*Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope



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►→ *An Essay on Criticism, by Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

English essayist, critic, satirist, and one of the greatest poets of Enlightenment. Alexander Pope wrote his first verses at the age of 12. His breakthrough work, AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM (1711), appeared when he was twenty-three. It included the famous line “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Pope’s physical defects made him an easy target for heartless mockery, but he was also considered a leading literary critic and the epitome of English Neoclassicism.

“Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.”
(from An Essay on Criticism)

Alexander Pope was born in London, the son of Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic linen-merchant, and Edith (Turner) Pope, who was forty-four when Alexander, her only child, was born. Edith Pope belonged to a large Yorkshire family, which divided along Catholic and Protestant lines. His early years Pope spent at Binfield on the edge of Windsor Forest, and recalled this period as a golden age: “Thy forests, Windsor, and thy green retreats, / At once the monarch’s and the Muse’s seats, / Invite my lays. Be present, sylvan maids! Unlock your springs, and open all your shades.” Anecdotes from Pope’s life were deemed worthy of collecting during his lifetime. Joseph Spence, a critic, minor poet, and Pope’s biographer, tells that Pope was “a child of a particularly sweet temper and had a great deal of sweetness in his look when he was a boy”. Due to his melodious voice, he was nicknamed “the Little Nightingale”.

Pope’s father, the son of an Anglican vicar, had converted to Catholicism, which caused the family many problems. At the time Catholics suffered from repressive legislation and prejudices – they were not allowed to enter any universities or held public employment. Thus Pope had an uneven education, which was often interrupted. From Twyford School he was expelled after writing a satire on one of the teachers. At home, Pope’s aunt taught him to read. Latin and Greek he learned from a local priest and later he acquired knowledge of French and Italian poetry. Pope also attended clandestine Catholic schools.

Most of his time Pope spend reading books from his father’s library – he “did nothing but write and read,” recalled his half-sister. While still at school, Pope wrote a play based on speeches from the Iliad. Samuel Johnson tells that Pope’s early epic poem, called Alcander, was burned at the suggestion of Francis Atterbury, who was later exiled for treason i supporting the deposed Stuart monarchy.

In 1700, when his family moved to Binfield in Windsor Forest, Pope contracted tuberculosis through infected milk. It was probably Pott’s disease, a tubercular affection of the bones. He also suffered from asthma and headaches, and his humpback was a constant target for his critics in literary battles – Pope was called a “hunchbacked toad”. In middle age he was 4ft 6in tall and wore a stiffened canvas bodice to support his spine.

After moving to London, Pope published his first major work, An Essay on Criticism. This discussion was based on neoclassical doctrines and derived standards of taste from the order of nature: “Good nature and good sense must ever join; / To err is human, to forgive divine.”

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Before becoming one of the members of Scriblerus Club, Pope associated with anti-Catholic Whig friends, but by 1713 he had moved towards the Tories. His friends among Tory intellectuals included Jonathan Switft, Gay, Congreve, and Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford. In 1712 Pope published an early version of THE RAPE OF THE LOCK, an elegant satire about the battle between the sexes, and follies of a young woman with her “puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux”. The work was expanded in 1714. Its first version consisted of two cantos (1712) and the final version five cantos (1714). Rape of the Lock originated from a quarrel between two families with whom Pope was acquainted. The cause was not very small – the 7th Lord Petre cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair, and kept it as a trophy. Although Pope did not admit it, the title of the work was most likely influenced by Alessandro Tassoni’s mock-epic The Rape of the Bucket, from 1622.

Pope’s poem recounts the story of a young woman, Belinda. When she wakes up, Pope describes devotedly her exotic cosmetics and beauty aids. She plays cards, flirts, drinks coffee, and has a lock of hair stolen by an ardent young man. “The meeting points the sacred hair dissever / From the fair head, forever, and forever! / The flashed the living lightning from her eyes, / And screams of horror rend th’ affrighted skies.” For this trivial event Pope gives an extended mock heroic treatment which echoed the Iliad and the Aeneid, and at the same time comments ironically on the contemporary social world, high-society preoccupations, and perhaps suggests a reform. But in real life there was no reconcilation between Lord Petre and Arabella; Petre married another woman.

Pope admired Horace and Vergilius and valued them as models for poetry. His great achievements were the translations of Iliad and Odyssey into English. The success of the translations enabled him to move to Twickenham from anti-Catholic pressure of the Jacobites. However, Pope remained a Catholic even after the death of his father (d. 1717) and mother (d. 1733). Pope’s collected works were published in 1717. He was one of the first professional poets to be self-sufficient as a result of his non-dramatic writings.

In Twickenham Pope to studied horticulture and landscape gardening. During his last years, Pope designed a romantic “grot” in a tunnel, which linked the waterfront with his back garden. It was walled with shells and pieces of mirror. Pope’s villa, about fifteen miles from London, attracted also a number of writers, including Swift, whom Pope helped with the publication of Gulliver’s Travels. With his neighbor, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Pope formed an attachment, but when the friendship cooled down, he started a life long relationship with Martha Blount. Pope had met Martha and her sister Teresa already in 1711. Later in IMITATIONS OF HORACE (1733) Pope referred to his former friend Lady Mary as “Sappho” and wrote: “Give me again my hollow tree, / A crust of bread, and liberty.”

In ESSAY ON MAN (1733-34) Pope examined the human condition against Miltonic, cosmic background. Although Pope’s perspective is well above our everyday life, and he do not hide his wide knowledge, the dramatic work suggest than humankind is a part of nature and the diversity of living forms: “Each beast, each insect, happy in its own: / Is Heaven unkind to Man, and Man alone?” In MORAL ESSAYS (1731) Pope separated behavior from character: “Not always actions show the man: we find / Who does a kindness is not therefore kind.” Pope prepared an edition of his correspondence, doctored to his own advantage. He also employed discreditable artifices to make it appear that the correspondence was published against his wish. With the translation of the Odyssey, Pope was eager to take all the credit, trying to avoid mentioning the contribution of other writers.

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

In his time Pope was famous for his witty satires and aggressive, bitter quarrels with other writers. When his edition of William Shakespeare was attacked, he answered with the savage burlesque THE DUNCIAD (1728), which was widened in 1742. It ridiculed bad writers, scientists, and critics. “While pensive poets painful vigils keep, / Sleepless themselves to give their readers sleep.” Pope died on May 30, 1744. Pope left his property to Martha Blount. Before his death, Pope was delirious for a period of time, and he claimed to see an arm coming through the wall. His last epic poem, Brutus, was left unfinished.

With the growth of Romanticism Pope’s poetry was increasingly seen as outdated and the “Age of Pope” ended. It was not until the 1930s when serious attempt was made to rediscover the poet’s work.

Museums: Pope’s grotto and Pope’s villa, Cross Deep, Twickenham, Middlesex – the grotto and garden are all that remains of Pope’s villa. – Manor House and Pope’s Tower, Stanton Harcourt, nr Withey – Pope translated there the fifth volume of Homer’s Iliad – For further reading: Alexander Pope by Sir Leslie Stephen (1908); Alexander Pope by E. Sitwell (1930); The Early Career of Alexandr Pope by G. Sherburn (1934); New Light on Pope by A. Ault (1949); On the Poetry of Pope by G. Tillotson (1958); Essential Articles for the Study of Pope, ed. by M. Mack (1968); Alexander Pope: The Education of a Genius by P. Quennell (1968); Alexander Pope: The Critical Heritage, ed. by J. Barnard (1973); An Introduction to Pope by Y. Gooneratne (1976); The Art of Pope, ed. by H. Erskine-Hill and A. Smith (1979); Pope’s Imagination by D. Fairer (1984); Alexander Pope: A Life by M. Mack (1985); Alexander Pope: A Literary Life by Felicity Rosslyn (1990); Approaches to Teaching Pope’s Poetry, ed. by R. Paul Yoder (1993); Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers by Claudia N. Thomas (1994); Alexander Pope: The Critical Heritage, ed. by John Barnard (1995); Resemblance & Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture by Helen Deutsch (1996); A Contradiction Still: Representations of Women in the Poetry of Alexander Pope by Christa Knellwolf (1999); Alexander Pope by R. Quintero (1999); The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope by Paul Baines (2001) – See also: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gay

Selected works:

* translation: Homer’s Iliad, 1715-20 (6 vols.)
* translation: Homer’s Odyssey, 1726 (6 vols., with William Broome and Elijah Fenton)
* MISCELLANIES, 1727 (with Jonathan Swift)
* DUNCIAD, 1728 – widened in 1742
* AN ESSAY ON MAN, 1733-34
* THE ESSAY ON MAN, 1733-34
* LETTERS, 1960
* POEMS, 1939-67 (10 vols., Twickenham ed.)
* ALEXANDER POPE: SELECTED LETTERS, 2001 (ed. by Howard Erskine-Hill)

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