Biography of Alexander Pope
Pope was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson. Pope's use of the heroic couplet is famous.
Pope was born in London to Alexander Pope (senior, a linen merchant) and Edith Pope (née Turner), who were both Catholics. Pope's education was affected by the penal law in force at the time upholding the status of the established Church of England, which banned Catholics from teaching on pain of perpetual imprisonment. Pope was taught to read by his aunt, then went to Twyford School in about 1698–9. He then went to two Catholic schools in London. Such schools, while illegal, were tolerated in some areas.
In 1700, his family moved to a small estate in Binfield, Berkshire, close to the royal Windsor Forest. This was due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a statute preventing Catholics from living within 10 miles (16 km) of either London or Westminster. Pope would later describe the countryside around the house in his poem Windsor Forest. Pope's formal education ended at this time, and from then on he mostly educated himself by reading the works of classical writers such as the satirists Horace and Juvenal, the epic poets Homer and Virgil, as well as English authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and John Dryden. He also studied many languages and read works by English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. After five years of study, Pope came into contact with figures from the London literary society such as William Wycherley, William Congreve, Samuel Garth, William Trumbull, and William Walsh.
At Binfield, he also began to make many important friends. One of them, John Caryll (the future dedicatee of The Rape of the Lock), was twenty years older than the poet and had made many acquaintances in the London literary world. He introduced the young Pope to the ageing playwright William Wycherley and to William Walsh, a minor poet, who helped Pope revise his first major work, The Pastorals. He also met the Blount sisters, Teresa and (his alleged future lover) Martha, both of whom would remain lifelong friends.
From the age of 12, he suffered numerous health problems, such as Pott's disease (a form of tuberculosis that affects the bone) which deformed his body and stunted his growth, leaving him with a severe hunchback. His tuberculosis infection caused other health problems including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes, and abdominal pain. He never grew beyond 1.37 metres (4 feet, 6 inches) tall. Pope was already removed from society because he was Catholic; his poor health only alienated him further. Although he never married, he had many female friends whom he wrote witty letters. He did have one alleged lover, his lifelong friend, Martha Blount.
Alexander Pope became a Freemason (a mortal sin in the Catholic Church). He was a member of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, and also belonged to the Spalding Gentlemen's Society.
In May, 1709, Pope's Pastorals was published in the sixth part of Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies. This brought instant fame to Pope. This was followed by An Essay on Criticism published in May 1711 , which was equally well received.
Around 1711, Pope made friends with Tory writers John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell and John Arbuthnot, who together formed the satirical Scriblerus Club. The aim of the club was to satirise ignorance and pedantry in the form of the fictional scholar Martinus Scriblerus. He also made friends with Whig writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. In March of 1713, Windsor Forest was published and was a well known success.
Pope's next well known poem was The Rape of the Lock; first published in 1712, with a revised version published in 1714. This is sometimes considered Pope's most popular poem because it was a mock-heroic epic, written to make fun of a high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the "Belinda" of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. In his poem he treats his characters in an epic style; when the Baron steals her hair and she tries to get it back, it flies into the air and turns into a star.
During Pope's friendship with Joseph Addison, he contributed to Addison's play Cato as well as writing for The Guardian and The Spectator. Around this time he began the work of translating the Iliad, which was a painstaking process - publication began in 1715 and did not end until 1720.
In 1714, the political situation worsened with the death of Queen Anne and the disputed succession between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites, leading to the attempted Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. Though Pope as a Catholic might be expected to have supported the Jacobites, because of his religious and political affiliations, according to Maynard Mack, "where Pope himself stood on these matters can probably never be confidently known". These events led to an immediate downturn in the fortunes of the Tories, and Pope's friend, Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke fled to France.
