The English poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the greatest poet and verse satirist of the Augustan period. No other poet in the history of English literature has handled the heroic couplet with comparable flexibility and brilliance.
Alexander Pope inherited from John Dryden the verse from that he chose to perfect. He polished his work with meticulous care and, like all great poets, used language with genuine inventiveness. His qualities of imagination are seen in the originality with which he handled traditional forms, in his satiric vision of the contemporary world, and in his inspired use of classical models.
Pope was born on May 21, 1688, in London, where his Roman Catholic father was a linen merchant. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 his family moved out of London and settled about 1700 at Binfield in Windsor Forest. Pope had little formal schooling, largely educating himself through extensive reading. Sir William Trumbull, a retired statesman of literary interests who lived nearby, did much to encourage the young poet. So did the dramatist and poet William Wycherley and the poet-critic William Walsh, with whom Pope became acquainted when he was about 17 and whose advice to aim at "correctness" contributed to the flawless texture and concentrated brilliance of Pope's verse.
A sweet-tempered child with a fresh, plump face, Pope contracted a tubercular infection in his later childhood and never grew taller than 4 feet 6 inches. He suffered curvature of the spine (necessitating the wearing of a stiff canvas brace) and constant headaches. His features, however, were striking, and the young Joshua Reynolds noticed in his "sharp, keen countenance … something grand, like Cicero's." His physical appearance, frequently ridiculed by his enemies, undoubtedly gave an edge to Pope's satire; but he was always warmhearted and generous in his affection for his many friends.
Precocious as a poet, Pope attracted the notice of the eminent bookseller Jacob Tonson, who solicited the publication of his Pastorals (1709). By this time Pope was already at work on his more ambitious Essay on Criticism (1711), an illuminating synthesis of critical precepts designed to expose the evils and to effect a regeneration of the contemporary literary scene.
The Rape of the Lock (1712, two cantos) immediately made Pope famous as a poet. The cutting off of a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair by Robert, Lord Petre, had caused an estrangement between these prominent Catholic families; and Pope's friend John Caryll had suggested that he write a poem "to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again." In the poem Fermor is represented as Belinda and Lord Petre as the Baron. Adopting a mock-heroic style in the manner of Nicholas Boileau's Le Lutrin, Pope showed how disproportionate it was to treat the event overseriously, at the same time glancing good-humoredly at vanity and at the rococolike glitter of the beau monde. Rejecting Joseph Addison's advice not to enlarge his design, Pope published an extended version (1714, five cantos) containing the "machinery" of the sylphs (adopted from the Rosicrucian system) and various other epic motifs and allusions. These not only heightened the brilliance of the poem's world but also helped to place its significance and that of the "rape" in proper perspective.
Several other poems published by 1717, the date of the first collected edition of Pope's works, deserve a brief mention. "Windsor Forest" (1713), written in the tradition of Sir John Denham's "Cooper's Hill, " celebrated the peace confirmed by the Treaty of Utrecht. A rich tapestry of historical and poetic allusions, it showed the Stuarts, and especially Queen Anne, in a quasi-mythical light. In 1717 appeared the sophisticated yet moving "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" and "Eloisa to Abelard, " an example in the Ovidian manner of the currently popular form of heroic epistle. The representation of the cloistered Eloisa's conflicting emotions toward her former lover (the scholar Peter Abelard), the denouement, and the concluding epilogue make this poem, in effect, a drama in miniature.
Translations of Homer
Pope also engaged in poetic imitations and translations. His Messiah (1712), published by Sir Richard Steele in the Spectator, was an imitation of Virgil's fourth Eclogue, based on passages from Isaiah; and his early "translations" of Chaucer included the Temple of Fame (1715). In later life Pope published reworkings of several of John Donne's satires. But Pope's versions of Homer were his greatest achievement as a translator.
From an early age a frequenter of Will's Coffeehouse, Pope was for a time friendly with men of both political parties. He wrote the prologue for Joseph Addison's Cato (1713), and the Whigs naturally hoped to secure his talents for their party. But growing opposition between him and Addison's followers (who met at Button's) made inevitable Pope's adherence to his other and more congenial group of literary friends—Jonathan Swift, Dr. John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and Thomas Parnell. Together they combined to form the Scriblerus Club, which aimed at a burlesque treatment of all forms of pedantry and which indirectly contributed to the creation of such works as Gulliver's Travels and the Dunciad. In 1715 Addison tried to forestall the success of Pope's translation of the Iliad by encouraging Thomas Tickell to publish a rival version, and this caused Pope a great deal of anxiety until the superiority of his own translation was acclaimed.
