Essay on Poetic Theory

Preface to The Iliad of Homer (1715)

by Alexander Pope

Introduction

Alexander Pope was born in London in 1688; a poet, translator, man of letters, wit, and satirist, his writings include “The Rape of the Lock,” “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” and “An Essay on Criticism.” He contacted tuberculosis when he was young, which disfigured his spine and hindered his growth. Pope grew up on his father’s property at Binfield in Windsor Forest, where he gained an appreciation for literature—there are reports that one of his earliest written pieces was a play based on Homer’s Iliad. Though Pope remained in ill health throughout his life, he was able to support himself as a translator and writer. His poetry was often written in heroic couplets, and many of his lines sound familiar centuries later: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing” and “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Pope was familiar with literary figures of the time, though, as a satirist, he had his detractors as well as supporters. Between 1706 and 1711 he was acquainted with several writers and critics who were Whigs, among them Joseph Addison. By the time of the ascension of the Tory government, he had become friends with a group of literary Tories, including Jonathan Swift, Dr. John Arbuthnot, and John Gay.

In 1713 Pope undertook the translation of Homer’s Iliad, and he sold subscriptions to support the project. Pope’s former friends, the Whig writers, planned a rival translation; their opposition to his project prompted Pope to satirize Addison in the “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” years later. Pope published the first four books of his translation of the Iliad in 1715; he completed the project in 1720.

In the Preface to his translation of Homer’s Iliad, Pope discusses Homer’s singular strengths. He identifies and praises Homer’s fire and invention, and the energy that animates the reader: “It is to the strength of this amazing invention we are to attribute that unequalled fire and rapture which is so forcible in Homer, that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him.” The reader of Homer becomes a “hearer” and a “spectator” “by the force of the poet’s imagination.” Pope elaborates on the characteristics of Homer’s writing, addressing types of fables, characters, speeches, language (including compound epithets), and versification. He counters arguments he has heard against Homer and concludes, “in all these objections we see nothing that contradicts his title to the honour of the chief invention.” Pope, aided by Jonathan Swift, sold a large number of subscriptions to his translation, making the venture a success, yet he demurred: “I must confess myself utterly incapable of doing justice to Homer.”

Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The praise of judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. Nor is it a wonder if he has ever been acknowledged the greatest of poets, who most excelled in that which is the very foundation of poetry. It is the invention that, in different degrees, distinguishes all great geniuses: the utmost stretch of human study, learning, and industry, which masters everything besides, can never attain to this. It furnishes art with all her materials, and without it judgment itself can at best but “steal wisely:” for art is only like a prudent steward that lives on managing the riches of nature. Whatever praises may be given to works of judgment, there is not even a single beauty in them to which the invention must not contribute: as in the most regular gardens, art can only reduce beauties of nature to more regularity, and such a figure, which the common eye may better take in, and is, therefore, more entertained with. And, perhaps, the reason why common critics are inclined to prefer a judicious and methodical genius to a great and fruitful one, is, because they find it easier for themselves to pursue their observations through a uniform and bounded walk of art, than to comprehend the vast and various extent of nature.

Our author’s work is a wild paradise, where, if we cannot see all the beauties so distinctly as in an ordered garden, it is only because the number of them is infinitely greater. It is like a copious nursery, which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants, each according to his fancy, to cultivate and beautify. If some things are too luxuriant it is owing to the richness of the soil; and if others are not arrived to perfection or maturity, it is only because they are overrun and oppressed by those of a stronger nature.

It is to the strength of this amazing invention we are to attribute that unequalled fire and rapture which is so forcible in Homer, that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him. What he writes is of the most animated nature imaginable; every thing moves, every thing lives, and is put in action. If a council be called, or a battle fought, you are not coldly informed of what was said or done as from a third person; the reader is hurried out of himself by the force of the poet’s imagination, and turns in one place to a hearer, in another to a spectator. The course of his verses resembles that of the army he describes,

Hoid’ ar’ isan hosei te puri chthon pasa nemoito.

“They pour along like a fire that sweeps the whole earth before it.” It is, however, remarkable, that his fancy, which is everywhere vigorous, is not discovered immediately at the beginning of his poem in its fullest splendour: it grows in the progress both upon himself and others, and becomes on fire, like a chariot-wheel, by its own rapidity. Exact disposition, just thought, correct elocution, polished numbers, may have been found in a thousand; but this poetic fire, this “vivida vis animi,” in a very few. Even in works where all those are imperfect or neglected, this can overpower criticism, and make us admire even while we disapprove. Nay, where this appears, though attended with absurdities, it brightens all the rubbish about it, till we see nothing but its own splendour. This fire is discerned in Virgil, but discerned as through a glass, reflected from Homer, more shining than fierce, but everywhere equal and constant: in Lucan and Statius it bursts out in sudden, short, and interrupted flashes: In Milton it glows like a furnace kept up to an uncommon ardour by the force of art: in Shakspeare it strikes before we are aware, like an accidental fire from heaven: but in Homer, and in him only, it burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly.

I shall here endeavour to show how this vast invention exerts itself in a manner superior to that of any poet through all the main constituent parts of his work: as it is the great and peculiar characteristic which distinguishes him from all other authors.

This strong and ruling faculty was like a powerful star, which, in the violence of its course, drew all things within its vortex. It seemed not enough to have taken in the whole circle of arts, and the whole compass of nature, to supply his maxims and reflections; all the inward passions and affections of mankind, to furnish his characters: and all the outward forms and images of things for his descriptions: but wanting yet an ampler sphere to expatiate in, he opened a new and boundless walk for his imagination, and created a world for himself in the invention of fable. That which Aristotle calls “the soul of poetry,” was first breathed into it by Homer, I shall begin with considering him in his part, as it is naturally the first; and I speak of it both as it means the design of a poem, and as it is taken for fiction.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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Biography

Alexander Pope was born in London to a Roman Catholic family. A childhood sickness left him with stunted height, a curved spine, and ill health for the rest of his life. Pope earned fame and great financial success as a poet, satirist, and translator. He is perhaps best remembered for his mastery of the heroic couplet, as in An Essay on Man and “The Rape of the Lock.”

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