Birth and Parentage:
Alexander Pope, the most illustrious writer of the first half of the eighteenth century, and one who was regarded at least for three generations as one of the greatest poets ofThe Catholics by law were forbidden to live within ten miles of London, they were not allowed to serve in parliament or hold any office of profit under the crown. His grandfather (also an Alexander Pope) was a clergyman of the Church of England and a rector of a Hampshire parish. His father, the rector's son, was placed in an English house at Lisbon, where he became a Roman Catholic. We know little about the poet's childhood, although a few anecdotes of his early years are preserved by his half-sister, Mrs. Racket and other relatives. We learn on authority that he was originally a plump and healthy child, with a singularly sweet air and voice, but it was his incessant application with which he studied from twelve upwards, which ruined his constitution and caused a curvature of his spine.
, was born in 1688 in England . He was the son of another Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic tradesman, living in the city of London and doing the linen wholesale trade. The Catholics at this time suffered from a number of handicaps and the followers of this religion were looked upon with suspicion and were open to persecution. London
His Education and literary acquaintances:
About the year 1700 it is said that the poet's father gave up business and retired into the country. He went to live at Binfield, a village about nine miles from Windsor, where the major part of the poet's life was spent. Education for a Roman Catholic at a grammar-school was not possible, unless they were ready to forswear their creed. Law forbade them to send their children to school out of the country and it was also out of the question to send them to educational establishments kept by persons of their own faith in England since Papists were not allowed to keey schools. The education at the universities for the children of the Roman Catholics suffered from the same disadvantage. It was almost a hole-and-corner affair for them, even if it existed at all for them. Pope's education like-wise was irregular. At first he was placed under the care of a priest at the age of eight. A year after he was sent to a school of his own religion at Twiford near Winchester, and later to a school at Marylebone, kept by one Deane who, at the Revolution, had been expelled from his fellow-ship at Oxford as a non-juror. The school was wholly inefficient, therefore at the age of thirteen he was taken home and put for a few months under the tuition of another priest. For most of the part he was self-educated; he studded at home himself and without any proper guidance. He told Spence that he practically taught himself Greek, Latin and French. He read much, and with little guidance in the great English writers. Before he was eighteen Spenser, Waller, and Dryden had become his favourites. He was a precocious child with a sharp and intelligent brain and he could make the best of the limited opportunities which he had at his disposal and within a few years he became a master of some of the best writers in English, French, Italian, and Greek. His life was saved, for his his health almost broke down by constant hard work at books, and was probably saved by the sound advice given to him by Dr. Radcliffe to read less and to ride on horseback everyday. Amonn the writers whose influence he felt most immensely at this time, mention may be made of Dryden, who taught him versification as he himself acknowledged later on. Life at Binfield was secluded ; there were very few distractions of the city life here, consequently Pope got a favourable ground and ample scope for the furtherance of his literary ambitions. Besides, his father was sympathetic to them and he was , encouraged by him in his literary pursuits. It was Pope's good luck that he became acquainted with a number of literary men of distinction. He was frequently visiting London where he made the acquaintance of Wycherley, the noted Restoration dramatist. , He corrected the dramatist's verses and frankly declared that they were worthless. This led to a break-up between the two and they parted company. He got himself introduced to and acquainted with William Walsh, who advised him "to be correct which he very faithfully cherished and cultivated throughout his life." He laboriously perfected his style when he was in the early twenties and the rest of his life was devoted to achieving correctness, wherein consists his just claim to fame and greatness. He became a poet early and as he himself has stated.
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame.
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
His prosperous poetic career:
Pope's first published works are contained in the sixth part of the Poetical Miscellanies, published in 1709 by Jacob Tonson, the most distinguished publisher of the times. It also includes the Pastorals, which had already been circulated in manuscript form to a few discriminating friend, his imitations of Ovid's Epistle from Sappho to Phaon, of Chaucer's Merchant's Tale (January and May) besides poems and translations by Rowe, the dramatist, Swift and Wycherley, and other eminent hands. It is said to have been written when Pope was sixteen years of age. The nine years viz., from 1708—1717 were years of experiment, which saw the poetic power of Pope reaching perfection after constant application to learn his craft. The pastoral poetry was above all trite and artificial, made by rule, and by a bad rule, an imitation of an imitation. There is not in the whole four of Pope's Pastorals a Single line which shows that he ever saw for himself with genuine delight a single flower or bird in the fields about his pretty Berkshire village. His Pastorals may have been written as early as 1704. It was generally felt that the young poet had made a good start. They were praised by Wycherley warmly in his lines To My Friend Mr. Pope.
