Alexander Pope, 1688-1744

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Biographical note

Poet, was born in London, of Roman Catholic parentage. His father was a linen-merchant, who married as his second wife Edith Turner, a lady of respectable Yorkshire family, and of some fortune, made a competence, and retired to a small property at Binfield, near Windsor. P. received a somewhat desultory education at various Roman Catholic schools, but after the age of 12, when he had a severe illness brought on by over-application, he was practically self-educated. Though never a profound or accurate scholar, he had a good knowledge of Latin, and a working acquaintance with Greek. By 1704 he had written a good deal of verse, which attracted the attention of Wycherley, who introduced him to town life and to other men of letters. In 1709 his Pastorals were published in Tonson’s Miscellany, and two years later The Essay on Criticism appeared, and was praised by Addison.

The Rape of the Lock, which came out in 1714, placed his reputation on a sure foundation, and thereafter his life was an uninterrupted and brilliant success. His industry was untiring, and his literary output almost continuous until his death. In 1713 Windsor Forest (which won him the friendship of Swift) and The Temple of Fame appeared, and in 1715 the translation of the Iliad was begun, and the work published at intervals between that year and 1720. It had enormous popularity, and brought the poet £5000. It was followed by the Odyssey (1725–26), in which he had the assistance of Broome and Fenton, who, especially the former, caught his style so exactly as almost to defy identification. It also was highly popular, and increased his gains to about £8000, which placed him in a position of independence. While engaged upon these he removed to Chiswick, where he lived 1716–18, and where he issued in 1717 a collected ed. of his works, including the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady and the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard.

In 1718, his father having died, he again removed with his mother to his famous villa at Twickenham, the adornment of the grounds of which became one of his chief interests, and where, now the acknowledged chief of his art, he received the visits of his friends, who included the most distinguished men of letters, wits, statesmen, and beauties of the day. His next task was his ed. of Shakespeare [1725], a work for which he was not well qualified, though the preface is a fine piece of prose.

The Miscellanies, the joint work of Pope and Swift, were published in 1727–28, and drew down upon the authors a storm of angry comment, which in turn led to the production of The Dunciad, first published in 1728, and again with new matter in 1729, an additional book — the fourth — being added in 1742. In it he satirised with a wit, always keen and biting, often savage and unfair, the small wits and poetasters, and some of a quite different quality, who had, or whom he supposed to have, injured him.

Between 1731 and 1735 he produced his Epistles, the last of which, addressed to Arbuthnot, is also known as the Prologue to the Satires, and contains his ungrateful character of Addison under the name of “Atticus;” and also, 1733, the Essay on Man, written under the influence of Bolingbroke. His last, and in some respects best, works were his Imitations of Horace, published between 1733 and 1739, and the fourth book of The Dunciad [1742], already mentioned. A naturally delicate constitution, a deformed body, extreme sensitiveness, over-excitement, and overwork did not promise a long life, and P. died on May 30, 1744, aged 56.

His position as a poet has been the subject of much contention among critics, and on the whole is lower than that assigned him by his contemporaries and immediate successors. Of the higher poetic qualities, imagination, sympathy, insight, and pathos, he had no great share; but for the work which in his original writings, as distinguished from translations, he set himself to do, his equipment was supreme, and the medium which he used — the heroic couplet — he brought to the highest technical perfection of which it is capable. He wrote for his own age, and in temper and intellectual and spiritual outlook, such as it was, he exactly reflected and interpreted it. In the forging of condensed, pointed, and sparkling maxims of life and criticism he has no equal, and in painting a portrait Dryden alone is his rival; while in the Rape of the Lock he has produced the best mock-heroic poem in existence. Almost no author except Shakespeare is so often quoted. His extreme vanity and sensitiveness to criticism made him often vindictive, unjust, and venomous. They led him also into frequent quarrels, and lost him many friends, including Lady M. Wortley Montagu, and along with a strong tendency to finesse and stratagem, of which the circumstances attending the publication of his literary correspondence is the chief instance, make his character on the whole an unamiable one. On the other hand, he was often generous; he retained the friendship of such men as Swift and Arbuthnot, and he was a most dutiful and affectionate son.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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