Biography of Alexander Pope
Pope around 1727
|Born||(1688-05-21)21 May 1688|
|Died||30 May 1744(1744-05-30) (aged 56)|
Twickenham, Middlesex, England
|Resting place||St Mary's Church, Twickenham, Middlesex, England|
Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744) was an 18th-century English poet. He is best known for his satirical verse, including Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, and for his translation of Homer. He is the second-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare.
From the age of 12, he suffered numerous health problems including Pott's disease, which deformed his body and stunted his growth. He also suffered from respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes, and abdominal pain. His poor health alienated him from society, and though he had many female friends to whom he wrote witty letters, he never married.
In May, 1709, Pope's Pastorals was published and earned him instant fame. This was followed by An Essay on Criticism in May 1711, which was equally well received. Pope's most famous poem is The Rape of the Lock, first published in 1712. 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 poem brought into focus the onset of acquisitive individualism and conspicuous consumption, where purchased goods assume dominance over moral agency.
He made many enemies throughout his career, with his fierce satire and criticisms of prominent figures, and at one point deemed it necessary to carry pistols while walking his dog. After 1738, Pope wrote little, toyed with the idea of a patriotic epic called Brutus, but only the opening lines survive. He mainly revised and expanded 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 Lewis Theobald, with the poet laureate Colley Cibber, as "king of dunces". But his real target is the writer and Whig politician Horace Walpole. By now Pope's health was failing, and when told by his physician, on the morning of his death, that he was better, Pope replied: "Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms".
Portrait of Alexander Pope. Studio of Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas, c. 1716
Alexander Pope was born in 1688 to Alexander Pope Senior (1646–1717), a linen merchant of Plough Court, Lombard Street, London, and his wife Edith (née Turner) (1643–1733), who were both Catholics. Edith's sister Christiana was the wife of the famous miniature painter Samuel Cooper. Pope's education was affected by the recently enacted Test Acts, which upheld the status of the established Church of England and banned Catholics from teaching, attending a university, voting, or holding public office on penalty of perpetual imprisonment. Pope was taught to read by his aunt, and went to Twyford School in about 1698/99. He then went on to two Roman Catholic schools in London. Such schools, while illegal, were tolerated in some areas.
A likeness of Pope derived from a portrait by William Hoare
In 1700, his family moved to a small estate at Popeswood in Binfield, Berkshire, close to the royal Windsor Forest. This was due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a statute preventing Papists 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 such as 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 Martha, both of whom would remain lifelong friends.
From the age of 12, he suffered numerous health problems including Pott's disease (a form of tuberculosis that affects the spine), 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 grew to a height of only 1.37 m (4 ft 6 in). 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 to whom he wrote witty letters, including Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Allegedly, his lifelong friend Martha Blount was his lover.
Plaque above Pope's Grotto at Twickenham
In May, 1709, Pope's Pastorals was published in the sixth part of Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies. This earned Pope instant fame, and was followed by An Essay on Criticism, published in May 1711, which was equally well received.
Pope's villa at Twickenham, showing the grotto. From a watercolour produced soon after his death.
Around 1711, Pope made friends with Tory writers 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 1713, Windsor Forest was published to great acclaim.
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 Jacobite rising of 1715. Though Pope as a Catholic might have been 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.
Pope lived in his parents' house in Mawson Row, Chiswick, between 1716 and 1719; the red brick building is now the Mawson Arms, commemorating him with a blue plaque.
The money made from his translation of Homer allowed Pope to move in 1719 to a villa at Twickenham, where he created his now famous grotto and gardens. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during the subterranean retreat's excavations enabled it 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.
Mawson Arms, Chiswick Lane, with blue plaque to Pope
Essay on Criticism
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 poetic form, and Pope's work was an ambitious 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 'essay' 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.
Rape of the Lock
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. The revised and extended version of the poem brought more clearly into focus its true subject – the onset of acquisitive individualism and a society of conspicuous consumers. In the world of the poem purchased artefacts displace human agency, and 'trivial things' assume dominance.
Dunciad and Moral Essays
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Alexander Pope, painting attributed to English painter Jonathan Richardson, c. 1736, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Though the Dunciad was first published anonymously in Dublin, its authorship was not in doubt. Pope pilloried a host of other "hacks", "scribblers" and "dunces" in addition to Theobald, and Maynard Mack has accordingly called its publication "in many ways the greatest act of folly in Pope's life." Though a masterpiece which would become "one of the most challenging and distinctive works in the history of English poetry," writes Mack, "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."