His next venture was Essay on Criticism, probably written in 1709, when he was twenty, but not published till two years after. It marks a great advance in Pope's art. The subject he had now chosen suited his genius and the opportunity was availed of him with striking effect. The critics were full of praise. Addison ranked it as a "masterpiece in its kind," as it was original, elegant and perspicuous. One writer only, John Dennis, had attacked it.
About this time he made the acquaintance of his life-long friend, Martha Blount. The Blounts were an old Roman Catholic family living in Mapledurham, not far from Binfield. The two sisters who resided with their widowed mother, corresponded with Pope, and he seems to have had a genuine affection for the elde. Marthar to the end of his life.
Pope wrote by Steele's desire his Ode for Music on St. Cecilia's Day in 1711. Next year he is found contributing to the Spectator an imitation of Virgil's fourth Eclogue, generally known as the Pollio. The modern readers will regard the poem as laboured and unconvincing. His chief contribution was The Rape of the Lock. It achieved a popularity which it had never lost, after its separate publication in 1714 in five cantos, with the addition of the fanciful mythology of the sylphs and gnomes.
The young poet had by now made the acquaintance of Addison, Steele, Swift, Gay and other literary friends. He visited Will's coffee House, where Dryden had once an undisputed sway and Burton's which Addison had set up in 1712 as a meeting place for the Whigs' wits. Here he chanced to meet Ambrose Philips, Budgell, Tickell, Rowe, and the other writers chiefly connected with Addison and the Whigs. But he avoided to align himself with any political party.
One of his early poems viz, Windsor Forest was completed in 1713 and published in the same year. It exhibits the same vagueness of observation and the same lack of delight in pature as the Pastorals. Here and there we get some evidence of an eye for colour but the interest of the poet does not consist in the "lawns and op'ning glades," the "hills, vales, and floods".
In 1713 he also contributed six or seven prose essays to the Guardian, Steele's paper. One of them is said to have helped in bringing about a split between pope and Addison.
Pope's translation of Homer brought Pope money and honour, but which is regarded as the least satisfactory achievement of his. His Iliad is dedicated to the retired dramatist, Congreve. It survived the controversies which in an alarming proportion had gathered round it and was considered as the ideal translation of the eighteenth century. It even now retains its hold on the public in spite of all the faults—its want of accuracy, its disregard for the spirit of the original, its artificiality, its monotony, and half a dozen others besides—that are contained in it. Iliad was completed at Cheswick, where Pope and his parents had moved from the sylvan retreats of Binfield. This great undertaking, it is said, had weighed heavily on him.
His Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady was published in 1717. This poem shows more tenderness than is found in any other of his works.
Pope's father died in 1718. He then shifted with his mother to Twickenham. Here he leased a small house by the river and five acres of land. His house consisted of a small hall paved with stone, and two small parlours on each side of the upper storey, having the same accommodation almost. The plot which lay opposite to his cottage was laid in the fashion of landscape-gardening. Here Lord Bolingbroke, Lord Peterborough, Swift, Gay and other friends paid visits to him. His health did not permit him to drink heavily at this time, but during his frequent visits to London he pretended to be a rake.
Lady Mary Wortley Montague, a blue-stocking, came to live at Twickenham in the same year as Pope, and within a short time, a fierce quarrel broke out between them. It is certain that in the beginning of 1728, Pope attacked her several times with the greatest grossness and brutality.
One of his least successful undertakings was his edition of Shakespeare, which appeared in 1725. In the seventeenth century four editions of Shakespeare appeared, none of them in any sense critical. Pope's edition of Shakespeare came in the wake of Rowe's, and whatever its faults, it had the merit of greatly increasing the interest of the people in the plays of Shakespeare. Pope knew too little of Elizabethan literature and was too much overpowered by the influences and standards of his own age to make a respectable editor, and his readings are by and large unsatisfactory. But to his credit goes the task of involuntarily rousing Lewis Theobald, (1688-1744) an unknown poet, but a textual critic of great ability, to undertake the task, not completed well by Pope himself.
