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Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Known from childhood as the "little nightingale" because of his beautiful voice and turns of phrase, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) would become one of the foremost English poets of his generation. His poetry often touches on religious and philosophical topics, but he is better known for his satire, which ruthlessly attacked anyone who failed to live up to Pope's own high standards. Despite living with a severe disability and in an age when his religion disbarred him from most forms of public life, Pope weaponized his formidable talents to such an extent that he could, by 1737, "be proud to see / Men not afraid of God, afraid of me" ("Imitations of Horace", Dialogue 2).

Alexander Pope Biography

Alexander Pope was born into a prosperous middle-class family in London. His father, also named Alexander Pope, was a successful cloth merchant who had married Editha Turner, a member of a prominent Catholic family from Yorkshire. Shortly after his birth, the family moved out of central London, settling in Binfield near Windsor Forest in accordance with a law that forbade Catholics from living within ten miles of the city center. Pope’s parents were both already in their 40s when he was born and were wealthy enough to retire following the move.

After the founding of the Church of England in 1534, Catholics had a precarious place in English government and society, their fortunes changing rapidly based on the religious preferences of Kings and Queens.

In 1688, the year of Pope's birth, the Protestant William of Orange took the throne from the Catholic-friendly Stuart monarchy. This is known in English history as the Glorious Revolution. Following this change of government, a series of harsh anti-Catholic laws were instituted.

Catholics would not be able to serve in Parliament, hold any type of government office, or even attend England's major universities until after the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act.1

Alexander Pope enjoyed his boyhood in the countryside but had mixed experiences at school. After he was beaten by his teachers at the Twyford School in Hampshire, his parents withdrew him. He returned home, where he had occasional tutors but was largely self-educated.

Alexander Pope Binfield Windsor Forest StudySmarterPope grew up in Binfield, a rural area outside of London near Windsor Forest. Pixabay.

Always short and thin, Pope contracted tuberculosis of the spine when he was 12, also known as Pott’s disease. This caused pain and disability for the remainder of Pope’s life, giving him a kyphotic (hunched) spine and limiting his height to about 4’6”.

As a teenager, Pope began traveling into London more and more frequently. He learned French and Italian there and started frequenting the literary coffee houses where famous writers would gather. Pope entered the literary scene with the publication of his "Pastorals" in 1709 and his "Essay on Criticism" in 1711. Both displayed Pope’s exceptional talent and craftsmanship but were largely overlooked at first. Two years later, he gained real attention with "The Rape of the Lock", a mock-heroic poem making light of a trivial social faux-pas that had caused a rift between two prominent families.

Pope now began to move among the upper circles of London literary society. He came up with a plan to secure his financial independence: he would translate Homer’s Iliad in installments, delivering them as part of a paid subscription service. Using his connections, he hoped to be able to find many well-heeled subscribers. The plan, the first of its kind, proved enormously successful and netted Pope over £9,000 (well over £1,000,000, adjusted for inflation). Pope was now financially free to pursue whatever work he chose. One of the first things he did was set himself up in a rural estate in Twickenham, just outside of London. He would build a garden complete with a grotto that he would obsessively improve upon for the rest of his life.

In these years, Alexander Pope also became increasingly close with Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), and Thomas Parnell (1679-1718). Together, these friends invented a persona they named Martinus Scriblerus and collaboratively wrote satire in his name. They used these writings to publish humorous satirical attacks on pomposity and dullness. This loose association was known as the Scriblerus Club, and its members Scriblerians.

Alexander Pope Portratir 1717 StudySmarterA depiction of Alexander Pope, circa 1717. Library of Congress.

Throughout this period, Pope gained many enemies as well as friends. He was often ruthlessly mocked for his height, disability, and religion. His credentials to translate Homer were openly questioned (and it is true that he knew little Greek). When he later edited a volume of William Shakespeare’s works, a well-known Shakespearean scholar named Lewis Theobald publicly accused him of editorial incompetence. This was mostly par for the course in the cutthroat world of early 18th century London literary society, and Pope gave as well as he got. In 1728, he published "The Dunciad", which ruthlessly mocked his enemies in brilliantly polished verse (Theobald became "Tibbald, King of Dunces"). "The Dunciad" is still widely studied today, though most of Pope’s targets are themselves forgotten to history.