The money made from his translation of Homer allowed Pope to move to a villa at Twickenham in 1719, where he created his now famous grotto and gardens. Pope decorated the grotto with alabaster, marbles, and ores such as mundic and crystals. He also used Cornish diamonds, stalactites, spars, snakestones and spongestone. Here and there in the grotto he placed mirrors, expensive embellishments for the time. A camera obscura was installed to delight his visitors, of whom there were many. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during its excavations enabled the subterranean retreat to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers. Pope was said to have remarked that: "Were it to have nymphs as well – it would be complete in everything." Although the house and gardens have long since been demolished, much of this grotto still survives. The grotto now lies beneath Radnor House Independent Co-ed School, and is occasionally opened to the public.
An Essay on Criticism was first published anonymously on 15 May 1711. Pope began writing the poem early in his career and took about three years to finish it.
At the time the poem was published, the heroic couplet style in which it was written was a moderately new genre of poetry, and Pope's most ambitious work. An Essay on Criticism was an attempt to identify and refine his own positions as a poet and critic. The poem was said to be a response to an ongoing debate on the question of whether poetry should be natural, or written according to predetermined artificial rules inherited from the classical past.
The poem begins with a discussion of the standard rules that govern poetry by which a critic passes judgment. Pope comments on the classical authors who dealt with such standards, and the authority that he believed should be accredited to them. He discusses the laws to which a critic should adhere while critiquing poetry, and points out that critics serve an important function in aiding poets with their works, as opposed to the practice of attacking them.
The final section of An Essay on Criticism discusses the moral qualities and virtues inherent in the ideal critic, who, Pope claims, is also the ideal man.
Pope's most famous poem is The Rape of the Lock, first published in 1712, with a revised version published in 1714. A mock-epic, it satirises a high-society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the "Belinda" of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. The satirical style is tempered, however, by a genuine and almost voyeuristic interest in the "beau-monde" (fashionable world) of 18th-century English society. Critics pay special attention to the fictitious card game, 'Ombre', that Pope creates for the poem; much time has been spent trying to reconstruct the rules of the game, and the arcane obscurity of how it might actually be played reflects the Byzantine nature of 18th-century high society
Though the Dunciad was first published anonymously in Dublin, its authorship was not in doubt. As well as Theobald, it pilloried a host of other "hacks", "scribblers" and "dunces". Mack called its publication "in many ways the greatest act of folly in Pope's life". Though a masterpiece, "it bore bitter fruit. It brought the poet in his own time the hostility of its victims and their sympathizers, who pursued him implacably from then on with a few damaging truths and a host of slanders and lies...". The threats were physical too. According to his sister, Pope would never go for a walk without the company of his Great Dane, Bounce, and a pair of loaded pistols in his pocket.
In 1731, Pope published his "Epistle to Burlington", on the subject of architecture, the first of four poems which would later be grouped under the title Moral Essays (1731–35). In the epistle, Pope ridiculed the bad taste of the aristocrat "Timon". Pope's enemies claimed he was attacking the Duke of Chandos and his estate, Cannons. Though the charge was untrue, it did Pope a great deal of damage.
The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended this poem to be the centrepiece of a proposed system of ethics that was to be put forth in poetic form. It was a piece of work that Pope intended to make into a larger work; however, he did not live to complete it.
The poem is an attempt to "vindicate the ways of God to Man," a variation on Milton's attempt in Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to Man" (1.26). It challenges as prideful an anthropocentric world-view. The poem is not solely Christian; however, it makes an assumption that man has fallen and must seek his own salvation.
It consists of four epistles that are addressed to Lord Bolingbroke. Pope presents an idea or his view on the Universe; he says that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable and disturbing the Universe appears to be, it functions in a rational fashion according to the natural laws. The natural laws consider the Universe as a whole a perfect work of God. To humans it appears to be evil and imperfect in many ways; however, Pope points out that this is due to our limited mindset and limited intellectual capacity. Pope gets the message across that humans must accept their position in the "Great Chain of Being" which is at a middle stage between the angels and the beasts of the world. If we are able to accomplish this then we potentially could lead happy and virtuous lives.
