattery of Pope's admiration. She informed Lady Mar that Pope, whom she saw “very seldom,” had “made a subterrenean Grotto, which he has furnish'd with Looking Glass, and they tell me it has a very good Effect.” Twickenham gossip contradicted Lady Mary, reporting that the pair were very close.10 If so, Lady Mary was probably among the first visitors to the new grotto.

Pope and Lady Mary quarreled, however, not long after he composed “Epistle to Mr. Gay.” In 1728, he ridiculed her in the Dunciad as the bane of a “hapless Monsieur … at Paris” (2.127). Pope referred to Lady Mary's unfortunate management of Nicolas-François Rémond's South Sea investment, but in the Dunciad's context his remark suggests sexual misconduct. Lady Mary retaliated for this assault on her reputation by attacking Pope's poetic reputation. “Her Palace placed beneath a muddy road” (1729) installs Pope as crown prince of dullness.11 The poem opens with a startling description of the very “subterrenean grotto” Lady Mary had praised to her sister seven years before.

Lady Mary mocks Pope's selection of a cave for creative meditation, recalling instead his vivid evocations of the caves of Spleen (The Rape of the Lock) and Dulness (Dunciad). In her poem, Pope's grotto exercises a gravitational pull downward, impeding packhorses on the road above. Lady Mary subverts Pope's architectural metaphors.

Here chose the Goddess her belov'd Retreat
Which Phoebus trys in vain to penetrate,
Adorn'd within by Shells of small expense
(Emblems of tinsel Rhime, and triffleing Sense),
Perpetual fogs enclose the sacred Cave,
The neighboring Sinks their fragrant Odours gave.


Lady Mary replaces an ancient tradition, the cave as site of prophetic vision, with her own observation that the god of poetry cannot penetrate its walls. Pope paved his grotto with shells, mirrors, and sparkling minerals, a glittering ambience for meditation. While Pope evidently associated the spars and shells with poetic inspiration, they seemed cheap “Emblems of tinsel Rhyme” to his adversary.

Lady Mary finally condemns the grotto's unhealthy proximity to the river, not to mention local cesspools. Her description suggests Pope's affinity with the filthy antics of his dunces in book 2 of the Dunciad, in which Dulness inspires Curll with “ordure's sympathetic force” (95) but then awards him a mere phantom poet for winning the booksellers' race. Dulness consoles Curll, however, by suggesting he mislead the public with a similar ploy, attributing scurrilous publications to distinguished authors just as a bawd dubs her prostitutes “Duchesses and Lady Mary's” (Dunciad, 2.128). Lady Mary's response implies that a correspondingly literal association with excrement inspired Pope's slander. But Pope's grotto was not endangered by cess-pools, though a damp cave was hardly the ideal environment for a frail man. Pope thought less of this inconvenience than of the grotto's associations with wisdom and philosophical simplicity. Lady Mary's satire ignores these ideas, rejecting not only Pope's claim to poetic inspiration but the poet himself. In his poem to Gay, Pope had implicitly dedicated his landscape projects—including the new grotto—to Lady Mary. “Her Palace placed beneath a muddy road” emphatically repudiates that gesture, denying Pope's worthiness as a lover, as a poet, and even as a landscape architect.

Elizabeth Carter enjoyed a happier venture into Pope's garden in July 1738. The poet was not at home when her party visited, but his servant John Serle permitted them to view Pope's grounds. Carter was impressed enough to write her father that “of all the Things I have yet seen of this sort none ever suited my own Fancy so well.”12 Like most tourists, Carter desired a souvenir: she evidently plucked a sprig of laurel as an appropriate token of her visit to the poet's garden. However she intended the gesture, Samuel Johnson detected its professional significance. He published a Latin epigram on the incident in July's Gentleman's Magazine, declaring that “dulcis Elisa” had no need to steal the laurel; “Si neget Popus, Apollo dabit.”13 Pope, of course, had not denied Carter the laurel; she undoubtedly “stole” the sprig because her host was not present to grant her request. But several Gentleman's Magazine contributors were charmed by the young woman's “theft”; the August Gentleman's Magazine contained three translations of Johnson's epigram.14 Each contributor's epigram suggested “Eliza's” longing for the laurel wreath of poetic fame and the injustice were Pope to refuse this deserving female aspirant. As Johnson expressed it in his translation, “Were Pope once void of wonted candour found, / Just Phoebus would devote his plant to thee” (7-8).

These gallant epigrams probably display the writers' wit and prowess in translating Latin (Stephen Duck, the “thresher poet,” was one contributor) as much as the writers' admiration of Elizabeth Carter's poetry. Carter had just published her first volume of poems that month. Her contributions to Gentleman's Magazine had been enthusiastically received, but she had not courted the role of Pope's female rival. The three men's epigrams in the August Gentleman's Magazine nevertheless develop the image of Carter as an ambitious interloper in Pope's garden. “Alexis” imagines her “rapt with eager hand … snatch[ing] the bay” (3). In Duck's version, “Desirous of the laurel bough, / She crops it to adorn her brow” (3-4). Carter's gesture thus appears an aggressive assertion of her poetic achievement. All three epigrams also cast Pope as the jealous guardian of Parnassus by speculating whether he might refuse “a wreath so due” (“Alexis,” 4). The image suggests that Pope is aware of and threatened by Carter—an idea that might have occurred to Johnson because he knew she was translating Crousaz's hostile Examen of the Essay on Man. The epigrams bear little relation to Carter's personality or her actual visit to Twickenham, but they record a contemporary impression of Carter's gifts. Her literary career was barely established, but at least three literate men considered her a potential feminine rival to masculine poetic hegemony. Although constrained to trespass in Pope's domain, she deserved to share his laurel wreath.