Pope undertook the translation because he needed money—the result of a sharp drop in the interest from his father's French annuities. The translation occupied him until 1720, and it was a great financial success, making Pope independent of the customary forms of literary patronage. Parnell and William Broome were among those who assisted with the notes, but the translation was entirely Pope's own. It has been highly praised by subsequent critics.
From the time his Iliad began to appear, Pope became the victim of numerous pamphlet attacks on his person, politics, and religion, many of them instigated by the infamous publisher Edmund Curll. In 1716 an increased land tax on Roman Catholics forced the Popes to sell their place at Binfield and to settle near the Earl of Burlington's villa at Chiswick. The next year Pope's father died, and in 1719 the poet's increased wealth enabled him to move with his mother to a semirural villa at Twickenham. There he improved house and gardens, making a special feature of the grotto, which connected house and gardens beneath the intervening road. At Twickenham, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu soon became Pope's neighbor. Several years earlier she had rivaled Martha Blount as an object of Pope's affection, but later a good deal of enmity existed between her and Pope, and she joined Lord (John) Hervey in attacking him.
During the 1720s Pope was engaged on a version of the Odyssey (1725-1726). Broome and Elijah Fenton were his collaborators, completing half of the translation between them. It was Pope's name, however, that sold the work, and he naturally received the lion's share of the profits (Pope earned about £9, 000 from his translations of Homer). It was this translation that led to Pope's association with the young Joseph Spence, who wrote a Judicious and engaging criticism of it and who later recorded his valuable Anecdotes of Pope.
Pope also undertook several editorial projects. Parnell's Poems (1721) was followed by an edition of the late Duke of Buckingham's Works (1723), subsequently suppressed on account of its Jacobite tendencies. The trial of his friend Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, for complicity in a Jacobite plot also caused Pope a good deal of concern. Then, in 1725, Pope's edition of William Shakespeare appeared. Pope's emendations and explanatory notes were notoriously capricious, and his edition was attacked by Lewis Theobald in Shakespeare Restored (1726), a work that revealed a superior knowledge of editorial technique and that gained for its author the unenviable distinction of becoming the original hero of the Dunciad.
In 1726-1727 Swift was in England and a guest of Pope. Together they published three volumes of Miscellanies in 1727-1728, in the last of which the Peri Bathous; or the Art of Sinking in Poetry was included. Renewed contact with Swift must have given a great impetus to Pope's poem on "Dulness, " which appeared as the three-book Dunciad (1728). Theobald was the prime dunce, and the next year the poem was enlarged by a ponderous apparatus (including "Notes Variorum") intended as a burlesque on the learned lumber of commentators and textual critics.
Clearly Pope used the Dunciad as personal satire to pay off many old scores. But it was also prompted by his distaste for that whole process by which worthless writers gained undue literary prominence. "Martinus Scriblerus" summarized the action of the poem as "the removal of the imperial seat of Dulness from the city to the polite world, " and this parody of Virgil's epic was accompanied by further mock-heroic elements—the intervention of the goddess, the epic games of the second book, and the visit to the underworld and the vision of future "glories, " with the former city-poet Elkanah Settle acting the part of the sybil. Indeed, despite its devastating satire, the Dunciad was essentially a phantasmagoric treatment of the forces of anticulture by a great comic genius.
In 1742 Pope published a fourth book to the Dunciad separately, and his last published work was the four-book Dunciad (1743), which incorporated the new material and enthroned the brazen laureate Colley Cibber as prime dunce in place of Theobald. This revenge on Cibber, who had recently exposed a ridiculous escapade of the poet's youth, provided the poem with a more considerable hero. It also gained in artistic completeness, since the action of the fourth book depicted the fulfillment of Settle's prophecy.
Epistles and An Essay on Man
"The Epistle to Burlington" (1731), reminiscent of the Dunciad in its vivaciously satiric portrait of "Timon, " was designed as part of a "system of ethics in the Horatian way" of which An Essay on Man (1733-1734) was to constitute the first book. Though this plan was never realized, the poem illustrates, along with its companion, "Epistle to Bathurst" (1733), antithetical vices in the use of riches. These two epistles were subsequently placed after those "To Cobham" (1734) and "To a Lady" (1735), which were thus intended to provide the projected magnum opus with an introductory section on the characters of men and women. "To Cobham" fits easily into this scheme, but "To a Lady" is rather a deliciously witty portrait gallery in Pope's best satiric manner.
