Alexander Pope 1688-1744
British poet, satirist, translator, epistler, and editor.
The following entry provides recent criticism of Pope's works. For additional information on Pope's career, see LC, Volume 3.
The embodiment of a neoclassical aesthetic that flourished during his career in the early 1700s, Pope mastered both the heroic couplet and the art of satire in his poetry, producing some of the best epigrammatic verse in the English language, notably The Rape of the Lock (1712; enlarged 1714) and The Dunciad (1728; enlarged and revised 1742). Pope practiced diverse poetic styles, imitating classical modes ranging from pastoral through satire to epic, and his poetic corpus expresses such classical ideals as order, beauty, wit, retirement, and ethics in the manner of the Roman poet Horace. Most of his writings deal with the moral, social, and intellectual climate of his milieu, which he thought vital for his satire; his poems often allude to contemporary events and the rich and famous of early eighteenth-century London life, as does his vast correspondence. In addition to translating highly respected editions of Homer's lliad (1715–20) and Odyssey (1725–26) into the contemporary idiom, Pope also was among the earliest writers to earn a living solely from his writings, which let him cultivate his other talents for landscape gardening, architecture, and painting. Generally respected as the greatest poet of the age by his contemporaries and the following generation, Pope's canon gradually fell from favor throughout the nineteenth century as romantic aesthetics prevailed, until the advent of New Criticism in the early twentieth century, when critical interest revived. His postmodern reputation has continued to flourish through the efforts of feminist and cultural critics who have investigated his writings for representations of emerging modern perspectives on gender, capitalism, print culture, language, and politics that still resonate.
The only child of a moderately wealthy Roman Catholic cloth merchant, Pope was born in London in 1688, the year of the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” when William of Orange, a Protestant Dutch prince, deposed the Catholic Stuart king James II and enacted repressive measures against all English Catholics, restricting their religious practices, civil rights, educational access, and even residence. Consequently, his father retired and relocated the family to a small acreage in the countryside of nearby Binfield in Windsor Forest beside the Thames River. Pope received a sporadic primary education from various private tutors and priests, but was mainly self-taught. By age twelve he was well read in classical and English literature and soon began imitating the style and themes of master poets, especially John Dryden, whom Pope idolized from youth. At the same time, though, he likely contracted a tubercular infection, which deformed his spine, ruined his constitution for the rest of his life, and severely stunted his growth, attaining a mature height of four and a half feet. Undaunted and exceptionally precocious, Pope inevitably charmed the families of Binfield with his verse, currying favor from a socially prominent neighbor, who eventually introduced him to literary circles in London and facilitated his acquaintances with such contemporaries as William Wycherley, William Congreve, and William Walsh.
After the appearance of his “Pastorals” in 1709, Pope began poring over the critical thought of both classical and modern writers until he had completed An Essay on Criticism (1711), his first work to draw significant acclaim. He began to associate with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, publishers of the Spectator, whose editorial policies at the magazine influenced Pope's next effort, his first version of The Rape of the Lock, which made him famous. Because of his Catholicism and political affiliations, Pope loosened his ties with Whigs Addison and Steele and made friendships among the Tory 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.
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.
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.