Born: May 21, 1688
Died: May 30, 1744
The English poet Alexander Pope is regarded as one of the finest poets and satirists (people who use wit or sarcasm to point out and devalue sin or silliness) of the Augustan (mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century English literature) period and one of the major influences on English literature in this time and after.
Alexander Pope was born on May 21, 1688, in London, England, to Alexander and Edith Pope. His Roman Catholic father was a linen merchant. His family moved out of London and settled in Binfield in Windsor Forest around 1700. Pope had little formal schooling. He educated himself through extensive studying and reading, especially poetry.
Although Pope was healthy and plump in his infancy, he became severely ill later in his childhood, which resulted in a slightly disfigured body—he never grew taller than 4 feet 6 inches. He suffered from curvature of the spine, which required him to wear a stiff canvas brace. He had constant headaches. His physical appearance, frequently ridiculed by his enemies, undoubtedly gave an edge to Pope's satire (humor aimed at human weaknesses), but he was always warmhearted and generous in his affection for his many friends.
Pope was precocious (showed the characteristics of an older person at a young age) as a child and attracted the notice of a noted bookseller who published his Pastorals (1709). By this time Pope was already at
The Rape of the Lock (1712) immediately made Pope famous as a poet. It was a long humorous poem in the classical style (likeness to ancient Greek and Roman writing). Instead of treating the subject of heroic deeds, though, the poem was about the attempt of a young man to get a lock of hair from his beloved's head. It was based on a true event that happened to people he knew. Several other poems were published by 1717, the date of the first collected edition of Pope's works.
Pope also engaged in poetic imitations and translations. His Messiah (1712) was an imitation of Virgil (70–19 B.C.E. ). He also did a version of Geoffrey Chaucer's (1342–1400) poetry in the English of Pope's day. But it was Pope's versions of Homer (c. 700 B.C.E. ) that were his greatest achievement as a translator.
Pope undertook the translation of Homer's Iliad because he needed money. The interest earned from his father's annuities (money from investments) had dropped sharply. The translation occupied him until 1720. It was a great financial success, making Pope independent of the customary forms of literary patronage (support from wealthy people), and it was highly praised by critics.
From the time parts of Iliad began to appear, Pope became the victim of numerous pamphlet attacks on his person, politics, and religion. In 1716 an increased land tax on Roman Catholics forced the Popes to sell their place at Binfield and to settle at Chiswick. The next year Pope's father died, and in 1719 the poet's increased wealth enabled him to move with his mother to Twickenham.
From 1725 to 1726 Pope was engaged in a version of Odyssey. He worked with two other translators, William Broome and Elijah Fenton. They completed half of the translation between them. It was Pope's name, however, that sold the work, and he naturally received the lion's share (biggest part) of the profits.
Pope also undertook several editorial projects. Parnell's Poems (1721) was followed by an edition of the late Duke of Buckingham's Works (1723). Then, in 1725, Pope's six volumes on the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) were published. Pope's edits and explanatory notes were notoriously capricious (impulsive and not scholarly). His edition was attacked by Lewis Theobald in Shakespeare Restored (1726), a work that revealed a superior knowledge of editorial technique. This upset Pope, who then made Theobald the original hero of Dunciad.
In 1726 and 1727 the writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was in England and a guest of Pope. Together they published three volumes of poetry. Renewed contact with Swift must have given a driving force to Pope's poem on "Dulness," which appeared as the three-book Dunciad (1728). Theobald was the prime dunce, and the next year the poem was enlarged by a burlesque (broad comedy) on commentators and textual critics.
Clearly Pope used Dunciad as personal satire to pay off many old scores. But it was also prompted by his distaste for that whole process by which worthless writers gained undeserved literary prominence (fame). The parody (comic imitation) of the classical epic (heroic poem) was accompanied by further mock-heroic elements, including the intervention of a goddess, the epic games of the second book, and the visit to the underworld and the vision of future "glories." Indeed, despite its devastating satire, Dunciad was essentially a phantasmagoric (created by the imagination) treatment by a great comic genius. In 1742 Pope published a fourth book to Dunciad separately, and his last published work was the four-volume Dunciad in 1743.
Pope's friendship with the former statesman Henry St. John Bolingbroke, who had settled a few miles from Twickenham, stimulated his interest in philosophy and led to the composition of An Essay on Man. Some ideas expressed in it were probably suggested by Bolingbroke. For example, the notion that earthly happiness is enough to justify the ways of God to man was consistent with Bolingbroke's thinking.
In essence, the Essay is not philosophy (the study of knowledge) but a poet's belief of unity despite differences, of an order embracing the whole multifaceted (many-sided) creation. Pope's sources were ideas that had a long history in Western thought. The most central of these was the doctrine of plenitude, which Pope expressed through the metaphors (a figure of speech in which words or phrases are used to find similarities in things that are not comparable) of a "chain" or "scale" of being. He also asserted that the discordant (not harmonious) parts of life are bound harmoniously together.
Pope wrote Imitations of Horace from 1733 to 1738. (Horace was a Roman poet who lived from 65 to 8 B.C.E. ) He also wrote many "epistles" (letters to friends) and defenses of his use of personal and political satire. As Pope grew older he became more ill. He described his life as a "long disease," and asthma increased his sufferings in his later years. At times during the last month of his life he became delirious. Pope died on May 30, 1744, and was buried in Twickenham Church.
Alexander Pope used language with genuine inventiveness. His qualities of imagination are seen in the originality with which he handled traditional forms, in his satiric vision of the contemporary world, and in his inspired use of classical models.
Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
Quennell, Peter. Alexander Pope: The Education of Genius, 1688–1728. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.
Russo, John Paul. Alexander Pope; Tradition and Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.