Sharing the page with these tributes, Carter answered Johnson's epigram in both Latin and English. The responses disclaim false modesty, acknowledging both her literacy and her wit. But she abjures any pretense to rival Pope.

In vain Eliza's daring
Usurp'd the laurel bough;
Remov'd from Pope's, the
wreath must fade
On ev'ry meaner brow.


Rather than contradict her male admirers' account of the visit, she chastizes herself for usurping Pope's laurel. Carter gracefully accepts their compliment, but she defuses any potential offense to the Wasp of Twickenham. Perhaps, worried that her translation of Crousaz might anger Pope when published, she wished to avoid prior offense. Carter entertained ambivalent feelings about Pope's verse. By accepting Johnson's conceit, she acknowledges her literary ambition. She even describes herself grabbing the laurel wreath from Pope's head. But the theft is foolish and ineffectual; Carter simultaneously owns her ambition and denies her ability to achieve it. Concerned to appear modest as well as accomplished, Carter was not what modern feminists call a “voleuse de langue”—a woman who steals, then flees with, masculine language.15 Although the garden that reflected Pope's imagination suited her fancy, she makes no move to appropriate his property, either the laurel or the claim to poetic excellence it represents. Instead, Carter describes her visit to Twickenham as a bungled theft, a doomed attempt to transplant Pope's laurels “to climates not their own” (6). A child not of Phoebus but of “a paler sun” (8), she cannot sustain the wreath. Carter's response epitomizes what proved to be her fitful career. Torn between awareness of her gifts and a nearly insurmountable shyness about pursuing literary projects, she never seriously competed for literary fame. The Gentleman's Magazine epigrams suggest both her youthful aspirations and the fear that prevented her outright quest. Carter fancied Pope's garden, but she contented herself with a surreptitious visit.

Elizabeth Carter's defence, like Lady Mary's repudiation, regarded a living contemporary. Lady Mary confined her poem to manuscript, emphasizing the personal nature of her grievance with Pope. Her retaliation against his boasted grotto intends a reciprocal wound. Carter's epigrams defer to a poet feared for installing critics and would-be competitors in successive editions of the Dunciad.16 When she criticized Pope's poems, she did so subtly.

Women writing after Pope's death more freely described the garden's personal significance, identifying it with their personalities and aspirations. When Jael Henrietta Pye published A short account, of the principal seats and gardens, in and about Twickenham in 1760, she prefaced her little guide with an apologetic introduction.

These little Excursions being commonly the only Travels permitted to our Sex, & the only Way we have of becoming at all acquainted with the Progress of Arts, I thought it might not be improper, to throw together on Paper, such Remarks as occured to me, never intending they should appear: but the Partiality of some of my Friends have call'd them to Light.17

She concludes by soliciting constructive criticism, but she adds “that it is my Ambition, to appear to [my readers], in every agreeable Light but that of an Author” (xi-xii).

When Pye approaches Pope's garden, now owned by Sir William Stanhope, the sole object of her description is the poet's obelisk commemorating his mother.

This is a Circumstance of more Credit to him, than all his Works; for the Beauties of Poetry are tasted only by a few, but the Language of the Heart is understood by all.

Nor does the Author of the Essay on Man, surrounded by the Muses, and invoking his St. John, appear half so amiable, as the pious Son, lamenting over the Remains of his aged Parent.


Pye evidently found in Pope's garden a kindred spirit, more disposed to appear a man of sentiment than an author. After confessing her ignorance and limited experience, Pye rejoices that Pope's most remarkable garden ornament appealed not to the privileged few—aristocratic men, such as Bolingbroke—but to the many. Pope's reverential gesture appealed to this young lady, who found his filial devotion more accessible than his poetic ethical system.

Pye's younger but more distinguished contemporary Hannah More recorded her response to Pope's garden in greater detail. More's letter to Mrs. Gwatkin is undated, but her visit must have taken place between Sir William Stanhope's additions to Pope's house (ca. 1760) and his death in 1772.18 The visit thus predated More's first publication (The Search After Happiness, 1773) and her first visit to London. More declares that although she could not attend the recent birthnight in town, her loss has been more than compensated: “I have visited the mansion of the tuneful Alexander.” Although More later became skeptical of Pope's verse, this early letter all but deifies the poet: “I have rambled through the immortal shades of Twickenham; I have trodden the haunts of the swan of Thames.” Having announced her adventure, however, More descends abruptly into reality.

You know, my dear madam, what an enthusiastic ardour I have ever had to see this almost sacred spot, and how many times have I created to myself an imaginary Thames: but, enthusiasm apart, there is very little merit either in the grotto, house, or gardens, but that they once belonged to one of the greatest poets on earth.

(Roberts, 1:34)

In a critical manner prophetic of her later prose, More explains that Pope's house must have been “very small” before Sir William added two wings. Sir William's decor, however, is “only genteel,” and his library “contemptibly small.” More's dream of Pope's immortal haunts confronts mundane reality: “The grotto is very large, very little ornamented, with but little spar or glittering stones” (1:35).

More finds Twickenham's failure to match her expectations disconcerting. Her long-awaited view of the Thames was foiled; its “noble current was frozen quite over.” But she produces a compensatory myth. The Thames' frozen condition explains” why we saw no naiads. Every Hamadryad was also congealed in its parent tree.” Soothed by this fiction, More confesses, “I could not be honest for the life of me: from the grotto I stole two bits of stones, from the garden a sprig of laurel, and from one of the bed-chambers a pen” (1:35). The filched souvenirs jar with More's reputation for scrupulous honesty. In 1785, for example, she was outraged when Ann Yearsley accused her of withholding subscription money. But More was no different from Elizabeth Carter or any tourist coveting a token remembrance; that Pope's grotto seemed “very little ornamented” fewer than thirty years after his death suggests hundreds of previous depredations.19

More's stolen souvenirs are less revealing than her letter's ambivalence. She recalls her anticipatory rapture as an established attitude (“You know … what an … ardor I have ever had to see this … spot”), taxed by her encounter with the small, plainly furnished house and somber grotto. By imagining the temporary flight of resident naiads and hamadryads, More preserves a cherished ideal. Only Pope's Pastorals feature naiads, although More may also have recalled the nymph Lodona in “Windsor Forest,” or the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock. More's fable suggests that she, like many eighteenth-century women, preferred Pope's early, less controversial poetry. Or she may have wished simply to reinstate a literary ambience in the frozen landscape. But by inventing a fanciful explanation for Twickenham's uninspiring reality, More maintains her youthful rapture. Her selection of relics—the laurel, the pen, the stones from Pope's grotto—seeks communion with the poet by removing bits of his “haunts” for personal meditation. Away from the house and grotto, More can satisfactorily reconstruct their “immortal shades.” This impulse contrasts significantly with More's later attitude. As a mature writer, More could no longer reconcile her delight in “tuneful Alexander” with what she considered dangerous about his verse. This early visit anticipates her eventual disillusionment, but it also suggests why More later warned young readers against Pope's poetry: as a young woman, Hannah More had overlooked reality for the sake of Pope's aesthetic pleasures.

Lady Mary dismissed Pope's “Shells of small expence,” while Elizabeth Carter and Hannah More—typical middle-class tourists—coveted souvenirs. More's laboring-class nemesis, Ann Yearsley, responded quite differently to Twickenham in “Written on a Visit,” from her second volume (1787).20 Yearsley's poem expresses no proprietary relation to the poet's garden. She rather distinguishes between Pope's verse, written solely to please his muse, and her own, sponsored by patrons. Yearsley does not approach the garden with impunity as an invited guest or even as a member of a touring party, but as a self-conscious “rustic” unsure of her welcome.

Delightful Twick'nham! may a rustic hail
          Thy leafy shades, where Pope in rapture stray'd,
Clasp young-ey'd Ecstasy amid the vale,
          And soar, full-pinion'd, with the buoyant maid?
Ah! no, I droop! her fav'rite Bard she mourns;
          Yet Twick'nham, shall thy groves assist my song;
For while, with grateful love my bosom burns,
          Soft Zephyr bears the artless strain along.


Yearsley's late-century apotheosis contrasts poignantly with Pope's account of the “kind Muses” who met him as he “stray'd” in Windsor Forest. Those had “gently press'd [his] hand, and said, Be Ours” (“Hymn,” 4), a chaste simulacrum of the marriage or love affair he might long for but would always be denied. Pope's somber version of his union with the muse acknowledges the severe limitations imposed by his body and his adherence to Catholicism. Yearsley, writing forty-three years after his death, imagines only the poet's blissful freedom to stray untrammelled over his own property, accompanied by a muse more like a concubine than the wife-substitute of Pope's “Hymn.” Where Pope had forsaken dreams of power, property, and romantic love for poetry, Yearsley imagines him ravished by unlimited creative power, clasping his ecstatic muse and soaring above the landscape.

Yearsley's glance strains upward in her first stanza, hoping to glimpse the soaring bard. Her second “droops” back, first into Twickenham's reality: Pope died long ago, and the leafy shades now mourn rather than inspire their favorite poet. Yearsley also subsides into her own predicament. She must not aspire to Pope's unlimited heights but must write “with grateful love” in strains blown horizontally by breezes, toward her patrons, rather than upward over Twickenham's groves. The rest of the 52-line poem develops Yearsley's situation. She is evidently the guest of a wealthy couple, Maro and Emma, names redolent of his classical learning and her leisured sensibility. Emma's pet lamb, spared from preying dogs or human slaughter (lines 9-16), represents their pastoral existence. Yearsley imagines both Maro and Emma weeping over the lamb's eventual death, “Nor will the pang Lactilla's bosom spare” (20). A kind of private laureate, Yearsley will celebrate the pair's exquisite sensibilities. Dismissing her premonition of the lamb's tragic death, however, Yearsley concentrates on the friendship she feels privileged to share and inspired to sing (lines 21-32). Unlike Pope's, who clasped his muse and soared upward at will, Yearsley's poetic flight is monitored by her learned patron, Maro. Maro graciously encourages her untaught “native Genius” (32).

See, Maro points the vast, the spacious way,
          Where strong Idea may on Rapture spring:
I mount!—Wild Ardour shall ungovern'd stray;
          Nor dare the mimic pedant clip my wing.


Maro permits Yearsley to “stray,” like her imagined Pope, into the poetic sky. That acquired permission, however, distinguishes Yearsley from her Twickenham predecessor. Her defiance of pedants, moreover, reminds readers of her deficient education. When Yearsley cries, “Rule! what art thou? Thy limits I disown!” (37), hers is not the sentiment of Pope, who blasted such critics secure in his mastery of “those Rules of old discover'd, not devis'd” (“Essay on Criticism,” 89), the rules of classical Greece and Rome. Yearsley's is the defiance of a self-taught milkwoman, sanctioned by her patron's indulgence.

Maro invites Yearsley to soar, just as a conscientious host might invite his guest to ride. She soars on not “full-pinion'd” but borrowed wings. Yearsley concludes by assuring readers that, while she may not know the classical rules of composition, her verse is nevertheless guided by ethical precepts (line 45). Lest anyone misconstrue her delight in creativity, she pledges that “when soft'ning pleasure would invade my breast; / To [precept] my struggling spirit shall resign” (46-47). This promise, again, differentiates Yearsley from Pope. While the genteel male poet achieved fame by “clasp[ing] young-ey'd Ecstasy amid the vale,” the laboring-class female must maintain her reputation by sinking to rest “on [precept's] cold bosom” (48). While no pedant may clip her wings, Yearsley's prudent wish not to offend readers effectually checks her creative flight. She finally bids farewell to Twickenham's groves, enjoining local maidens who stroll there to “reflect how soon / Lactilla saw, and sighing left the scene” (51-52). Not for Yearsley are either Lady Mary's scorn or Carter's and More's acquisitive impulse. After reflecting on the relation between her career and Pope's, Yearsley relinquishes the scene that inspired her comparison. Her poem abjures furtive ambition like Carter's or imaginative escape like More's, for frank acknowledgment that a milkwoman-poet has no business in Pope's garden.

Anna Seward, writing to Mrs. Childers in 1804, completes the spectrum of women's responses to Pope's garden and its creative associations.21 Seward had been reading a five-volume edition of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters, and she had confessed her irritation with Lady Mary's avowed contempt for Pope. Seward assures Mrs. Childers that Pope's anger with Lady Mary was justified, “since, in the zenith of his admiration, it reached his ear, that she had lyingly called him ‘the thing of sound without sense.’ Where was her own sense so to call the more than Horace of his time?” (Letters, 6:146). Seward finds particularly exasperating Lady Mary's description of Pope's grotto “in her pointless satire, the Court of Dulness” (6:149). Seward persistently defended the literary glories of Queen Anne's reign, often to preface her claim that England currently boasted even greater poetic riches. Lady Mary's dismissal of a site frequented by “all the brightness of the famous poetic galaxy” thus affronted both Seward's critical judgment and, by extension, her stature as heir to the Augustan poets.

But Lady Mary's cynicism most distresses Seward. “With what different ideas did I, in my youthful years, meditate the same scene,” Seward cries. She produces, as illustration, a sonnet “On Reading A Description of Pope's Gardens at Twickenham.” She claims she wrote the poem in her “youthful years,” although undoubtedly she revised it to convey her mature perspective.22

Ah! might I range each hallow'd bower and glade
          Museus cultur'd, many a raptur'd sigh
          Would that dear local consciousness supply
          Beneath his willow, in his grotto's shade,
Whose roof his hand with ores and shells inlaid!
          How sweet to watch, with reverential eye,
          Through the sparr'd arch, the streams he oft
          Thine, blue Thamesis, gently wandering by?
This is the poet's triumph, and it towers
          O'er life's pale ills, his consciousness
of powers
          That lift his memory from oblivion's gloom;
Secure a train of these recording hours,
          By his idea deck'd with tender bloom,
          For spirits rightly touch'd, through ages yet
to come.

Lady Mary's spirit, by contrast, was not “rightly touched”; her inability to appreciate Pope's grotto seems comparatively corrupt. “These innocent and delightful enthusiasms are real blessings to the mind in which they spring,” comments Seward (Letters, 6:149). But the sonnet records more than Seward's championship of her predecessor against his (in her estimate) mean-spirited adversary. It also reveals Seward's competitive estimate of Pope's gifts, her almost literal longing to stand in his creative shoes.

Ann Yearsley gazed skyward toward the soaring poet, only to murmur “Ah, no.” Her sigh acknowledged the ineradicable distance between herself and Pope. Anna Seward's octave recreates Twickenham from Pope's personal vantage. She imagines roaming from bower to willow to grotto, sighing because Pope himself stood in these precise spots and enjoyed the same view of the Thames. Seward's “local consciousness” impresses her not with Pope's absence or superiority but with the delightful prospect of becoming Pope, or at least sharing his perspective, while she surveys his domain.

