The acknowledged master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century. He was known for having perfected the rhymed couplet form of his idol, John Dryden, and turned it to satiric and philosophical purposes. His mock epic The Rape of the Lock (1714) derides elite society, while An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1733-34) articulate many of the central tenets of 18th-century aesthetic and moral philosophy. Pope was noted for his involvement in public feuds with the writers and publishers of low-end Grub Street, which led him to write The Dunciad (1728), a scathing account of England’s cultural decline, and, at the end of his life, a series of related verse essays and Horatian satires that articulated and protested this decline. Pope is also remembered as the first full-time professional English writer, having supported himself largely on subscription fees for his popular translations of Homer and his edition of the works of William Shakespeare. Although a major cultural figure of the 18th century, Pope fell out of favor in the Romantic era as the Neoclassical appetite for form was replaced by a vogue for sincerity and authenticity. Interest in his poetry was revived in the early 20th century. He is recognized as a great formal master, an eloquent expositor of the spirit of his age, and a representative of the culture and politics of the Enlightenment.
Pope was born on May 21, 1688 to a wealthy Catholic linen merchant, Alexander Pope, and his second wife, Edith Turner. In the same year, the Protestant William of Orange took the English throne. Because Catholics were forbidden to hold office, practice their religion, attend public schools, or live within ten miles of London, Pope grew up in nearby Windsor Forest and was mostly self-taught, his education supplemented by study with private tutors or priests. At the age of twelve, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which left him with permanent physical disabilities. He never grew taller than four and a half feet, was hunchbacked, and required daily care throughout adulthood. His irascible nature and unpopularity in the press are often attributed to three factors: his membership in a religious minority, his physical infirmity, and his exclusion from formal education. However, Pope was bright, precocious, and determined and, by his teens, was writing accomplished verse. His rise to fame was swift. Publisher Jacob Tonson included Pope’s Pastorals, a quartet of early poems in the Virgilian style, in his Poetical Miscellanies (1709), and Pope published his first major work, An Essay on Criticism, at the age of 23. He soon became friends with Whig writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, editors of the Spectator, who published his essays and poems, and the appearance of The Rape of the Lock made him famous in wider circles.
In the mid-1720s, Pope became associated with a group of Tory literati called the Scriblerus Club, which included John Gay, Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot, and Thomas Parnell. The club encouraged Pope to release a new translation of Homer’s Iliad (circa 8th century BCE) via subscription, a publication method whereby members of the public gave money in advance of a text’s appearance with the agreement that they would receive handsome, inscribed editions of the completed volumes. The Iliad was a tremendously popular publishing venture, and it made Pope self-supporting. He followed with subscription editions of the Odyssey (circa 8th to 7th centuries BCE) and of Shakespeare’s works. After these successes, Pope could afford a lavish lifestyle and moved to a grand villa at Twickenham. The estate’s grounds included miniature sculptured gardens and a famous grotto, an underground passageway decorated with mirrors that connected the property to the London Road. Here, Pope feted friends and acquaintances, cultivated his love for gardening, and wrote increasingly caustic essays and poems. Frequently maligned in the press, he responded publicly with The Dunciad, an attack on the Shakespearean editor Lewis Theobald; The Dunciad, Variorum (1729), which appends a series of mock footnotes vilifying other London publishers and booksellers; and a second edition of The Dunciad that articulates the writer’s concern over the decline of English society. In the 1730s, Pope published two works on the same theme: An Essay on Man and a series of “imitated” satires and epistles of Horace (1733-38). After the final edition of The Dunciad was released in 1742, Pope began to revise and assemble his poetry for a collected edition. Before he could complete the work, he died of dropsy (edema) and acute asthma on May, 30 1744.
Pope’s first mature work, An Essay on Criticism, is a virtuosic exposition of literary theory, poetic practice, and moral philosophy. Bringing together themes and ideas from the history of philosophy, the three parts of the poem illustrate a golden age of culture, describe the fall of that age, and propose a platform to restore it through literary ethics and personal virtues. The work showcases Pope’s mastery of the heroic couplet, in which he was capable of making longer arguments in verse as well as of producing such memorable phrases as “The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense” and “To Err is humane; to Forgive, Divine.” The mock epic The Rape of the Lock made Pope known to a general audience. Based on an actual incident in 1711, when Robert Lord Petre (“The Baron”) publicly cut a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor (“Belinda”), and said to have been written at the request of a friend to encourage a rapprochement between the families, the poem nimbly depicts the foibles of high society. At once light-hearted and serious, addressing both the flimsiness of social status and the repercussions of public behavior, the poem is an in-depth study of contemporary social mores and the reasons for their existence. The Rape of the Lock was followed by “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717), which lyrically explored the 12th-century story of the passionate love of Heloïse d’Argenteuil and her teacher, the philosopher Peter Abelard.
