Alexander PopeAlexander Pope: A Heroic Poet

© 1997 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

If Alexander Pope were alive today, he would certainly be a political satirist without peer. No doubt some of the "zing" in his pronouncements would be missing if he had to write in prose (although he was an excellent prose writer),{1} since today’s culture pays little heed to serious verse, preferring the inanities of advertising jingles and "rap" lyrics. And no doubt he would be violently attacked as "partisan" by James Carville-types unhappy with the flick of his lash on the back of a corrupt administration. Nevertheless, one would like to say of Pope, as Wordsworth famously did of Milton, that he should "be living at this hour."{2} The moral courage and intellectual force embodied in Pope’s bent, four-and-a-half foot frame would do credit to any age. And the man who endured so many cruel reflections on his birth, his religion, and his personal deformity, as well as his politics and writings, would thoroughly understand what it takes for today’s public figures to put up with intense television coverage and tabloid journalism.

Pope has often been misunderstood by later generations, which have sometimes distorted his character to account for the stinging nature of his greatest poems. In the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, for example, we are told, without elaboration, that "He was a bitterly quarrelsome man and attacked his literary contemporaries viciously and often without provocation."{3} Such a statement betrays great ignorance of the ways in which he was himself "viciously" attacked and "often without provocation" by many who were jealous of his success and talent.{4} An informed writer has given a more accurate assessment: "If sometimes he seems inspired by hatred in the virulent personal and factional warfare that agitated those times, he was never the aggressor; he was, moreover, capable of great generosity, lasting tenderness, and devoted friendship."{5}

Early life

Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21, 1688, disadvantaged from the start by being born into a Roman Catholic family (at a time when Catholics were severely restricted in their liberty and property by the English government), and by tuberculosis of the bone that was probably contracted from his wet-nurse and which left him permanently deformed.{6} Barred from an English university education by his religion, he nevertheless received some schooling at a Catholic institution near Twyford, then another at Marylebone, but soon supplemented this with his own extensive reading in Greek and Latin authors. He began writing verse by doing translations of these authors, and imitations and adaptations of others such as Chaucer, Waller, and Cowley. He also embarked on a cycle of four poems that were more thoroughly his own, though hearkening back to the time-honored tradition of the pastoral. Such works brought him to the attention of an ever-widening circle of influential mentors, and before long young Pope received an invitation from Jacob Tonson, the dominant publisher of that day:

Sir,--I have lately seen a pastoral of yours in mr. Walsh’s & mr. Congreve’s hands, which is extremely fine & is generally approv’d by the best Judges in poetry . . . . If you design your Poem for the Press no person shall be more Carefull in the printing of it, nor no one can give a greater Incouragement to it; than Sir Your Most Obedient Humble Servant.{7}

Successes and misjudgments

Pope’s four Pastorals appeared in 1709, in a volume of "miscellanies"--part of a widely-respected series which had previously been overseen and supplemented by John Dryden, who had died nine years before. From here on it was for a long time one triumph after another for Pope: the Essay on Criticism in 1711, the Rape of the Lock in 1712 and (in an expanded form) in 1714,{8} Windsor-Forest in 1713, and a full-dress edition of his Works in 1717. By this time, he also counted among his friends many literary lions such as John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Matthew Prior, and Joseph Addison--in the last case, at least until Addison’s envy caused him to work behind the scenes to undermine Pope.

Meanwhile, Pope began to secure his financial future (most of his poems thus far had only netted him fifteen to thirty pounds each){9} by embarking on a verse translation of Homer’s Iliad, published in six volumes from June 1715 to May 1720. Although this labor gave him nightmares ("In the beginning of my translating the Iliad," he later said, "I wished anybody would hang me, a hundred times"{10}), the fact that Pope published the translation by subscription meant that he did not have to share the subscribers’ payments with the printer Bernard Lintot. (Lintot retained the copyright and earned his share by publishing other, cheaper editions after Pope’s subscription volumes had appeared.) It is estimated that Pope earned more than four thousand pounds from his efforts. Later on, he made nearly as much again from translating Homer’s Odyssey, although Prof. Maynard Mack notes that Pope’s decision to employ two partners to translate half of the work (overseen by himself), and his less-than-candor about revealing the extent of their assistance, made for "a shabby business all round . . . [which] cannot be judged other than a dishonest cover-up for the sake of gain . . . ." {11}

Pope also produced an edition of Shakespeare in 1725, the second in a series of 18th-century editors of the dramatist discussed elsewhere on this site. His preface to this edition{12} reveals both a deep study and knowledge of Shakespeare-as-poet, and a strange willingness to supplement current knowledge of textual transmission with his imaginative theories of players adding "trifling and bombast passages" to Shakespeare’s writings{13}--justifying Editor Pope in removing what he considered unworthy from the text proper.