The sonnet's concluding sestet is more ambiguous. “This is the poet's triumph” ostensibly refers to the consoling thoughts Pope enjoyed while contemplating the Thames from his grotto. Secure in his immortal gifts, Pope knew that “spirits rightly touch'd, through ages yet to come” would revere his memory. Seward's demonstrative “this,” however, also refers back to the particular experience described in her octave: Anna Seward's imaginary visit to Pope's garden. “The poet's triumph,” in this reading, is his reincarnation in Seward's consciousness. Anna Seward materializes in Pope's garden as his heir, destined not only to defend his reputation but, as his creative disciple, to extend Pope's triumph. Such a reading of this sonnet seems strained only outside the context of Seward's lifelong relation to Pope. Throughout her career, she quarreled with, analyzed, defended, appropriated, and revised Pope's poems. With “On Reading a Description of Pope's Gardens,” she may intend only a lyrical tribute to his enduring appeal. The ambiguous syntax of her sonnet's central turn, however, undermines Seward's purpose. By assimilating Pope's “local consciousness” to the favored poetic form of her mature career, Seward suggests the magnitude of her aspiration.

This brief survey indicates the complexity of eighteenth-century women's responses to Alexander Pope. Pope and his garden represented the relation between artist and creative power, a vexed issue for contemporary women. They were uncertain, at first, of their right to “attempt the pen.”23 But later, emerging cautiously into the literary marketplace, eighteenth-century women probed Twickenham's metaphorical implications. Their assessments suggest the range of possible female responses to Pope, by readers variously educated and of different social and economic status. Individual gifts and temperaments, changing literary tastes, and women's growing share in the literary market throughout the century preclude a static definition of Pope's relation to his eighteenth-century women readers. Women's responses to Pope's garden also belie any conclusion that women passively received Pope's gender ideology. Carter's and Yearsley's wistful poems, for example, announce but finally cancel feminine ambitions. Both poems, while conciliatory, indicate painful awareness that cultural demands for feminine submission and propriety exacerbate masculine poetic hegemony. That Carter and Yearsley accede does not prove that they sanctioned these constraints. Their poems intimate resistance as well as submission. That Pope and his garden represent a locus of struggle to all these writers does not prove he was women's oppressor. Pope often figures in women's writings because he appears, as to Lady Mary, vulnerable; as to More, pleasurable; and as to Seward, an eligible predecessor.

Women's responses also do not indicate—as Joseph Wittreich has concluded of Milton—that Pope was really a feminist.24 Rather, Pope's attitude toward women tempered complex experience with reductive contemporary ideas. We may gauge, from the result, one important boundary of Pope's creative imagination. Pope also struggled, in his Iliad translation, to fulfill the role of scholarly classical translator, while assimilating women into a traditionally male audience. To the modern reader, Pope's notes directed toward women segregate and stigmatize his female readers. To contemporaries, the same notes encouraged women's unprecedented familiarity with Homer. His critics attempted to sabotage Pope's literary reputation by branding him a ladies' poet. But women rewarded Pope's gesture by cherishing his Iliad throughout the century. Many also developed a rather proprietary attitude toward his canon, scrutinizing Pope's constructions of femininity with proportionate interest. Their responses encompassed many issues besides gender, ranging from Pope's possible function as mentor, to his ethical and political philosophies. Women refused to abide by Pope's definition of their interests in the Iliad, although some modern scholars assume that Pope's significance, for eighteenth-century women readers, inhered in his constructions of gender. By forgetting the range and perspicuity of contemporary women's responses, we have not only abridged the rich history of Pope's critical reception but unwittingly abetted his representations of a shallow, passive femininity.

Pope's eighteenth-century women readers, their opinions finally enriching critical discussion, have long been shadowy figures. Although information about them is increasingly available,25 their group portrait remains unsketched. Or perhaps a portrait of Pope's typical woman reader exists but its significance has gone unrecognized. While fanciful, such an identification would solve the mystery of Pope's most enigmatic portrait, painted by Charles Jervas while Pope was translating the Iliad (see frontispiece). In this portrait, Pope sits in an armchair wearing a blue-gray suit, pensively daydreaming beneath a bust of Homer. Behind the poet's chair, a shoeless young woman in a dark gold satin dress stretches on tiptoe, grasping a large book in her left hand while, with her right, pulling aside the heavy green drapery that obstructs a high shelf.26 As Mack has observed, the woman resembles neither Blount sister (Pope, 343), although the painting was traditionally said to represent Pope and Martha Blount (Wimsatt, 21). If Jervas intended her as an allegorical figure, a representation of Pope's muse or even of life's distractions, her purpose remains obscure (Mack, Pope, 343).

Whatever her original function in the painting, this young woman suggests several characteristics of Pope's eighteenth-century women readers. Her shoelessness and her glance over her shoulder toward Pope and the viewer intimate deference; she evidently wishes to avoid disturbing the poet from his reverie. These characteristics may also indicate stealth, in a literal rendering of women's circumstances. Women often read poetry in snatches during precious leisure hours, sometimes despite parents' or husbands' disapproval. The painting's figure, moreover, must stretch while pushing aside a heavy curtain to reach the book, most likely a volume of Pope's Homer. Although Pope encouraged women to read his Homer, many cultural obstacles impeded women's familiarity with classical literature. Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, for example, reiterated women's domestic priorities and intellectual deficiency throughout their periodicals. Although the Tatler and Spectator condemned educational programs that refined women's bodies while neglecting their minds, reading was clearly reserved for rare intervals of leisure between household chores.27 Perhaps this young woman fears that, just as she grasps her prize, a stern parent or tutor—or even Pope—will interrupt and demand that she complete her needlework before indulging in Homeric reading.

The postures and expressions of the two figures also delineate the distinct attitudes of contemporary men and women toward literature. The poet sits at ease, oblivious to the young women as he dreams of Homer. Although Pope appears tiny in proportion to his chair, the viewer focuses on him instantly not only because of his central position but because his face, wig, hands, and linen are bathed in light. The poet's abstraction thus appears a holy or visionary experience, the vital creativity that produced Pope's Homer. Even the poet's gleaming armchair suggests that gentlemanly leisure promotes genius. Pope's pose might represent masculine domination of early eighteenth-century English literature. Proud of their superior educations, complacent in their possession of leisure, genteel and aristocratic men presided over most genres. Women resembled the figure in Jervas's painting: preferably engaged in household tasks, they tiptoed behind the masculine throne.

Such projects as Pope's translation, however, were steadily making classical masterpieces available to the unlettered. Timorously but persistently, women approached texts previously reserved for privileged men. Their responses would be overshadowed by masculine achievements, even as this young women is obscured by Pope's chair. But Pope himself, secure in his domination of the portrait and of the literary scene, facilitated women's conditional access to classical translations, and he later encouraged several as professional writers. In Jervas's painting, the poet's expression is serene and gentle; if he is aware of the young woman behind him, her activity does not irritate him. If this painting intentionally represented Pope and a woman reader, his pose would suggest toleration, at worst benign neglect. The poet refrains from interrupting her surreptitious activity, as the woman grasps a volume disclosing to her a portion of the cultural riches that have palpably enraptured their translator. If the moment dramatized continued, we might see this satin-clad woman glide away with Pope's Homer, and perhaps—after slipping on her shoes—steal into the poet's garden to read his Iliad.


  1. Laura Brown, Alexander Pope (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1985); Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

  2. Ruth Salvaggio, Enlightened Absence: Neoclassical Configurations of the Feminine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

  3. Penelope Wilson, “Engendering the Reader: ‘Wit and Poetry and Pope’ Once More,” in The Enduring Legacy: Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays, ed. G. S. Rousseau and Pat Rogers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 63, 64-65.

  4. Valerie Rumbold, Women's Place in Pope's World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).

  5. Donna Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

  6. Alexander Pope, “A Hymn Written in Windsor Forest,” in Pope, The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt et al., 10 vols. (London: Methuen, 1967), 6:194. All further quotations of Pope's poems will be taken from this edition.

  7. Maynard Mack discusses possible creative implications of Pope's garden and grotto in Pope, 358-66.

  8. Maynard Mack recounts the sad fate of Pope's villa and grounds in The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope, 1731-1743 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 283 n. 9. Appendix E, “The Legendary Poet,” contains a selection of contemporary poems by male admirers celebrating the garden and grotto (266-71).

  9. Maynard Mack reprints part of chant 3 of Jacques Delille's “Les Jardins” (1801) in Garden, 270-71.

  10. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to the Countess of Mar, April 1722, in The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 2:15.

  11. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “Her Palace placed beneath a muddy road,” in Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy, ed. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 247-51.

  12. Elizabeth Carter's report to Rev. Nicolas Carter is quoted by Sylvia Harcstark Myers in The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship, and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 48.

  13. Samuel Johnson, “Ad Elisam Popi Horto Lauros Carpentum,” in Gentleman's Magazine 8 (1738): 372.

  14. Gentleman's Magazine 8 (1738): 429 features “The Latin Epigram … Englished” by “Alexis,” an “Imitation of the Latin, by Mr. S[tephe]n D[uc]k,” and “Another” by “Urbanus” (Johnson). Carter's three answers to Johnson's Latin epigram appear on the same page as these tributes.

  15. Claudine Herrman describes this as an inevitable aspect of women's writing in a patriarchal culture. See Les Voleuses de langue (Paris: des Femmes, 1976).

  16. Worried that Pope and Carter might become friends as the result of her Crousaz translation, Sir George Oxenden warned her father, “there is hardly an instance of a woman of letters entering into an intimacy of acquaintance with men of wit and parts, particularly poets, who were not thoroughly abused and maltreated by them, in print, after some time; and Mr. Pope has done it more than once.” See Carter, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, With A New Edition Of Her Poems. … To Which Are Added, Some Miscellaneous Essays In Prose, ed. Rev. Montagu Pennington (London: F. C. Rivington and J. Rivington, 1807), 29-30. Carter, working among the writers at St. John's Gate, was probably well aware of Pope's propensity to insert “dunces” into successive editions of the Dunciad. Crousaz duly appeared in Dunciad 4.198 (1742).

  17. Jael Henrietta Pye, A short account, of the principal seats and gardens, in and about Twickenham (London, 1760), vii-viii.

  18. Hannah More to Mrs. Gwatkin from Hampton Court, in William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851), 1:34-35. Maynard Mack speculates that Pope's house may have been extended by June 1760, when Horace Walpole mentions Stanhope's alterations in a letter (Garden, 282 n. 8).

