Born: May 21, 1688, London, England
Died: May 30, 1744 (aged 56), Middlesex, England
Notable Works: The Dunciad, The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Criticism, His translation of Homer
Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 — 30 May 1744) was an English poet, considered the foremost English poet of the early 18th century and a master of the heroic couplet. He is known for his writing style and satirical works, such as The Dunciad, The Rape of the Lock and An Essay on Criticism.
Pope is also remembered as the first full-time professional English writer, having supported himself largely on subscription fees for his popular translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and his edition of the works of William Shakespeare.
Pope was plagued with illness for most of his life, and only grew to 4 ft 6 in tall. He died in 1744 at the age of 56.
Alexander Pope – Early Life and Education
Alexander Pope was born on May 21, 1688 in London, to Alexander (1646–1717), a successful linen merchant in the Strand, and Edith (1643–1733), who was the daughter of William Turner, Esquire, of York.
Both Alexander and Edith were catholics, which affected Pope’s education. The Test Acts were recently enacted, upholding the status of the established Church of England and banning Catholics from teaching, attending a university, voting, and holding public office on penalty of perpetual imprisonment.
Instead, Pope was taught to read by his aunt and then went to Twyford School in 1698/99. He then went on to two Roman Catholic schools in London which, even though they were illegal, were tolerated in some areas.
Pope suffered from numerous health problems from the age of twelve, including Pott disease, which is a form of tuberculosis that affects the spine, which deformed his body and stunted his growth, leaving him with a severe hunchback. He grew to a height of only 1.37 m (4 ft 6 in), and his tuberculosis caused other health problems, including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain.
Pope’s family moved to Popeswood, Binfield in Berkshire in 1700, to a small estate. The move was down to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a statute preventing “Papists” from living within 10 miles (16 km) of London or Westminster.
Because of this, Pope’s formal education ended here, but he continued to educate himself at home, especially 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 such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and John Dryden. Pope also came into contact with figures from London literary society such as William Congreve, Samuel Garth and William Trumbull.
While living in Binfield, Pope made important friends, one of which was John Caryll. While he was twenty years older than Pope, he had acquaintances in the literary circle in London who he introduced Pope to. These included William Wycherley and William Walsh, as well as the Blount sisters, Teresa and Martha, both of whom remained lifelong friends.
Pope’s ill health alienated him for much of his life and he never married, but it is speculated that Martha Blount was his lover.
Pope first found fame in May 1709, when his Pastorals was published in the sixth part of bookseller Jacob Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies. Pope quickly followed up with An Essay on Criticism, published in May 1711, which was equally well received.
It was around this time that Pope made friends with Tory writers Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell and John Arbuthnot, who together formed the satirical Scriblerus Club. Its aim was to satirise ignorance and pedantry through the fictional scholar Martinus Scriblerus. Pope also made friends with Whig writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
In March 1713, Pope’s poem Windsor Forest was published to great acclaim. He also wrote for The Guardian and The Spectator, and began the work of translating the Iliad, which took him about five years.
Between the years of 1716 and 1719, Pope lived in his parents’ house in Mawson Row, Chiswick. However, the money he made from translating Homer allowed him to move into a villa in Twickenham in 1719.
Best Known Poetry
Essay On Criticism
An Essay on Criticism was first published anonymously on 15 May 1711 and had taken Pope around three years to finish. It is written in a heroic couplet style, which, at the time, was a moderately new poetic form.
The poem is 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 Rape of the Lock
The Rape of the Lock is Pope’s most famous poem and was first published in 1712. A revised version was published in 1714. It is a mock-epic poem that satirises a high-society quarrel between Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. However, the satirical style is toned down by the genuine and almost voyeuristic interest in the fashionable world of 18th century English society.
The Dunciad was first published anonymously in Dublin in 1728, but it was clearly authored by Pope. It was published three different times between 1728 and 1743. The poem celebrates a goddess Dulness and the progress of her chosen agents as they bring decay, imbecility, and tastelessness to the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Many of Pope’s targets were so enraged by The Dunciad that they threatened him.
Pope published his “Epistle to Burlington” in 1731, which, on the subject of agriculture, was the first of four poems which would later be grouped under the title Moral Essays (1731–1735). In the first poem, Pope criticised the bad taste of the aristocrat “Timon” and Pope’s enemies claimed he was attacking the Duke of Chandos and his estate, Cannons. This ended up harming Pope’s reputation.