Growing opposition

Any successful writer is bound to make enemies simply by succeeding. Of course, Pope’s imprudence in making reflections in the Essay on Criticism on John Dennis, a critic with more than the usual choler who was apparently somewhat paranoid, probably contributed to Dennis’ wild attacks on him for many years thereafter. To Dennis, not only were the poems of Pope utterly worthless, but Pope’s religion, parentage, and personal deformity (e.g., "As there is no Creature so venomous, there is nothing so stupid and impotent as a hunch-back’d Toad"{14}) were assaulted in a manner that it would be too kind to excuse as senile lunacy. Further attacks followed after the Odyssey debacle and Lewis Theobald’s exposure of Pope’s careless editing of Shakespeare--the latter to some extent justified, though Theobald plainly wrote with malice and self-aggrandizement in mind.

Moreover, Pope had allied himself early on with the Tories, who had fallen out of power at the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Since she died with no issue, the succession passed to the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I. Thereafter, for most of the remainder of Pope’s life, a Whig ministry under Sir Robert Walpole, who rose to power (from 1720) as England’s first Prime Minister, controlled the nation. Walpole was completely corrupt, vindictive to his enemies, and steeped in cynicism, credited with the axiom, "All men have their price."{15} He was not above having Pope’s friend Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, tried and exiled, alleging a conspiracy with the Pretender (son of James II--who had fled the English throne at the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688), then in France hoping to return one day as king of England. The Whig government also impacted Pope personally in many ways, not least when Pope’s new edition of the works of the Duke of Buckinghamshire was seized as part of Walpole’s witch-hunt against supporters of the Pretender.

The Dunciad

For a long time, in fact, he made no "official" response whatever to any of these attacks. However, with the encouragement of Swift, he started a mock-epic poem celebrating in high satirical style the many hack writers who had assailed him in print. This poem, The Dunciad, was first published in 1728, with Lewis Theobald (called "Tibbald" by Pope) enthroned as the King of "Dulness," whose Goddess plucks him from his study where he is making an oration over a sacrifice of his worthless books to her:

For thee I dim these eyes, and stuff this head,
With all such reading as was never read;
For thee supplying, in the worst of days,
Notes to dull books, and prologues to dull plays;
For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,
And write about it, Goddess, and about it . . . .

Not only is Tibbald lampooned, but the hilarious Book II depicts many of Pope’s Grub Street adversaries competing in games reminiscent of Homer and Virgil, but adapted to these unsavory characters. And Book III affords the new king a vision of past and future triumphs of Dulness, whose sway seems to go beyond mere buffoonery to become a threat to learning and order themselves.

The publication of such a poem, as one scholar notes, "did not rid Pope of his enemies and detractors, but for a period at least it did make their attacks on him seem both feeble and desperate."{17}

Later works

But Pope was not content to rest after swatting so many flies, even in such a high style. His friend Atterbury had written to him from exile, admonishing him not to waste his "precious Moments, and great Talents, on little Men, and little things," but to "choose a Subject every way worthy" of him.{18} This advice Pope seems to have taken to heart. His next important works were a series of four "Moral Essays" and a work which had nothing to do with satire, the Essay on Man. This last work deals mainly with the place of humankind with respect to the Creator, to his place in Creation, and his happiness. Some of the sentiments (notably those at the beginning of Epistle II) have justly become axiomatic:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Moreover, Pope’s disgust for the government and its thoroughly unscrupulous prime minister came to fruition in a series of brilliant poems in the 1730s. Naturally, the most appropriate summation on such a brilliant yet tumultuous career belongs to the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, perhaps the most celebrated of Pope’s poems. And the "Imitations of Horace," and the two "Dialogues" written in 1738 and later placed as an "Epilogue to the Satires" are, in my opinion, the parts of his output where Pope is most relevant to our own day.