As a public figure unafraid to express his opinions, Pope faced public criticism throughout his career. In The Dunciad, he responded openly for the first time, taking Theobald, who excoriated Pope’s edition of Shakespeare, as his first victim. Using the term “duncery” to refer to all that was tasteless, dull, and degraded in culture and literature, Pope mocked certain contemporary literary figures while making a larger point about the decline of art and culture. In the years that followed, Pope continued to work on and expand the poem: The Dunciad, Variorum adds mock footnotes that expand his satirical critique to many other London publishers, writers, and critics, and the four-book edition released just before his death extends that commentary to English society overall. An Essay on Man is didactic and wide-reaching and was meant to be part of a larger work of moral philosophy that Pope never finished. Its four sections, or “epistles,” present an aesthetic and philosophical argument for the existence of order in the world, contending that we know the world to be unified because God created it. Thus, it is only our inferior vision that perceives disunity, and it is each man’s duty to strive for the good and the orderly.
Pope’s literary merit was debated throughout his life, and successive generations have continually reassessed the value of his works. Pope’s satires and poetry of manners did not fit the Romantic and Victorian visions of poetry as a product of sincerity and emotion. He came to be seen as a philosopher and rhetorician rather than a poet, a view that persisted through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The rise of modernism, however, revived interest in pre-Romantic poetry, and Pope’s use of poetic form and irony made him of particular interest to the New Critics. In the latter half of the 20th- and the beginning of the 21st centuries, Pope remained central to the study of what scholars deem the long 18th century, a period loosely defined as beginning with publication of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and extending through the first generation of the Romantics in the 1820s.
Modern scholars have evaluated Pope as a major literary voice engaged with both high and low cultural scenes, a key figure in the sphere of letters, and an articulate witness to the rise of the commercial printing age and the development of modem English national identity. Howard D. Weinbrot (1980) read Pope’s late satires in the context of 18th-century neoclassicism, arguing that he did not simply imitate Horace but worked with elements from Juvenal and Persius as well. Pope, Weinbrot asserted, had a far wider satiric range than modem readers assume: he was “more eclectic, hostile, and both sublime and vulgar.” John Sitter (2007) concentrated on the range of voices employed by Pope in his poetry, offering an alternative to prevailing views on rhyme and the couplet form. Sophie Gee (2014) argued that The Rape of the Lock is important because of its emphasis on character and identity, a focus that she identified as novelistic, while Donna Landry (1995) placed Pope in the context of the critical history of landscape poetry, maintaining that he was a central figure in the 18th-century invention of the concept of the “countryside.” The transformation of the physical country into the aesthetic object of the countryside, Landry explained, is enacted through Pope’s ideology of stewardship and control, which imagines a landscape halfway between the country and the city that Landry called an early version of suburbia.
Other recent criticism has interpreted Pope’s work in the contexts of gender and authorial identity. Claudia N. Thomas (1994) analyzed female readings of and commentary on Pope’s writings as a way of documenting the experience of women in the 18th century, while J. Paul Hunter (2008) showed that Pope’s later career choices emphasized his honesty and integrity and the connection between those characteristics and masculinity. Catherine Ingrassia (2000) argued that Pope’s literary attacks allowed him to respond to criticism and keep his name before the public. In their study of Pope’s self-representation as an artist, Paul Baines and Pat Rogers (2008) characterized Pope’s poisoning of Edmund Curll—he placed an emetic in the bookseller’s drink—as the poet’s “first Horatian imitation,” situating the event within a history of literary revenge.
- An Essay On Criticism (London: Printed for W. Lewis & sold by W. Taylor, T. Osborn & J. Graves, 1711).
- Windsor-Forest. To the Right Honourable George Lord Lansdown (London: Printed for Bernard Lintott, 1713).
- The Rape of the Lock. An Heroi-Comical Poem. In Five Canto's (London: Printed for Bernard Lintott, 1714; revised, 1718).
- The Temple of Fame: A Vision (London: Printed for Bernard Lintott, 1715).
- The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope (London: Printed by W. Bowyer for Bernard Lintot, 1717; enlarged edition, Dublin: Printed by & for George Grierson, 1727).
- Eloisa to Abelard (London: Printed for Bernard Lintot, 1720 [i.e., 1719]).
- The Dunciad. An Heroic Poem. In Three Books (London: Printed for A. Dodd, 1728); revised and enlarged as The Dunciad, Variorum. With the Prolegomena of Scriblerus (London: Printed for A. Dod [sic], 1729); revised and enlarged again as The Dunciad, In Four Books. Printed according to the complete Copy found in the Year 1742. With the Prolegomena of Scriblerus, And Notes Variorum. To which are added, Several Notes now first publish'd, the Hypercritics of Aristarchus, and his Dissertation on the Hero of the Poem (London: Printed for M. Cooper, 1743).
