The most eminent and representative poet of his time:
Pope was the most eminent and the most representative poet of his time. He directed and satisfied the poetic taste of his contemporaries. He expressed the predominant thought and sentiment of men about him, and he won for himself a central place among the wits, philosophers, and statesmen of a brilliant age. To most of the critics he is the spokesman of a dead time, separated from others by the most fundamental differences in its ideals of literature and life. He is bound up with that time so absolutely and intimately that we must try to enter it in imagination if we understand and sympathise with its typical poet.
Characteristics of the age:
Pope represents best the characteristics of the early 18th century. Its merits and defects alike are reflected in his verse and he stands above the numerous versifiers, who may be said to belong to this period. The literary characteristics of the age are emphasis on wit and good sense, a genius for satire, a regard for correctness and an avoidance of extremes. The poets are no more inspired by passion or enthusiasm. Wit takes precedence over imagination and nature (outward reality is concealed in artifice.) It was an age of prose, reason and intellectuality and even the poetry of the period was prosaic. Pope's poetry is marked by rationality and hard intellectuality, characteristics eminently suited to prose. His themes are prosaic-criticism, moral philosophy and satire—which are based on critical analysis and discussion. He is the most "correct" of the English poets. Pope, as Johnson pointed out, wrote for an age which was characteristically his own and he exhibits extraordinary-art in ministering to the literary and critical tastes of his age. The world of poetry is wide enough to contain a Juvenal, the satirist of corrupt Rome, as well as Dante, the seer and the prophet. He (Pope) illustrates his desire for perfection of style, its cynical disbelief in the possibility of virtue in man or woman. His world was narrow and ignoble ; but, such as it was, he interpreted it with minuteness and truth of a great artist. We should not therefore hesitate to grant to Pope his place and his praise, not because he wrote the noblest or the highest kind of poetry, but because he fills his own place, and does his work honestly and well.
His works as mirror of contemporary life and values:
Pope's Essay on Criticism admirably sums up the critical commonplaces of the time. It sums up the art of poetry as taught first by Horace, then by Boileau, and the eighteenth century classicists. It is a rich storehouse of critical maxims, such as "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread," "To err is human, to forgive divine." "A little learning is a dangerous thing,'" "True wit is nature to advantage dressed," etc., which have found their way into the English common speech. It is a didactic poem in which many of the established rules of composition are restated in a terse and clever fashion it was an age of criticism, an age when men ought to write according to the classical precedents and Pope's poem was in perfect accord with the mood of the time.
Pope unveiled the jealousy, recriminations and wretchedness of the literary class of his times in Dunciad. Beginning as a controversy concerning Shakespeare, it turned out to be a coarse and revengeful satire upon all the literary men of the age who had aroused Pope's anger by their criticism or lack of appreciation of his genius. A poem on "dunces" Dr. Johnson once said contemptuously and then turned to poor Boswell and added, "it was worth while being a dunce then. Ah, sir, had them lived in those days."
He made himself the mouthpiece of one of its leading philosophers in the Essay on Man. It sums up the current ethical code. The poem not only throws light on the characters of the poetasters Grub street, but it also shows the decline of educational and literary standards, and the pedantry and corruption in high places. The purpose of the poem is, in Pope's words, to "vindicate the ways of God to Man," and as there are no unanswered problems in Pope's philosophy the vindication is perfectly accomplished, in four poetical epistles, concerning man's relations to the universe, to himself, to society and to happiness. It, like the Essay on Criticism, abounds in lines, which are quotable and easily to be remembered.
The Rape of the Lock is a poem so graceful, delicate, cynical and witty that it seems to embody not only the peculiar flavour of his genius, but the light, tone, and shifting colours of his time. It as the most representative poem of its age, for after all it describes and expresses only a fragment of the nation's life. It introduces is to a little world of frivolity and fashion, busy with its pleasures, its dressing, flirting and card-playing in the old London of Queen Anne. It is true that the life of the passing hour is made immortal in art, yet that life is not the life of the nation but of a group of idlers in the town. Pope was, however, representative of its very narrowness in the poem. In those days; fashion, wit, literature and politics met in London. There, it was felt, was the life of England, and outside lay a region, little thought of and seldom visited, a dull place with stupid squires, and muddy roads where every one was behind the times. Town was supreme, and Pope, the poet of the town, represented its supremacy. It grew out of that artificial society which it depicts or satirises, for it was suggested by an actual occurrence in the fashionable world. It is the story of a day in the life of a London beauty where little is made great and great little in a mock-heroic manner.
The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot does not exhibit him as a profound, consistent, or original thinker, but he had something, which it contains, which may fairly be called wisdom. It is the wisdom of a close, though superficial, observer of life and manners, as he knew them in the club, the drawing-room and the street.