Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Rose of King Charles II Alexander Pope

18th-Century Literature | Alexander Pope | Quotes | Biography | Works | Essays | Resources | Bookstore | Discussion Forum



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Portrait of Alexander Pope by Jonathan Richardson, c1736. Museum of Fine Art, Boston.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

ALEXANDER POPE, English poet, was born in Lombard Street, London, on the 21st of May 1688. His father, Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic, was a linen-draper who afterwards retired from business with a small fortune, and fixed his residence about 1700 at Binfield in Windsor Forest. Pope's education was desultory. His father's religion would have excluded him from the public schools, even had there been no other impediment to his being sent there. Before he was twelve he had obtained a smattering of Latin and Greek from various masters, from a priest in Hampshire, from a schoolmaster at Twyford near Winchester, from Thomas Deane, who kept a school in Marylebone and afterwards at Hyde Park Corner, and finally from another priest at home. Between his twelfth and his seventeenth years excessive application to study undermined his health, and he developed the personal deformity which was in so many ways to distort his view of life. He thought himself dying, but through a friend, Thomas (afterwards the Abbe) Southcote, he obtained the advice of the famous physician John Radcliffe, who prescribed diet and exercise. Under this treatment the boy recovered his strength and spirits. "He thought himself the better," Spence says, "in some respects for not having had a regular education. He (as he observed in particular) read originally for the sense, whereas we are taught for so many years to read only for words." He afterwards learnt French and Italian, probably in a similar way. He read translations of the Greek, Latin, French and Italian poets, and by the age of twelve, when he was finally settled at home and left to himself, he was not only a confirmed reader, but an eager aspirant to the highest honours in poetry. There is a story, which chronological considerations make extremely improbable, that in London he had crept into Will's coffee-house to look at Dryden, and a further tale that the old poet had given him a shilling for a translation of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe; he had lampooned his schoolmaster; he had made a play out of John Ogilby's Iliad for his schoolfellows; and before he was fifteen he had written an epic, his hero being Alcander, a prince of Rhodes, or, as he states elsewhere, Deucalion.

There were, among the Roman Catholic families near Binfield, men capable of giving a direction to his eager ambition, men of literary tastes, and connexions with the literary world. These held together as members of persecuted communities always do, and were kept in touch with one another by the family priests. Pope was thus brought under the notice of Sir William Trumbull, a retired diplomatist living at Easthampstead, within a few miles of Binfield. Thomas Dancastle, lord of the manor of Binfield, took an active interest in his writings, and at Whiteknights, near Reading, lived another Roman Catholic, Anthony Englefield, "a great lover of poets and poetry." Through him Pope made the acquaintance of Wycherley and of Henry Cromwell, who was a distant cousin of the Protector, a gay man about town, and something of a pedant. Wycherley introduced him to William Walsh, then of great renown as a critic. 1 Before the poet was seventeen he was admitted in this way to the society of London "wits" and men of fashion, and was cordially encouraged as a prodigy. Wycherley's correspondence with Pope was skilfully manipulated by the younger man to represent Wycherley as submitting, at first humbly and then with an ill-grace, to Pope's criticisms. The publication (Elwin and Courthope, vol. v.) of the originals of Wycherley's letters from MSS. at Longleat showed how seriously the relations between the two friends, which ceased in 1710, had been misrepresented in the version of the correspondence which Pope chose to submit to the public. Walsh's contribution to his development was the advice to study "correctness." "About fifteen," he says, "I got acquainted with Mr. Walsh. He used to encourage me much, and used to tell me that there was one way left of excelling; for, though we had several great poets, we never had any one great poet that was correct, and he desired me to make that my study and aim" (Spence, p. 280). Trumbull turned Pope's attention to the French critics, out of the study of whom grew the Essay on Criticism; he suggested the subject of Windsor Forest, and he started the idea of translating Homer.

