Authors: Alexander Pope

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet and letter writer

May 21, 1688

London, England

May 30, 1744

Twickenham, England


Alexander Pope, who became known as the “prose and reason” poet, was the son of a prosperous linen merchant and his second wife. The fact that Pope’s parents were Roman Catholics had a bearing on his education and economic and social status. Schools and universities were closed to him, he could not buy or inherit land, he paid double taxes, and he could not legally live within ten miles of London. He was educated at irregular times by private tutors, usually priests, but for the most part he “dipped into a great number of English, French, Italian, Latin and Greek poets.” This was no meager education in itself, for poets of the early 1700’s copied many forms and ideas from the classical writers of ancient Rome; not for nothing was the period called the Augustan age. {$I[AN]9810000437} {$I[A]Pope, Alexander} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Pope, Alexander} {$I[tim]1688;Pope, Alexander}

Alexander Pope

(Library of Congress)

At the age of twelve a serious illness left Pope hunchbacked, standing four feet, six inches tall. Nevertheless, before he was seventeen he was admitted into the society of London wits, and men of fashion encouraged this young prodigy. By the time he was thirty he was acclaimed the chief poet of his times.

Pope’s first important publication was his Pastorals in 1709. Two years later, at the age of twenty-three, he published An Essay on Criticism, which is typical of the eighteenth-century “salon”-type verse. Here Pope gives some of his popular sayings: “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “To err is human, to forgive divine,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” In the first section of the poem he tells of the chaotic state of contemporary criticism, in the second he expounds his main rule of following nature, and in the final part he explains that the rules to be observed in writing must be studied in the works of such great classical writers as Horace and Vergil, who should not be slavishly imitated but considered as guides. Pope himself was greatly influenced by John Milton and John Dryden.

The Rape of the Lock, printed as a short poem in 1712 and in an elaborate form in 1714, is one of the finest early-eighteenth-century products. In a satirical way it catches, sums up, and presents in artistic form the spirit of the age. Pope’s use of myth makes it unusual for the period.

In his translation of Homer’s Iliad, his chief employment for twelve years, Pope consciously dressed Homer in the language of his century. In so doing he accustomed the English ear to the regular rhythms and beats of Homer. He also undertook a translation of the Odyssey, done partly by directing collaborators. The two translations were so successful in sales that Pope is reportedly the first English poet to have made a fortune by his writing. Eloisa to Abelard, which appeared in a volume of poems in 1717, has medieval color and a melancholy tone. Pope left this type of writing, however, and returned to neoclassical forms.

In 1718 he moved to Twickenham on the Thames, where he lived with his widowed mother, to whom he was devoted. Pope never married, perhaps because his love for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu came to a bitter end. Later he fell in love with Martha Blount, and during the last ten years of his life he spent some part of every day with her.

Toward the end of his life Pope’s fame as a moralist and satirist increased. He counted most of the distinguished men of his day either among his friends or among his enemies. The latter he ridiculed in the mock-heroic The Dunciad. An Essay on Man was also connected with controversies of the time. Designed as one of a series of philosophic poems, it presents proof that by training and temperament Pope was not a philosophical poet, at the same time presenting excellent examples of Pope’s technique in building from abstract observation or a general idea to particular illustrations. Also noteworthy of his later years was his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, which shows ease and a conversational quality in his handling of the couplet, in contrast to the stiffer and more formal use in An Essay on Criticism. Pope died on May 30, 1744, at age fifty-six, in Twickenham.

In the nineteenth century the “school of Pope” was considered dull and lifeless for its great attention to matters of style and its concern for poems technically “perfect.” Later ages returned to a perception of his writing as elegant, correct, useful, and reasonable—although not necessarily profound—literature.

Author Works Poetry: Pastorals, 1709 An Essay on Criticism, 1711 The Rape of the Lock, 1712, 1714 Windsor Forest, 1713 The Temple of Fame: A Vision, 1715 The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope, 1717 (first collected edition including “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” and Eloisa to Abelard) Cytherea, 1723 The Dunciad, 1728-1743 Of False Taste, ca. 1731 Moral Essays, 1731-1735 An Essay on Man, 1733-1734 Imitations of Horace, 1733-1737 An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 1735 One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty-Eight, 1738 Epilogue to the Satires, 1738 Pope's Own Miscellany, 1935 (attribution uncertain; Norman Ault, editor) The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, 1939-1967 (11 volumes; John Butt, general editor) Translations: The Iliad of Homer, 1715-1720 The Odyssey of Homer, 1725-1726 Nonfiction: Peri Bathos: Or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry, 1727 Mr. Pope’s Literary Correspondence, 1735-1737 The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 1956 (5 volumes; G. Sherburn, editor) The Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope, 1965 Long Fiction: Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, ca. 1741 (with the Scriblerus Club) Edited Text: Works of Shakespear, 1723-1725 (6 volumes) Miscellaneous: The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope, 1751 (9 volumes) Bibliography Baines, Paul. The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope. New York: Routledge, 2000. An introduction that offers basic information on the author’s life, contexts, and works. Outlines the major critical issues surrounding Pope’s works, from the time they were written to the present. Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Highly recommended for its success in the “imaginative recovery” of Pope, his work, and his world. This is a full and rich treatment, covering a wide range of topics. Erskine-Hill, Howard, ed. Alexander Pope: World and Word. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A collection of essays that take a fresh textual approach to Pope’s achievement. The contributors focus on topics and issues important to Pope but rarely discussed, including nonsexual relations between men and women. Hammond, Brean S. Pope. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1986. Hammond’s five chapters are thematically organized, dealing in turn with Pope’s life, his politics, his ideology, his writing career, and his attitudes toward women. Includes bibliography. Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Mack’s work has been called the definitive biography of Pope. Bringing to his task a lifetime of distinguished scholarship, Mack paints a complex, fully dimensioned portrait of Pope while managing at the same time an especially rich re-creation of English society during the period known as the “Age of Pope.” Rogers, Pat. An Introduction to Pope. London: Methuen, 1975. This excellent introduction to Pope and his work is accessible, stylish, and full of textual and contextual insights. A useful reading list follows the text. Rumbold, Valerie. Women’s Place in Pope’s World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Although Pope has long been celebrated for his sympathetic portraits of women, Rumbold’s work is very successful at examining the social roles open to women in the generally oppressive, restricted world of eighteenth century England. Weinbrot, Howard. Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Pope’s greatest achievements as a poet were in the genre of satire. Weinbrot considers the satiric enterprise in early eighteenth century England.

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