Other literary forms
Apart from original poetry, Alexander Pope’s works include an edition of William Shakespeare, a translation (1715-1720) of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.) and (1725-1726) Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.), an edition of his personal correspondence, and a prose satire titled Peri Bathos: Or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727). Pope’s edition of Shakespeare is chiefly of interest for the response that it brought from Lewis Theobald, a rival editor of Shakespeare’s plays. Although not always unjust in his criticisms, Theobald did overlook some of the genuine excellences of Pope’s edition, especially Pope’s penetrating introduction. (It must be admitted, however, that even this is vitiated at times by Pope’s inability to appreciate Shakespeare’s so-called deviations from the eighteenth century notion of “correctness.”) The translations from Homer are not strictly literal, but are rather adaptations of Homer’s genius to the conventions and expectations of Augustan sensibility. Still, they are regarded as the most readable and eloquent versions of Homer to come out of the eighteenth century, notwithstanding the numerous instances of periphrasis (the substitution of a phrase such as “finny prey” for “fish”) that belie the vigor of the original.
Pope’s edition of his own letters is among the most notorious of his publications. By allowing several of his letters to be published without his apparent permission, Pope was able to bring out an ostensibly “correct” version of his private correspondence, the chief purpose of which was to present him in a favorable light to posterity. Understandably, the letters are rather too self-conscious and artificial for modern tastes.
Peri Bathos is a hilarious instructional booklet detailing all the elements that are necessary to produce poetry that is vulgar, tautological, florid, and inane. One other composition of Pope surely deserves mention: an essay contributed to The Guardian on the aesthetics of gardening. Pope had a decisive influence on the development of eighteenth century taste in gardens. In opposition to the rigid formalities that characterized the landscaping of the period, Pope held that gardens should be arranged in a more natural manner.
Alexander Pope’s position in the history of English poetry has been, at times, a subject of acrimonious debate. In his own day, Pope’s achievement was frequently obfuscated by the numerous political controversies that surrounded his name. Although he finally emerged, in the estimation of the eighteenth century, as the greatest English poet since John Milton, his reputation soon reached its lowest ebb, during the Romantic and Victorian periods; he was derided by Thomas De Quincey as an author of “moldy commonplaces” and demoted by Matthew Arnold to the position of being a “classic of [English] prose.” Even in Edith Sitwell’s generally favorable study (1930), Pope is appreciated for achieving, in certain poems, a richness of imagery “almost” as lush as that of John Keats. In short, it was not until recently that the balance was redressed. Pope is now recognized as one of the consummate craftspeople of the English language.
Responding to and expressing the fundamental aesthetic tenets of the Augustan Age, Pope cannot be fully appreciated or understood without some awareness of the neoclassical assumptions that undergird his compositions. Pope’s audience was more homogeneous than Shakespeare’s and less enthusiastic (in Samuel Johnson’s meaning of that term) than Milton’s. As a result, he eschews the dramatic intensity and colloquial richness of the former and bypasses the mythopoeic passion and religious afflatus of the latter. (It must be remembered, however, that the Miltonic allusions in, say, The Rape of the Lock are not intended to derogate Milton, but to expose, by sheer force of contrast, the small-mindedness of eighteenth century society.)
Sophisticated allusion , verbal...
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