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Antique Print of Alexander Pope - this version © Nash Ford PublishingAlexander Pope (1688-1744)
Born: 21st May 1688 at Lombard Street, London
Died: 30th May 1744 at Twickenham, Middlesex

The famous poet was the son of Alexander Pope Senior, a rich merchant and linen-draper, and of Edith, daughter William Turner of York. Alexander Junior was born in Lombard Street in the City of London; but before he had reached his twelfth year, his father - having recently converted to Catholicism - bought a small estate (now Pope's Manor) at Binfield in Berkshire. Here, the boy grew up. He had already begun to lisp in numbers, had dramatized scenes from Homer and had met Dryden. His schooling was obtained at various private Catholic schools and, at home, from priests. At no other time does his religion appear to have been at all a makeweight in his social or educational progress; but Pope certainly grew up more furnished with scholarly instincts than with actual scholarship. After an infantile illness, which had left him dwarfed and deformed, yet with a face of great attractiveness, he was always in rather delicate health, but was able to ride and to superintend work in a garden.

The first publication of Pope’s to attract attention was his Pastorals, published in Tonson's Miscellanies in his twenty-first year. He had already studied for the trade of poet with great care and had been well advised by Dryden's old friend and critic, Walsh, to cultivate 'correctness' in writing. Dryden was his best-loved model. The Essay on Criticism followed, in 1711, and the immortal Rape of the Lock (in its first state) in 1712. Windsor Forest came in 1713 and the second version of the Rape of the Lock in 1714. Pope was so careful of his fame that he polished and repolished all those of his youthful effusions which he allowed to survive. It was a laudable practice, though in his case vanity was the prompter.

The throne of Dryden had now been empty for fifteen years and, if anyone stood upon the steps of it, it was this young aspirant. He was already posing as a man of fashion at coffee-houses and was already of weight enough to court, and then to quarrel with, the great Mr. Wycherley. He had become the friend of Steele, Swift, Congreve, Gay, Arbuthnot, Atterbury and of another, who perhaps was not so ready to admit that the throne was vacant, Addison. For Addison's Cato, Pope had written the much-admired prologue in 1713. Thus there was nothing wonderful in the fact that he was chosen, as it were by the voice of Literature at large, to undertake the translation of Homer's Iliad, the first volume of which appeared in 1715 and the last in 1720. With this, he at once ascended the throne and, in the opinion of all reasonable persons, retained it until his death. The few rebels against his authority would have been less bitter if the new monarch had been of a less jealous, sensitive and revengeful temper.

Alexander was a devoted and affectionate son to his aged parents, a devoted friend to a very few who were equally devoted to him, a man of noble independence of spirit, who cared nothing for pensions and little for flattery (as contrasted with honest praise). Pope was yet a very hedgehog, nay a porcupine, when his self-esteem was assailed and was capable of infinite meanness and spite against its assailants. The number of people with whom he quarrelled was appalling. The occasions of quarrel were often trivial in the extreme, while the wounds he could inflict were terrible. In one of his invectives, he speaks of his critics as employing the weapons of women and children, a pin to scratch and a squirt to bespatter. His own far keener intellect, his perfect mastery of words and his great malevolence enabled him to use against them rather the dagger and to poison it with just enough truth to make the wounds gangrenous. Worse still, he would put the dagger into the hands of a third party, compel him to strike, and then pretend to write in defence of the wounded. Not only professional critics, Grub Street hacks, and piratical booksellers received his awful steel in their inward parts. If Bentley questioned his Homeric scholarship, or Theobald his Shakespearian, if Addison praised Tickell, if Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did not receive his gallantry quite as that of an equal, if his assistants in the Odyssey sought any of their fair share of praise for the translation, pillory in the Dunciad, or more fearful lampoons under some cloak of secrecy, awaited them. Such a person, perhaps ignorant of having given offence, might take up a new poem of Pope's at the bookseller's, read eagerly, then suddenly turn pale and exclaim, as some fearful thrust met his eyes, “He means me, by G”. It is horrible to read of the stratagems to which Pope resorted in order to obtain from Swift, when Swift's noble mind was all but a wreck, the correspondence of their friendship's days. It is uncertain whether he did or did not take a bribe from old Duchess Sarah of Marlborough to suppress some lines he had written on her; but those lines appeared after her death, the writer occasionally averring that they were directed at the address of another Duchess. To do him justice, Pope feared a Duchess as little as he feared Colley Cibber, poet laureate, or a bookseller's hack. If he had a thin skin he had a stout heart and, like Mr. Crump, he rather patronized persons of rank than cringed to them. Very rarely did his shafts fail to hit their mark, though when he substituted a new enemy for an old in a new edition of some famous satire (e.g. when he replaced Theobald by Cibber as the hero of the Dunciad), he was not always careful to alter the stage properties sufficiently. Yet Pope needed friends and sought them. With strange inconsistency of character, he actually won and retained the warm friendship of one old enemy, Warburton. Less to his credit, he clung tightly to Bolingbroke and was actually taken in by that very shallow infidel's philosophy, which he versified in the famous Essay on Man (1733). Never,” said Johnson of this, “were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.” Bolingbroke to some extent took the place of Pope's older friend Atterbury, exiled in 1723, and the exchange was a poor one for Pope.

The Iliad had made the poet, if not a rich man, independent for life. In 1716, he settled in London and, in 1719, bought his villa at Twickenham, where he spent the rest of his life. His friendship and admiration for Miss Martha Blount (and it was probably nothing actually warmer) was his greatest comfort. For her sister, Theresa, he felt, for a time, an almost equal affection, but this did not last. His very paltry edition of Shakespeare, which led to his controversy with the far more weighty scholar, Theobald, came in 1725. The Odyssey appeared in 1725-6. Only twelve books were actually Pope's work and his assistants were reasonably, though not extravagantly, paid for the other twelve. Pope received over £5,000 for it in all. Swift visited him twice at Twickenham soon after this and read the manuscript of the Dunciad, of which the first edition appeared in 1728, though it was not given under the author's own name till 1735. The Imitations of Horace followed hard on the Essay on Man, the Satires and other Moral Epistles in 1733-4; and the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, which contained the ungenerous lines on Addison, so terrible because so near the truth, came in 1735. The Epilogue to the Satires closed the Horatian cycle in 1738.

The controversy on the place of Pope among the poets only began with the rise of the Romantic School. Johnson had no doubts. The good old critic disliked the man, but when he contrasted the poet with his imitators, among whose placid inanities his own middle life had been passed, he could come to but one conclusion: “He had invention, imagination and judgement; if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?” Pope's perfectly felicitous diction appealed to an age which perhaps thought too much of diction, but Pope had perfect taste too, and surely no one except a 'post-Victorian' can afford to underrate that. The best plea for him is that Pope would have been a poet in any period, his faults and his limitations were those of his surroundings, his excellences were his own.

Edited from CRL Fletcher's 'Historical Portraits' (1919).

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