It says something for Pope's docility at this stage that he recognized so soon that a long course of preparation was needed for such a magnum opus, and began steadily and patiently to discipline himself. The epic was put aside and afterwards burnt; versification was industriously practised in short "essays"; and an elaborate study was made of accepted critics and models. He learnt most, as he acknowledged, from Dryden, but the harmony of his verse also owed something to an earlier writer, George Sandys, the translator of Ovid. At the beginning of the 18th century Dryden's success had given great vogue to translations and modernizations. The air was full of theories as to the best way of doing such things. What Dryden had touched, Pope did not presume to meddle with — Dryden was his hero and master; but there was much more of the same kind to be done. Dryden had rewritten three of the Canterbury Tales; Pope tried his hand at the Merchant's Tale, and the Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale, and produced also an imitation of the House of Fame. Dryden had translated Virgil; Pope experimented on the Thebais of Statius, Ovid's Heroides and Metamorphoses, and the Odyssey. He knew little Latin and less Greek, but there were older versions in English which helped him to the sense; and, when the correspondents to whom he submitted his versions pointed out mistranslations, he could answer that he had always agreed with them, but that he had deferred to the older translators against his own judgment. It was one of Pope's little vanities to try to give the impression that his metrical skill was more precocious even than it was, and we cannot accept his published versions of Statius and Chaucer (published in "miscellanies" at intervals between 1709 and 1714) as incontrovertible evidence of his proficiency at the age of sixteen or seventeen, the date, according to his own assertion, of their composition. But it is indisputable that at the age of seventeen his skill in verse astonished a veteran critic like Walsh, and some of his pastorals were in the hands of Sir George Granville (afterwards Lord Lansdowne) before 1706. His metrical letter to Cromwell, which Elwin dates in 1707, when Pope was nineteen, is a brilliant feat of versification, and has turns of wit in it as easy and spirited as any to be found in his mature satires. Pope was twenty-one when he sent the "Ode on Solitude" to Cromwell, and said it was written before he was twelve years old.

Precocious Pope was, but he was also industrious; and he spent some eight or nine years in arduous and enthusiastic discipline, reading, studying, experimenting, taking the advice of some and laughing in his sleeve at the advice of others, "poetry his only business," he said, "and idleness his only pleasure," before anything of his appeared in print. In these preliminary studies he seems to have guided himself by the maxim formulated in a letter to Walsh (dated July 2, 1706) that "it seems not so much the perfection of sense to say things that had never been said before, as to express those best that have been said oftenest." His first publication was his "Pastorals." Jacob Tonson, the bookseller, had seen these pastorals in the hands of Walsh and Congreve, and sent a polite note (April 20, 5706) to Pope asking that he might have them for one of his miscellanies. They appeared accordingly in May 1709 at the end of the sixth volume of Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies, containing contributions from Ambrose Philips, Sheffield, Garth and Rowe, with "January and May," Pope's version of Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale." Pope's next publication was the Essay on Criticism (1711), written two years earlier, and printed without the author's name. "In every work regard the writer's end" (1.255) is one of its sensible precepts, and one that is often neglected by critics of the essay, who comment upon it as if Pope's end had been to produce an original and profound treatise on first principles.

His aim was simply to condense, methodize, and give as perfect and novel expression as he could to floating opinions about the poet's aims and methods, and the critic's duties, to "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed " (1.298). "The town" was interested in belles lettres, and given to conversing on the subject; Pope's essay was simply a brilliant contribution to the fashionable conversation. The youthful author said that he did not expect the sale to be quick because "not one gentleman in sixty, even of liberal education, could understand it." The sales were slow until Pope caused copies to be sent to Lord Lansdowne and others, but its success was none the less brilliant for the delay. The town was fairly dazzled by the young poet's learning, judgment, and felicity of expression. Many of the admirers of the poem doubtless would have thought less of it if they had not believed all the maxims to be original. "I admired," said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, "Mr Pope's Essay on Criticism at first very much, because I had not then read any of the ancient critics, and did not know that it was all stolen."  Pope gained credit for much that might have been found, where he found it, in the Institutes of Quintilian, in the numerous critical writings of Rene Rapin, and in Rene le Bossu's treatise on epic poetry. Addison has been made responsible for the exaggerated value once set on the essay, but Addison's paper (Spectator, No. 253) was not unmixed praise. He deprecated the attacks made by Pope on contemporary literary reputations, although he did full justice to the poet's metrical skill.

