Printer Friendly

Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

The two most decisive factors in the life of Pope were his Roman Catholicism at a time of fierce anti-Catholic feeling in England and his suffering from tuberculosis in childhood, which stunted his growth and caused him lifelong pain and disability. Pope attended no school and was largely self-educated at home, with guidance and encouragement from his father, among others. Pope's early ambition was to become what England had not yet produced, a really "correct" poet, that is, one whose poetry was polished and refined and met the classical standards of excellence. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of his earliest works was the Essay on Criticism.

Pope was a precocious poet and won praise for his early works, but he also provoked jealousy and began to make literary enemies. Addison and Steele, for example, had been among his early literary friends, but later, when the Tories were in power and Pope was closely associated with Swift and the powerful Tory ministers Oxford and Bolingbroke, the old crowd broke with Pope. Addison encouraged some of Pope's antagonists in their attempts to undermine Pope's reputation. In the Scriblerus Club, however, Pope found his closest political and poetical companions.

Pope's career as a poet is often divided into three periods. In the first (1706-1714) he made his reputation with both satiric and somewhat romantic poetry. During the middle years (1715-1728) he was mostly occupied with translating into English heroic couplets from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and preparing an edition of Shakespeare's plays. All this activity brought him great financial success and independence, which culminated in the Dunciad. During the third period, Pope's last years (1729-1744), he was concerned with creating ethical, moral, and philosophical poetry. In his mature years, Pope reacted with disgust to the corruption of the Walpole-Whig government, and he felt that England was in a period of decline and decay. He saw himself as a champion for traditional humanist values and as the spokesman for a way of life now endangered by commercial wealth, literary dullness, and vulgarity. At his garden and villa retreat in suburban Twickenham, he not only composed poetry but also cultivated his garden and maintained an extensive correspondence with like-minded friends.

Essay on Criticism

Written in heroic couplets, this 1711 poem is called an essay because it discusses in an apparently informal style the problems of being a good critic. It was written as a response to attacks on wit as being superficial and held that wit and judgment are two essential qualities of mind. Pope restates and harmonizes the major concepts of neoclassical literary theory, celebrating the rules derived from the study of classical criticism and literature. Pope, however, says that these rules should not restrain the genius of a modern poet and allows for some exceptions.


Pope argues against pride. Since human limitations are part of the orderly plan of nature, the critic must know his own limitations and study to improve.


Next, Pope explores various kinds of false criticisms that arise from a partial view of poetry. Critics who are overly preoccupied with trifling errors, diction, metaphors, and numbers (meter) make false judgments, as do those who value only the works of either the Ancients or the Moderns.


Finally, Pope exhorts the critic to speak the truth but also to be fair to the poet and to act as a friend. This part contains a brief history of great critics, from Aristotle down to Pope's own advisor, William Walsh (1663-1721). The ideals of moderation and good taste that this poem advocates are found in all of Pope's later works.

The Rape of the Lock

This mock-heroic satire in heroic couplets pokes fun at fashionable society. The plot is based on an actual incident in Pope's social circle. Miss Anabella Fermor, a fashionable young lady, was angered by Lord Petre's cutting off of one of the ringlets of hair at the back of her neck. Pope ridicules the family feud that resulted by treating it ironically as if it were a serious assault, a true rape. The first version of the poem (1712) was short, containing only two cantos. A revision in 1714 expanded it to five cantos and added the sylphs, the supernatural beings who oversee the heroine's fate. Pope published the final version in 1717, adding the speech by Clarissa in Canto V. Its treatment of a trivial occurrence in grand heroic style makes this poem a burlesque.


Belinda, a coquette, sleeps as the sylph Ariel explains his protective role and warns her of some vague danger. Belinda then awakes. Forgetting the warning, she prepares herself for the day's social encounters by arranging her hair and make-up at her dressing table (called her toilet). The preparations are treated mock-heroically as if they were a sacred ritual of preparation for battle.


Pope introduces Belinda's antagonist, the baron, who performs a parallel ritual, praying to get Belinda's lock of hair. Meanwhile Belinda goes to Hampton Court, one of Queen Anne's palaces, accompanied by Ariel and his band of sylphs. In a heroic speech, Ariel rallies the troops and assigns them to defensive positions about Belinda's head and body.


Most of this canto describes a card game (a mock battle) in which Belinda defeats the baron. The crisis occurs late in the canto, in lines 151 to 154, when the baron, using scissors borrowed from Clarissa, cuts off the lock while Belinda bends her head over a cup of coffee. Belinda screams, but the baron brags about his victory over her.


Now the gnome Umbriel replaces Ariel as Belinda's guardian spirit, indicating that she has changed from being a coquette to being a prude. Umbriel visits the Cave of Spleen; Spleen is a goddess of sickness and melancholy. He receives a bag of winds to propel the angry outbursts and laments of Belinda. Returning to the scene of action, Umbriel finds Belinda prostrate in the arms of her friend and fellow prude Thalestris. Both women make exaggerated complaints about the enormity of the baron's "rape."


The final canto contains the mock battle scene; the weapons are scornful looks, cutting remarks, snapping fans, and a pinch of snuff with which Belinda makes the baron sneeze. She even draws out a bodkin or pin from her dress to threaten him, as if with a sword. At the conclusion of the battle and of the poem the lock has been lost in all the confusion, and Pope pays a poetic compliment the heroine by asserting that her hairs have become a new constellation in the heavens.