An Essay On Man
An Essay On Man is a philosophical poem that was written and published between 1732 and 1734. It was written in heroic couplets and Pope intended it to be the centrepiece of a proposed system of ethics that was to be put forth in poetic form. He had planned on expanding it into a larger piece of work, but died before he could do so.
The poem was dedicated to Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and is an effort to rationalise or rather “vindicate the ways of God to man” (l.16), a variation of John Milton’s claim in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, that he will “justify the ways of God to men” (1.26). It is comprised of four epistles and received great admiration throughout Europe when it was published.
Pope announced his plans to publish a translation of the lliad in 1713. He had been fascinated by Homer since childhood and intended for the work to be available by subscription, with one volume appearing every year over the course of six years.
Pope secured a deal with the publisher Bernard Lintot, which earned him two hundred guineas (£210) a volume, which was an extremely large sum at the time. The translations appeared between 1715 and 1720.
Thanks to the success of the Iliad, Bernard Lintot published Pope’s five-volume translation of Homer’s Odyssey in 1725 and 1726. Pope collaborated on this with William Broome and Elijah Fenton: Broome translated eight books (2, 6, 8, 11, 12, 16, 18, 23), Fenton four (1, 4, 19, 20) and Pope the remaining 12. Broome also provided the annotations.
Pope was employed by publisher Jacob Tonson to produce a new edition of Shakespeare in 1725. This edition silently regularised Shakespeare’s metre and rewrote his verse in a number of places. Pope also removed about 1,560 lines of Shakespearean material, arguing that some appealed to him more than others. In 1728, the second edition of Pope’s Shakespeare appeared, but few alterations had been made.
In 1726, Lewis Theobald, who was a lawyer, poet and pantomime-deviser, published a pamphlet called Shakespeare Restored, which catalogued the errors in Pope’s work and suggested a number of revisions to the text. This enraged Pope, and Theobald was the main target of Pope’s poem The Dunciad.
Pope largely wrote his poetry in heroic couplets, which, at the time, was a fairly new poetic form. His metrical skill earned him his fame, and allowed Pope to join a wider circle of authors in London. Pope also liked to write in a satirical manner, writing mock-heroic epics. These poems evoke heroism and include sylphs and other Romanesque themes, which being successful in their effort to satirise high society in 18th-century England. Pope’s poems were often misread as supportive of what he was criticising.
Later Works and Years
Following An Essay On Man, Pope wrote Imitations of Horace (1733–38), which were written in the popular Augustan form of the “imitation” of a classical poet. He also added an original poem, 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”), Thomas Hay, 9th Earl of Kinnoull (“Balbus”) and Addison (“Atticus”).
In 1738, Pope wrote the Universal Prayer, after which he 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 appeared the following year.
Pope’s health, which had never been good, began to decline further in 1744. He died in his villa surrounded by friends on 30 May 1744, about eleven o’clock at night. On the previous day, Pope had called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. He was buried in the nave of St Mary’s Church, Twickenham.
Alexander Pope – Historical Significance
Pope enjoyed some fame while alive, and his works have been praised and studied ever since. While the Romantic movement that rose to prominence in early 19th century England was more unsure of his work, the 20th century brought further approval of his writings.
Pope is remembered for his interesting writing style, using heroic couplets in a time where they were not widely used, and for using satire to criticise the society he was living in that he did not fully accept.
- 1709: Pastorals
- 1711: An Essay on Criticism
- 1712: Messiah (from the Book of Isaiah, and later translated into Latin by Samuel Johnson)
- 1712: The Rape of the Lock (enlarged in 1714)
- 1713: Windsor Forest
- 1715: The Temple of Fame: A Vision
- 1715–1720: Translation of the Iliad
- 1717: Eloisa to Abelard
- 1717: Three Hours After Marriage, with others
- 1717: Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady
- 1723–1725: The Works of Shakespear, in Six Volumes
- 1725–1726: Translation of the Odyssey
- 1727: Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry
- 1728: The Dunciad
- 1733–1734: Essay on Man
- 1735: The Prologue to the Satires
- 1700: Ode on Solitude
- 1713: Ode for Musick
- 1717: The Court Ballad
- 1731: An Epistle to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington
- 1733: The Impertinent, or A Visit to the Court
- 1736: Bounce to Fop
- 1737: The First Ode of the Fourth Book of Horace
- 1738: The First Epistle of the First Book of Horace
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