Pope, Alexander (1688 - 1744)

Biography: 

Alexander Pope, born in London at 6:45 p.m. on 21 May 1688 to linen merchant Alexander Pope and his second wife Edith Turner Pope, became the defining poetic force of his age. His poetic accomplishments contrast sharply with the physical disabilities and trying circumstances that plagued him. As a child, he survived being trampled by a cow but struggled with tuberculosis of the spine (Potts’ Disease) and crippling headaches throughout his life. The poet and his family also fell victim to the repressive measures taken against Catholics after the abdication of King James II and the ascension of the Protestant William and Mary, including prohibitions against openly practicing their faith and against living within ten miles of London. Later, Pope’s Catholicism would effectively bar him from the kind of open patronage by members of the court that had provided poets like John Dryden with a living. Pope’s poetic career testifies to his resiliency in the face of disadvantages of health and circumstance. Pope’s family lived in London until 1700 when the poet’s now-retired father moved the household to the village of Binfield in Windsor Forest. The move introduced Pope to the countryside that would inspire his early pastorals, and the ambitious georgic Windsor-Forest (1713). Pope’s early schooling was erratic and his faith precluded his attending university, but he became a model autodidact after the move to Binfield. He taught himself Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, and the mark of his success lies in his translations of Homer, his imitations of Horace, and, more broadly, in his close relationship with many of the best minds of his time including Jonathan Swift and, later, Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke. According to Reuben Brower, “Pope became after Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton the most European of English poets” (The Poetry of Allusion) because his learning and facility with Latin and Greek allowed him to follow and surpass Dryden’s example as a poet, critic, and translator. Like Dryden, much of Pope’s poetry, and all of his major poems, are inextricably linked to his mastery of the heroic couplet. Aubrey Williams goes so far as to praise Pope’s early Pastorals for introducing “a couplet style more refined and musical than any before in English versification” (DLB 95). In Pope’s hands a form that has since gone progressively moribund, but which was ubiquitous in his day, could move seamlessly from pastoral to satire to epic or moral epistle and be consistently effective. His Essay on Criticism (1711) established Pope as a significant poetic voice. It also prompted the first of many printed, personal attacks. John Dennis, a prominent critic whom Pope ridiculed in the Essay, aimed his venomous response at Pope’s ailing body, his character, and his religious faith. Joseph Addison, on the other hand, praised Pope for both insight and execution, and Samuel Johnson later hailed the poem for exhibiting “every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactick composition” (Life of Pope). Windsor-Forest, The Rape of the Lock, and The Temple of Fame followed and confirmed Pope’s place among celebrated poets, a place marked again by the publication of The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope. Pope was only 29. If Pope’s translations of Homer have received less attention than his other works over the years, it is only because translations rarely receive their due. He spent nearly a decade translating Homer’s Greek into English heroic couplets and may have damaged his fragile health in the process. The success of the result entrenched Pope as his generation’s foremost man of letters. More importantly, Pope achieved financial security and independence through subscription sales of his translations, an accomplishment that allowed him to “retire” to a villa at Twickenham. Pope cultivated his public persona throughout his career, presenting himself as the union of moral philosopher and inspired poet. This persona was vital to the satires and epistles that have stood as perhaps his most characteristic and enduring legacy. The moral arbiter who had gently chastised Robert Lord Petre and Arabella Fermor in the Rape of the Lock proceeded to far more aggressive mock-heroic verses in The Dunciad before following the Roman poet Horace’s model of witty, urbane epistles on serious subjects and mocking satires. The epistle was to be a dominant form for the rest of Pope’s career including the Moral Essays, the Essay on Man, the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, and the Imitations of Horace. Pope rarely followed another poet’s example without excelling his model (his edition of Shakespeare being a notable exception). It might be going too far to say Pope excelled Horace, but he certainly surpassed his predecessors in the form of creative translation called Imitation. Abraham Cowley, John Oldham, Dryden, and the Earl of Rochester had all engaged in a form of both translating and transforming classical texts to their own ends, but in Pope’s hands the form became more flexible, multifaceted, resonant. Much of Pope’s satirical verse was motivated by either his disdain for the legion of inferior writers who attacked him in print, and for many others whose only crime was their inferiority in Pope’s estimation, or his political agenda. Pope followed Bolingbroke in opposing the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, and even directed barbs at George III in The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated, subtitled ‘To Augustus’. It was one of two significant and protracted battles Pope would lose, and his late poems, such as One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty, are coloured by a degree of despair on the poet’s part. The other battle was with his always-fragile health. Alexander Pope died on 30 May 1744, just over a week past his 56th birthday.

Given Name: 
Alexander
Family Name: 
Pope
Birth Date: 
May 21, 1688
Death Date: 
May 30, 1744
Nationality: 
Family Relations: 
father : Alexander Pope
mother : Edith Pope
sister : Magdalen Rackett
Spoken Languages: 

Religion

Literary Period: 
Literary Movement: 
First RPO Edition: 
1997