Pope lived under a society where freedom of speech was anything but absolute. The government, as he knew from his friend Atterbury’s experience, had no qualms about striking back at its enemies--unless it was politically imprudent. Thus Pope had to construct his criticisms of the king and prime minister with great subtlety. Anything that could be read by the government as a reflection on itself had to have enough leeway that Pope could claim innocent intentions if he were prosecuted. Hence the imitations, in which Pope could use the sentiments of the Roman poet to reflect ironically on the government, but could, if push came to shove, defend himself by saying, "I was only following Horace’s original poem."

Still, the poet took some breathtaking risks, particularly in The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated, which was later nicknamed "To Augustus" because George II (sometimes called "George Augustus") is being addressed by Pope in the manner in which Horace addressed the Emperor Caesar Augustus. Pope begins his poem with the following lines of panegyric:

While you, great Patron of Mankind! sustain
The balanc'd World, and open all the Main;
Your country, chief, in Arms abroad defend,
At home, with Morals, Arts, and Laws amend;
How shall the Muse, from such a Monarch, steal
An hour, and not defraud the Public Weal?

So far, seemingly, so good. However, George deserved none of this praise. The Main that was open was the high seas, on which English ships were being harrassed by the Spanish without the government taking action. The Arms were those of George’s German mistress, with whom he spent six months abroad while this poem was being written. And apart from a liking for Handel and Italian opera, George had nothing but contempt for the Arts and largely left administering the nation’s affairs to Walpole and Queen Caroline. Thus the poem might seem dangerous stuff, but the fact that the government would have had to admit that the lines could be taken in a negative sense before prosecuting Pope (and hence that there were known grounds in the king’s conduct for doing so) rendered him unassailable.

But these attacks on the ruling powers were more than expressions of private anger for injustices suffered by himself and his friends. Rather, Pope saw himself as something of a national conscience, his verse achieving the moral force of those ancient seers who predicted either prosperity or woe for their people. In the two "Dialogues," he made perhaps the boldest statements of his life insisting on this theme:

[P.] Ask you what Provocation I have had?
The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.
When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
Th’Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours . . . .
Mine, as a Friend to ev’ry worthy mind;
And mine as Man, who feel for all mankind.
Fr. You’re strangely proud.

P.So proud, I am no Slave:

So impudent, I own myself no Knave:
So odd, my Country’s Ruin makes me grave.
Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me:
Safe from the Bar, the Pulpit, and the Throne,
Yet touch’d and sham’d by Ridicule alone.

Such boldness brought further attacks, both from those continually jealous of his success and hack writers paid by Walpole. But Pope had time on his side. Today, these protests against a repressive government shine forth as manifestos for liberty, fixing Walpole’s portrait for all ages among the infamous and corrupt. And even in his own time, Pope achieved a reverence among the government’s many foes as a noble champion of truth--in addition to the respect his poetic talent had earned him.

Much of the remainder of Pope’s life was spent arranging and revising his work for posterity. In 1742, however, a poem entitled "The New Dunciad" appeared, in which Pope added to his original mock-epic an admonition, still not without touches of humor but also with an underlying seriousness, that Dulness could lead to a state of Chaos in which "drown’d was Sense, and Shame, and Right, and Wrong."{21} The following year, this addition appeared as the fourth book of a revised Dunciad, in which Theobald receives a further slap in the face by being replaced by Colley Cibber, a foolish actor and playwright who had been named Poet Laureate despite his poetic ineptitude. If the poetic tributes to Pope’s friends and heroes which fill his poetry are each, as Charles Lamb once put it, "worth an estate for life--nay, . . . an immortality,"{22} even the lampoons of foes like Cibber bestow a kind of eternal fame, or perhaps infamy. Pope’s dunces, like the insects embedded in amber he mentions in another context,{23} are transfigured via the poet’s imagination into a continual source of delight, even if the function they serve is essentially the same as that of a succession of clowns taking pratfalls on banana peels.