In the 1730s, Pope developed a friendship with Henry St. John, 1st Viscount of Bolingbroke, with whom he would have long philosophical discussions. This led to one of Pope’s most famous poems, "An Essay on Man". First published in 1734, it was a brilliant and witty summary of popular Enlightenment-era philosophical and theological beliefs, widely admired in its time.

"An Essay on Man" would be Pope’s last major work. By 1740, his parents and many of his closest friends had died. He had also become estranged from the ailing Jonathan Swift, who rarely left his estate in Ireland anymore. Pope’s own health issues, related to the disease he had contracted in childhood, continued to worsen as he aged. He passed away in 1744 at his estate in Twickenham.2

Alexander Pope's Beliefs

Alexander Pope was a spokesman for religious and philosophical views that were consonant with a cluster of Enlightenment-era beliefs known as Deism. Pope was also a fierce moralist, believing his gift for writing should be used to further his ethical views. His targets were typically chosen for their pomposity, stupidity, or dullness. While Pope was somewhat apolitical for much of his career, towards the end of his life he joined a group that was critical of government corruption and absolutism.

Religious and Philosophical Beliefs

Pope identified as a Catholic for the entirety of his life, but his religious beliefs were heavily influenced by the emphasis on reason and denunciation of superstition that were increasingly common in the Enlightenment. In his "Essay on Man", Pope provides a summary of a set of religious and philosophical beliefs known as Deism, which he seems to endorse.

For Pope and the Deists, God exists as a creator, designer, or first cause of the universe. God does not intervene directly in the world. Because God is benevolent, the world God created is essentially orderly and good. This is variously known as the idea of "providential order" or "optimism," that everything is for the best in part of God's larger plan. A related idea is that of the "Great Chain of Being," that everything in the world has its proper place, which is in principle discoverable by reason. Pope was skeptical of the ability of human beings to fully understand God's plan and creation, cautioning reasoned skepticism and humility.

Ethical Beliefs

Pope strongly believed that writers and poets had a duty to morally improve as well as to entertain their readers, to “delight and instruct” in the famous words of the Roman poet Horace. His "Essay on Man", for example, cautions against excessive pride and selfishness. But his preferred method of moral improvement was satire, selecting his targets for unflattering imitation or ruthless mockery. Pope was particularly outraged by pretension and dullness on the part of published authors who failed to either entertain or offer any kind of moral vision. Writing and publishing something of inferior quality was, to him, a moral failing, and so he felt justified in attacking anyone who fell short of his high standards.

Alexander Pope's Writing Style

Alexander Pope wrote almost exclusively in poetic verse. His highly polished writing style is often associated with the neoclassical movement in England, which sought to revive the glory of ancient Greek and Roman literature in a contemporary context. They did this not only through a rich engagement with and reference to classical literature, but through adhering to a series of formal rules in their writing. Some examples of what this looks like in Pope’s writing are his use of heroic couplets, his abundant use of classical allusion, and the painstaking craftsmanship with which his poems represented their subjects.

Heroic Couplets

Pope’s preferred method of writing poetry was the heroic couplet.

A heroic couplet is a pair of rhyming lines written in iambic pentameter.

Heroic couplets were a popular way of translating Greek epics into English, so they would have instantly given Pope's readers a flavor of classical literature and epic heroism. Pope used this to great effect, especially in his mock-heroic writing, where he would write about everyday or unimportant subjects in this style.

Alexander Pope is an acknowledged master of the heroic couplet, maintaining this strict form for hundreds of lines at a time without forcing rhymes or resorting to awkward sentence structures.

Alexander Pope Greece Acropolis Statues Columns StudySmarterIdeals from classical Greek and Rome played an important role in Pope's thinking and writing. Pixabay.

