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The Pope project part II: on to Pope

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

The Pope project kicked off in earnest with Maynard Mack's formidable biography and a selection of poems that included An Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad, but notably not the translation of Homer. Some years back I picked up Pope's Iliad at the library when I decided to reread Homer but did not get far before setting it aside. The pentameters that come so readily and the rhymed couplets that Pope employs to superb effect in the satirical Dunciad ring false in Homer's epic. To be fair, my sense of the Homeric comes from other translations to whose faithfulness I cannot speak. It comes down to what I find more aesthetically pleasing in English. or to put it in less highfalutin terms, more convincing and fun to read.

Samuel Johnson, writing toward the end of the eighteenth century, acknowledged the issue of faithfulness. In his judgment more was gained from the grace Pope added to Homer than was lost:

It has been objected by some, who wish to be numbered among the sons of learning, that Pope's version of Homer is not Homerical; that it exhibits no resemblance of the original and characteristic manner of the father of poetry, as it wants his awful simplicity, his artless grandeur, his unaffected majesty. This cannot be totally denied but.… Time and place will always enforce regard. In estimating this translation, consideration must be had of the nature of our language, the form of our meter, and, above all, of the change which two thousand years have made in the modes of life and habits of thought.…

I suppose that many readers of the English Iliad, when they have touched on some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired if it be not gained at the expense of dignity.

The weight of time and place is as applicable to my take on Johnson as it is to his on Pope and Homer. I part company with reluctance and due respect. To my ear and sensibility, shaped by a quite different time and place than his, there is indeed in Pope's Iliad a loss of dignity and gravity, of the tone and timbre of Homer.

The opening of the Iliad as translated by Pope, Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Robert Fagles (1990) gives a taste of the different versions, Fitzgerald and Fagles being the translations I have on hand.


The wrath of Peleus' son, the direful spring

Of all the Grecian woes, O Goddess sing!

That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign

The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.

Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,

Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!


Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men—carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another—the Lord Marshall

Agamemnon, Atreus son, and Prince Akhilleus.


Rage—Goddess, the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Begin Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

My preference, offered as no more than that, personal, subjective, is for Fagles.

Mack's biography served as a good entry into Pope's life and times. A jacket blurb from New Statesman is fair: "A first-rate biography…Doubles as a masterful work of literary and cultural history." Mack covers in meticulous detail Pope and seemingly everyone in his orbit, friends, associates, allies, and adversaries, many of them prominent figures in the London of that era, a cast not of thousands but sufficient in number to merge at times into mind-numbing blur. To this is added a wealth of critical analysis of the poems worthy of its own weighty volume. At 975 pages, no wonder it demanded multiple renewals of my library copy. It is a good book to have read.

Samuel Johnon's Life of Pope was my other primary resource. The careers of Pope (1688–1744) and Johnson (1709–1784) overlapped slightly, but the two never met. Pope was impressed by Johnson's first major work, an adaptation of Juvenal's third satire, published in 1738, and made efforts to help Johnson by finding him a position as a tutor or schoolmaster.

Johnson is rewarding and a pleasure to read in his own right for his prose style, turns of phrase, and critical commentary. I take the liberty of quoting him extensively in what follows. Direct quotations are Johnson's words unless otherwise attributed in the text.

Alexander Pope was born in the year of the Glorious Revolution. Relations between Catholics and Protestants were already frayed when the Catholic James II became king in 1685. His pursuit of close relations with France, attempts to undermine the Anglican Church, and dissolution of Parliament did not go over well. When even James got it that the country, the people, nobles, high officials, the army, was overwhelmingly against him, he tossed the Great Seal into the Thames and split.

In the absence of functioning government during the interval between the abdication of James and the transfer of authority to his daughter Mary and his Dutch nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, both Protestant, chaos ensued in a scenario that rings familiar today. Individuals driven by religious animosity took to the streets of London, their ranks swelled by idle apprentices drawn to the excitement of a riot. Petty criminals took advantage of disorder to ply their trade. "[T]he cry of No Popery…was the signal for outrage and rapine." Roman Catholic places of worship and other buildings were demolished, books and furniture burned. "The King's printing house, whence had issued, during the preceding three years, innumerable tracts in defence of Papal supremacy, image worship, and monastic vows, was, to use a coarse metaphor which then, for the first time, came into use, completely gutted." (Thomas Macauley, History of England)

Though order and the regular course of government were reestablished with the assumption of the throne by William and Mary, it was not to anyone's advantage to be Catholic. Pope's parents were, as Johnson puts it, "Papist." One consequence was that university education and certain professions, medical, legal, and the like, were closed to him.