In 1727-28 appeared three volumes of Miscellanies in Prose and Verse which was the joint work of Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot and Gay. It consists of burlesques on various literary forms. Dunciad, a poem whose history of its publication is rather complicated, was written not only as a part of a scheme, but as a direct effect of the publication of the Miscellanies. The poem is a burlesque epic, which is modelled on Dryden's Macflecknoe, but it is on a much larger scale. In his final form it consists of over 1750 lines as against Dryden's 217 and there is besides, the enormous apparatus of introductory essay, notes etc. The satire is admirably keen, but the joke is on too gigantic a scale. The poem is too malevolently cruel, besides it is coarse in no uncommon degree. The satire of Pope is often as nasty as it is incisive.
Lord Bolingbroke supplied with nearly all the raw material to Pope for his Essay on Man and suggestions for the general form of the poem, and the order in which the topics are to be treated. The poem aims to vindicate the ways of God to man by an appeal to reason and this is followed by a debate on man's place in nature his capacities, rights and duties. It also introduces a good case for what is called optimism, the doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds. He has effectively and antithetically reinforced by the device of rhetoric, asserted that "whatever is right" and to imply that free-will, revelations, miracles and answers to prayer were all unreal. In spite of attacks and still more damaging defences, the Essay on Man became the most popular moral poem ever written. Many translations were made of it into French, German, Italian and other languages, and Voltaire, Marmontel and Kant all paid tributes to it. The poem illustrates well that Pope had in a marvellous degree the ability to present his ides in a crisp, definite, musical and memorable way.
Pope had been in the meanwhile producing the Moral Essays and the Satires. The Espile on Taste is addressed to Lord Burlington, (the first of the Moral Essays). The others in this series are on the Characters of Men, addressed to Lord Cohham (1733), on the Use of Riches to Lord Bathurst (1733) and on the Characters of Women (1735) addressed to Addison. The Satires fall between the years 1733 and 1738. They are introduced by the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot published in 1735. They all are an evidence of the fact that Pope's ability to say unpleasant things in a brilliant-manner was greater than evet at this time. He attacked his literary and personal enemies and many other persons. Cibber and Cyrill, Addison and Lord Harvey, Lady Many Wortley Montague, the Duke of Chandos and the Duchess of Marlborough, and lastly, King George himself, were all help up for contempt in a delightfully ironic imitation of Horace's Epistle to Augustus.
Last years and Death; By this time Pope had lost most of his older friends. His mother to whom he was a most tender and devoted son after years of suffering expired in 1732. Gay also died in 1732, both Arbuthnot and Lord Peterborough in 1735. Lord Bolingbroke had settled—down in France, Swift was in Ireland and he was ill. Cyrill died in 1736. He had made a few new friends too. Whatever friends remained of old and whatever new friends he made, he kept up with them a steady correspondence. His life with the passage of time was getting lonelier, but his absorbing interest in poetry rescued him from an utter sense of desolation and despondancy. His health was breaking down day by day and reduced him to a state of abject dependence upon others. He could not rise and dress himself without help He was so sensitive to cold that he had to put on a number of clothes one over the other. One of his sides was contracted and his legs were so thin that he had to wear three pairs of stockings. He frequently suffered from severe headaches which were relieved by drinking coffee frequently. But his fiery spirit and energetic mind always assisted him to triumph over his physical weakness and religious handicaps. He worked persistently and in his later years produced some of his best works. His continuous and indefatigable pursuit of studies and composition of poetry caused a heavy strain on his failing health and it was now more than evident that his end was coming nearer and nearer. He distributed his latest work, Moral Epistles, among his friends, three weeks before his death, stating that "here I am, like Socrates, dispensing my morality amongst my friends, just as I am dying." He had a peaceful end on May 30th, 1744 and was buried in Twikenham church near the monument erected to his parents. He had an immense reputation at the time of his death and other poets of his age are at best only poetasters, when compared with him.