Or: If YOU were under five feet tall, you'd have been a satirist, too!
Well, that's actually pretty reductive. I mean small-minded. Er--short-sighted. Hm. Wait. I'll come in again.
Alexander Pope was one of the great poets and essayists of England in the first half of the 18th Century. A satirist and frontrunner for neoclassical literature, Pope pointed his poison pen at many a prominent person, earning him a reputation for incisive wit and poignant powers of observation. Alliterative practice over.
His works have provided modern conversation with many a bon mot or epigram--so chances are you know him even if you don't know you know him.
The Boy Pope
The early years were fairly uneventful. Alexander was a clever kid, strong student. Family had enough money to remain comfortable, none of it ill-gotten.
- May 21, 1688: Alexander Pope born in London to Alexander Pope. "Jr" and "Sr" appended to names to avoid confusion. This is the same year as the Glorious Revolution by the by-when James II, England's last king with a hotline to the Vatican, stepped aside.
Pope's Dad was a linen-merchant, by most accounts an honest, upright fellow who enjoyed a virtuous, unspoiled marriage and life by staying away from religious and political disputes as best he could. The parents both went down in local history as exceedingly virtuous, no doubt one of the many reasons they are essentially unremembered.
- 1692-1699: Pope receives a sporadic education from the local priest and a one year stint at the Twyford School, from which he was expelled for satrizing one of his masters].
By eleven, he had already picked up Latin and Greek, and was well on his way though French and Italian.
- 1700: The family moves to Binfield, and Pope writes his first poem of note: an epic in rhymed couplets.
Is the Pope a Catholic?
Yup. And it barred the boy from the [benefits of a classical education that probably would have served him just as well as the one he acquired by other means. England was at long last in a fairly permanent state of Protestantism; staunch Roman Catholics such as the Popes could be expected not to fully enjoy the support of the Crown.
But of course, he had bigger problems.
- 1700: At the age of thirteen, Pope is struck with what eventually became known as Pott's Disease, a severely crippling tubercular bone disorder of the spine that kept him a humpbacked, diminutively statured man of no greater than 4'6". Headaches and coughing fits accompany the condition, which worsens with age.
It's pretty much home-schooling and self-education from then on.
- 1704: After being presribed long rides to aid his back, and unable to attend University because of anti-Catholic legislation], Pope is attended on his sojourns by Sir William Trumbull, a lover of literature who introduced Pope to John Dryden-considered the playwright of the age.
London soon considered him a prodigy, and he began his prominent literary career at a very young age.
His Prominent Literary Career
Like many an artist, Pope went through phases of work and phases of women, having more luck with the former than the latter.
- 1709: The Pastorals. Published in [Tonson's Miscellanies, they are sadly amongst Pope's least interesting works to read--especially if you want to get on to the scathing commentaries
- 1711: A scathing commentary. Essay on Criticism hits the printer, and gives up some of the best lines of the period--a selection will follow. This is an instructional poem; it's telling the reader how to behave, an increasingly frequent subject in poetry, and mighty words to be spilling from the inkwell of a 23 year old.
- 1712: Issues with women. The first version--2 canto--of The Rape of the Lock gets out. Based on a true story--so the target could identify herself--it's widely considered his most popular if not his best work. A mock epic, witty, sophisticated, and genuinely pleasurable to read, it increased the positive reputation already built on the shoulders of his Essay on Criticism.
It also made him a right bastard.
- 1713: Need a place to drink and trade derision? Apply to the Scriblerus Club, formed in this year by Pope and including Swift, Gay, Parnell and Arbuthnot. One you know, one you might know, and two of whom you've never heard.
- 1714: Best to go with your strength. Pope releases an expanded version of the above.
- 1715-1720: Back to basics. Pope works on and publishes a tranlation of the Iliad, which at the time, seemed like the scholarly thing for anyone and everone to take a shot at.
- 1720-1725: If a, then b. Finishing the Iliad, Pope moves on to a double effort-The Odyssey and a new version of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, you will remember, fortunately did not have a predecessor considered equal to him, and so instead of devoting his time to that, was able to get some work done!
- 1723: Unlucky in love. Pope's romance with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu takes a nose-dive. Was it his height? Or his irrepressible cracking-wise? Either way, he was miserable over her.
- 1729: Another claim to fame--The Dunciad. Remind you of any title you know? Well worth a read, especially if you know who he's on about--it's most of London.
Get Comfy. It Ain't Over Yet.
Far, far from it. Thus far, as you can see, Pope didn't take much in the way of extended vacation. But the death of his mother in 1733 hit him hard, and was probably wound up in his next work of great reknown.
- 1733: An epistle, a satire (of course), and the one that always makes the reading list, Essay on Man, a.k.a the one that isn't funny. Philosophical, theological, and serious, this is one of those works that makes Pope more than just a highly intelligent smart-ass. This year it's parts I-III; next year will see it done.
- 1735: The other shoe drops, apparently hitting Pope's dearest friend Dr. Arbuthnot in the head and killing him. Pope's epistle to him is actually quite touching]; demonstrating once more that there was more to the man than biting parody and rapier wit. It's seven years before he goes back to giving 'em what they want.
- 1736-1742: Imitations of Horace, Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus. If you're going to be a Pope scholar, check them out. If not--well, you probably won't read any of this rot. It appeals to a fairly limited crowd.
- 1742: The world says 'ah' with the publication of the New Dunciad, otherwise referred to as the Dunciad Part IV.
- 1743: The world says 'ah HA' with the re-publication of the above with a main character substitution-Colley Cibber for Theobald. If that means anything to you, you must be great fun at parties.
The Popish Plot
It wasn't in Westminster; no room for Catholics. Pope dies in 1744, after long being looked after by friends Mary Blount and Lord Bolingbroke, the former to whom he left the bulk of his estate. He was fairly miserable when he shuffled off, the disease that had been with him since childhood finally overwhelming him. That he made it to 56 was surprising enough. But in his mind he remained sharp, and in his soul he stayed a Catholic.
Was never popular to him, nor always he to it. Always being denied the label of 'poet' by some group or another even in his own lifetime, Pope's works enjoy popularity only cyclically, coming in and out of favor.
Many people find the rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter of his greater works tedious, and completely fail to appreciate his embittered dislike of the Alexandrine. The fact that his work does make him come off a little self-aggrandizing cannot be ignored, but I urge potential readers to be above that. I mean be bigger than that. Rather, don't be so high-minded. Er...
Credit Where Credit is Due
A few selections from the master:
From Essay on Man
'Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.'
'All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.'
'Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.'
From Essay on Criticism
'True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.'
'A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That like a wounded snake drags its slow length along.'
'For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.'
From The Rape of the Lock
'At every word a reputation dies.'
'Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.'