The elder Pope was a successful importer and exporter of linens until the revolution, after which he gave up his trade, moved to the village of Binfield, just outside London, and put his money in a chest, "taking from it as expenses required; and his life was long enough to consume a great part of it before his son came to the inheritance." He provided his son an allowance that was, according to Johnson, generous in relation to his means but insufficient to live on.

Pope was taught to read by an aunt and became a lover of books by the age of seven or eight. His early education came by way of a haphazard succession of private tutors, priests, and village schools, none apparently of any distinction. At eight he was taught the rudiments of Latin and Greek by a priest, at which time he was "first regularly initiated in poetry by the perusal" of Homer and Ovid.

Pope was what we would call today self-motivated. When he was twelve he devised his own curriculum, taking John Dryden (1621–1700) as the model for the study of poetry, which he determined early on would be his profession. He was "impressed with such veneration that he persuaded some friends to take him to a coffee-house which Dryden frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him."

Pope had a knack for impressing those whom he met and soon made a name for himself. As a young man, still in his teens, he sought out and attained friendship with men of distinction. Throughout his life he was "ambitious of splendid acquaintance…from his first entrance into the world, and his entrance was very early, he was admitted to familiarity with those whose rank or station made them conspicuous." For his part, he was as a friend "zealous and constant."

At sixteen Pope's Pastorals received received praise from poets and critics to whom it was handed about for several years prior to being printed. He declared himself a poet "and, thinking himself entitled to poetical conversation, began to frequent Will's, a coffee-house…where the wits of that time used to assemble, and where Dryden had, when he lived, been accustomed to preside."

Pope attests to his precocity and sense that poetry was the business of his life in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, where he writes that "As yet a child" he "lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came," by which he refers to meter, typically iambic pentameter in rhymed couplets, which came easily and naturally to him:

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown

Dipp'd me in ink, my parents', or my own?

As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,

I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.

I left no calling for this idle trade,

No duty broke, no father disobey'd.

The Muse but served to ease some friend, not wife,

To help me through this long disease, my life…

Reference to "this long disease, my life" was not just some poet's complaint of "woe is me." Pope suffered from what is thought to have been Pott's disease, bone tuberculosis, which left him crippled, humpbacked, dwarfish (four feet, six inches in height), and afflicted with severe headaches, poor vision, and "the standard horrors of eighteenth-century medical practices—purgings, vomiting, bleedings…" (Mack). At the end he suffered delirium for days at a time. His friend Bolingbroke (Henry St. John, a Tory leader and early conservative political theorist)

sometimes wept over him in this state of helpless decay, and being told…that Pope, at the intermission of his deliriousness, was always saying something kind about his present or absent friends, and that his humanity seemed to have survived his understanding, answered, "It has so.… I never in my life knew a man that had so tender a heart for his particular friends, or a more general friendship for mankind."

From Oliver Goldsmith comes an account of Voltaire's impression of Pope (quoted in Mack):

[Voltaire] has often told friends, that he never observed in himself such a succession of opposite passions as he experienced upon his first interview with Mr. Pope. When he first entered the room, and perceived our poor melancholy English poet, naturally deformed, and wasted as he was with sickness and study, he could not help regarding him with utmost compassion. But, when Mr. Pope began to speak, and to reason upon moral obligations, and dress the most delicate sentiments in the most charming diction, Voltaire's pity began to be changed into admiration and at last into envy. It is not uncommon with him to assert, that no man ever pleased him so much in serious conversation, nor any whose sentiments mended so much upon recollection.

A less charitable view comes from Michael Schmidt, who labels Pope a "businessman of letters" in a biographical sketch in his Lives of the Poets. Pope was, says Schmidt, "crudely ambitious, in respects dishonest, in love with his role as a poet and with material profit as a writer above all else." There is something to the charge, but it paints a lopsided picture that lacks the discrimination Schmidt attributes to Pope's friends, as even he allows that the poet "did command deep friendship from discriminating men," Jonathan Swift, John Gay (author of The Beggar's Opera), Bolingbroke. Johnson holds that Pope "was accused of loving money, but his love was eagerness to gain, not solicitude to keep it," and attests to his generosity to friends in need. On this subject, Johnson also remarks that "it would be hard to find a man, so well entitled to notice by his wit that ever delighted so much in talking of his money."

