Alexander Pope

Portrait of Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1719 © Private Collection


Early life

The poet and translator Alexander Pope was born in London in 1688. He was mostly educated at Catholic schools, until 1700 when the family was forced by anti-Catholic sentiment to settle in Berkshire, outside London, and the young Pope resumed his education privately. He suffered from poor health, including Pott’s disease, which severely stunted his growth and shortened his life.

Nonetheless, he was recognised as a poetic talent relatively early, with his Pastorals being published in 1709 and the Essay on Criticism (a poem in heroic couplets) in 1711. In the Essay, Pope discusses the emerging industry of literary criticism, castigating, for instance, the kind of critic who is a ‘bookful blockhead, ignorantly read’ – a person who reads everything that is published but whose interpretations are blinkered by his own opinions.

Famous works

Pope’s other famous works include The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), a mock-epic poem telling the story of a society woman who has a lock of hair stolen by a suitor; ‘Windsor Forest’ (1713), a pastoral celebration of the English countryside in praise of Queen Anne, whom Pope’s speaker addresses as ‘Augusta’ (connecting her with the Roman emperor Augustus, praised by poets such as Virgil for ushering in a new age of peace); and Eloisa to Abelard (1717), a verse epistle reimagining the tragic story of Eloise and Abelard, star-crossed lovers from 12th-century France.

As well as editing Shakespeare’s works (of which he published a six-volume edition in 1725), Pope was also a skilful classicist, whose knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman poetry not only permeated his own compositions, but also enabled him to produce translations of Homer’s The Iliad (serialised between 1715–20) and The Odyssey (1725–26), and Horace’s Odes (1737, 1738). The Homeric translations made Pope enough money to move to a villa in Twickenham, Middlesex, which he beautified with gardens and a famous grotto, which visitors can still see today.

Satire and The Dunciad

In 1728 Pope published the first version of one of his most celebrated works, the satirical The Dunciad. Dedicated to Jonathan Swift, the poem is chiefly aimed at the Shakespearean critic Lewis Theobald, who had offended Pope by criticising his edition of Shakespeare. In The Dunciad, Pope makes Theobald ‘King of the Dunces’, but additionally mocks a host of characters from London’s literary and journalistic scene, all ruled over by the goddess ‘Dulness’. The first edition of The Dunciad was anonymous, and the targets of its satire were designated only by their initials, but later editions gave more detail, and Pope eventually openly admitted to having authored the work. He substantially revised the poem in 1743, giving it a new hero and ‘King of the Dunces’ (the actor and writer, and Pope’s enemy, Colley Cibber).

Popularising the heroic couplet

Pope is perhaps ultimately best known for having popularised the heroic couplet as a form for the pithy expression of recognisable ideas. As the Essay on Criticism states, in a formulation often quoted as encapsulating Pope’s attitude: 

True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
Which oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Further information about the life of Alexander Pope can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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The Rape of the Lock: A darker mirror

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Andrew Macdonald-Brown shows how Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock progresses from satirising the foolishness of wealthy young women to exposing the violence that results from unequal power relations, whether between men and women, rich and poor or imperial powers and colonised nations.

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