Addison and Pope became acquainted with one another, and Pope's sacred eclogue, "Messiah," was printed as No. 378 of the Spectator. In the Essay on Criticism Pope provoked one bitter personal enemy in John Dennis, the critic, by a description of him as Appius, who "stares, tremendous, with a threat'ning eye." Dennis retorted in Reflections.. upon a late Rhapsody .. (1712), abusing Pope among other things for his personal deformity. Pope never forgot this brutal attack, which he described in a note inserted after Dennis's death, as late as 1743, as written "in a manner perfectly lunatic." The Rape of the Lock in its first form appeared in 1712 in Lintot's Miscellanies; the "machinery" of sylphs and gnomes was an afterthought, and the poem was republished as we now have it early in 1714. William, 4th Baron Petre, had surreptitiously cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair, and the liberty had been resented; Pope heard the story from his friend John Caryll, who suggested that the breach between the families might be healed by making the incident the subject of a mock-heroic poem like Boileau's Lutrin. Pope caught at the hint; the mock-heroic treatment of the pretty frivolities of fashionable life just suited his freakish sprightliness of wit, and his studies of the grand epic at the time put him in excellent vein. The Rape of the Lock is admitted to be a masterpiece of airiness, ingenuity, and exquisite finish. But the poem struck Taine as a piece of harsh, scornful, indelicate buffoonery, a mere succession of oddities and contrasts, of expressive figures unexpected and grinning, an example of English insensibility to French sweetness and refinement. Sir Leslie Stephen objected on somewhat different grounds to the poet's tone towards women. His laughter at Pope's raillery was checked by the fact that women are spoken of in the poem as if they were all like Belinda. The poem shows the hand of the satirist who was later to assert that "every woman is at heart a rake," in the epistle addressed to Martha Blount.

Windsor Forest, modelled on Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill, had been begun, according to Pope's account, when he was sixteen or seventeen. It was published in March 1713 with a flattering dedication to the secretary for war, George Granville, Lord Lansdowne, and an opportune allusion to the peace of Utrecht. This was a nearer approach to taking a political side than Pope had yet made. His principle had been to keep clear of politics, and not to attach himself to any of the sets into which literary men were divided by party. Although inclined to the Jacobites by his religion, he never took any part in the plots for the restoration of the Stuarts, and he was on friendly terms with the Whig coterie, being a frequent guest at the coffee-house kept by Daniel Button, where Addison held his "little senate." He had contributed his poem, "The Messiah" to the Spectator; he had written an article or two in the Guardian, and he wrote a prologue for Addison's Cato. Nevertheless he induced Lintot the bookseller to obtain from John Dennis a criticism of Cato. On the publication of Dennis's remarks, the violence of which had, as Pope hoped, made their author ridiculous, Pope produced an anonymous pamphlet, The Narrative of Dr Robert Norris concerning the. .. Frenzy of Mr John Dennis (1713), which, though nominally in defence of Addison, had for its main purpose the gratification of Pope's own hostility to Dennis. Addison disavowed any connivance in this coarse attack in a letter written on his behalf by Steele to Lintot, saying that if he noticed Dennis's attack at all it would be in such a way as to allow him no just cause of complaint.

Coolness between Addison and Pope naturally followed this episode. When the Rape of the Lock was published, Addison, who is said to have praised the poem highly to Pope in private, dismissed it in the Spectator with two sentences of patronizing faint praise to the young poet, and, coupling it with Tickell's "Ode on the Prospect of Peace," devoted the rest of the article to an elaborate puff of "the pastorals of Mr Philips." When Pope showed a leaning to the Tories in Windsor Forest, 2 the members of Addison's coterie made insidious war on him. Within a few weeks of the publication of the poem, and when it was the talk of the town, there began to appear in the Guardian (Nos. 22, 23, 28, 30, 32) a series of articles on "Pastorals." Not a word was said about Windsor Forest, but everybody knew to what the general principles referred. Modern pastoral poets were ridiculed for introducing Greek moral deities, Greek flowers and fruits, Greek names of shepherds, Greek sports and customs and religious rites. They ought to make use of English rural mythology — hobthrushes, fairies, goblins and witches; they should give English names to their shepherds; they should mention flowers indigenous to English climate and soil; and they should introduce English proverbial sayings, dress, and customs. All excellent principles, and all neglected by Pope in Windsor Forest. The poem was fairly open to criticism in these points; there are many beautiful passages in it, showing close though somewhat professional observation of nature, but the mixture of heathen deities and conventional archaic fancies with modern realities is incongruous, and the comparison of Queen Anne to Diana was ludicrous. But the sting of the articles did not lie in the truth of the oblique criticisms. The pastorals of Ambrose Philips, published four years before, were again trotted out. Here was a true pastoral poet, the eldest born of Spenser, the worthy successor of Theocritus and Virgil!