  19. The remains of Pope's grotto may still be seen today, by private arrangement with the Sisters of St. Catherine's Convent of Mercy, which occupies the property. When I visited in 1987, the grotto was virtually a dark, dank tunnel, with few traces remaining of Pope's sparkling inset minerals.

  20. Ann Yearsley, “Written on a Visit,” in Poems on Various Subjects (London: G. G. J. Robinson and J. Robinson, 1787), 139-43.

  21. Anna Seward to Mrs. Childers, 30 March 1804, in Seward's Letters of Anna Seward: Written Between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 6:144-46.

  22. In his Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), Roger Lonsdale speculates that Seward's Original Sonnets (1799) included poems dated from the 1770's that were “reworkings in the increasingly popular sonnet form of earlier poems” (312). Based on its mature technique, I agree with Lonsdale that if Seward wrote this poem in her youth, she probably recast it, after thorough revision, as a sonnet.

  23. I paraphrase Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea, in “The Introduction”: “Alas! a woman that attempts the pen, / Such an intruder on the rights of men, / Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteem'd, / The fault, can by no vertue be redeem'd” (9-12). See Finch, Selected Poems of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, ed. Katherine M. Rogers (New York: F. Unger, 1979), 5-7.

  24. Joseph Wittreich, Feminist Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). Wittreich's argument refers not only to women's reception but to ideas about women that Milton placed in the more conservative context of his milieu. Pope's feminine constructions, by contrast, were never deemed revolutionary.

  25. Had I attempted a definitive study, this book would have been much longer. Students of eighteenth-century women writers will recognize various omissions, particularly of women playwrights. Discussions of other figures are brief because they have already been treated at length elsewhere. For example, Ann Messenger included a chapter on “Arabella Fermor, 1714 and 1769: Alexander Pope and Frances Moore Brooke” in His and Hers: Essays in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986), 148-71. Although my opinion of Brooke's novel differs from Messenger's, my discussion of The History of Emily Montague is brief so that I may concentrate on less familiar prose responses. Similarly, Valerie Rumbold treats Mary Wollstonecraft's Popeian allusions in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; see Rumbold, Women's Place, 265-68. Donna Landry discusses Mary Leapor's second volume in relation to Pope (78-119) and Ann Yearsley's sometimes subtle references (120-85). I hope my study will stimulate further research on all these figures and on the relations between women's and men's poetry and literary criticism in the eighteenth century.

  26. William K. Wimsatt reproduces and describes the portrait, probably painted between 1717 and 1720, in The Portraits of Alexander Pope (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 20-23, plate 3.2. Maynard Mack reproduces and discusses the painting in Pope, 341-43.

  27. See, for example, Addison's Spectator 10 (12 March 1711), where he describes his ideal: women who “join all the Beauties of the Mind to the Ornaments of Dress, and inspire a kind of Awe and Respect, as well as Love, into their Male-Beholders.” See Addison et al., The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 1:46-47.

Helen Deutsch (essay date 1996)

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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 Alexander Pope's body remains outside, yet inexorably connected to, the orderly mirroring of his couplets. My book thus begins by shifting its focus from the poet's polished lines to the author's distorted body. This body beyond the poetry's frame becomes the central figure for both this poet's life-work, and for the cultural imagination of authorship at a transitional moment when the profession of letters in England, not yet fully formed, under constant and embattled negotiation, is a matter of “monstrous contingency.”1 Pope's body lends its shape to an era during which:

it was no simple matter to delineate the person of the expressive author in contrast to that of the artisanal book producer, to differentiate the economic interests of writers from those of publishers, or to determine the relation between a writer's legal personality (as a copyright holder or as responsible for obscene libel) and his or her ethical or aesthetic personality (as creator or moral authority).2

In the context of such contestation, Pope's indelibly marked body functions not as his work's coherent metaphor, nor as its effect or cause, nor as its repressed opposite, but rather as its distinguishing mark; a mark which Pope's recent critics have learned to disavow but with which his contemporaries were fascinated. The metaphor of portraiture points to the way in which the image of the author in Pope's time takes the place of both the concept of authorship, and the chaotic social milieu which gives it life. Such an image, whether in print or in paint, is constructed in relation to the codes that give the social body meaning, that attempt to keep it whole. Portraiture, like literature, was a booming business in eighteenth-century England, and like literature drew an unprecedentedly large and various audience by benefit of mass reproduction. Just as the author's individuality stands in marked disjunction from the texts he imitates, from the system that markets him, and from the confused orders of those who read him, so the idea of the particular likeness, of “portraiture as a concept thus stands in a contradictory relationship to the mythic unified body which is rationalized and re-presented in portrait depictions.”3 The original portrait, in other words, like the original author, is for the eighteenth-century public something of a paradox.

Alexander Pope, the most frequently portrayed individual of his generation, particularly embodies this paradox.4 Eighteenth-century codes of bodily representation privileged the head, and more specifically the face, as the site of character, reading the image of the face “in symbolic relation to the subject, not in representation of it.”5 As Deidre Lynch argues, “the legible face indexed character: a social norm, a determinate place on the ethical map where every person had a proper place and where distinction was contained within limits. Recognizing a face, or putting a name to a face, was thus an allegory for … discriminating and weighing samenesses and differences.”6 Pope's unique body, by its deviation from the norm and by the improper attention it calls to itself, disrupts these somatic and symbolic economies by refusing to be read.