A Mirror Up to Nature

Alexander Pope took seriously the 18th-century idea that the point of art was to try to imitate nature. He not only painstakingly chose his words to convey accurate descriptions but also thought carefully about the emotional connotation that his diction would have, even laboring over how to organize vowel sounds and stress patterns to produce the appropriate pacing in his lines. A famous example from his "Essay on Criticism" illustrates this point, as well as giving examples of his use of the heroic couplet and classical allusion:

When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,

The line too labours, and the words move slow;

Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,

Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.

Here in the first couplet about Ajax, the muscle-bound warrior from Homer’s Iliad, Pope manages to slow the reader down through his use of monosyllabic words with long, rounded vowels and awkwardly placed stresses (“line too labors” and “words move slow”). When describing the Roman Camilla, a warrior famous for her speed, Pope forces the reader to pick up the pace with a greater number of unstressed syllables, short vowels, and contractions. The result is that the sound of each line also reflects the subject it describes.

Alexander Pope's Poems

Alexander Pope had a vast literary output over the course of his fairly short life. Nearly all of his writing was poetry, including many of his so-called "epistles" or letters. The "Essay on Criticism", "Windsor Forest", "The Rape of the Lock", "The Dunciad'", and "The Essay on Man" are some of his best-known works.

"Essay on Criticism" (1711)

One of Pope’s earliest publications, this highly polished verse essay in three parts provides advice on how to produce and criticize poetry. Despite its virtuosity and quotability, it did not immediately receive much recognition.

"The Rape of the Lock" (1711-14)

This poem was inspired by a real event in which a man named Robert, seventh Baron Petre, cut off a lock of hair from a young woman named Arabella Fermor without her permission. Arabella and Robert each belonged to prominent families, and the event caused a rift between them. Pope tried to defuse the situation by writing a comedic account of it in mock-heroic style. He was successful by all accounts: the parties involved had a good laugh, and the poem was so well received that he continued working on it, expanding the original two cantos into five for its 1714 re-publication.

"The Dunciad" (1728-43)

Originating from short poems that Pope had scrawled on scrap paper for amusement, "The Dunciad" is a series of unflattering descriptions of and attacks on Pope’s enemies. After being encouraged to publish it by Jonathan Swift, Pope continued updating "The Dunciad", even adding a preface by the imaginary literary persona Martinus Scriblerus. Interestingly, most of Pope’s targets would have faded into total obscurity had he not ruthlessly mocked them in this poem.

Alexander Pope Dunciad 1754 StudySmarterAn illustration from a 1754 edition of 'The Dunciad'. Library of Congress.

"Essay on Man" (1733)

Pope’s last major poem, the "Essay on Man" gives a highly readable overview and summary of some key Enlightenment-era philosophical and religious ideas. In memorable language, he describes the Deist picture of an intelligent, benevolent, all-powerful God who nonetheless does not intervene in the world, of a perfect order and harmony of things in the universe, and of the necessity for human beings to curb their pride and understand the limits of their knowledge and reasoning abilities.

Alexander Pope Quotes

Alexander Pope was a virtuoso poet, and his form of choice, the heroic couplet, resulted in many pithy, witty, memorable quotations. Many of these have entered the English language as idioms.

Pope's early "Essay on Criticism" is an excellent source of memorable one-liners. Discussing critics and readers who are eager to read and discuss anything, regardless of its quality, he notes:

For fools rush in where angels fear to tread. (line 625)

In the same poem, he famously gives advice on how to make teaching and criticism more effective:

Men must be taught as if you taught them not.

