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The Life and Works of Alexander Pope

by William J. Long

Pope is in many respects a unique figure. In the first place, he was for a generation "the poet" of a great nation. To be sure, poetry was limited in the early eighteenth century; there were few lyrics, little or no love poetry, no epics, no dramas or songs of nature worth considering; but in the narrow field of satiric and didactic verse Pope was the undisputed master. His influence completely dominated the poetry of his age, and many foreign writers, as well as the majority of English poets, looked to him as their model. Second, he was a remarkably clear and adequate reflection of the spirit of the age in which he lived. There is hardly an ideal, a belief, a doubt, a fashion, a whim of Queen Anne's time, that is not neatly expressed in his poetry. Third, he was the only important writer of that age who gave his whole life to letters. Swift was a clergyman and politician; Addison was secretary of state; other writers depended on patrons or politics or pensions for fame and a livelihood; but Pope was independent, and had no profession but literature. And fourth, by the sheer force of his ambition he won his place, and held it, in spite of religious prejudice, and in the face of physical and temperamental obstacles that would have discouraged a stronger man. For Pope was deformed and sickly, dwarfish in soul and body. He knew little of the world of nature or of the world of the human heart. He was lacking, apparently, in noble feeling, and instinctively chose a lie when the truth had manifestly more advantages. Yet this jealous, peevish, waspish little man became the most famous poet of his age and the acknowledged leader of English literature. We record the fact with wonder and admiration; but we do not attempt to explain it.

Life. Pope was born in London in 1688, the year of the Revolution. His parents were both Catholics, who presently removed from London and settled in Binfield, near Windsor, where the poet's childhood was passed. Partly because of an unfortunate prejudice against Catholics in the public schools, partly because of his own weakness and deformity, Pope received very little school education, but browsed for himself among English books and picked up a smattering of the classics. Very early he began to write poetry, and records the fact with his usual vanity:

As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.

Being debarred by his religion from many desirable employments, he resolved to make literature his life work; and in this he resembled Dryden, who, he tells us, was his only master, though much of his work seems to depend on Boileau, the French poet and critic.[187] When only sixteen years old he had written his "Pastorals"; a few years later appeared his "Essay on Criticism," which made him famous. With the publication of the Rape of the Lock, in 1712, Pope's name was known and honored all over England, and this dwarf of twenty-four years, by the sheer force of his own ambition, had jumped to the foremost place in English letters. It was soon after this that Voltaire called him "the best poet of England and, at present, of all the world,"--which is about as near the truth as Voltaire generally gets in his numerous universal judgments. For the next twelve years Pope was busy with poetry, especially with his translations of Homer; and his work was so successful financially that he bought a villa at Twickenham, on the Thames, and remained happily independent of wealthy patrons for a livelihood.

Led by his success, Pope returned to London and for a time endeavored to live the gay and dissolute life which was supposed to be suitable for a literary genius; but he was utterly unfitted for it, mentally and physically, and soon retired to Twickenham. There he gave himself up to poetry, manufactured a little garden more artificial than his verses, and cultivated his friendship with Martha Blount, with whom for many years he spent a good part of each day, and who remained faithful to him to the end of his life. At Twickenham he wrote his Moral Epistles (poetical satires modeled after Horace) and revenged himself upon all his critics in the bitter abuse of the Dunciad. He died in 1744 and was buried at Twickenham, his religion preventing him from the honor, which was certainly his due, of a resting place in Westminster Abbey.

Works of Pope. For convenience we may separate Pope's work into three groups, corresponding to the early, middle, and later period of his life. In the first he wrote his "Pastorals," "Windsor Forest," "Messiah," "Essay on Criticism," "Eloise to Abelard," and the Rape of the Lock; in the second, his translations of Homer; in the third the Dunciad and the Epistles, the latter containing the famous "Essay on Man" and the "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," which is in truth his "Apologia," and in which alone we see Pope's life from his own view point.

Essay on CriticismThe "Essay on Criticism" sums up the art of poetry as taught first by Horace, then by Boileau and the eighteenth-century classicists. Though written in heroic couplets, we hardly consider this as a poem but rather as a storehouse of critical maxims. "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread"; "To err is human, to forgive divine"; "A little learning is a dangerous thing,"--these lines, and many more like them from the same source, have found their way into our common speech, and are used, without thinking of the author, whenever we need an apt quotation.

