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.
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. He closely oversaw the publication of virtually everything he wrote, often editing and reissuing his works in updated and collected volumes. During his later years, Pope began revising his poems in preparation of a complete, edited edition of his works. He died in 1744 of acute asthma and dropsy before completing this task.
Pope's first published poetic work, the Pastorals, a series of four poems named after the seasons, is consciously affined with the verse of Virgil, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and Dryden. This sequence was inspired by Pope's youth in Windsor Forest and idealizes shepherd life. An Essay on Criticism is at once a treatise of literary theory and working manual of versification. It is divided into three parts: part one creates a vision of the golden era of art and criticism, part two presents a vision of decay and disorder in literary criticism, and part three puts forth a means of reformation and restoration in literary endeavors, emphasizing in particular the basic precepts of clarity, impartiality, and public responsibility. Composed at the age of twenty-three, this work rendered literary London awestruck, for it displayed not only a precocious mastery of the couplet form but originated a wealth of impeccably expressed eighteenth-century sentiments, including "To err is human, to forgive divine" and "A little learning is a dangerous thing," which have since become firmly embedded in English and American culture. The Rape of the Lock was first published in two cantos in 1712 and expanded to five cantos in 1714. This work is ostensibly based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1711, when a young man publicly cut a lock of hair from the head of a young, beautiful female relation. The Rape of the Lock was written on the request of a friend to heal the estrangement between the two families. Influenced by the fusion of high humor and moralization characteristic of the Spectator, the charming, slightly irreverent depiction of English high society in The Rape of the Lock quickly endeared the poem to readers throughout the country. "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717) is poem based on a well-known tragic love story between Pierre Abélard, a French philosopher and theologian, and Héloïse, a pupil twenty-one years his junior who became his lover, the mother of his child, and later his secret wife. When her family learned about the relationship, they had Abélard castrated; he became a monk and Héloïse became a nun. Pope's poem is written in the form of a letter from Héloïse to Abélard years after their separation and addresses the conflict between love of God and love of man. Until the publication of The Dunciad, Pope had refrained from wholesale refutation of critical and personal attacks, but pent-up anger at being caricatured as an ape, a madman, and a literary scoundrel, as well as growing impatience with what he saw as a widespread profanation of the writer's responsibility to society, led him to the tradition of satire which was to become his focus for the remainder of his career. In the first edition of The Dunciad, Pope designated as his chief victim Lewis Theobald, a writer who had heavily criticized Pope for his emendations and modernizations of Shakespeare. The following year, Pope published The Dunciad, Variorum, which included mock-pedantic footnotes intensifying his attack on the reputations and abilities of a host of London critics and writers. In 1743, Pope expanded The Dunciad to four books and broadened its satirical scope to encompass the whole of English society, which he believed by then to be near moral collapse: "Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS is restored; / Light dies before thy uncreating word; / Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall; / And Universal Darkness buries all." An Essay on Man (1734) is a philosophical poem that addresses the nature of humankind, God's design for the world, and the role of humankind within this system. Pope incorporated numerous philosophical and theological theories into this work, particularly those of two influential thinkers, Lord Shaftesbury, who believed that man was by nature social and benevolent, and Thomas Hobbes, who believed man was selfish and impelled by passion and self-preservation. An Essay on Man is generally optimistic in tone, with Pope declaring at the conclusion of the poem: "And all our knowledge is, OURSELVES TO KNOW."
Since Pope's death, the merit of his literary achievements has been hotly debated. During the second half of the eighteenth century, such critics as Joseph Warton, William Warburton, and Samuel Johnson all accorded Pope high status as a gifted versifier, critic, and translator. Yet, none deemed his major poems poetry in its highest form. Such appraisals foreshadowed the prominent nineteenthcentury critical viewpoint, that of Pope as a crafty wordsmith who was oblivious to the "highest" poetic subjects—the documentation of personal experience and the natural world, subjects with which Romantic poets concerned themselves. Recapitulating this stance near the end of the century, Matthew Arnold asserted that the works of Pope and his literary predecessor, Dryden, represented classics of English prose rather than poetry. However, the emergence of new critical methodologies in the twentieth century, along with the publication of a complete edition of Pope's works and a resurgence in Augustan literature, has helped vindicate Pope as a classic English poet and widely broadened the public's understanding and appreciation of his works. Despite having been written during Pope's adolescent and early adult years, such poems as the pastorals, "Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady," Windsor-Forest, and "Eloisa to Abelard," have been highly acclaimed since their first appearance as exemplary poems of beauty, human passion, and suffering. The charge that Pope abandoned these concerns to his detriment in later years has been refuted by modern scholars who emphasize the workings of not only a keen intellect but of a feeling, fully sensitive individual as well. Although these works have been labeled trite or historically unimportant in comparison to Pope's major works, they remain outstanding initial demonstration of the poet's control of meter and language. Undoubtedly Pope's most publicly cherished work is The Rape of the Lock. Celebrated as a masterstroke of English originality in his lifetime and scrutinized as an ethereal curiosity in the nineteenth century, it has, in the present century, attracted profuse, diverse interpretation, from character analyses to examinations of Pope's political motivations and extensive literary allusions to The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Perhaps the approach that has most illuminated this work in relation to Pope's others is that which focuses on his concurrent acceptance of and satiration of high English society. At present, Pope's literary reputation is exceedingly high. He ranks as the unquestioned master of the heroic couplet, and this, combined with his keen satiric and moral sensibility, affords Pope an exalted position as one of the most proficient and powerful versifiers of all time.