Reconsidering the authorial body that has been constructed as monstrous, and which in its obviousness has remained paradoxically invisible to later readers, enables us to see both how meaning is figured at a particular cultural moment, and where meaning has its limits. To read Pope's deformity is to delineate the limits of form itself for his cultural field; it is to see the reflection of his poetry's finished surface, the roots of his hard-won Augustan “originality,” the marks of his monumental cultural entrepreneurship and self-possession, in illicit ambiguity.7 At the intersection of the general and the particular, public gaze and personal display, social metaphor and individual metonymy, when this authorial body is made visible, it is uniquely deformed.

Pope's body is above all a body of contradictions, and Pope a figure of personal and historical liminality. Called both the last Renaissance poet and the first modern author, he shrewdly negotiated the historical transition from patronage to mass publication by his active solicitation of subscriptions in translating the Iliad. The first professional author to also be de facto his own publisher was both the product and a shaping presence of an era in which, as Mark Rose writes, the “work was now above all the objectification of a personality.” While “readers increasingly approached literary texts as theologians had long approached the book of nature, seeking to find the marks of the divine author's personality in his works,” the mortal author became a text at the mercy of his readers, a text readers tried to control by depicting.8 Reauthorizing a celebrity both courted and compulsory, Pope does not transform his body through his work, nor does he try to write himself out of his body, rather he silences his audience by making his body visible. Throughout his career, Pope struggled for control over this authorial image.

The first, and earliest, of such images was composed by a well-known contemporary of Pope's, the critic John Dennis, in response to a perceived libel in the form of an unidentified “Imitation of Horace.” Entitled “A True Character of Mr. Pope, and His Writings,”9 Dennis's tirade, one of his few exercises in the genre descended from Horace and Samuel Butler, centers on the ambiguity of “character”—iterable printed mark, (in)decipherable letter, or ineffable moral substance—and gives that ambiguity the shape of a monster. Signalling uneasiness about originality, claiming to have written a private letter rather than an essay, Dennis begins with an anonymous “character within a character” that allows him to ventriloquize the harshest of his attacks:

That he is one, whom God and Nature have mark'd for want of Common Honesty, and his own Contemptible Rhimes for want of Common Sense, that those Rhimes have found great Success with the Rabble, which is a Word almost as comprehensive as Mankind; but that the Town, which supports him, will do by him, as the Dolphin did by the Ship-wrack'd Monkey, drop him as soon as it finds him out to be a Beast, whom it fondly now mistakes for a Human Creature. 'Tis, says he, a very little but very comprehensive Creature, in whom all Contradictions meet, and all Contrarieties are reconcil'd; when at one and the same time, like the Ancient Centaurs, he is a Beast and a Man, a Whig and a Tory, a virulent Papist and yet forsooth, a Pillar of the Church of England, a Writer at one and the same time, of guardians and of examiners, an assertor of Liberty and of the Dispensing Power of Kings; a Rhimester without Judgment or Reason, and a Critick without Common Sense; a Jesuitical Professor of Truth, a base and a foul Pretender to Candour; a Barbarous Wretch, who is perpetually boasting of Humanity and Good Nature, a lurking way-laying Coward, and a Stabber in the Dark; who is always pretending to Magnanimity, and to sum up all Villains in one, a Traytor-Friend, one who has betrayed all Mankind.10

Pope's literary villainy, his betrayal of “all Mankind,” takes on his body's unnatural shape, a shape initially described as that of a beast, but ultimately fixed as undefinable (“like the Ancient Centaurs, he is a Beast and a Man”). The unclassifiability which Pope himself will later point to repeatedly as the sign of his political integrity—“Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory”11—here signals physical and moral abjection. Dennis writes Pope “himself” in the perverse image of his future poetry; this portrait of a “very comprehensive Creature, in whom all Contradictions meet, and all Contrarieties are reconcil'd,” for whom the ultimate opposition (as it is in the Epilogue to the Satires and the fourth book of the Dunciad) is between himself and all mankind (an opposition which Dennis, like Pope, marks as originating from a literary model), resembles nothing more than Pope's couplet art. Dennis takes the analogy one step further by identifying Pope's monstrous origins with the embodiment of the genre that Pope will ultimately transform into his own image (a genre whose etymological origins were, fittingly enough, considered dubious): “The grosser part of his gentle Readers believe the Beast to be more than Man; as Ancient Rusticks took his Ancestors for those Demy-Gods they call Fauns and Satyrs.12

Dennis's pun here seems prescient, since in 1716 Pope was still a respectful imitator of classical fathers, rather than an embattled satiric hero whose greatest opponents were the originals who gave him form. And it is Pope's expertise at imitation which occasions some of Dennis's most extreme virulence:

As he is in Shape a Monkey, is so in his every Action; in his senseless Chattering, and his merry Grimaces, in his doing hourly Mischief and hiding himself, in the variety of his Ridiculous Postures, and his continual Shiftings, from Place to Place, from Persons to Persons, from Thing to Thing. But whenever he Scribbles, he is emphatically a Monkey, in his awkward servile Imitations. …

Thus for fifteen years together this Ludicrous Animal has been a constant Imitator. Yet he has