Pope, Swift, and Gay were among the founding members of the Scriblerus Club in 1712. The group's purpose

was to issue a satirical monthly periodical entitled The Works of the Unlearned in imitation of an existing journal called The Works of the Learned…They would draw up a mock biography of a certain Martinus Scriblerus, learned fool or lunatic polymath, who had "dipped in every art and science, but injudiciously in each." Through this fictive character, and through the adventures that could be attributed to him as well as the works he could be claimed to have written (including, of course, genuine current publications by dunces and learned pedants)…they could have at their disposal an instrument flexible enough to be turned on almost any learned folly: astrology, alchemy…medical quackeries, and, of course, the abuses of language in bad writing. (Mack)

Pope pursued his profession as a poet by selling subscriptions, a practice Johnson denotes as peculiar to the English, to his translations of Homer, his edition of Shakespeare, and letters between himself and his friends. These ventures were successful enough to enable him in 1718 to purchase a house at Twickenham, where he settled with his recently widowed mother and lived the remainder of his life. There he planted a celebrated garden and constructed a subterranean passage linking garden and house. The passage he dubbed a grotto, "a place of silence and retreat, from which he endeavored to persuade his friends and himself that cares and passions could be excluded." Of his mother's death the following year, Johnson tells us that while not unexpected, as she was ninety-three, it was not unlamented. Pope's filial piety "was in the highest degree amiable and exemplary…Whatever his pride, to them [his parents] he was obedient; and whatever his irritability, to them he was gentle."

The edition of Shakespeare drew harsh criticism for Pope's "improvements" of the bard's meter, other alterations, and the inclusion of corrupted text. A rival edition by Lewis Theobald pointed out errors and omissions in Pope and was judged superior. Pope did not take kindly to this and answered it in The Dunciad by placing Theobald at the head of the Dunces.

The letters involved a bit of chicanery on Pope's part. Publication of one's own correspondence was considered unseemly and could not be done without "imputation of vanity." It seems that Pope contrived for his letters to fall into the hands of Edmund Curll, "a rapacious bookseller of no good fame," Edmund Curll, who printed an unauthorized version. This permitted Pope to present himself under compulsion to publish an authorized edition to set the record straight.

Before continuing on to the poems, readers might find Johnson's reflections on Pope's method of composition of interest:

Some employ at once memory and invention, and, with little intermediate use of the pen, form and polish large masses by continued meditation, and write their productions only when, in their own opinion, they have completed them. It is related of Virgil that his custom was to pour out a great number of verses in the morning, and pass the day in retrenching exuberences and correcting inaccuracies. The method of Pope…was to write his first thoughts in his first words, and gradually to amplify, decorate, rectify, and refine them.

Wordsworth composed poems, and Nietzsche books, during long walks. My own method, if it can be called that, is some inchoate mess of all these approaches as I write and rewrite and rewrite some more, sometimes while walking, others at my desk, and yet again when the odd thought flits into consciousness while otherwise engaged, which when diligent I make haste to commit to paper lest it soon drift off into the aether.

Pope had already "learned the cant of an author" and begun "to treat critics with contempt" before he suffered anything from them. Many of these critics were mediocrities unknown to the public at large. An Essay on Criticism couples digs and jibes at offending critics with judicious guidance for the exercise of critical judgment. Quoting Cato, he offers this bit of advice that would serve poet and critic alike: "Have something to say and the words will take care of themselves." These few brief excerpts will, I hope, give a taste of the poem:

Some have at first for wits, then poets pass'd,

Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last;

Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,

As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.

. . .

Some drily plain, without invention's aid,

Write dull receipts how poems may be made:

These leave the sense, their learning to display,

And those explain the meaning quite away.

. . .

Be sure your self and your own reach to know,

How far your genius, taste, and learning go;

Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,

And mark that point, where sense and dulness meet.

Pope would have done well to heed his own guidance here when he wrote An Essay on Man, of which more anon.

An Essay on Criticism comes down to us with a number of expressions that have made their way into common currency, among them:

  • A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing

  • To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine

  • For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread

The mock-epic The Rape of the Lock was inspired by an incident in 1711 when Robert Lord Petre assaulted the "gentle belle" Arabella Fermor by cutting and pilfering a lock from her hair, thereby precipitating a rupture between the two families. Johnson deems the poem "the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of all his compositions." Again, a few excerpts for a taste of the action:

Just then Clarissa [a sylph] drew with tempting grace

A two-edg'd weapon from her shining case;

So ladies in romance assist their knight,

Present the spear, and arm him for the fight.

He takes the gift with rev'rence, and extends

The little engine on his fingers' end;

This just behind Belinda's neck he spread,

As o'er the fragrant steams she bends her head.

. . .

The peer now spreads the glitt'ring forfex wide

T' inclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.

. . .

Then flash'd the living lightning from her eyes,

And screams of horror rend th' affrighted skies.

Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,

When husbands or when lap-dogs breathe their last,

Or when rich China vessels, fall'n from high,

In glitt'ring dust and painted fragments lie!

Let wreaths of triumph now my temples twine,

(The Victor cry'd) the glorious prize is mine!

In The Dunciad Pope unleashed his satiric wit, laced in venom, endeavoring "to sink into contempt all the writers by whom he had been attacked, and some others whom he thought unable to defend themselves." Something of the poem may be lost to the general reader, such as myself, by virtue of the fact that his targets were for the most part mediocrities, scribblers of no particular note, little known to the general public. That the Dunce acolytes of Dulness, "Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night," possessed scant reputation to be tarnished did not stop them from being mightily offended.

Harold Bloom holds that Johnson "strongly misread The Dunciad, since he refused to believe the poem's design was moral. He found in it 'petulance and malignity enough,' granted it some beauties, and condemned 'the grossness of his images.'" Without denying petulance and malignity, Bloom finds in the poem Pope's "fear of universal madness, of the return to a nihilistic abyss." Pope is not, for Bloom, "quite the embattled defender of Enlightened England he declared himself to be," but there is more to the poem than "personal pathology or ideology." The vision is bleak enough and not without resonance today, in the year of our tumult, 2020:

Art after Art goes out, and all is night,

See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,

Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head!

Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,

Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.

. . .

Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,

And unawares Morality expires.

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!

Lo! thy dread empire, CHAOS! is restored;

Light dies before they uncreating word:

Thy hand, great anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And universal darkness buries all.

Not every poem is a poet's best. Invariably, perhaps even more so for great poets than for those of lesser accomplishment, poems are published that would best have been consigned to the desk drawer, the file cabinet, or the fireplace. Of An Essay on Man, Johnson says,

[It]was a work of great labor, and long consideration, but certainly not the happiest of Pope's performances. The subject is perhaps not very proper for poetry, and the poet was not sufficiently master of his subject; metaphysical morality was to him a new study, he was proud of his acquisitions, and supposing himself master of great secrets, was in haste to teach what he had not learned.

. . .

Having exalted himself into the chair of wisdom he tells us much that every man knows, and much that he does not know himself; that we see but little, and that the order of the universe is beyond our comprehension, an opinion not very uncommon…

This Essay affords an egregious instance of the predominance of genius, the dazzling splendor of imagery, and the seductive powers of eloquence. Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.

Bloom concedes that the poem is "an admirable project doubtless, but perhaps not suited to the Muse." Citing an especially unfortunate passage, he asserts, "The Muse here is the poet himself, trapped in the aesthetic impossibility of proclaiming that 'WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.'" I read only a brief except of the poem in Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry. There I found nothing that would incline me to doubt or dispute the judgments of Johnson and Bloom.

While I do not anticipate that I will return to Pope time and again, as I do with Wordsworth, Keats, Dickinson, and others, I enjoyed making an acquaintance with his life and world. The effort put into it was richly rewarded. The discipline and dedication with which Pope pursued poetry as his profession are as admirable as his gifts, the talent he brought to it, and all more so for the long disease, his life, under which he labored. Johnson claimed that Pope "may be said to have the tuned the English tongue, for since his appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody." That it was Pope, not Spenser or Shakespeare or Milton, was, says Bloom, "not Johnson's eccentric judgment, but the verdict of his age." It is sufficient to ask, with Johnson, "if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?" and with Bloom to rate him among the strongest poets of the language.

Pope died in 1744, at the close of an era of classicism in English poetry. Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751, foreshadowed the Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose emergence in the 1780s and '90s marked a profound change in poetic sensibility:

Before Wordsworth, poetry had a subject. After Wordsworth, its prevalent subject was the poet's own subjectivity. Before Wordsworth, any poet, professional or amateur, would in some sense choose a subject in order to write a poem. After Wordsworth, this is no longer true, and so a new poetry was born. (Bloom)

I do not know how many, if any, readers will find my modest account of the Pope adventure to be of interest. From my end, it closes the book on the project. Thanks for bearing with me.

Coming up: Back to topical hackery on the affairs of the day! and on to whatever project grips my fever'd brain!

Selections of Pope's poems can be found at About Alexander Pope, Academy of American Poets (, and Alexander Pope, Poetry Foundation.


  • Harold Bloom, "Alexander Pope," in The Best Poems of the English Language

  • Samuel Johnson, Life of Pope, in The Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, Signet, 1981 (pp. 373–463)

  • Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life, W.W. Norton, 1998

  • Michael Schmidt, "Three Friends: Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and Alexander Pope," in Lives of the Poets, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000 (pp. 277–293)

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