Pope took an amusing revenge, which turned the laugh against his assailants. He sent Steele an anonymous paper in continuation of the articles in the Guardian on pastoral poetry, reviewing the poems of Mr Pope by the light of the principles laid down. Ostensibly Pope was censured for breaking the rules, and Philips praised for conforming to them, quotations being given from both. The quotations were sufficient to dispose of the pretensions of poor Philips, and Pope did not choose his own worst passages, accusing himself of actually deviating sometimes into poetry. Although the Guardian's principles were also brought into ridicule by burlesque exemplifications of them after the manner of Gay's Shepherd's Week, Steele, misled by the opening sentences, was at first unwilling to print what appeared to be a direct attack on Pope, and is said to have asked Pope's consent to the publication, which was graciously granted.

The estrangement from Addison was completed in connexion with Pope's translation of Homer. This enterprise was definitely undertaken in 1713. The work was to be published by subscription, as Dryden's Virgil had been. Men of all parties subscribed, their unanimity being a striking proof of the position Pope had attained at the age of twenty-five. It was as if he had received a national commission as by general consent the first poet of his time. But the unanimity was broken by a discordant note. A member of the Addison clique, Tickell, attempted to run a rival version. Pope suspected Addison's instigation; Tickell had at least Addison's encouragement. Pope's famous character of Addison as "Atticus" in the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (ii. 193-215) was, however, inspired by resentment at insults that existed chiefly in his own imagination, though Addison was certainly not among his warmest admirers. Pope afterwards claimed to have been magnanimous, but he spoiled his case by the petty inventions of his account of the quarrel.

The translation of Homer was Pope's chief employment for twelve years. The new pieces in the miscellanies published in 1717, his "Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady," and his "Eloisa to Abelard," were probably written some years before their publication. His "Eloisa to Abelard " was based on an English translation by John Hughes of a French version of the Letters, which differed very considerably from the original Latin. The Iliad was delivered to the subscribers in instalments in 1715, 1717, 1718 and 1720. Pope's own defective scholarship made help necessary. William Broome and John Jortin supplied the bulk of the notes, and Thomas Parnell the preface. For the translation of the Odyssey he took Elijah Fenton and Broome as coadjutors, who between them translated twelve out of the twenty-four books. 3 It was completed in 1725. The profitableness of the work was Pope's chief temptation to undertake it. His receipts for his earlier poems had totalled about £150, but he cleared more than £8000 by the two translations, after deducting all payments to coadjutors — a much larger sum than had ever been received by an English author before.

The translation of Homer had established Pope's reputation with his contemporaries, and has endangered it ever since it was challenged. Opinions have varied on the purely literary merits of the poem, but with regard to it as a translation few have differed from Bentley's criticism, "A fine poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer." His collaboration with Broome and Fenton 4 involved him in a series of recriminations. Broome was weak enough to sign a note at the end of the work understating the extent of Fenton's assistance as well as his own, and ascribing the merit of their translation, reduced to less than half its real proportions, to a regular revision and correction — mostly imaginary — at Pope's hands. These falsehoods were deemed necessary by Pope to protect himself against possible protests from the subscribers. In 1722 he edited the poems of Thomas Parnell, and in 1725 made a considerable sum by an unsatisfactory edition of Shakespeare, in which he had the assistance of Fenton and Gay.

Pope, with his economical habits, was rendered independent by the pecuniary success of his Homer, and enabled to live near London. The estate at Binfield was sold, and he removed with his parents to Mawson's Buildings, Chiswick, in 1716, and in 1719 to Twickenham, to the house with which his name is associated. Here he practised elaborate landscape gardening on a small scale, and built his famous grotto, which was really a tunnel under the road connecting the garden with the lawn on the Thames. He was constantly visited at Twickenham by his intimates, Dr John Arbuthnot, John Gay, Bolingbroke (after his return in 1723), and Swift (during his brief visits to England in 1726 and 1727), and by many other friends of the Tory party. With Atterbury, bishop of Rochester, he was on terms of affectionate intimacy, but he blundered in his evidence when he was called as a witness on his behalf in 1723.

In 1717 his father died, and he appears to have turned to the Blounts for sympathy in what was to him a very serious bereavement. He had early made the acquaintance of Martha and Teresa Blount, both of them intimately connected with his domestic history. Their home was at Mapledurham, near Reading, but Pope probably first met them at the house of his neighbour, Mr Englefield of Whiteknights, who was their grandfather. He begun to correspond with Martha Blount in 1712, and after 1717 the letters are much more serious in tone. He quarrelled with Teresa, who had apparently injured or prevented his suit to her sister; and although, after her father's death in 1718, he paid her an annuity, he seems to have regarded her as one of his most dangerous enemies. His friendship with Martha lasted all his life. So long as his mother lived he was unwearying in his attendance on her, but after her death in 1733 his association with Martha Blount was more constant. In defiance of the scandal-mongers, they paid visits together at the houses of common friends, and at Twickenham she spent part of each day with him. His earlier attachment to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was apparently a more or less literary passion, which perished under Lady Mary's ridicule.