- An Epistle To The Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington. Occasion'd by his Publishing Palladio's Designs of the Baths, Arches, Theatres, &c. of Ancient Rome (London: Printed for L. Gilliver, 1731); enlarged as Of False Taste ... (London: Printed for L. Gilliver, 1731 [i.e., 1732]).
- Of The Use of Riches, An Epistle To the Right Honorable Allen Lord Bathurst (London: Printed by J. Wright for Lawton Gilliver, 1732).
- The First Satire Of The Second Book of Horace, Imitated in a Dialogue between Alexander Pope of Twickenham ... and his Learned Council (London: Printed by L. G. & sold by A. Dodd, E. Nutt & the booksellers of London & Westminster, 1733).
- An Essay On Man. In Epistles to a Friend, anonymous, 4 volumes (London: Printed for J. Wilford, 1733-1734); republished in one volume as An Essay on Man, Being the First Book of Ethic Epistles to Henry St. John, L. Bolingbroke (London: Printed by J. Wright for Lawton Gilliver, 1734; Philadelphia: Printed by William Bradford, 1747).
- The Impertinent, Or A Visit to the Court. A Satyr (London: Printed for John Wileord [Wilford], 1733).
- An Epistle To The Right Honourable Richard Lord Visct. Cobham (London: Printed for Lawton Gilliver, 1733 [i.e., 1734]).
- The Second Satire Of The Second Book of Horace Paraphrased (London: Printed for L.G., 1734).
- Sober Advice From Horace, To The Young Gentlemen about Town. As deliver'd in his Second Sermon (London: Printed for T. Boreman, 1734); republished as A Sermon against Adultery (London: Printed for T. Cooper, 1738).
- An Epistle From Mr. Pope, To Dr. Arbuthnot (London: Printed for Lawton Gilliver, 1735).
- The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope, Volume II (London: Printed for L. Gilliver, 1735).
- Of The Characters of Women: An Epistle To A Lady (London: Printed for Lawton Gilliver, 1735).
- The Second Epistle Of The Second Book of Horace, Imitated (London: Printed for R. Dodsley, 1737).
- The First Epistle Of The Second Book of Horace, Imitated ["To Augustus"] (London: Printed for T. Cooper, 1737).
- The Sixth Epistle Of The First Book of Horace Imitated (London: Printed for L. Gilliver, 1738).
- The First Epistle Of The First Book Of Horace Imitated (London: Printed for R. Dodsley, 1738).
- One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight. A Dialogue Something like Horace (London: Printed for T. Cooper, 1738).
- One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight. Dialogue II (London: Printed for R. Dodsley, 1738).
- The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. In Nine Volumes Complete. With His Last Corrections, Additions, And Improvements; As they were delivered to the Editor a little before his Death; Together With the Commentaries and Notes of Mr. Warburton (London: Printed for J. & P. Knapton, 1751).
Editions and Collections
- The Works of Alexander Pope, edited by Whitwell Elwin and W. J. Courthope, 10 volumes (London: Murray, 1871-1889).
- The Prose Works of Alexander Pope: The Earlier Works, 1711-1720, edited by Norman Ault (Oxford: Blackwell, 1936).
- The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt and others, 11 volumes (London: Methuen, 1938-1968).
- The Prose Works of Alexander Pope: The Major Works, 1725-1744, edited by Rosemary Cowler (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1986).
- Pastorals, in Poetical Miscellanies: The Sixth Part (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1709).
- "The Rape of the Locke, An Heroi-Comical Poem" (original two-canto version) and other poems, in Miscellaneous Poems and Translations. By Several Hands (London: Printed for Bernard Lintott, 1712).
- The Works of Shakespear, edited by Pope (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1725).
- "Peri Bathous, Or The Art of Sinking in Poetry" and other poems, in Miscellanies. The Last Volume (London: Printed for B. Motte, 1727).
- January and May; Or The Merchant's Tale: From Chaucer, in Poetical Miscellanies: The Sixth Part (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1709).
- The Episode of Sarpedon, Translated from the Twelfth and Sixteenth Books of Homer's Iliads, in Poetical Miscellanies: The Sixth Part (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1709).
- Sappho to Phaon, in Ovid's Epistles, Translated by Several Hands (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1712).
- The First Book of Statius his Thebais in Miscellaneous Poems and Translations. By Several Hands (London: Printed for Bernard Lintott, 1712).