According to his half-sister Magdalen Rackett, some of Pope's targets were so enraged by The Dunciad that they threatened him. "My brother does not seem to know what fear is," she told Joseph Spence, explaining that Pope loved to walk alone, so went accompanied by his Great Dane, Bounce, and for some time carried pistols in his pocket. Together with John 's The Beggar's Opera and Swift's Gulliver's Travels this first Dunciad was part of a concerted propaganda assault against Horace Walpole's Whig ministry and the financial revolution it stabilised. Although he was a keen participant in the stock and money markets, Pope never missed an opportunity to satirise the personal, social and political effects of the new scheme of things. From The Rape of the Lock onwards, these satirical themes are a constant in his work.
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.
An Essay on Man
An 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.
Alexander Pope circa 1742
It consists of four epistles that are addressed to Lord Bolingbroke. Pope presents an idea on his view of 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 centers 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.
Later life and works
The death of Alexander Pope from Museus, a threnody by William Mason. Diana holds the dying Pope, and John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer prepare to welcome him to heaven.
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". But the real focus of the revised poem is Walpole and all his works. By now Pope's health, which had never been good, was failing. When told by his physician, on the morning of his death, that he was better, Pope replied: "Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms." He died in his villa surrounded by friends on 30 May 1744, about eleven o'clock at night. On the previous day, 29 May 1744, Pope had called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church. He was buried in the nave of St Mary's Church, Twickenham.
Translations and editions
Translation of the Iliad
Pope had been fascinated by Homer since childhood. In 1713, he announced his plans to publish a translation of the Iliad. The work would be available by subscription, with one volume appearing every year over the course of six years. Pope secured a revolutionary deal with the publisher Bernard Lintot, which earned him two hundred guineas (£210) a volume, equivalent to about £30,700 in 2019, a vast sum at the time.
His translation of the Iliad appeared between 1715 and 1720. It was acclaimed by Samuel Johnson as "a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal" (although the classical scholar Richard Bentley wrote: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.").
Translation of the Odyssey
Frontispiece and titlepage of a 1752 edition of Pope's Odyssey
Encouraged by the success of the Iliad, Pope published a translation of the Odyssey in 1726 with the help of 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 provided the annotations. Pope attempted to conceal the extent of the collaboration but the secret leaked out. It did some damage to Pope's reputation for a time, but not to his profits. Leslie Stephen considered Pope's portion of the Odyssey inferior to his version of the Iliad, as Pope had put more effort into the earlier work, to which in any case his style was better suited.
Edition of Shakespeare's works
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In this period, Pope was also employed by the publisher Jacob Tonson to produce an opulent new edition of Shakespeare. When it finally appeared, in 1725, this edition silently "regularised" Shakespeare's metre and rewrote his verse in a number of places. Pope also demoted about 1560 lines of Shakespearean material to footnotes, arguing that they were so "excessively bad" that Shakespeare could never have written them. (Other lines were excluded from the edition altogether.) In 1726, the lawyer, poet and pantomime deviser Lewis Theobald published a scathing pamphlet called Shakespeare Restored, which catalogued the errors in Pope's work and suggested a number of revisions to the text.
The second edition of Pope's Shakespeare appeared in 1728, but aside from making some minor revisions to the preface, it seems that Pope had little to do with it. Most later 18th-century editors of Shakespeare dismissed Pope's creatively motivated approach to textual criticism. Pope's preface, however, continued to be highly rated. It was suggested that Shakespeare's texts were thoroughly contaminated by actors' interpolations and they would influence editors for most of the 18th century.
By the mid-18th century new fashions in poetry emerged. 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 be a representation of the human condition. George Gilfillan in his study of 1856 described Pope's talent as 'a rose peering into the summer air, fine, rather than powerful.
In the 20th century Pope's reputation was revived. Pope's work was, of course, full of references to the people and places of his time, and these aided people's understanding of the past. The postwar period stressed the power of Pope's poetry, recognising that Pope's immersion in Christian and Biblical culture lent depth to his poetry. For example, Maynard Mack, the great Pope scholar of the mid- to late twentieth century, argued that Pope's moral vision demanded as much respect as his technical excellence. In the years 1953–1967 the definitive Twickenham edition of Pope's poems was published in ten volumes, including an index volume.
- 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 (see the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot and Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?)
- 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
- The Works of Alexander Pope vol 3 vol 3 v 9 of 10 v 6 of 8
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