Rape of the LockThe Rape of the Lock is a masterpiece of its kind, and comes nearer to being a "creation" than anything else that Pope has written. The occasion of the famous poem was trivial enough. A fop at the court of Queen Anne, one Lord Petre, snipped a lock of hair from the abundant curls of a pretty maid of honor named Arabella Fermor. The young lady resented it, and the two families were plunged into a quarrel which was the talk of London. Pope, being appealed to, seized the occasion to construct, not a ballad, as the Cavaliers would have done, nor an epigram, as French poets love to do, but a long poem in which all the mannerisms of society are pictured in minutest detail and satirized with the most delicate wit. The first edition, consisting of two cantos, was published in 1712; and it is amazing now to read of the trivial character of London court life at the time when English soldiers were battling for a great continent in the French and Indian wars. Its instant success caused Pope to lengthen the poem by three more cantos; and in order to make a more perfect burlesque of an epic poem, he introduces gnomes, sprites, sylphs, and salamanders,[188] instead of the gods of the great epics, with which his readers were familiar. The poem is modeled after two foreign satires: Boileau's Le Lutrin (reading desk), a satire on the French clergy, who raised a huge quarrel over the location of a lectern; and La Secchia Rapita (stolen bucket), a famous Italian satire on the petty causes of the endless Italian wars. Pope, however, went far ahead of his masters in style and in delicacy of handling a mock-heroic theme, and during his lifetime the Rape of the Lock was considered as the greatest poem of its kind in all literature. The poem is still well worth reading; for as an expression of the artificial life of the age--of its cards, parties, toilettes, lapdogs, tea-drinking, snuff-taking, and idle vanities--it is as perfect in its way as Tamburlaine, which reflects the boundless ambition of the Elizabethans.

Pope's TranslationsThe fame of Pope's Iliad, which was financially the most successful of his books, was due to the fact that he interpreted Homer in the elegant, artificial language of his own age. Not only do his words follow literary fashions but even the Homeric characters lose their strength and become fashionable men of the court. So the criticism of the scholar Bentley was most appropriate when he said, "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." Pope translated the entire Iliad and half of the Odyssey; and the latter work was finished by two Cambridge scholars, Elijah Fenton and William Broome, who imitated the mechanical couplets so perfectly that it is difficult to distinguish their work from that of the greatest poet of the age. A single selection is given to show how, in the nobler passages, even Pope may faintly suggest the elemental grandeur of Homer:

The troops exulting sat in order round,
And beaming fires illumined all the ground.
As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night,
O'er Heaven's clear azure spreads her sacred light,
When not a breath disturbs the deep serene,
And not a cloud o'ercasts the solemn scene;
Around her throne the vivid planets roll,
And stars unnumbered gild the glowing pole,
O'er the dark trees a yellower verdure shed,
And tip with silver every mountain's head.

Essay on ManThe "Essay" is the best known and the most quoted of all Pope's works. Except in form it is not poetry, and when one considers it as an essay and reduces it to plain prose, it is found to consist of numerous literary ornaments without any very solid structure of thought to rest upon. The purpose of the essay is, in Pope's words, to "vindicate the ways of God to Man"; and as there are no unanswered problems in Pope's philosophy, the vindication is perfectly accomplished in four poetical epistles, concerning man's relations to the universe, to himself, to society, and to happiness. The final result is summed up in a few well-known lines:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

Like the "Essay on Criticism," the poem abounds in quotable lines, such as the following, which make the entire work well worth reading:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.
Honor and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part, there all the honor lies.
    Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
    Behold the child, by Nature's kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw:
Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,
A little louder, but as empty quite:
Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper stage,
And beads and prayer books are the toys of age:
Pleased with this bauble still, as that before;
Till tired he sleeps, and Life's poor play is o'er.[189]

Miscellaneous WorksThe Dunciad (i.e. the "Iliad of the Dunces") began originally as a controversy concerning Shakespeare, but turned out to be a coarse and revengeful satire upon all the literary men of the age who had aroused Pope's anger by their criticism or lack of appreciation of his genius. Though brilliantly written and immensely popular at one time, its present effect on the reader is to arouse a sense of pity that a man of such acknowledged power and position should abuse both by devoting his talents to personal spite and petty quarrels. Among the rest of his numerous works the reader will find Pope's estimate of himself best set forth in his "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," and it will be well to close our study of this strange mixture of vanity and greatness with "The Universal Prayer," which shows at least that Pope had considered, and judged himself, and that all further judgment is consequently superfluous.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things