Alexander Pope Pope, Alexander (Poetry Criticism)

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Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

Alexander Pope 1688–1744

English poet, critic, translator, and essayist.

Deemed the perfecter of the English heroic couplet, Pope is considered the foremost writer of the Augustan Age and one of the most forceful poetic satirists of all time. His verse is viewed as the ultimate embodiment of eighteenth-century neoclassical ideals. These ideals, such as order, beauty, sophisticated wit, and refined moral sentiment, are exemplified throughout his verse, but particularly in such works as An Essay on Criticism (1711) and the mockheroic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712). Like these works, virtually all of Pope's writings are concerned with the moral, social, and intellectual state of humanity, which he considered of utmost relevance to his craft. Pope's most controversial work and most often considered his masterpiece, The Dunciad (1728), severely satirizes London writers who Pope believed had unjustly maligned him or who he considered contributors to the dissolution of Augustan ideals in England. Although satire, inspired by that of Roman poet Horace, represents much of his literary corpus and claim to critical praise, Pope is also highly revered for his monumental translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and for his critical discussions of poetry and aesthetics.

Biographical Information

Pope was born in London and was the only child of a moderately wealthy linen merchant, Alexander, and his second wife Edith. Under the Anglican rule of William of Orange and Mary Stuart, who ousted the Catholic monarch James II in the year of Pope's birth, Pope's family, like all Roman Catholics living in England at the time, faced numerous restrictions. They were, for example, forbidden by law to practice their religion openly, to hold public office, or to attend public schools and universities. Also enacted at this time was a law prohibiting Catholics from residing within ten miles of London, and so the Popes relocated to nearby Windsor Forest, beside the Thames. Under these circumstances, Pope received his education irregularly through private tutors and Catholic priests but was largely self-taught. By the age of twelve, he was already well versed in Greek, Roman, and English literature and diligently emulated the works of his favorite poets. At this time, though, Pope contracted a tubercular condition from infected milk, which caused permanent curvature of the spine and severely stunted growth; as a result, he attained a maximum height of only four feet, six inches, and throughout adulthood was so physically disabled that he

required daily care. Yet, this did not deter Pope from the literary life he sought. By his teens, after voluminous reading of the classics, he had come to regard the heroic couplets of John Dryden as the highest, most sustained form of English poetry yet produced, and so he decided to pattern his verse after this Restoration master. During periodic visits to London at this time, Pope met three of Dryden's contemporaries: the poet William Walsh, and dramatists William Wycherley and William Congreve. Through the influence of these writers, Pope's manuscript of his early bucolic poems, the Pastorals, captured the attention of publisher Jacob Tonson, then Britain's leading publisher, and in 1709 the Pastorals appeared in Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies. Pope later became friends with Whig writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, publishers of the Spectator, and contributed poems and articles to their journal during the next few years. Pope's growing understanding of the commercial aspects of publishing and his established position as the prominent poet of the age led him to obtain enough money to render him the first independently wealthy, full-time writer in English history. Pope's huge financial and literary successes enraged lessfortunate London writers and critics. Due to his success, as well as his Catholic religion and unpopular Tory politics, Pope attracted abusive critical and personal attack with nearly every new literary venture he began....

(The entire section is 66,797 words.)