Perhaps no other great poet in English Literature has been so differently judged at different times as Alexander Pope. Accepted almost on his first appearance as one of the leading poets of the day, he rapidly became recognized as the foremost man of letters of his age. He held this position throughout his life, and for over half a century after his death his works were considered not only as masterpieces, but as the finest models of poetry. With the change of poetic temper that occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century Pope's fame was overshadowed. The romantic poets and critics even raised the question whether Pope was a poet at all. And as his poetical fame diminished, the harsh judgments of his personal character increased. It is almost incredible with what exulting bitterness critics and editors of Pope have tracked out and exposed his petty intrigues, exaggerated his delinquencies, misrepresented his actions, attempted in short to blast his character as a man.
Both as a man and as a poet Pope is sadly in need of a defender to-day. And a defense is by no means impossible. The depreciation of Pope's poetry springs, in the main, from an attempt to measure it by other standards than those which he and his age recognized. The attacks upon his character are due, in large measure, to a misunderstanding of the spirit of the times in which he lived and to a forgetfulness of the special circumstances of his own life. Tried in a fair court by impartial judges Pope as a poet would be awarded a place, if not among the noblest singers, at least high among poets of the second order. And the flaws of character which even his warmest apologist must admit would on the one hand be explained, if not excused, by circumstances, and on the other more than counterbalanced by the existence of noble qualities to which his assailants seem to have been quite blind.
Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21, 1688. His father was a Roman Catholic linen draper, who had married a second time. Pope was the only child of this marriage, and seems to have been a delicate, sweet-tempered, precocious, and, perhaps, a rather spoiled child.
Pope's religion and his chronic ill-health are two facts of the highest importance to be taken into consideration in any study of his life or judgment of his character. The high hopes of the Catholics for a restoration of their religion had been totally destroyed by the Revolution of 1688. During all Pope's lifetime they were a sect at once feared, hated, and oppressed by the severest laws. They were excluded from the schools and universities, they were burdened with double taxes, and forbidden to acquire real estate. All public careers were closed to them, and their property and even their persons were in times of excitement at the mercy of informers. In the last year of Pope's life a proclamation was issued forbidding Catholics to come within ten miles of London, and Pope himself, in spite of his influential friends, thought it wise to comply with this edict. A fierce outburst of persecution often evokes in the persecuted some of the noblest qualities of human nature; but a long-continued and crushing tyranny that extends to all the details of daily life is only too likely to have the most unfortunate results on those who are subjected to it. And as a matter of fact we find that the well-to-do Catholics of Pope's day lived in an atmosphere of disaffection, political intrigue, and evasion of the law, most unfavorable for the development of that frank, courageous, and patriotic spirit for the lack of which Pope himself has so often been made the object of reproach.
In a well-known passage of the Epistle to Arbuthnot, Pope has spoken of his life as one long disease. He was in fact a humpbacked dwarf, not over four feet six inches in height, with long, spider-like legs and arms. He was subject to violent headaches, and his face was lined and contracted with the marks of suffering. In youth he so completely ruined his health by perpetual studies that his life was despaired of, and only the most careful treatment saved him from an early death. Toward the close of his life he became so weak that he could neither dress nor undress without assistance. He had to be laced up in stiff stays in order to sit erect, and wore a fur doublet and three pairs of stockings to protect himself against the cold. With these physical defects he had the extreme sensitiveness of mind that usually accompanies chronic ill health, and this sensitiveness was outraged incessantly by the brutal customs of the age. Pope's enemies made as free with his person as with his poetry, and there is little doubt that he felt the former attacks the more bitterly of the two. Dennis, his first critic, called him "a short squab gentleman, the very bow of the God of love; his outward form is downright monkey." A rival poet whom he had offended hung up a rod in a coffee house where men of letters resorted, and threatened to whip Pope like a naughty child if he showed his face there. It is said, though perhaps not on the best authority, that when Pope once forgot himself so far as to make love to Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the lady's answer was "a fit of immoderate laughter." In an appendix to the Dunciad Pope collected some of the epithets with which his enemies had pelted him, "an ape," "an ass," "a frog," "a coward," "a fool," "a little abject thing." He affected, indeed, to despise his assailants, but there is only too good evidence that their poisoned arrows rankled in his heart. Richardson, the painter, found him one day reading the latest abusive pamphlet. "These things are my diversion," said the poet, striving to put the best face on it; but as he read, his friends saw his features "writhen with anguish," and prayed to be delivered from all such "diversions" as these. Pope's enemies and their savage abuse are mostly forgotten to-day. Pope's furious retorts have been secured to immortality by his genius. It would have been nobler, no doubt, to have answered by silence only; but before one condemns Pope it is only fair to realize the causes of his bitterness.
Pope's education was short and irregular. He was taught the rudiments of Latin and Greek by his family priest, attended for a brief period a school in the country and another in London, and at the early age of twelve left school altogether, and settling down at his father's house in the country began to read to his heart's delight. He roamed through the classic poets, translating passages that pleased him, went up for a time to London to get lessons in French and Italian, and above all read with eagerness and attention the works of older English poets, ? Spenser, Waller, and Dryden. He had already, it would seem, determined to become a poet, and his father, delighted with the clever boy's talent, used to set him topics, force him to correct his verses over and over, and finally, when satisfied, dismiss him with the praise, "These are good rhymes." He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epic poem, all of which he afterward destroyed and, as he laughingly confessed in later years, he thought himself "the greatest genius that ever was."
Pope was not alone, however, in holding a high opinion of his talents. While still a boy in his teens he was taken up and patronized by a number of gentlemen, Trumbull, Walsh, and Cromwell, all dabblers in poetry and criticism. He was introduced to the dramatist Wycherly, nearly fifty years his senior, and helped to polish some of the old man's verses. His own works were passed about in manuscript from hand to hand till one of them came to the eyes of Dryden's old publisher, Tonson. Tonson wrote Pope a respectful letter asking for the honor of being allowed to publish them. One may fancy the delight with which the sixteen-year-old boy received this offer. It is a proof of Pope's patience as well as his precocity that he delayed three years before accepting it. It was not till 1709 that his first published verses, the Pastorals, a fragment translated from Homer, and a modernized version of one of the Canterbury Tales, appeared in Tonson's Miscellany.
With the publication of the Pastorals, Pope embarked upon his life as a man of letters. They seem to have brought him a certain recognition, but hardly fame. That he obtained by his next poem, the Essay on Criticism, which appeared in 1711. It was applauded in the Spectator, and Pope seems about this time to have made the acquaintance of Addison and the little senate which met in Button's coffee house. His poem the Messiah appeared in the Spectator in May 1712; the first draft of The Rape of the Lock in a poetical miscellany in the same year, and Addison's request, in 1713, that he compose a prologue for the tragedy of Cato set the final stamp upon his rank as a poet.
Pope's friendly relations with Addison and his circle were not, however, long continued. In the year 1713 he gradually drew away from them and came under the influence of Swift, then at the height of his power in political and social life. Swift introduced him to the brilliant Tories, politicians and lovers of letters, Harley, Bolingbroke, and Atterbury, who were then at the head of affairs. Pope's new friends seem to have treated him with a deference which he had never experienced before, and which bound him to them in unbroken affection. Harley used to regret that Pope's religion rendered him legally incapable of holding a sinecure office in the government, such as was frequently bestowed in those days upon men of letters, and Swift jestingly offered the young poet twenty guineas to become a Protestant. But now, as later, Pope was firmly resolved not to abandon the faith of his parents for the sake of worldly advantage. And in order to secure the independence he valued so highly he resolved to embark upon the great work of his life, the translation of Homer.
"What led me into that," he told a friend long after, "was purely the want of money. I had then none; not even to buy books."Iliad
"What terrible moments," he said to Spence, "does one feel after one has engaged for a large work. In the beginning of my translating the Iliad, I wished anybody would hang me a hundred times. It sat so heavily on my mind at first that I often used to dream of it and do sometimes still."IliadOdysseyIliadIliadDunciadDunciadIliadDunciadDunciadDunciadEssay on ManImitations of HoraceEssay on ManEpistle to ArbuthnotEssay on ManSatires, EpistlesMoral Essays
"I had once thought of completing my ethic work in four books. ? The first, you know, is on the Nature of Man [the Essay on Man]; the second would have been on knowledge and its limits ? here would have come in an Essay on Education, part of which I have inserted in the Dunciad [i.e. in the Fourth Book, published in 1742]. The third was to have treated of Government, both ecclesiastical and civil ? and this was what chiefly stopped my going on. I could not have said what I would have said without provoking every church on the face of the earth; and I did not care for living always in boiling water. ? This part would have come into my Brutus [an epic poem which Pope never completed], which is planned already. The fourth would have been on Morality; in eight or nine of the most concerning branches of it."Essay on ManEssayDunciadEthic Epistles
"I never in my life knew a man that had so tender a heart for his particular friends, or a more general friendship for mankind. I have known him these thirty years; and value myself more for that man's love than"
"I am so certain of the soul's being immortal," he whispered, almost with his last breath, "that I seem to feel it within me, as it were by intuition."The Rape of the Lock