The year 1725 may be taken as the beginning of the third period of Pope's career, when he made his fame as a moralist and a satirist. It may be doubted whether Pope had the staying power necessary for the composition of a great imaginative work, whether his crazy constitution would have held together through the strain. He toyed with the idea of writing a grand epic. He told Spence that he had it all in his head, and gave him a vague (and it must be admitted not very promising) sketch of the subject and plan of it. But he never put any of it on paper. He shrank as with instinctive repulsion from the stress and strain of complicated designs. Even his prolonged task of translating weighed heavily on his spirits, and this was a much less formidable effort than creating an epic. He turned rather to designs that could be accomplished in detail, works of which the parts could be separately laboured at and put together with patient care, into which happy thoughts could be fitted that had been struck out at odd moments and in ordinary levels of feeling.

Edward Young's satire, The Universal Passion, had just appeared, and been received with more enthusiasm than any thing published since Pope's own early successes. This alone would have been powerful inducement to Pope's emulous temper. Swift was finishing Gulliver's Travels, and came over to England in 1726. The survivors of the Scriblerus Club — Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot, and Gay — resumed their old amusement of parodying and otherwise ridiculing bad writers, especially bad writers in the Whig interest. Two volumes of their Miscellanies in Prose and Verse were published in 1727. A third volume appeared in 1728, and a fourth was added in 1732. According to Pope's own history of the Dunciad, an Heroic Poem in Three Books, which first appeared on the 28th of May 1728, the idea of it grew out of this. Among the Miscellanies was a "Treatise of the Bathos or the Art of Sinking in Poetry," in which poets were classified, with illustrations, according to their eminence in the various arts of debasing instead of elevating their subject. No names were mentioned, but the specimens of bathos were assigned to various letters of the alphabet, which, the authors boldly asserted, were taken at random. But no sooner was the treatise published than the scribblers proceeded to take the letters to themselves, and in revenge to fill the newspapers with the most abusive falsehoods and scurrilities they could devise. This gave Pope the opportunity he had hoped for, and provided him with an excuse for the personalities of the Dunciad, which had been in his mind as early as 1720. Among the most prominent objects of his satire were Lewis Theobald, Colley Cibber, John Dennis, Richard Bentley, Aaron Hill and Bernard Lintot, who, in spite of his former relations with Pope, was now classed with the piratical Edmund Curll.

The book was published with the greatest precautions. It was anonymous, and professed to be a reprint of a Dublin edition. When the success of the poem was assured, it was republished in 1729, and a copy was presented to the king by Sir Robert Walpole. Names took the place of initials, and a defence of the satire, written by Pope himself, but signed by his friend William Cleland, was printed as "A letter to the Publisher." Various indexes, notes and particulars of the attacks on Pope made by the different authors satirized were added. To avoid any danger of prosecution, the copyright was assigned to Lord Oxford, Lord Bathurst and Lord Burlington, whose position rendered them practically unassailable. We may admit that personal spite influenced Pope at least as much as disinterested zeal for the honour of literature, but in the dispute as to the comparative strength of these motives, a third is apt to be overlooked that was probably stronger than either. This was an unscrupulous elfish love of fun, and delight in the creations of a humorous imagination. Certainly to represent the Dunciad as the outcome of mere personal spite is to give an exaggerated idea of the malignity of Pope's disposition, and an utterly wrong impression of the character of his satire. He was not, except in rare cases, a morose, savage, indignant satirist, but airy and graceful in his malice, revengeful perhaps and excessively sensitive, but restored to good humour as he thought over his wrongs by the ludicrous conceptions with which he invested his adversaries. The most unprovoked assault was on Richard Bentley, whom he satirized in the reconstruction and enlargement of the Dunciad made in the last years of his life at the instigation, it is said, of William Warburton. In the earlier editions the place of hero had been occupied by Lewis Theobald, who had ventured to criticize Pope's Shakespeare. In the edition which appeared in Pope's Works (1742), he was dethroned in favour of Colley Cibber, who had just written his Letter from Mr Cibber to Mr Pope inquiring into the motives that might induce him in his satyrical writings to be so frequently fond of Mr Cibber's name (1742). Warburton's name is attached to many new notes, and one of the preliminary dissertations by Ricardus Aristarchus on the hero of the poem seems to be by him.

