English poet and satirist. He established his poetic reputation with the precocious Pastorals (1709) and An Essay on Criticism (1711), which were followed by a parody of the heroic epic form, The Rape of the Lock (1712–14), as well as The Temple of Fame (1715), and ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ (1717). Pope's highly neoclassical translations from the Greek, of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1715–26) were very successful but his edition of Shakespeare (1725) attracted scholarly ridicule, which led Pope to write a satire on scholarly dullness, The Dunciad (1728). His finest mature works are his Imitations of the Satires of Horace (1733–38) and his personal letters.
Pope was born in London and received a somewhat inconsistent education at various Roman Catholic schools, but after the age of 12, when he had a severe illness which left him crippled, he was practically self-educated. Though never a profound or accurate scholar, he had a good knowledge of Latin and a working acquaintance with Greek. By 1704 he had written a good deal of verse, which attracted the attention of English dramatist William Wycherley, who introduced him to other men of letters. In 1709 his Pastorals, written, according to his own account, at the age of 16, were published in English publisher Jacob Tonson's Miscellany, and two years later the Essay on Criticism, a neat and concise statement of the principles of neoclassicism, appeared and was praised by English writer Joseph Addison. The Rape of the Lock then placed his reputation on a sure foundation. His industry was untiring, and his literary output almost continuous until his death.
Pope had a biting wit, expressed in the heroic couplet, of which he was a master. The heroic couplet is made up of lines of iambic pentameter which rhyme in pairs; aa, bb, and so on. His couplets often appear as epigrams (‘True wit is nature to advantage dressed/What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed’), and many of his observations have passed into the language as proverbs, for example ‘A little learning is a dang'rous thing’. His philosophical verse, including An Essay on Man (1733–34) and Moral Essays (1731–35), was influenced by the English political philosopher Henry Bolingbroke. As a Catholic, Pope was subject to discrimination, and was embittered by deformity of his spine caused by childhood illness. Among his friends were the writers Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot, and John Gay, and with them he was a member of the Scriblerus Club.
His position as a poet has been the subject of much contention among critics. There was a reaction against the neoclassicism of his poetry as the tastes of Romanticism began to prevail later in the 18th century, and in the 19th century Pope was often inaccurately dismissed as bitter, malicious, and unpoetic. In the polish and perfection of his heroic couplets he aimed to reflect the qualities of the true poet, a man of taste and dedication, committed to the preservation of human and social standards. These positive qualities lie behind the bitterness of much of his work.
Windsor Forest, a description of natural surroundings which incorporates observations on society and history, appeared in 1713, followed two years later by The Temple of Fame. In 1715 the translation of the Iliad was begun, and published at intervals until 1720; it was enormously popular. The Odyssey followed in 1725–26 (although with this he had the assistance of the poets William Broome and Elijah Fenton). It also was very popular and the income from these works provided him with financial independence. While translating these poems, Pope moved to Chiswick, where he lived from 1716–18, and where he issued a collected edition of his works (1717), including the ‘Elegy on the Death of an Unfortunate Lady’ and ‘Eloisa to Abelard’. In 1718, his father having died, he moved with his mother to his famous villa at Twickenham; the setting out of the grounds became one of his chief interests. Here he received his friends, who included the most distinguished men of letters, wits, statesmen, and beauties of the time.
His next task was his edition of Shakespeare, a work for which he was not well qualified, though the preface is a fine piece of prose. The Miscellanies, the joint work of Pope and Swift, were published in 1727 and 1728 and drew a storm of angry comment. The three books of The Dunciad were published in 1728 and again in 1729 (with additional material); a fourth book appeared in 1742. In this work Pope satirized (always keen and biting, often savage and unfair) the small wits and poets, and others of higher quality, who had dealt him real or supposed injuries. Between 1731 and 1735 he produced his Epistles, the last of which, addressed to John Arbuthnot, is also known as the Prologue to the Satires, and contains his ungrateful character-study of Joseph Addison under the name of Atticus; and the Essay on Man. His last works were his Imitations of the Satires of Horace and the fourth book of The Dunciad.
Pope, Alexander: From The Rape of the Lock, Canto 1
Selected Poetry of Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
Pope, Alexander The Rape of the Lock
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