"To Burlington" also compliments a nobleman friend of long standing who influenced Pope's appreciation of architecture as did Allen Bathurst his appreciation of landscape gardening. To these pursuits Pope devoted much of his time, being disposed to regard a cultivated esthetic taste as inseparable from a refined moral sense.
Pope's friendship with the former statesman Henry St. John Bolingbroke, who on his return from exile had settled a few miles from Twickenham, stimulated his interest in philosophy and led to the composition of An Essay on Man. Some ideas were doubtless suggested by Bolingbroke; certainly the argument advanced in Epistle 4—that terrestrial happiness is adequate to justify the ways of God to man—was consonant with his thinking. But Pope's sources were predominately commonplaces with a long history in Western thought, the most central being the doctrine of plenitude (expressed through the metaphors of a "chain" or "scale" of being) and the assertion that the discordant whole is bound harmoniously together. Even Pope's doctrine of the "ruling passion" was not original—though he gave it its most extended treatment. In essence, however, the Essay is not philosophy but a poet's apprehension of unity despite diversity, of an order embracing the whole multifarious creation.
In 1733 Pope's mother died. The same year he engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Curll to have his letters published in the guise of a pirated edition. Appearing in 1735, this edition allowed him to publish an authoritative edition in 1737. Such maneuvers are not easy to justify. Nor is the careful rewriting and fabrication, designed to reflect the author in the best possible light. But at least Pope's letters suggest the extent of his many friendships and something of the hospitality he enjoyed whenever he indulged his love of traveling.
Imitations of Horace
The 1730s were also the years of the Imitations of Horace (1733-1738), pungent and endearing by turns. How congenial to Pope were the conversational framework and Horatian independence of tone is evident from the fact that they read not like "imitations" but have the freshness of originals. Indeed, the best of them—the "Epistle to Arbuthnot" (1735) and the "Dialogues" (1738)—have no precise source. The "Epistle, " with its famous portrait of Addison ("Atticus") and searing indictment of Hervey ("Sporus"), was both the satirist's apologia pro vita sua and his vindication of personally oriented satire. The two "Dialogues" continued this theme, introducing an additional element of political satire.
As Pope grew older, he came to rely more and more on the faithful Martha Blount, and to her he left most of his possessions. He described his life as a "long disease, " and asthma increased his sufferings in his later years. At times during the last month of his life he became delirious. He died on May 30, 1744, and was buried in Twickenham Church.
Further Reading on Alexander Pope
The definitive edition of Pope's works is The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt (10 vols., 1951-1967), a monumental and illuminating scholarly achievement. Pope's Poetical Works, edited by Herbert Davis (1967), presents the poems, without annotation, as in their original format.
George Sherburn, The Early Career of Alexander Pope (1934), is a scholarly literary biography of Pope to about 1726. A less scholarly but readable, reliable, and up-to-date biography is Peter Quennell, Alexander Pope: The Education of Genius, 1688-1728 (1968), the first volume of a projected two-volume study. Marjorie Nicolson and G.S. Rousseau, "This Long Disease, My Life": Alexander Pope and the Sciences (1968), is a good treatment of Pope's illness and a history of science of the time. A short but colorful biography is Bonamy Dobrée, Alexander Pope (1951). See also Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets (3 vols., 1779-1781; several recent editions); Emily Morse Symonds, Mr. Pope, His Life and Times (2 vols., 1909); Edith Sitwell, Alexander Pope (1930); Norman Ault, New Light on Pope (1949); and William K. Wimsatt, The Portraits of Alexander Pope (1965).
Useful critical studies of the poetry include Geoffrey Tillotson, On the Poetry of Pope (1938) and Pope and Human Nature (1958); Aubrey L. Williams, Pope's Dunciad (1955); Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (1959); Thomas R. Edwards, This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope (1963); and Maynard Mack, comp., Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope (1964; rev. ed. 1968).
Recommended for general reading are James R. Sutherland, A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry (1948); Ian Jack, Augustan Satire (1952); and Geoffrey Tillotson, Augustan Poetic Diction (1964).