The four epistles of the Essay on Man (1733) were also intimately connected with passing controversies. They belong to the same intellectual movement with Butler's Analogy — the effort of the 18th century to put religion on a rational basis. But Pope was not a thinker like Butler. The subject was suggested to him by Henry St John, Lord Bolingbroke, who had returned from exile in 1723, and was a fellow-member of the Scriblerus Club. Bolingbroke is said — and the statement is supported by the contents of his posthumous works — to have furnished most of the arguments. Pope's contribution to the controversy consisted in brilliant epigram and illustration. In this didactic work, as in his Essay on Criticism, he put together on a sufficiently simple plan a series of happy sayings, separately elaborated, picking up the thoughts as he found them in miscellaneous reading and conversation, and trying only to fit them with perfect expression. His readers were too dazzled by the verse to be severely critical of the sense. Pope himself had not comprehended the drift of the arguments he had adopted from Bolingbroke, and was alarmed when he found that his poem was generally interpreted as an apology for the free-thinkers. Warburton is said to have qualified its doctrines as "rank atheism," and asserted that it was put together from the "worst passages of the worst authors." The essay was soon translated into the chief European languages, and in 1737 its orthodoxy was assailed by a Swiss professor, Jean Pierre de Crousaz, in an Examen de l'essay de M. Pope sur l'homme. Warburton now saw fit to revise his opinion of Pope's abilities and principles — for what reason does not appear. In any case he now became as enthusiastic in his praise of Pope's orthodoxy and his genius as he had before been scornful, and proceeded to employ his unrivalled powers of sophistry in a defence of the orthodoxy of the conflicting and inconsequent positions adopted in the Essay on Man. Pope was wise enough to accept with all gratitude an ally who was so useful a friend and so dangerous an enemy, and from that time onward Warburton was the authorized commentator of his works.

The Essay on Man was to have formed part of a series of philosophic poems on a systematic plan. The other pieces were to treat of human reason, of the use of learning, wit, education and riches, of civil and ecclesiastical polity, of the character of women, &c. Of the ten epistles of the Moral Essays, the first four, written between 1731 and 1735, are connected with this scheme, which was never executed. There was much bitter, and sometimes unjust, satire in the Moral Essays and the Imitations of Horace. In these epistles and satires, which appeared at intervals, he was often the mouthpiece of his political friends, who were all of them in opposition to Walpole, then at the height of his power, and Pope chose the object of his attacks from among the minister's adherents. Epistle III, "Of the Use of Riches," addressed to Allen Bathurst, Lord Bathurst, in 1732, is a direct attack on Walpole's methods of corruption, and on his financial policy in general; and the two dialogues (1738) known as the "Epilogue to the Satires," professedly a defence of satire, form an eloquent attack on the court. Pope was attached to the Prince of Wales's party, and he did not forget to insinuate, what was indeed the truth, that the queen had refused the prince her pardon on her deathbed. The "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" contains a description of his personal attitude towards the scribblers and is made to serve as a "prologue to the satires."

The gross and unpardonable insults bestowed on Lord Hervey and on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the first satire "to Mr Fortescue" provoked angry retaliation from both. The description of Timon's ostentatious villa in Epistle IV, addressed to the Earl of Burlington, was generally taken as a picture of Canons, the seat of John Brydges, duke of Chandos, one of Pope's patrons, and caused a great outcry, though in this case Pope seems to have been innocent of express allusion. Epistle II, addressed to Martha Blount, contained the picture of Atossa, which was taken to be a portrait of Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough. One of the worst imputations on Pope's character was that he left this passage to be published when he had in effect received a bribe of £1000 from the duchess of Marlborough for its suppression through the agency of Nathanael Hooke (d. 1763). As the passage eventually stood, it might be applied to Katherine, duchess of Buckingham, a natural daughter of James II. Pope may have altered it with the intention of diverting the satire from the original object. He was scrupulously honest in money matters, and always independent in matters of patronage; but there is some evidence for this discreditable story beyond the gossip of Horace Walpole (Works, ed. P. Cunningham, i. cxliv.), though not sufficient to justify the acceptance it received by some of Pope's biographers. To appreciate fully the point of his allusions requires an intimate acquaintance with the political and social gossip of the time. But apart from their value as a brilliant strongly-coloured picture of the time Pope's satires have a permanent value as literature. It is justly remarked by Mark Pattison 5 that "these Imitations are among the most original of his writings." The vigour and terseness of the diction is still unsurpassed in English verse.

