Alexander Pope’s version of The Iliad – Homer’s Greek epic poem – was drafted on scraps of paper, often using the backs of his letters and notes. As the poem takes shape on one side, the letters on the other side give us a glimpse of Pope’s personal life as an ambitious young writer. He forms literary alliances and fends off rivalries at the coffee houses of London, and negotiates his precarious role as a Catholic in Protestant Britain.

Pope laboured on this English translation for over six years, and published it, by subscription, in six parts between 1715 and 1720. Ultimately, it earned Pope the grand sum of £5,000 and allowed him to live on his own means as a professional author. Samuel Johnson described it as ‘the greatest version of poetry which the world has ever seen’.[1] This manuscript contains the Preface, Books 1–2 and 5–15, while another manuscript, Add MS 4808, contains the remaining books.

Epic and mock-epic: The Iliad and The Rape of the Lock

Pope was working on Homer when he produced his famous mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712), and this manuscript shows how closely the two were intertwined. Inspired by the scandalous news that Lord Petre had stolen a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair, Pope used the elevated epic style he knew so well from Homer to mock the trivial quarrel.

Pope’s draft of The Iliad – with its many crossings out – is still a work in progress (ff. 17r–v), but it displays many epic features that are mimicked in The Rape of the Lock. It begins with the traditional formula for oral epic poetry, in which the poet invokes the ‘Goddess’ and ‘Muse’ to inspire him to ‘sing’ his story of the ‘wrath’ of Achilles, using heroic couplets of iambic pentameter. In The Iliad, the outcome of the nine-year Trojan War rests on whether or not Achilles, the best warrior of the Greek army, can put aside his quarrel with Agamemnon in Book 1 and resume battle.

Hand-delivered copies of The Rape of the Lock

One letter reveals that advance copies of The Rape of the Lock were hand-delivered to Belle Fermor and Lord Petre, four days before it went on sale on 20 May 1712. Edward Bedingfield says he left ‘the pacquet’ at Belle’s ‘lodgeing’ while she was ‘out of Towne’ (f. 163v). On the front (f. 163r), in a scene from Book 11 of The Iliad , the goddess Iris delivers a message from Zeus telling Hector to abstain from battle until Agamemnon is wounded. We move from ancient grandeur to 18th-century gossip, echoing the bathos of The Rape of the Lock itself.

Sarpedon and Clarissa

In 1709, before starting his full Iliad, Pope translated one episode from Book 12, involving Sarpedon, son of Zeus. Pope painstakingly prepared the manuscript for the printer Jacob Tonson (ff. 201r–03r), drawing the typefaces he wanted him to use. Sarpedon’s famous speech, debating the nature of glory and rousing Glaucus to fight to the death, is parodied in Clarissa’s speech about the power of ‘good humour’ (Canto V, ll. 9–36), which Pope added to The Rape of the Lock in 1717.

Pope’s Catholicism

Pope’s family were restricted by anti-Catholic laws, imposed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Catholic James II was exiled and the Protestants William and Mary were crowned in Britain. These laws banned Catholics from voting, attending university, owning a house or living within ten miles of London. So, in 1700, Pope’s father bought a house in Binfield, Berkshire (f. 112v), using the names of his wife’s Protestant nephews.

In Binfield, Pope forged friendships with other Catholics, including John Caryll senior, Lord Petre’s guardian, who asked Pope to write The Rape of the Lock. Caryll sent Pope many letters, including one (f. 244v) that wittily puns on Pope’s name, calling him ‘your Holyness’. Ironically, Pope’s enemies used this same joke to mock his Catholicism.

Coffee house culture

With some help from Caryll, Pope established himself as part of the buzzing literary scene in London. During frequent stays in the capital, he joined the circle of writers who met at Button’s Coffee House near Covent Garden, and he even had some of his post sent there (f. 87v).

Rivalry and tension

The poet Thomas Tickle and his mentor, the politician Joseph Addison, were part of Pope’s coffee house circle. They were a largely Whig group, however, and gradually distanced themselves from Pope as a Tory. Tensions came to a head in 1715, when Pope suspected Addison of secretly commissioning Tickell to write a rival translation of The Iliad. The first volumes of both Pope’s and Tickell’s versions were published in June 1715, but Tickell never went beyond Book 1.

In a letter dated 10 June (f. 96v), Pope’s publisher Bernard Lintot reports that he has sent Pope’s Iliad to subscribers including Princess Caroline, who is ‘extreamly pleasd’ with it. Lintot also reassures Pope that ‘Mr Tickles book’ is ‘condemn’d’ in ‘the malice & juggle at Buttons’.

Pope’s letter to his father

Pope writes to his father (probably in March 1717) at their house in Chiswick, where the family moved in 1716. After passing on the doctor’s advice that his mother should chew rhubarb, Pope says he has sold £500 worth of his father’s stocks in the ill-fated South Sea Company for only £100 (f. 289v; f. 290v).

[1] Samuel Johnson, ‘The Life of Pope’, in Lives of the English Poets, ed. by G B Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), Vol. III, p. 119.