And things unknown proposed as things forgot (lines 574-75)

Again in the same poem, Pope cautions against taking praise or blame from critics too seriously with the famous line:

To err is human; to forgive, divine (line 525)

Perhaps the most famous line from the "Essay on Criticism" is Pope's caution against the dangers of superficial learning. Urging aspiring writers to think and research deeply, he cautions that:

A little learning is a dangerous thing (line 215)

In "An Essay on Man", Pope notes that some people will suffer and be miserable; yet since no one can know their fate, he recommends simply remaining hopeful:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,

Man never Is, but always To be blest (Epistle 1, lines 95-6)

Alexander Pope - Key takeaways

  • Born in London into a prosperous Catholic family in 1688, Alexander Pope quickly established himself as part of the early 18th-century literary scene.
  • Alexander Pope suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, which caused paid, deformed his spine, and limited his height.
  • Much of Pope's writing is satirical, attacking the pretensions, dullness, and stupidity in London's intellectual scene.
  • Pope's writing style made extensive use of heroic couplets and allusions to the classical world.
  • One of Pope's last major works, "An Essay on Man," summarizes contemporary Deist views on God, the Universe, and Man's place in it.

References

1. J. Merriman. A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Present. Norton, 2010.

2. B. Dobree. Alexander Pope. Oxford UP, 1966.

3. P. Rogers (editor). Alexander Pope: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Frequently Asked Questions about Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was one of the most prominent English poets and satirists of the early 18th century.

Alexander Pope was not poisoned, but it is possible that he himself poisoned one of his enemies. Pope's disability meant that he was physically unable to fight a duel, which would have been the normal response to a public insult.

Alexander Pope was best known for his razor sharp wit, the careful craftsmanship of his writing, and his ruthless satirical attacks.

At about the age of 12, Pope contracted Tuberculosis of the spine, or Pott's disease. This curved his spine and resulted in a lifelong disability. He only grew to about 4'6".

Alexander Pope was a Catholic, but believed in the importance of reason, the order of the universe, and the goodness of God. He also believed that writing well and originally was a kind of moral imperative.

Final Alexander Pope Quiz

Question

Who is the author of 'The Rape of the Lock'? 

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Alexander Pope

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What does the word 'rape' mean in 'The Rape of the Lock' 

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Seize or grab

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What type of poem is 'The Rape of the Lock'? 

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Mock Epic

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What is the best definition of a heroic couplet?

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Two lines in iambic pentameter with the same end-rhyme

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What type of spirit is Ariel?

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A sylph

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Why did Pope write 'The Rape of the Lock'? 

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To satirize a society obsessed with appearances and triviality.

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What happens to Belinda's lock of hair at the end of the poem?

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It disappears and possibly turns into a star

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What is the name of Belinda's pet dog?

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Shock

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What did the word 'spleen' mean to Pope?

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Depression and bad temper.

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Who is Uriel? 

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A gnome who travels to the Cave of Spleen.

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Which authors does Pope imitate the most in 'The Rape of the Lock'? 

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Homer and Milton

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What is portrayed as an epic battle in Canto III?

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A game of cards

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What historical event happened in the year when Alexander Pope was born?

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The Glorious Revolution

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Why was Alexander Pope so short?

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Tuberculosis of the spine

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All of the following are among the Scriblerians EXCEPT

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Lewis Theobald

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Which publication earned Pope enough money to secure financial independence?

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His Iliad translation

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All of the following are characteristics of Deist belief EXCEPT

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The possibility of miracles

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Which of the following would be the most likely subject of one of Pope's satires?

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A boring, pretentious writer.

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All of the following are characteristics of the heroic couplet EXCEPT:

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A description of a hero

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Which below best characterizes Pope's use of classical allusion?

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To make fun of his contemporaries

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What is conveyed by the line "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread" ?

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Stupid people carelessly engage any topic or idea, regardless of its worth.

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What is conveyed by the couplet "Men must be taught as if you taught them not. / And things unknown proposed as things forgot" ?

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People learn things better when they feel intelligent.

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Why does Pope say that "Whatever is, is right?"

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Because God has created the best possible world.

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Which of Pope's phrases describes the ideal beauty of a natural landscape?

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Order in variety

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What is conveyed by the following lines: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man. / Placed on his isthmus of a middle state, / A being darkly wise and rudely great…" ?

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Answer

Mankind should focus its imperfect understanding on itself rather than God.

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