- The Iliad of Homer, 6 volumes (London: Printed for Bernard Lintot, 1715-1720).
- The Odyssey of Homer, 5 volumes (London: Printed for Bernard Lintot, 1725-1726).
- The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 5 volumes, edited by George Sherburn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956).
- R. H. Griffith, Alexander Pope: A Bibliography, 2 volumes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1922, 1927).
- Owen Ruffhead, The Life of Alexander Pope (London: Printed for C. Bathurst, 1769).
- George Sherburn, The Early Career of Alexander Pope (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934).
- Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
- John M. Aden, Pope's Once and Future Kings: Satire and Politics in the Early Career (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978).
- Aden, Something Like Horace: Studies in the Art and Allusion of Pope's Horatian Satires (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969).
- Emmett G. Bedford and Robert J. Dilligan, A Concordance to the Poems of Alexander Pope (Detroit: Gale, 1974).
- Frederic V. Bogel, Acts of Knowledge: Pope's Later Poems (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1981).
- Benjamin Boyce, The Character-Sketches in Pope's Poems (Durham: Duke University Press, 1962).
- Douglas Brooks-Davies, Pope's Dunciad and the Queen of Night: A Study in Emotional Jacobitism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985).
- Reuben Arthur Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959).
- Laura Brown, Alexander Pope (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985).
- Morris Brownell, Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).
- Leopold Damrosch, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
- Thomas R. Edwards, This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
- H. H. Erskine-Hill, The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).
- David Fairer, Pope's Imagination (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
- Rebecca Ferguson, The Unbalanced Mind: Pope and the Rule of Passion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).
- Dustin M. Griffin, Alexander: The Poet in the Poems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).
- Joseph V. Guerinot, Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope, 1711-1744 (New York: New York University Press, 1969).
- Brean Hammond, Pope and Bolingbroke: A Study of Friendship and Influence (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984).
- Wallace Jackson, Vision and Re-vision in Alexander Pope (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983).
- John A. Jones, Pope's Couplet Art (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1969).
- Douglas M. Knisht, Pope and the Heroic Tradition: A Critical Study of His Iliad (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951).
- Maynard Mack, Collected in Himself: Essays Critical, Biographical, and Bibliographical on Pope and Some of His Contemporaries (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982).
- Mack, The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope, 1731-1743 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).
- Mack, The Last and Greatest Art: Some Unpublished Poetical Manuscripts of Alexander Pope (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984).
- Mack, "`Wit and Poetry and Pope': Some Observations on His Imagery," in Pope and His Contemporaries, edited by James L. Clifford and Louis A. Landa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949).
- Mack, ed., Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1968).
- Mack and James A. Winn, eds., Pope: Recent Essays (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1980).
- Thomas E. Maresca, Pope's Horatian Poems (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966).
- A. D. Nuttal, Pope's Essay on Man (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984).
- Robert W. Rogers, The Major Satires of Alexander Pope (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1955).
- John Paul Russo, Alexander Pope: Tradition and Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972).
- Robert M. Schmitz, Pope's Essay on Criticism: 1709: A Study of the Bodleian Manuscript Text with Facsimiles, Transcripts, and Variants (St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1962).
- Schmitz, Pope's Windsor Forest: 1712: A Study of the Washington University Holograph (St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1952).
- John Sitter, The Poetry of Pope's Dunciad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).
- Patricia Ann Spacks, An Argument of Images: The Poetry of Alexander Pope (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971).
- Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, edited by James M. Osborn, 2 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).
- Frank Stack, Pope and Horace: Studies in Imitation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
- Geoffrey Tillotson, On the Poetry of Pope (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950).
- Tillotson, Pope and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).
- Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (London: Printed for M. Cooper, 1756).
- Earl R. Wasserman, Pope's Epistle to Bathurst: A Critical Reading with an Edition of the Manuscripts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960).
- Howard Weinbrot, Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).
- Douglas H. White, Pope and the Context of Controversy: The Manipulation of Ideas in An Essay on Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
- Aubrey L. Williams, Pope's Dunciad: A Study of Its Meaning (London: Methuen, 1955).
- William K. Wimsatt, The Portraits of Alexander Pope (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).
Poems By Alexander Pope
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The acknowledged master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century. He was known for having perfected the rhymed couplet form of his idol, John Dryden, and turned it to satiric and philosophical purposes. His mock epic The Rape of the Lock (1714) derides elite society, while An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1733-34) articulate many of the central tenets of 18th-century aesthetic and moral philosophy. Pope was noted for his involvement in public feuds with the writers and publishers of low-end Grub Street, which led him to write The Dunciad (1728), a scathing account of England’s cultural decline, and, at the end of his life, a series of related verse essays and Horatian satires that articulated and protested this decline. Pope is also remembered...