About Alexander Pope
Pope was born into a Catholic family in 1688, the year of The Glorious Revolution, when Catholics could not live in London – the centre of literary life – or attend university. At the age of twelve he contracted a tubercular disease of the spine which stunted his growth and ruined his health. Sir Joshua Reynolds later said: ‘He was about four feet six inches high, very hunchbacked and deformed’. As Pope wrote: ‘This long disease, my life’.
Despite – or perhaps because of – these disadvantages, Pope became the first poet to earn his living entirely by writing. Largely self-educated, he showed precocious metrical skill in his teens, and his Essay in Criticism (1711) brought him to the attention of the influential circle around Addison. He was befriended by the elderly playwright William Wycherley, who introduced him to London life and Pope later became a member of the Scriblerus Club which also had Swift, Gay and Arbuthnot as members. But his entire writing career was marked by hostility; early on a contemporary greeted Essay in Criticism as the work of a hunchbacked toad. Pope gave as good as he got, and in self-defence made his lifelong case for order and sense against anarchy.
‘The Rape of the Lock’, however, shows Pope at his most happily relaxed: published in 1712, it mocks the then well known scandal of Lord Petre cutting off a lock of Miss Arabella’s hair. In the solemnity of heroic couplets, Pope both glamourises and belittles the participants, mocking their pretensions but celebrating them too. He never knew Arabella Fermor, and had probably never seen her, but the poem sparkles with affection and erotic attraction.
‘The Dunciad’, Pope’s first major satire after ‘The Rape of the Lock’, attacks dullness, pedantry and the misuse of the intellect. It too takes mock heroic form, but is darker, angrier and sometimes almost despairing. The central figure is Theobald (in later versions replaced by Cibber) who had attacked Pope’s version of Shakespeare, but there are many other targets recognisable at the time. Wounded vanity plays its part (Pope settles some old scores; scholars and literary critics block the light) but the poem is infused with comic energy and a backhand sense of what the world of literature could be like if the dunces were not in charge. It is a masterpiece, but it brought Pope the enmity of its targets, and this enmity pursued him for the rest of his life.
A comic sermon against the corruption of wealth, the ‘Epistle to Lord Bathurst’ was published in 1733. The portrait of Buckingham ‘The lord of useless thousands’ is set against the respect Pope felt for Bathurst himself. ‘A Farewell to London’ shows Pope in far more roguish mode, giving a roistering glimpse of life in the city.
In 1718 Pope moved with his mother to Twickenham where he spent much time in his garden and grotto: he was keenly interested in landscape gardening. He lived there until his death in 1744.
Poems by Alexander Pope
Read by Andrew Motion