The poem was an immediate success as a satire on manners; contemporary readers familiar with ancient epics enjoyed the many echoes and parallels of phrasing that Pope used to develop the poem.

The Essay on Man

This philosophical poem in four epistles or letters, written in heroic couplets during 1733 and 1734, undertakes to explain the place of humankind in the universe. Pope attempts to harmonize the views of various contemporary thinkers, especially those of his friend Bolingbroke, and to provide a comprehensive and reassuring view that the individual, despite inherent limitations, can use reason to become reconciled to life. Pope works not so much by logic as by wit and metaphor, raising issues in rhetorical questions and answering them by analogy. As a satire, the poem creates an implied dialogue between the poet/satirist and his opponent, Presumptuous Man. This opponent is a doubting malcontent, restless under the restraints of the human condition but proud of his own reasoning capacity. Pope uses the central image of the Chain of Being to represent the hierarchy of beings in the created universe and to indicate God's plan to make an orderly, structured world in which human beings must fill only their own appropriate ranks. Pope's ideas here are compatible with the deistic concept that the being and the nature of God are revealed by studying what He has created--Nature.


Pope asserts the absurdity of man's pride, given the limitations of place in the natural order. Man is only a part of the order of Nature; it was not made for him.


Pope considers man as a psychological entity, balanced between the demands of passion and the control of reason. Passion, which motivates us to action, can result in good or evil depending on how it is guided by reason. Man's position is always going to be uncomfortable.


This third epistle considers man as a social being; self-love expands to include others, and man is shown as capable of benevolent action and communal feeling.


Pope catalogues the sources of human happiness. He concludes that the ultimate source of happiness is virtue. Although the poem stresses the limitations of human existence, it is generally optimistic about man's ability to find a right balance and to achieve goodness.

Pope first published this poem anonymously because he felt that it would not get a fair reading if his authorship were known. He had accumulated many literary enemies who would find faults with his philosophizing. He intended the poem as a foundation for a series of moral and philosophical poems on various more specifically focused topics.


Pope wrote two different versions of this satire during the fifteen years between 1728 and 1743, changing and adding to it as events suggested new materials and new targets of attack. Written in heroic couplets, the work's basic situation, borrowed from Homeric epics, is a series of heroic games played to celebrate the coronation of the new laureate of the goddess Dullness. The occasion for this satire was not only Pope's desire to get back at the many attacks on his own works by petty and mean-minded rivals but also the growth of literary London, fed by the publishing industry, in which Pope saw an increase in the number of second and even third-rate authors. These hack writers thrived, despite meager talents, because of the opportunities of the marketplace. Pope perceived in this the debasement of English culture.


In the first Dunciad, Lewis Theobald, a poet, critic, and Pope's rival as an editor of Shakespeare, is portrayed praying to the goddess Dullness. She takes him up into a tower to view the extent of her realm and makes him king of the Dunces. The images in this part are of creation gone awry, abortive offspring and monstrous births and ill-formed progeny. Dullness is shown as the corrupting rather than the nurturing mother of English society.


To celebrate the coronation of the king of the Dunces, games are being played among the various despicable printers, booksellers, poets, critics, and hack writers of Grub Street.


Pope recounts the past victories of Dullness and predicts that her power will one day conquer all England.


The goddess Dullness, having moved from the lesser precincts to the west end of London, holds court. She is approached by a crowd of various petitioners, to whom she grants favors.

In 1743 Pope wrote a new Book IV and changed the victim of his satire from Theobald to Colley Cibber, an actor and theater manager of no poetic talent but who had, nonetheless, been made poet laureate to King George II. The tone of the new version of Book IV is darker. Chaos and Night are about to descend and take back the Earth, as the goddess Dullness sits enthroned with Cibber in her lap. Morality is being ceremoniously strangled, and Education is falling victim to political tyranny. Dullness makes a speech exhorting her devotees to go forth and conquer. In a reversal of a creation scene, the final passage presents a terrible vision of the return of the world to darkness and death.

Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

This 1735 poem is a dialogue in heroic couplets in which the mature Pope reflects on his career while his friend Dr. John Arbuthnot listens sympathetically and occasionally interrupts. Arbuthnot asks questions and warns Pope to avoid dangerous antagonists. Pope pictures himself as the last poet of integrity and courage in a world full of scribbling fools and jealous competitors. Pope presents a brief poetic autobiography, explaining how he became a poet by natural inclination and talent, how even his early attempts at verse provoked spiteful attacks, and how he has borne unflinchingly a lifelong series of enemies and flatterers, both equally distasteful. Pope asserts his own manliness, his independence from the mob and from any patronage. He then inserts portraits of some less manly and less generous characters, whom he verbally annihilates.

The first is Atticus, who represents Joseph Addison. He is portrayed as a false friend who pretends to praise one's work while encouraging others to attack and denigrate it. The second is Bufo, who represents any false patron who keeps poor poets dangling in hopes of being granted favors while he basks in their flattery. The third and most violent attack is on Sporus or Lord John Henry, a confidant of Queen Caroline. Sporus is described as an insect, a snake, a toad, "an amphibious thing." The epistle then concludes with Pope's self-portrait as manly, unswayed from his moral intentions by any unfair attacks, and a champion of virtue. He identifies his own father and Dr. Arbuthnot as men who embody the right way, in contrast to the creatures he has exposed.
COPYRIGHT 1992 HarperCollins Publishers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:John Gay (1685-1732).
Next Article:Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |