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Pope, Alexander (1688-1744)
"Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks through Nature up to Nature’s God."

Alexander Pope


Alexander Pope is considered one of the greatest English poets of the eighteenth century.

Born to a Roman Catholic family in 1688, Pope was educated mostly at home, in part due to laws in force at the time upholding the status of the established Church of England. From early childhood he suffered numerous health problems, including Pott's disease (a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine) which deformed his body and stunted his growth, no doubt helping to end his life at the relatively young age of 56 in 1744. He never grew beyond 4ft 6in.

Although he had been writing poetry since the age of 12, his first major contribution to the literary world is considered to be An Essay on Criticism, which was published in 1711 when he was 23. This was followed by The Rape of the Lock (1712, revised 1714), his most popular poem; Eloisa to Abelard and Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady (1717); and several shorter works, of which perhaps the best are the epistles to Martha Blount. From 1715 to 1720, he worked on a translation of Homer's Iliad.

Encouraged by the very favourable reception of this translation, Pope translated the Odyssey (1725–1726) with William Broome and Elijah Fenton. The commercial success of his translations made Pope the first English poet who could live off the sales of his work alone, "indebted to no prince or peer alive", as he put it. In this period Pope also brought out an edition of Shakespeare, which silently "regularised" his metre and rewrote his verse in several places.

Lewis Theobald and other scholars attacked Pope's edition, incurring Pope's wrath and inspiring the first version of his satire The Dunciad (1728), the first of the moral and satiric poems of his last period. His other major poems of this period were Moral Essays (1731–1735), Imitations of Horace (1733–1738), the Epistle to Arbuthnot (1735), the Essay on Man (1734), and an expanded edition of the Dunciad (1742), in which Colley Cibber took Theobald's place as the 'hero'.

Pope directly addressed the major religious, political and intellectual problems of his time. He developed the heroic couplet beyond the achievement of any previous poet, and major poets after him used it less than those before, as he had decreased its usefulness for them.

Pope also wrote the famous epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton:

"Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light."

to which Sir John Collings Squire later added the couplet

"It did not last: the devil, shouting 'Ho.
Let Einstein be' restored the status quo."

Pope had a friend and ally in Jonathan Swift. In about 1713, he formed the Scriblerus Club with Swift and other friends including John Gay.

Pope's works were once considered part of the mental furniture of the well-educated person. One edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes no less than 212 quotations from Pope. Some, familiar even to those who may not know their source, are "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (from the Essay on Criticism); "To err is human, to forgive, divine" (ibid.); "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread" (ibid); and "The proper study of mankind is man" (Essay on Man).

Pope's reputation declined precipitously in the 19th century, but has recovered substantially since then. Some poems, such as The Rape of the Lock, the moral essays, the imitations of Horace, and several epistles, are regarded as highly now as they have ever been, though others, such as the Essay on Man, have not endured very well, and the merits of two of the most important works, the Dunciad and the translation of the Iliad, are still disputed.

The 19th century considered his diction artificial, his versification too regular, and his satires insufficiently humane. The third charge has been disputed by various 20th century critics including William Empson, and the first does not apply at all to his best work. That Pope was constrained by the demands of "acceptable" diction and prosody is undeniable, but Pope's example shows that great poetry could be written with these constraints.

 
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