Pope had gained complete mastery over his medium, the heroic couplet, before he used it to express his hatred of the political and social evils which he satirized. The elaborate periphrases and superfluous ornaments of his earlier manner, as exemplified in the Pastorals and the Homer, disappeared; he turned to the uses of verse in the ordinary language of conversation, differing from everyday speech only in its exceptional brilliance and point. It is in these satires that his best work must be sought, and by them that his position among English poets must be fixed. It was the Homer chiefly that Wordsworth and Coleridge had in their eye when they began the polemic against the "poetic diction" of the 18th century, and struck at Pope as the arch-corrupter. They were historically unjust to Pope, who did not originate this diction, but only furnished the most finished examples of it. At the beginning of the 19th century Pope still had an ardent admirer in Byron, whose first satires are written in Pope's couplet. The much abused pseudo-poetic diction in substance consisted in an ambition to "rise above the vulgar style," to dress nature to advantage — a natural ambition when the arbiters of literature were people of fashion. If one compares Pope's "Messiah" or "Eloisa to Abelard," or an impassioned passage from the Iliad, with the originals that he paraphrased, one gets a more vivid idea of the consistence of pseudo-poetic diction than could be furnished by pages of analysis. But Pope merely made masterly use of the established diction of his time, which he eventually forsook for a far more direct and vigorous style. A passage from the Guardian, in which Philips was commended as against him, runs: "It is a nice piece of art to raise a proverb above the vulgar style and still keep it easy and unaffected. Thus the old wish, 'God rest his soul,' is very finely turned: —

Then gentle Sidney liv'd, the shepherd's friend,
Eternal blessings on his shade attend!

Pope would have despised so easy a metamorphosis as this at any period in his career, and the work of his coadjutors in the Odyssey may be distinguished by this comparative cheapness of material. Broome's description of the clothes-washing by Nausicaa and her maidens in the sixth book may be compared with the original as a luminous specimen.

Pope's wit had won for him the friendship of many distinguished men, and his small fortune enabled him to meet them on a footing of independence. He paid long visits at many great houses, especially at Stanton Harcourt, the home of his friend Lord Chancellor Harcourt; at Oakley, the seat of Lord Bathurst; and at Prior Park, Bath, where his host was Ralph Allen. With the last-named he had a temporary disagreement owing to some slight shown to Martha Blount, but he was reconciled to him before his death.

He died on the 30th of May 1744, and he was buried in the parish church of Twickenham. He left the income from his property to Martha Blount till her death, after which it was to go to his half-sister Magdalen Rackett and her children. His unpublished MSS. were left at the discretion of Lord Bolingbroke, and his copyrights to Warburton.

If we are to judge Pope, whether as a man or as a poet, with human fairness, and not merely by comparison with standards of abstract perfection, there are two features of his times that must be kept steadily in view — the character of political strife in those days and the political relations of men of letters. As long as the succession to the Crown was doubtful, and political failure might mean loss of property, banishment or death, politicians, playing for higher stakes, played more fiercely and unscrupulously than in modern days, and there was no controlling force of public opinion to keep them within the bounds of common honesty. Hence the age of Queen Anne is preeminently an age of intrigue. The government was almost as unsettled as in the early days of personal monarchy, and there was this difference — that it was policy rather than force upon which men depended for keeping their position. Secondly, men of letters were admitted to the inner circles of intrigue as they had never been before and as they have never been since. A generation later Walpole defied them, and paid the rougher instruments that he considered sufficient for his purpose in solid coin of the realm; but Queen Anne's statesmen, whether from difference of tastes or difference of policy, paid their principal literary champions with social privileges and honourable public appointments. Hence men of letters were directly infected by the low political morality of the unsettled time. And the character of their poetry also suffered. The most prominent defects of the age — the lack of high and sustained imagination, the genteel liking for "nature to advantage dressed," the incessant striving after wit — were fostered, if not generated, by the social atmosphere.