The poem is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems to be chaotic and confusing to man when he is in the center of it, but according to Pope it is really divinely ordered. In Pope's world God exists and is what he centres the Universe around in order to have an ordered structure. The limited intelligence of man can only take in tiny portions of this order and can experience only partial truths, hence man must rely on hope which then leads into faith. Man must be aware of his existence in the Universe and what he brings to it, in terms of riches, power and fame. It is man's duty to strive to be good regardless of other situations: this is the message Pope is trying to get across to the reader
The Imitations of Horace followed (1733–38). These were written in the popular Augustan form of the "imitation" of a classical poet, not so much a translation of his works as an updating with contemporary references. Pope used the model of Horace to satirise life under George II, especially what he regarded as the widespread corruption tainting the country under Walpole's influence and the poor quality of the court's artistic taste.
Pope also added a wholly original poem, An Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot, as an introduction to the "Imitations". It reviews his own literary career and includes the famous portraits of Lord Hervey ("Sporus") and Addison ("Atticus"). In 1738 he wrote the Universal Prayer.
After 1738, Pope wrote little. He toyed with the idea of composing a patriotic epic in blank verse called Brutus, but only the opening lines survive. His major work in these years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad. Book Four appeared in 1742, and a complete revision of the whole poem in the following year. In this version, Pope replaced the "hero", Lewis Theobald, with the poet laureate Colley Cibber as "king of dunces". By now Pope's health, which had never been good, was failing, and he died in his villa surrounded by friends on 30 May 1744. On the previous day, 29 May 1744, Pope called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. He lies buried in the nave of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham.
However, by the mid-18th century new fashions in poetry started to emerge. A decade after Pope's death, Joseph Warton claimed that Pope's style of poetry was not the most excellent form of the art. The Romantic movement that rose to prominence in early 19th-century England was more ambivalent towards his work. Though Lord Byron identified Pope as one of his chief influences (believing his scathing satire of contemporary English literature English Bards and Scotch Reviewers to be a continuance of Pope's tradition), William Wordsworth found Pope's style fundamentally too decadent to represent the human condition truly.
In the 20th century an effort to revive Pope's reputation began and was successful. Pope's work was now found to be full of references to the people and places of his time and these aided individuals' understanding of the past. The postwar period stressed the power of Pope's poetry and recognised that Pope's immersion in Christian and Biblical culture gave great depth to his poetry. Maynard Mack thought very highly of Pope's poetry. He argued that Pope's humane moral vision demanded as much respect as his technical excellence. In the years 1953–1967 the production of the definitive Twickenham edition of Pope's poems was published in ten volumes.
Modern criticism of Pope focuses on the man, his circumstances and motivations, prompted by theoretical perspectives such as Marxism, feminism and other forms of post-structuralism. Brean Hammond focuses on Pope's singular achievement in making an independent living solely from his writing. Laura Brown (1985) adopts a Marxist approach and accuses Pope of being an apologist for the oppressive upper classes. Hammond (1986) has studied Pope's work from the perspectives of cultural materialism and new historicism. Along Hammond's lines, Raymond Williams explains art as a set of practices influenced by broad cultural factors rather than simply the vague ideas of genius alone.
In 'Politics and Poetics of Transgression' (1985) Peter Stallybrass and Allon White charge that Pope drew upon the low culture which he despised in order to produce his own 'high art'. They assert Pope was implicated in the very material he was attempting to exclude, not dissimilar to observations made in Pope's time.
Feminists have also criticised Pope's works. Ellen Pollak's 'The Poetics of Sexual Myth' (1985) argues that Pope followed an anti-feminist tradition, that regarded women as inferior to men both intellectually and physically. Carolyn Williams contends that a crisis in the male role during the 18th century in Britain impacted Pope and his writing.
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Did you read them?
Couplets on Wit
But our Great Turks in wit must reign alone
And ill can bear a Brother on the Throne.
Wit is like faith by such warm Fools profest