Alexander Pope

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How did Alexander Pope critique his age through his poetry?

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Pope was a critic of his age chiefly for two reasons. First, he criticized other writers of his time whom he judged inferior and who, in his view, were lowering the literary standards of the age. Second, he was a critic of the more general trends of his time and the behavior of the upper classes, as these affected society overall and led to what he considered a decline in religious belief and morality.

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Most of Alexander Pope's work embodies a wish to point out and judge what he considered flaws in the contemporary world, chiefly the intellectual milieu of the time. Behind much of his writing lies the assumption that the standards by which literature, politics, and the social structure are being governed have in some sense become debased or trivialized.

Pope is considered primarily a satirist, a man who wrote with the purpose of holding up to ridicule the follies of the age. Like his friend Jonathan Swift, he was concerned with exposing such follies in the intellectual world, but also those affecting the behavior of the ruling class and of people in general. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope criticizes the superficial and trivial way in which people of fashion comport themselves. This mock-epic is chiefly an examination of the way the society people of his time focused on appearances and were obsessed with physical beauty and other relatively unimportant attributes. Unlike in Swift's satire, however, Pope does this in a generally light-hearted manner, at least in The Rape of the Lock, probably his most famous work. In the later mock-epic The Dunciad, on the other hand, Pope angrily and bitterly criticizes his rival, the writer Colley Cibber, as an incompetent and in some sense dangerous hack whose poor-quality works have the potential to destroy artistic standards and to lead to a general deterioration of mankind's intellectual abilities.

Perhaps Pope's most famous non-satiric work is his Essay on Man, a philosophical poem in which Pope attempts to answer various questions about the nature of the world and the existence of imperfections in mankind. Though Pope is often considered a free-thinker who was opposed to organized religion, in some sense the Essay is a criticism of those who reject religion and who disbelieve in a benevolent God. Pope was a part of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but he was also a critic of those who questioned the "moral" structure of the universe. He states his arguments largely in non-sectarian terms, but the implication in this work, and in his oeuvre overall, is to uphold a Christian system of belief. It was the rejection of Christianity, which was beginning to spread through European thought, that Pope criticized, just as he judged the literature and social mores of his time as flawed and inimical to the happiness and improvement of mankind he wished to promote.

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