Pope died on May 30, 1744 at the age of fifty-six. In the century after his death, his poetry suffered some devaluing as poets like Wordsworth moved away from the formal elegance and symmetry of Pope’s preferred verse form, the rhymed couplet. But one of the most consistently great of Romantic poets, Lord Byron, revered Pope, calling his works "the Book of Life,"{24} and exclaiming at one point over an instance of poor taste in Wordsworth: "Oh, ye shades/Of Pope and Dryden, are we come to this?"{25} No doubt Byron also drew inspiration for his opposition to the government (notably Foreign Secretary Castlereagh, who seems to have been to Byron what Walpole was to his poetic predecessor) from Pope’s political satire. And the twentieth century has seen Pope’s stock rise. Indeed, although some of his earlier poems (such as the Pastorals) have little contemporary appeal, his love of liberty and treatment of political themes have become ever more relevant. And his crafty humor in imaginatively dispatching "dunces" still can make us smile.

(March 30, 1997)


{1} Several examples can be found in Aubrey Williams, ed., Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969). Also see the engaging "Preface" to his 1717 Works, not in Williams but given in John Butt, ed., The Poems of Alexander Pope, A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations (New Haven: Yale UP, 1963), pp. xxv-xxix; and in Herbert Davis, ed., Pope: Poetical Works (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966/1978), pp. 1-6.

{2} In his sonnet "London, 1802," which opens "Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/England hath need of thee . . . ."

{3} "Pope, Alexander," in Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia, copyright 1993-95 by Microsoft Corp.

{4} See, for example, "A Parallel of the Characters of Mr. Dryden and Mr. Pope" (compiled by Pope for the appendix to his Dunciad) in Butt, pp. 452-7, and Davis, pp. 604-9; also, the cruel calumny by his enemies Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Lord John Hervey, cited in Bonamy Dobrée, ed., Alexander Pope's Collected Poems (London: Dent/Everyman's Library, 1956), pp. 273-4; and in Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (NY: Norton, 1985), pp. 559-60.

{5} "Introduction," in Dobrée, p. vi.

{6} Mack, p. viii. For much of the following information, I am throughout indebted to Mack's magnificent biography (which the interested reader is strongly urged to consult), only specifically referencing quotations taken from Mack (as well as both facts and quotes from other sources).

{7} Quoted in "Introduction" in Williams, p. xi.

{8} An easily accessible text of the early "Rape of the Locke" in two cantos can be found in Davis, Appendix A, pp. 707-17.

{9} Pat Rogers, "Introduction," in Davis, p. xvii.

{10} Williams ("Introduction"), p. xiv.

{11} Mack, p. 414.

{12} In Williams, pp. 460ff.

{13} Ibid, p. 468.

{14} Mack, p. 183.

{15} Qtd. in Williams, p. 281n.

{16} "The Dunciad Variorum," Book I, ll. 165-70, in Butt, pp. 363-4; also in Davis, Appendix C, p. 729 (Book I, ll. 155-60). Later, when Pope revised the poem (1743) to make Colley Cibber king of Dulness instead of Theobald, this passage was deleted. (Future citations of Pope are from the Twickenham Text as printed by Butt.)

{17} Williams ("Introduction"), p. xvii.

{18} Mack, p. 512.

{19} "Essay on Man," II, lines 1-18.

{20} "Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II," lines 197-200, 203-11.

{21} Quoted as it appears in the 1743 Dunciad, Book IV, line 625.

{22} Qtd. by Rogers in Davis, p. xxiii.

{23} "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," lines 169-72.

{24} Mack, p. viii.

{25} Lord Byron, Don Juan, III.100.1-2.

Links to Pope's Poems on the Internet

In the above text, I have given links to some online texts of selected poems; others can be found at the Selected Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope page. This is part of the University of Toronto's Representative Poetry Online site, which is a valuable resource.

However, Pope's poems are so topical that the reader will miss a great deal without an annotated edition to explain persons and events. Pope, apparently conscious of this need, annotated many of his poems himself, sometimes at great length (e.g., in The Dunciad). Some current editions drop or condense these authorial notes but give inadequate editorial help. A good balance is struck by Aubrey Williams (see note 1), who keeps much of Pope's own annotation and thoroughly supplements it. Herbert Davis and John Butt (see note 1) both give Pope's annotation in full, but the latter also adds some editorial helps. Both Williams and Butt reproduce the text found in the eleven volume Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (London: Methuen, 1938-68), which is the definitive scholarly edition of Pope's poetry.

An excellent recent volume in the Penguin Classics library republishes Pope's translation of the Iliad of Homer (Penguin Books, 1996) and is also highly recommended, especially as it reprints all of Pope's own notes to his translation, supplemented by very valuable prefatory material by the editor, Steven Shankman.

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