Pope's own ruling passion was the love of fame, and he had no scruples where this was concerned. His vanity and his childish love of intrigue are seen at their worst in his petty manoeuvres to secure the publication of his letters during his lifetime. These intricate proceedings were unravelled with great patience and ingenuity by Charles Wentworth Dilke, when the false picture of his relations with his contemporaries, which Pope had imposed on the public, had been practically accepted for a century. Elizabeth Thomas, the mistress of Henry Cromwell, had sold Pope's early letters to Henry Cromwell to the bookseller Curll for ten guineas. These were published in Curll's Miscellanea in 1726 (dated 1727), and had considerable success. This surreptitious publication seems to have suggested to Pope the desirability of publishing his own correspondence, which he immediately began to collect from various friends on the plea of preventing a similar clandestine transaction. The publication by Wycherley's executors of a posthumous volume of the dramatist's prose and verse furnished Pope with an excuse for the appearance of his own correspondence with Wycherley, which was accompanied by a series of unnecessary deceptions. After manipulating his correspondence so as to place his own character in the best light, he deposited a copy in the library of Edward, second earl of Oxford, and then he had it printed.

The sheets were offered to Curll by a person calling himself P. T., who professed a desire to injure Pope, but was no other than Pope himself. The copy was delivered to Curll in 1735 after long negotiations by an agent who called himself R. Smythe, with a few originals to vouch for their authenticity. P. T. had drawn up an advertisement stating that the book was to contain answers from various peers. Curll was summoned before the House of Lords for breach of privilege, but was acquitted, as the letters from peers were not in fact forthcoming. Difficulties then arose between Curll and P. T., and Pope induced a bookseller named Cooper to publish a Narrative of the Method by which Mr Pope's Private Letters were procured by Edmund Curll, Bookseller (1735). These preliminaries cleared the way for a show of indignation against piratical publishers and a "genuine" edition of the Letters of Mr Alexander Pope (1737, fol. and 4to). Unhappily for Pope's reputation, his friend Caryll, who died before the publication, had taken a copy of Pope's letters before returning them. This letter-book came to light in the middle of the 19th century, and showed the freedom which Pope permitted himself in editing. The correspondence with Lord Oxford, preserved at Longleat, afforded further evidence of his tortuous dealings. The methods he employed to secure his correspondence with Swift were even more discreditable. The proceedings can only be explained as the measures of a desperate man whose maladies seem to have engendered a passion for trickery. They are related in detail by Elwin in the introduction to vol. i. of Pope's Works.

A man who is said to have "played the politician about cabbages and turnips," and who "hardly drank tea without a stratagem," was not likely to be straightforward in a matter in which his ruling passion was concerned. Against Pope's petulance and "general love of secrecy and cunning" have to be set, in any fair judgment of his character, his exemplary conduct as a son, the affection with which he was regarded in his own circle of intimates, and many well-authenticated instances of genuine and continued kindliness to persons in distress.

1 The dates of Pope's correspondence with Wycherley are 5704-1710; with Walsh, 1705-1707, and with Cromwell, 1708-1727; with John Caryll (1666-1736) and his son, also neighbours, 1710-1735

2 The links that attached Pope to the Tory party were strengthened by a new friendship. His first letter to Swift, who became warmly attached to him, is dated the 8th of December 1713. Swift had been a leading member of the Brothers' Club, from which the famous Scriblerus Club seems to have been an offshoot. The leading members of this informal literary society were Swift, Arbuthnot, Congreve, Bishop Atterbury, Pope, Gay and Thomas Parnell. Their chief object was a general war against the dunces, waged with great spirit by Arbuthnot, Swift and Pope.

3   1, 4, 19 and 20 are by Fenton; 2, 6, 8, II, 12, 16, 18, 23, with notes to all the books, by Broome.

4 The correspondence with them is given in vol. viii. of Elwin and Courthope's edition.

5 In his edition of the Satires and Epistles (1866).

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. XXII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 87.


Site copyright ©1996-2011 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
Page created by Anniina Jokinen on October 28, 2006. Last updated November 7, 2011.


Restoration & 18th-century:

Samuel Butler
John Dryden
Samuel Pepys
John Bunyan
Aphra Behn
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea
Mary Astell
William Congreve
Matthew Prior
Daniel Defoe
John Gay
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Jonathan Swift
Joseph Addison
Sir Richard Steele
James Thomson
Alexander Pope
Dr. Samuel Johnson
Thomas Gray
William Collins
Christopher Smart
Oliver Goldsmith
George Crabbe
William Cowper
James Boswell
Essays and Articles
Additional Sources

Search | Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums