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Pope, Alexanderfree

  • Howard Erskine-Hill

Alexander Pope (1688–1744)

by Jonathan Richardson the elder, c. 1737

Pope, Alexander (1688–1744), poet, was born on 21 May 1688, the son of Alexander Pope (1646–1717), linen merchant of Plough Court, Lombard Street, London, a convert to the Catholic faith probably from his time as an apprentice in Flanders, and of Edith Turner (1643–1733), daughter of a Yorkshire landed and trading family that had, for several generations, carefully trodden the borderline between Catholicism and protestantism, those of the former faith depending on those prepared—publicly at least—to profess the latter.

It is probable that Alexander Pope senior married Edith Turner to secure a mother for his daughter Magdalen, with a former wife, with whom he had also had an earlier son, Alexander, who died in infancy. It was doubtless a surprise (perhaps they thought it a miracle) when Edith, aged forty-four, gave birth to a son, also to be named Alexander, in that significant year of English history which saw the invasion of William of Orange, the expulsion of the Catholic James II, and civil war in Scotland and Ireland. This son was to be the poet Pope.

Early life

The education of the young Alexander was largely in the hands of relatives (his aunt Elizabeth Turner taught him to read and write) and Catholic priests: first, John Taverner, a family priest who was later master of the Catholic school at Twyford, Hampshire, which the young Pope attended about 1698–9, and where, according to his half-sister, he was 'whipped and ill-used' (Spence, 20). Taverner, sometimes known as Banister, employed the method (sometimes said to have been Jesuit) of teaching Latin and Greek grammar simultaneously, which Pope seemed later to approve (ibid., 15). The young Pope was subsequently at two 'little [Catholic] schools' in London, that of John Bromley, perhaps in Bloomsbury, and that of the Catholic controversialist Thomas Deane, in Marylebone (ibid., 15–17). Pope seems to have been unimpressed by the two last, though if, as is often repeated, he wrote a satire on one of his schoolmasters, it is most likely to have been on Taverner or one of his assistants at Twyford (ibid., 15). Other priests likely to have influenced Pope are William Mannock and Thomas Southcott. The former, a secular priest educated at Douai and the English College at Rome, was the elder brother of the well-known John Anselm Mannock OSB, author of The Poor Man's Catechism (1752), whose manuscript works, dating back to 1717, are at Downside Abbey. William Mannock is a source in Spence's Anecdotes. Southcott, head of the English Benedictines from 1718 to 1738, devoted Jacobite, admirer of Archbishop Fénelon, and prolific correspondent in the Stuart papers, seems to have been humorous, imaginative, manipulative, and a man who, apart from his intervention to get medical advice from Dr John Radcliffe when the young Pope thought himself to be dying, would write to King James III (James Stuart, the Old Pretender) in November 1722 about the effect of Pope's satire on 'the lesser tribe of Poets' (Windsor Castle, Royal Archives, Stuart papers, 64/33). It is probable that Pope and Southcott had something in common and shared what the poet's half-sister Magdalen spoke of when she said to Spence: 'to speak plain with you, my brother had a maddish way with him' (Spence, 28).

Pope deliberately allowed his Catholicism to fall into the shadow as he began to make his way in the protestant England of Queen Anne, but it is the key to a continental network of acquaintance with some of whom he evidently corresponded. An early friend was Charles Wogan, who like Southcott escaped from England after the 1715 Jacobite rising. He informed Swift in 1733 that 'Mr. Pope and I lived in perfect union and familiarity for two or three Summers before he entered upon the stage of the world' and that he 'had the honour' to bring Pope 'up to London, from our retreat in the forest of Windsor, to dress a la mode, and introduce at Will's Coffee House' (J. Swift, Correspondence, ed. H. Williams, 1963–5, 4.113). Thus the soldier and adventurer, who managed the escape of Clementina Sobieska from Innsbruck to marry James III, had been a friend of Pope's boyhood. Such information reveals that Pope moved between two worlds, one of covert presences in England and of exiles overseas, the other of those who could be confident and influential at home.

In 1700 Pope's family retired from Hammersmith, where they had moved from Lombard Street about 1692, to Binfield in Windsor Forest. With the assistance of Charles Rackett, husband of Pope's half-sister, and of Samuel Mawhood, a protestant relative, they effectively acquired Whitehill House, Binfield, despite the penal laws against Catholics, while the Racketts themselves lived in the grander house of Hallgrove, not far away, near Bagshot Heath. Pope's formal education now ended and his often rigorous self-education began. Late in his life he told Spence that he never would have pursued anything 'that I could not follow with pleasure' (Spence, 17). This may apply not only to his favourite reading but also to his choice of vocation. As a Catholic in the penal period, and of no great or wealthy family, only three or four professions were open to him, debarred as he was from university and (as he was later to put it) from 'Posts of Profit or of Trust' (Epistle 2, ii.61, Poems, 4.169). He might, in principle, have become an officer in Jacobite regiments beyond the seas, like his friend Wogan, but his delicate health ruled that out. He could have become a monk on the continent, or trained abroad as a priest to return to the English mission; that too was physically arduous and Pope probably did not have in his heart that degree of religious devotion. He might have become a lawyer, like his friend Nathaniel Pigott, or a merchant like his father; that would have bored him. So long as his sight held out he might, it appears, have made a living as a portrait painter, an art which he actually practised and in which he took instruction from his friend Charles Jervas. (His maternal aunt Christiana had married the celebrated miniaturist Samuel Cooper, some relics of whose work were bequeathed to Pope after the death of another aunt, Elizabeth Turner.) Poetry, however, a felt vocation for him, seems to have been the one obvious way out of his dilemma. Writing, again later, of the penal situation suffered by Catholics, he said of himself and his father:

And me, the Muses help'd to undergo it;Convict a Papist He, and I a Poet

Epistle 2, ii.66–7, Poems, 4.169thus turning back, through a pun, the surname which had offered so obvious an opportunity for enemy jibes.

Settling down in Windsor Forest the Popes allowed their obviously precocious son to read, study, and translate, in many cases teaching himself languages by the act of translating poetry out of them into English. He read, of course, English works also, and works already in English translation. Among his earliest books to have survived are his first Chaucer (the 1598 folio given to Pope by his Binfield neighbour Gabriel Young in 1701), John Ogilby's translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, 'that great edition with pictures' as Pope told Spence in 1743 (Spence, 30), and Charles Cotton's translation of the Essaies of Montaigne (1685, 1693), inscribed by Pope in 1706 in the back cover:

This is (in my Opinion) the very best Book for Information of Manners, that has been writ. This Author says nothing but what everyone feels att the Heart. Whoever deny it, are not more Wise than Montaigne, but less honest.Mack, Collected in Himself, appx A 121.431; see too ibid., appx A 56.401, Spence, 30

As for Pope's earliest literary compositions (and setting aside the story of the childhood satire, and of the 'drama' based on Ogilby's Homer), it seems that these are: his juvenile epic, 'Alcander, Prince of Rhodes', about 'a prince, driven from his throne' (Spence, 36–8), a lampoon on William III published anonymously in State Poems, 1705, and a tragedy 'on a very moving story in the legend of Saint Genevieve' (ibid., 34), prompted, perhaps, by the chief source on this saint, Vita s. Genovefae (1687) (ibid., 34). Geneviève de Brabant may have been the more likely subject.

In 1729 Pope positively claimed to have seen Dryden 'when I was about twelve years old' and to have 'observed him very particularly' (Spence, 57). Osborn in his edition of Spence makes it clear that—owing to Dryden's latest movements and final illness—this must have been before the Pope family removed to Binfield, when Pope would have been more probably ten not twelve. It thus seems likely that this was during Pope's London period, and before the Popes retreated to Binfield. At Binfield, Pope had at least the opportunity to know one great man, the actor Thomas Betterton, close associate of Dryden, with whom (Pope said) 'I was acquainted … from a boy' (ibid., 52). Betterton had a farm near Reading. Pope's society at this time comprised William Mannock regularly, Thomas Southcott probably occasionally, the Racketts of Hallgrove, the closer Catholic family of the Dancastles, at Binfield, and, more distant, the Catholic Englefields at Whitenights, near Reading, where Anthony Englefield was, according to Pope, 'vir jocosissimus' and 'a great lover of poetry and poets' (ibid., 101). Nearer at hand, across the shallow valley to the south of Binfield, lay Easthamstead House, where lived the retired whig secretary of state Sir William Trumbull. After the illness from which Pope, aged then about seventeen, thought he would die, and Radcliffe's subsequent advice that he should ride for his health, he and Sir William apparently often rode and conversed together. Through the Englefield family Pope became acquainted with his most long-lasting correspondent, John Caryll; indeed he seems to have known Caryll eight years before their formal correspondence began in 1711. Again through the Englefields Pope got to know, from about 1711, the Blount family of Mapledurham, and especially Teresa and Martha Blount. Pope's poetic career was by that time well launched, and Teresa is as celebrated in Pope's earlier poetic epistles, as Martha was to be in epistles written later in his life.

The question of Pope's health, touched on above, needs to be considered here, because the most severe ill health dogged him all his life. What seemed at first merely the result of too intense an application to reading and writing was in fact a case of Pott's disease (tuberculosis of the bone). It seems likely to have been contracted in infancy from the milk of his nurse, Mary Beach. It inhibited his growth, gave him fevers, inflammation of the eye, severe problems of the lung and heart, and turned him into 'a dwarf and cripple' (Mack, Life, 153).

It was evidently after the first onset of his illness, when he was still about fifteen, that Pope resolved to 'go up to London and learn French and Italian', Father Mannock told Spence long after. 'We in the family looked upon it as a wildish sort of resolution', but 'He stuck to it, went thither, and mastered both those languages with surprising dispatch' (Spence, 26). In London, polite London rather than the City or Hammersmith, he made new literary acquaintances: William Wycherley, the greatest comic dramatist of the Restoration (to be a Catholic convert on his deathbed), Henry Cromwell, and, surely the most useful to him, William Walsh MP, 'the Muse's Judge and Friend' (An Essay on Criticism, 1.729, Poems, 1.325), at whose country house of Abberley, Worcestershire, he stayed (as he averred) for 'a good part of the Summer of 1705' though perhaps it was actually 1707 (Spence, 72). These were no doubt in the centre of the circle among whom Pope's first well-meditated poem, the Pastorals, passed in manuscript, though the most distinguished author who now saw Pope's work and became his acquaintance was William Congreve, the great comic dramatist of the Orange period, when he had been at once a whig and a friend of Dryden.

Early works

The Pastorals (eventually to be printed in 1709) actually prompted a letter to Pope, dated 20 April 1706, from Jacob Tonson, the greatest publisher of the day, offering to print the poem. An exquisite distillation from English pastoral in the Virgilian tradition, it was meticulously revised in manuscript in accordance with the advice of its readers and especially of Walsh, whose criticisms of Pope's own revisions are printed in Poems, 1.477–82. Pope's delicate eye for the scenic:

Soon as the Flocks shook off their nightly DewsTwo Swains, whom Love kept watchful, and the MusePour'd o'er the whitening Vale their fleecy care

Spring, ll. 17–19, Poems, 1.62and his mastery of verbal and metrical harmony:

Where-e'er you walk, cool Gales shall fan the Glade,Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a Shade

Summer, ll. 73–4, Poems, 1.77are here unparalleled; this is the poetry of artifice of an era when artifice was a term of praise. It is also poetry of perception and emotion. Pope wrote one further pastoral, Messiah. A Sacred Eclogue (1712). A blending of Isaiah with Virgil's fourth eclogue (once thought to prophesy the birth of Christ), it was published in The Spectator, no. 378.

It is often said, and with reason, that the course of Pope's earlier work follows a Virgilian trajectory: as Virgil developed from pastoral Eclogues to the rural-descriptive Georgics and from Georgic to epic in the Aeneid, so Pope moved from his own Pastorals to his Georgic poem Windsor-Forest (1714), and thence to epic in his mock epic Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714) and to his own translation of Homer's Iliad which was begun in 1711. Even in the early Miscellany, however, in which the Pastorals first appeared, there appeared also his version of Chaucer's 'The Merchant's Tale', 'January and May', and, more notably, 'The episode of Sarpedon, translated from the twelfth and sixteenth books of Homer's Iliad'. That Pope's actual development was less linear than a Virgilian pattern would allow may also be seen in his second major poem, An Essay on Criticism (1711), virtually completed, perhaps, in 1709. This poem, which has an intellectual brilliance and eloquence of a kind required by neither pastoral nor epic, deviates into a different track, that of the familiar, discursive, Horatian poem, something like Horace's Ars poetica, Vida's Renaissance Poetica, and the late seventeenth-century English rhyming essays of the earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon. Pope's art here is essentially diplomatic: the intellectual and historical reach of the poem is amazing, but it seeks to dramatize only to modify and reconcile contrary views.

This may be seen in the way Pope deals with the notion of rules in literary composition. 'Useful Rules' are commended, but

Those RULES of old discover'd, not devis'dAre Nature still, but Nature Methodiz'd.

ll. 88–92, Poems, 1.249–50Rules alone cannot guarantee success; furthermore,

If, where the Rules not far enough extend,(Since Rules were made but to promote their End)Some Lucky LICENCE answers to the fullTh'Intent propos'd, that Licence is a Rule.

The poet may

From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part,And snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art …

ll. 146–9, 154–5, Poems, 1.256–8This last line exemplifies Pope's capacity to coin expressions which have become proverbial in English—and often attributed to Shakespeare.

Intelligence and learning here seem to run direct into lively and often comic expression, epigram, maxim, and mimetic effect. From the self-satisfied critic not even the church is free: 'there they'll talk you dead;/For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread' (ll. 624–5, Poems, 1.310). This blend of satire and reverence is characteristic of the poem, which moves backwards and upwards to distant authority and divinity, forwards and downwards to the follies of the day. This is the larger movement which lends coherence to an outwardly discursive poem.

Pope did not please all his readers. For example, he had used the poem to measure a distance between himself and his fellow Catholics. Reflection on the doctrine of no salvation outside the church and satire on the monks of the middle ages as 'Holy Vandals' (l. 696) dismayed Pope's sympathetic Catholic readers. Pope defended himself rather evasively at first, but on the last charge he stuck to his guns, declaring his model to be the Catholic humanist and reformer Erasmus. (John Anselm Mannock, in his manuscript 'Miscellanea', returns almost obsessively to this subject and his defence of monastic learning may well have been prompted by Pope's public attack.) If Pope seemed to Catholics no very devoted papist, however, his not very severe allusions to the dramatist and critic John Dennis provoked the first of those personal attacks which lasted Pope's entire life. And here, amid Dennis's extravagant assault on the poem, the charge is that Pope is a Catholic and a Jacobite (Guerinot, 1–11). Pope's attempt to show himself a moderate and critical Catholic had not entirely worked, and he was criticized from both sides.

Through Caryll, Pope had got to know Richard Steele, and through Steele the difficult and important figure Joseph Addison. Addison gave measured praise to An Essay on Criticism in The Spectator, no. 253, and in due course Pope wrote the prologue to Addison's tragedy of Cato (1713), a drama of a certain political poise which whigs and tories alike sought to appropriate to their own side. To Pope's papist friends he must have seemed a turncoat, and for his part Addison, who was reported by the whig Thomas Burnet to have hated Pope 'worse than Beelzebub', showed him favour to prevent his lending his pen to the tories (Sherburn, 117). However, Pope's descriptive and historical poem on his native region of Windsor Forest which he had long meditated and revised was now, at the invitation of the tory and in fact Jacobite poet and statesman Lord Lansdowne, extended into a poem in favour of that general peace which the tory administration of Queen Anne's last years was struggling to establish. 'Non injussa cano' was Pope's epigraph, 'not without warrant I sing' (Virgil, Eclogues, vi.9): Lansdowne, the dedicatee, had encouraged him. Windsor-Forest is a historical and political poem in which the scenic, the Thames in the past, present, and future, and the active, hunting and what hunting may metaphorically convey, are the unifying features of the work. The vision of peace with which the poem ends, while it accords with what was then tory rather than whig policy, goes much beyond party conflict. Pope was aware that the treaty of Utrecht, then in negotiation to settle the peace, was supposed to give Britain increased access to the slave trade. Yet his concluding vision explicitly includes abolition of slavery (ll. 407–12, Poems, 1.192). Among scores of poems on the peace, Windsor-Forest appears to be the only one to mention actual (not metaphorical) slavery and oppose it. It at once caught the attention of the most celebrated pro-government writer of the day, Jonathan Swift: 'Read it', he wrote to Stella, two days after it was published (Mack, Life, 199). Thus began (no doubt) perhaps the most celebrated literary friendship of the earlier eighteenth century (the exact date of their first meeting is not known).

By the time Windsor-Forest was published, the earliest version of Pope's mock heroic poem The Rape of the Lock, composed in a fortnight during summer 1711, had for nine months been anonymously printed in Bernard Lintot's Miscellany. The masterpiece of Pope's earlier period, The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714) had its origin in a quarrel between two Catholic families, apparently over the provocative cutting off of a lock of hair by Lord Petre from the head of Arabella Fermor. Pope's friend Caryll, a friend of each family and always interested in Pope's literary projects, suggested that he write a poem to 'laugh them together again' (Spence, 104). This is probably the only grain of historical truth in the story, acknowledged in the third line: 'This Verse to C[aryl]l, Muse! is due'. Caryll's invitation was a sheer gift to Pope. Obviously aware of the celebrated mock epics of Boileau (Le lutrin, 1674) and Dryden (Mac Flecknoe, 1676), and of The Dispensary (1699) by Sir Samuel Garth, Pope might be thought to have been waiting for the right occasion to arise to call on his epic and comic talent.

The poem, especially as expanded into its five-canto version of 1714, published with decorations and no longer anonymous, is far from being a mere social satire in which a trivial quarrel is mocked by being presented in epic terms. Indeed, by the time the poem has been thoughtfully read it is not really clear that the quarrel is trivial. The 'Heroi-Comical' in Pope's hands is a volatile mixture: some of its comedy rebounds on the epic conventions that are primarily deployed to mock the foolish and vain. In the shining lock of hair Pope contemplates beauty, reputation, conquest in love and war, anger, humour, and resignation. The political facets of the poem, parts only of the total multi-faceted effect, have recently come more into the light, so that the work has its own angle on historical change. Not only does the poem have many targets, all seen through the prism of Belinda and her lock, but it also has many tones, those of subtle comedy, outright farce, and lofty sadness. This last is the predominant tone of Clarissa's speech in canto 5 which Pope added only on the publication of his Works (1717). Pope did not add this speech 'to open more clearly the MORAL of the Poem' as his editor Warburton would after the poet's death make him say. All Pope ever said of this speech was that it was a parody of 'the speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus in Homer' (l. 7n., Poems, 2.199), which he had already translated in epic mode. Clarissa's speech is a moral in the poem, not the moral of it.


Even before the five-canto Rape of the Lock appeared Pope had, with remarkable temerity in view of his health, and the politically riven condition of literature in Anne's last years, issued a proposal for a new verse translation of Homer's Iliad. To be published by subscription, it was modelled on Dryden's Virgil as a publishing enterprise, save that Pope made no attempt to emulate Dryden's system of multiple dedications. Pope was now a famous poet, still in his earlier twenties, in civil or friendly contact with the whig writers grouped around Steele and Addison at Button's Coffee House, but drawn increasingly and with a deeper friendship to the group of writers who centred on Swift and were close to the tory administration led by Harley and St John. The chief members of this group jokingly styled themselves the Scriblerus Club, after a fictional pedant and antiquarian, Martinus Scriblerus, this club being dedicated to the ridicule of false learning. Swift was by far the most important figure in this regard, but he released in the others currents which were still finding expression in Pope's final Dunciad in 1743. Other members of the Scriblerus Club were Dr John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, and John Gay, with Robert Harley, the queen's first minister, as a kind of honorary member in his moments of leisure.

The relation of Pope's Homer project with the Scriblerus Club is interesting: out of an ethos of the mockery of false learning and false antiquarianism comes a work of true translation and modern homage to antiquity. This relation also caused what Pope evidently felt to be the first betrayal of his poetic career, when Addison's group, having failed to capture Pope's talent for their political purposes, began to move against him behind the scenes. Pope signed a contract for the Iliad version with Bernard Lintot on 23 March 1714; on 31 May Addison's protégé Thomas Tickell signed one with Tonson, also to translate the whole Iliad. Addison told Pope only that Tickell was to publish an earlier version of book 1 and that Addison could not therefore advise on Pope's book 1; he agreed to read Pope's book 2 and highly commended it. Pope was unaware of Tickell's contract with Tonson, but soon began to suspect that Tickell's book 1 was new work—perhaps even assisted by Addison himself—designed to check or marginalize Pope's project. His later account of the affair to Spence, including Addison's stated desire to avoid 'an air of double dealing' and Pope's own growing suspicion that 'there was some underhand dealing in that business' (Spence, 162–4), gives a pretty clear picture. Not all details are consistent, and a letter of Pope to Addison in his Letters (1735) may be suspect, but the conclusion of the careful editor of Spence, J. M. Osborn, that 'Addison's conduct on this occasion seems very close to double dealing' (ibid., 2.624) is hard to deny. The satiric consequence of all this was Pope's 'Atticus portrait', his satire on Addison, first drafted about 1715, sent to Addison in manuscript by Pope before 7 May 1716, circulated widely, and anonymously published on 15 December 1722. More boldly devious than Addison, Pope thus checked his enemy by a satire which espoused the very values that his enemy had professed. The 'portrait' would become one of the most famous parts of Pope's Epistle To Arbuthnot (1735).

For the moment the enormous Iliad project occupied Pope's energies. It took him six years, and at first 'I wished any body would hang me', he told Spence; he was 'under great pain and apprehensions' over it and 'dreamed often of being engaged in a long journey and that I should never get to the end of it' (Spence, 197, 193). The twenty-four books of the poem were for the most part drafted on the backs of letters (now preserved in BL, Add. MSS 4807–4809). Pope earned £1275 from Lintot for his translation. Subscriptions raised this sum (by a modern estimate) to about £5000. Pope's version of the Odyssey, for which he recruited William Broome and Elijah Fenton as collaborators, was completed in 1726 and brought him (he said) £600 0s. 0d. from Lintot; again subscriptions are thought to have raised his profit to around £5000 (Spence, 201; Foxon, 63, 101). In 1976 David Foxon estimated that the value of Pope's Homer to the poet, translated into the financial values of that year, was about £200,000. This established Pope's fortune and set his fame on a firmer foundation. As he wrote in 1737, 'But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive' (Epistle 2, ii.68–9, Poems, 4.169). A third large-scale enterprise, an edition of Shakespeare, and a work of informal collaboration, was complete in 1725. His preface is a notable critical essay, the editing hardly competent by the best eighteenth-century standards.

The publication of his Works in 1717 kept Pope's original poems to the fore while he translated Homer. Two unexpected new poems were published here: 'Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady' and 'Eloisa to Abelard'. Each is passionately concerned with female consciousness though in the first a man speaks in defence of a lady, while in the second Eloisa delivers her own soliloquy and imaginary address to her lover, on the general pattern of Ovid's Heroides. Far from a classical poem, however, this may be the first ‘Gothic’ work in English literature. Its setting is medieval since Eloisa and Abelard were medieval lovers. The medieval is here not a subject of satire but a site for tragedy. Pope's sympathy with love which affirms itself against restraint, or expresses itself from the monastic cell, may have been prompted by his Catholicism; not one of the Catholic families he knew but placed some daughter in convents in France or Flanders. These poems, favourites in the later eighteenth century when taste began to turn against satire, remained popular in the twentieth century, when satire was revalued.

Twickenham and The Dunciad

While Pope was collecting his Works and pressing on with Homer, a seismic shift in the body politic was taking place. On the accession of George I (which despite the 1701 Act of Settlement must have seemed improbable to many) the tories not only lost power but fell into the suspicion of treason. There was in those days no settled assumption of alternating party administrations. King George, like his predecessors, bestowed office as he thought fit. In this case he trusted those who had prosecuted the war, and much distrusted (as implicitly anti-Hanoverian) those who had established the peace. Of Pope's circle, Harley (now earl of Oxford) and Lansdowne were imprisoned in the Tower; St John (now Viscount Bolingbroke) fled abroad, as did the duke of Ormond, the popular captain-general of the British forces. All became embroiled, or more deeply embroiled, in the Jacobite cause. After the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising, Oxford appears to have directed from the Tower the Swedish plot of 1717 in favour of James III. Thereafter the leadership of the English Jacobites passed to another friend of Pope, and a close one at that, Francis Atterbury, Anglican bishop of Rochester, whose significant conspiracy of 1722 was revealed by the French regent to British ministers after one of them, Sunderland, who was himself double-dealing in this plot, suddenly died. Atterbury too did time in the Tower and, after a kind of show trial in the Lords, was sent into exile, and became the next secretary of state to James III. At the same time Bolingbroke, who had himself filled this office but had purchased his remission from exile, returned to England.

The 1715 rising saw the Popes disposing of their property at Binfield and coming to live in Chiswick 'under the wing of my Lord Burlington' (Correspondence, 1.339). Burlington, patron, architect, and connoisseur, was in a position to protect Catholics, at a time when the oaths to be tendered to papists, nonjurors, and other disaffected persons were administered with special rigour. This accounts for the sudden removal of the Pope family into rented property at Chiswick and unless the summons and non-appearance in nearby Chelsea of a 'Mr. —Pope' to take the oaths be taken as referring to Alexander Pope, father or son, their quick footwork probably saved them from penalty (LMA, MR/RR/23, fol. 3).

Pope now needed to conduct himself with care. His closest political and literary associations were with the losing side or (as he would later put it) 'the suff'ring Party' (Correspondence, 3.420). Whether between 1717 and 1723 Pope knew what Atterbury was engaged in remains uncertain, but there are enough distancing references in his otherwise appreciative letters to Atterbury to suggest that he did. Pope's edition of the duke of Buckinghamshire's Works, coming out just at the time of Atterbury's arrest, angered the government who called it in and for a time allowed publication only in expurgated form. Again at this time Pope's kinsfolk Charles and Michael Rackett were charged with Jacobite activity, though the charges appear to have been dropped, and both father and son seem to have disappeared into exile. Atterbury nevertheless asked Pope to be a witness at his hearing in the House of Lords that his activities at Bromley had been of an innocent and literary character. Pope bravely agreed, but felt under such pressure that he bungled his, perhaps, not very important evidence. He corresponded with Atterbury in the Tower, writing in his support with high emotion and intensity, even suggesting that he too might soon have to face exile. This was probably the point in Pope's life when he was in most political danger. Yet he behaved more defiantly at this crisis than at any previous point. Such defiance was no doubt in his nature, but it is open to question whether the restraining counsel of his father (who died in 1717) would not have made a difference had he been alive.

Pope emerged from this crisis and even got on social terms with the new first minister, Sir Robert Walpole, whose recent legislation had probably caused his kinsfolk the Racketts to abscond. No doubt Pope felt he had drawn too near the fire, but some in the circle of Walpole may have felt it would be worth the effort to recruit Pope into the interests of the powers that be. One who would have wished to save Pope from himself, and who sincerely supported Walpole and his government, was William Fortescue, friend of the poet and now secretary to the prime minister (1724–36). Pope began to go to informal suppers given by Walpole. This is also the period when Pope's old friend Father Southcott wished to be given the French abbey of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, so that its revenue might help fund the Jacobite intellectual Andrew Michael Ramsay. Pope persuaded Walpole to drop his opposition to this manoeuvre to the French government, as a result of which Southcott got his abbey. This was managed through Fortescue (Spence, 70, appx, 2.615).

In 1719 Pope had leased from Thomas Vernon several pieces of land and cottages at Cross Deep, Twickenham. Here he began to build a riverside villa in the Palladian style which must have involved the demolition or (less likely) the incorporation of a small earlier dwelling. Also a tunnel was made which led from the riverside frontage under the villa and the road behind to a garden beyond. Adjoining the tunnel was Pope's famous grotto, which still survives. It was adorned progressively with rare and shining stones. The garden was one of the first ‘wild gardens’ and, on its small scale, was in the very vanguard of fashion in landscape gardening. The classic symmetry of the villa, the subtle asymmetry of the garden, and the mysterious and mythopoeic grotto, formed with the Thames the fourfold character of Pope's carefully designed home, which was constantly being changed and improved through the remainder of his life.

If during the later 1720s Walpole, and Pope's whig friends, thought the poet had been netted and brought under control, a relatively small poem, anonymously published, probably on 18 May 1728, brought all this in question. This was the first of Pope's Dunciads; an expanded Dunciad came out in 1729, a New Dunciad in 1742, and a Dunciad in four books in 1743. Even the earliest Dunciad, Scriblerian satire on bad writers though it was, contained lines and allusions which seemed to challenge the Hanoverian kings and the 'great Patricians' who had brought them to the throne. If 'Still +Dunce the second reigns like Dunce the first?' (i.3, 6, Poetical Works, 725) alludes to George II and George I, the former having come to the throne in the previous year, Pope's mock heroic satire reaches from the bottom (the hack writers of Grub Street) to the top (the monarch) of the state. The belief that writing and rule are in civilization intimately linked, and that it is possible to write dangerous things about rulers by seeming to write only about writers, is at the heart of The Dunciad, the line quoted above being an allusion to a line of Dryden (as Pope's footnote: '+Dryd.' hints) which does precisely this ('To my dear friend Mr. Congreve', l. 48). This is one of the features which may be thought to save Pope's poem from the meanness with which it has been often charged. Further, there is such a variety of tone and effect arising from the poet's mock Virgilian narrative of the fall and restoration of the kingdom of dullness that it often assumes the character of dream or fantasy. Pope's manner is far from being relentlessly scornful, but can move in a few lines from Bedlam, through 'The air-built Castle, and the golden Dream' to the 'Poet's vision of eternal fame' (iii.7–12, Poetical Works, 742). Such points are important because a causal narrative of how Pope's Dunciad came to be written inevitably presents the poem as Pope's final stroke in his literary wars. Yet such an account suggests a poem less complex and daring than Pope actually produced.

The causal narrative goes back to Pope's rivalry with Addison's circle, to the many attacks on his person, background, and writings, and, more recently, to the criticisms, many of them well judged, of Pope's edition of Shakespeare (1725) by Lewis Theobald. Theobald is the mock hero of The Dunciad in 1728 and 1729. Pope had, in addition, published in 1727 the ironic Scriblerian parody of Longinus, On the Sublime, which he called The Art of Sinking in Poetry. The many names hinted at by blanks and initials in this text produced a furore of attack against Pope. The 1728 Dunciad, when it appeared, seemed a justly provoked counter-attack. The great Scriblerian Swift now urged Pope (16 July 1728, J. Swift, Correspondence, ed. H. Williams, 1963–5 2.293) to make the poem even more Scriblerian, an œuvre mêlée of verse and prose, in which a pseudo-scholarly apparatus and footnotes of varying irony would help to identify the more obscure of Pope's literary targets. Pope took this advice in the 1729 Dunciad variorum, still published anonymously but with broad hints as to its authorship, also expanding the verse and adding, among other things, his tribute to Swift himself:

Whether thou chuse Cervantes' serious air,Or laugh and shake in Rab'lais' easy Chair …

i.18–19, Poems, 5.19–20Pope saw the humanist prose comedy of Cervantes and Rabelais as enriching Swift's work (Gulliver's Travels had been published in 1726) and The Dunciad itself is responsive to these authors in its comedy of the flesh and its fantasy of the mind.

The final comic stroke of the 1729 Dunciad came when, if a Scriblerian report is to be believed (Arbuthnot to Swift, 19 March 1729, J. Swift, Correspondence, ed. H. Williams, 1963–5, 3.326), Walpole presented it to George II. After perusing the poem, the king pronounced Mr Pope 'a very honest Man', by this time a well-known term for a Jacobite. This was the climax of Walpole's attempt to appropriate Pope's muse. Only the sharper readers of the time would have seen in this Pope's boldest comic confidence trick to date, but, unless Arbuthnot were only cracking a joke, George II already knew more or less what to think about Pope.

The outcry against The Dunciad had at its pitch been extraordinary, and Pope's half-sister Magdalen said that at that time he seldom ventured out alone without his Great Dane Bounce (one of Pope's succession of large dogs so named) and pistols in his pocket. The second earl of Oxford wrote to Swift: 'Pope stands by himself Athanasius Contra Mundum' (J. Swift, Correspondence, ed. H. Williams, 1963–5, 3.295). Pope's reputation at this point seemed irretrievably associated with personal satire, and all the personal attacks on him from earlier years were now redoubled and recycled.

An Essay on Man and other ethic epistles

Pope now contemplated a new kind of poem. It was to grow into An Essay on Man (1734–5). Urged by more than one friend to turn away from satire, and with part of his mind no doubt in profound reaction against literary warfare, he turned from particular to general, and from the long cultural and historical myths of The Dunciad to a wider, natural philosophical and metaphysical vision. Though defiant over The Dunciad, he reached back for the conciliatory and diplomatic modes of the poetic essay. He is also likely to have remembered an ecumenical hymn, 'The universal prayer', he had written not later than 1715. Pope's admired friend Bolingbroke, invoked at the opening of the new poem, credited himself with setting Pope off on a new philosophical path and may have done so through freethinking conversation. Pope was also in touch, however, with a better philosopher, and a fervent Christian one at that, over the new poem. To this friend, Berkeley, he seems to have submitted an invocation to Christ, based on the invocation to Epicurus at the opening of the philosophical poet Lucretius's De rerum natura. Berkeley advised Pope to abandon the idea, and no draft has survived (Spence, 305). This desire to 'convert' a pagan poet to a Christian vision may have been at one extreme of Pope's range of views at this time, but it does not suggest that his faith was cooling into secular enlightenment.

An Essay on Man began as a single epistle, from which the manuscripts show that it developed into a four-epistle poem on the limits of human knowledge (1), self-knowledge and ethics (2), the growth of society (3), and man's hope of happiness (4). It is a poem which in recent times (and usually on a cursory reading of Epistle 1 only) has been stigmatized as complacent, and as ‘cosmic toryism’. The charge of complacency is hard to square with Pope's constant polemic against human pride, while, from a biographical point of view, one of the poem's most complained-of aphorisms: 'Whatever IS, is RIGHT' (i.294, Poems, 2.i.51) has to be read in the light of what Pope wrote by its side in one of the working manuscripts: 'Thy will be done, in Earth as it is in Heaven' (Poems, 3.i.xxiv). In the poem itself there was no mention of Christ by the poet who had written Messiah. To questions from dismayed Catholic friends Pope replied that such a specific fidelity lay outside the plan for the poem on which he had eventually settled. This was that it should concentrate on what all mankind seemed to have in common, rather than what marked out the Christian or Catholic vision. Inevitably this left the argument for God's existence from design in nature in a position of lonely salience, and this sooner or later was likely to lead to accusations of deism, especially from any who might have heard something of the spoken opinions of Bolingbroke. Though the poem speaks of the chain of being, the heavenly hierarchy, the life of God in as well as beyond nature, and of the interdependence of love of self with love of others, and though it speaks of 'the throne of God' (i.256, Poems, 3.i.46), he was challenged from the continent by Jean Pierre de Crousaz and by the Abbé Louis Racine, each relying on imperfect translations. Against the former, William Warburton, Pope's editor-to-be, defended him; in the case of the latter, Michael Alexander Ramsay intervened, and Pope, schooled by Ramsay perhaps, professed that his Christian model was Fénelon, the saintly archbishop of Cambrai, some of whose work (it is worth noting) had fallen under papal interdict, Fénelon then submitting to the authority of the church. In 1757 Samuel Johnson, seeing some affinity between certain of the doctrines of the poem and the shallow theodicy of Soame Jenyns, proposed what can only be an unsatisfactory distinction between the ideas and the poetic ornament of the work.

An Essay on Man may not yet be fully understood. It is no use extracting philosophical arguments from its poetic text and assessing them as pure philosophy. They operate in a work which is rhetorical and poetic almost as if they were metaphors, or at least aesthetic features of some kind. Its decisive aphorisms depend on preceding physical exploration and, really, the whole work is exploratory. It rests on paradox as, drawing on Pascal's Pensées, it sees man as 'The glory, jest, and riddle of the world' (ii.18, Poems, 3.i.56). Further, no poem could be more responsive to a mysterious divinity within nature.

Pope's authorship of An Essay on Man was at first a closely kept secret. The poem was fully anonymous and was at once hailed by readers as the work of a new and (they thankfully said) unsatirical poet. Pope's own artful suggestion that it seemed to be the work of 'a divine' was widely supported. When the plaudits were at their height, Pope quietly acknowledged his authorship. His enemies must have been aghast. Pope had turned the tables on them in the literary wars, but, at a deeper level, had also shown them that there was more to him as a poet than a personal satirist, or indeed a satirist of any kind.

The hue and cry after the Pope of the earlier Dunciads had continued until 1731 when his Epistle To Burlington, published on 14 December of that year, quickened the hunt when it was alleged to satirize Cannons, the great house of the duke of Chandos. It has been plausibly suggested that this red herring was deliberately introduced by pro-government writers to deflect an assumed attack on Walpole's great house of Houghton. 'Timon's Villa' in this epistle is, however, more likely to have been a composite satiric portrait of bad taste and thoughtless expenditure. The poem is far from wholly satirical, however; together with Windsor-Forest it is remarkable for a positive and visionary conclusion:

Another Age shall see the golden EarImbrown the Slope, and nod on the Parterre …

ll. 173–4, Poems, 3–ii

To Burlington and three other notable ethic epistles were intended to be, or were perhaps pressed into being, parts of an ambitious scheme for Pope's later work known as his 'Opus magnum'. An Essay on Man was to have been a kind of introduction or 'general Map' of what was to come. The project, which probably owes something to the advice of Bolingbroke, never really worked out though it survived in titles, subtitles, and various attempts to reorder the later epistles. The 'Opus magnum' failed to make progress, it may be supposed, because it was at once too ambitious and too conceptual even for the author of An Essay on Man. Pope's still developing talent desired shorter and more varied literary forms with a greater scope for self-presentation. The 1730s would witness this development in both prose and verse: in Pope's publication of his own letters, and in his Imitations of Horace.

Letters and Imitations of Horace

To turn first to the Letters, it is interesting to note how in Pope's poetic epistles, from 'My Muse' in the manuscript of 'To Robert earl of Oxford' (Pope, Poems, 6.239) to the ‘I’ of To Burlington—'I curse such lavish cost, and little skill' (l. 167, Poems, 3.ii.148)—there is a steady move towards a drama of the self. This became for obvious reasons involved in Pope's growing resolution to publish his own correspondence. Pope seems not to have followed a common eighteenth-century practice of preserving copies of more important letters in their rough draft. As early as 1712 he began to ask friends to return his letters; originally it may have been because he proposed to use them as a basis for periodical essays, but later because he feared some of his letters had been personally or politically indiscreet. There was a considerable interest in his correspondence, and in 1726 and again in 1731 letters by him had come into the public sphere without any consent on the part of their writer. Pope redoubled his requests to his friends to return his letters, and some eventually complied. Burlington was one of the first to do so, and these letters seem to have been destroyed. Caryll and Swift each returned letters after a long campaign on Pope's part (Caryll retaining transcripts which the poet may not have known about; Swift after, in all probability, knowingly and teasingly resisting Pope's manipulative designs). Thus, when the piratical publisher Edmund Curll advertised for materials for a biography of Pope, Pope was in a good position anonymously to supply him with pages of correspondence he himself had arranged and had even had printed. Curll took the bait, and published in 1735, to an appreciative public, Letters of Mr. Pope, and Several Eminent Persons, from the Year 1705, to 1711 (in fact letters up to 1734 are included). Pope was now able to disavow this pirated volume, which he had himself carefully shaped, and bring out in 1737 an authorized edition of his Letters. Whether Caryll ever disclosed to Pope that he had kept transcripts, or Pope ever confessed to Caryll that he had used many of these letters as redesignated letters to other people, is not thus far known. When, however, the Caryll transcripts were rediscovered by C. W. Dilke in 1852, part of a huge archive of political, religious, and literary papers attesting to a Catholic and Jacobite world then lost, but which had been very real in Pope's lifetime, a full picture of Pope's epistolary activities was at last revealed. While he may well have used letters originally to Caryll to resurrect similar but lost letters to others, still in Pope's published correspondence, the correspondence with Caryll, the longest of all, was reduced to a very small compass indeed.

Pope's next poetic initiative was his Imitations of Horace (1733–8). It was again Bolingbroke, here in his most positive light, who seems to have precipitated a new development. In January 1733, when Pope was sick in bed, Bolingbroke took up a copy of Horace from his bedside and observed how well Satires, ii.i. 'would hit my case, if I were to imitate it in English', as Pope later told Spence (Spence, 321). There followed a brilliant series of imitations of Horatian satires and epistles, with some other poems Horatian in mode and style, which form a body of poetry the most familiar, most personal, most poised, most combative, most varied in personae and tone he had ever written. The subtle range of these poems is their ultimate achievement, but for the biographer of Pope two themes are salient. The first is the way in which, through the enabling example of Horace, Pope evolved a form of autobiographical poetry with little precedent in English literature. The second is the way that in these poems, in well-managed crescendos, pregnant comparisons, and well-judged asides, Pope becomes far more explicitly than before a poet of political opposition. Never perhaps had a long-standing and powerful ministry been so openly assailed as that of Walpole was now by Pope, and since the practice of poetic imitation revealed significant divergence from the original as well as significant fidelity to it, Pope often presses the less aggressive Horatian mode towards the anger of the later Roman satirist Juvenal. This open and exhilarating opposition was made possible for Pope by Bolingbroke's long campaign to construct a united ‘patriot’ opposition to Walpole which, publicly at least, had renounced the Jacobite option, albeit drawing on Jacobite support. Pope could thus be overtly anti-Walpole, but only intermittently and implicitly anti-Hanoverian.

Poetic autobiography and political opposition come together in Pope's Epistle To Arbuthnot (January 1735), sometimes seen as the masterpiece of his later years. It raises as an issue the later phase of Pope's literary wars, which connects with other questions concerning his personal relationships. As a young man in London, Pope affected, perhaps sought to act, the part of a rake. He was also in love with three women, Teresa Blount (from about 1712), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (from about 1716), and Martha Blount (from about 1720 to his death). The first two ladies bitterly offended him, perhaps (as has been speculated) when they made it plain they did not take him seriously as a lover. Pope's affaire with Lady Mary, a married woman, was primarily a literary courtship; as the friendship cooled there may have been provocations now untraced, but a couplet in The Dunciad against her rankled; none of their mutual acquaintance could prevail on Pope to withdraw it; and finally, in Verses Address'd to the Imitator of Horace (March 1733), Lady Mary and her new literary ally Lord Hervey, both whigs, published an all-out attack on Pope. Pope continued to snipe at Lady Mary, but it was his attack on Lord Hervey, as 'Paris', then 'Sporus', in To Arbuthnot which constituted his most powerful stroke against these two antagonists. Hervey was no mere personal foe. As chamberlain he held court and government together through the queen, as Pope's lines recognize. Even here, the occasion fades, and the 'Sporus Portrait' is probably as religious and metaphysical as it is political and personal. One of Pope's most effective poetic decisions was his placing within the structure of this epistle the more civilly devastating 'Atticus portrait' (ll. 193–214, against Addison) as a lead-up to that apostrophe to evil, the 'Sporus Portrait' (ll. 305–33), and to conclude, in a calmer catharsis, with a measured tribute (ll. 388–419) to his parents and to Arbuthnot himself.

The very final episode of enmity concerns Colley Cibber, poet laureate since 1730. His readable autobiography had come out in 1740, his pamphlet attack, A Letter from Mr. Cibber, to Mr. Pope, in July 1742. In March of that year Pope, taking up a hint in the 1729 Dunciad and drawing on educational and religious material already in mind for the poem prior to 1728, had published his New Dunciad, in effect an additional book of the poem. Cibber, hitherto a minor target of Pope, was in many ways well qualified to figure prominently in The Dunciad. Pope had seemed to praise him in his Epistle To Augustus (ll. 91–2, Poems, 4.203), though he had often scoffed at him too, and generally Cibber's art was characterized by a complacent shallowness. A political placeman, Cibber must have seemed the aesthetic face of the Hanoverian court and the Walpole administration. But without doubt Cibber's attack, including in its allegations a story of Pope as no very effective performer in a brothel, spurred the poet on to dethrone Lewis Theobald and enthrone Cibber as mock hero in the refashioned Dunciad he had evidently long planned. The Dunciad in Four Books, with modified apparatus, and a more challengingly dark conclusion, has recently been edited in proper form by Valerie Rumbold (1999). As in the earlier episodes in Pope's long literary wars, so here, his poetic responses are never merely personal strokes: what he writes is always more interesting at a higher level.

Character and art

It is hard to sum up a life of such concentrated diversity. Poet, critic, and religious humanist, Pope was also a good conversationalist and letter writer, an influential garden designer, and a connoisseur of architecture and art. He had many enemies and was a good hater, but he had many more friends, men and women alike, and his generosity, esteem, and unforgettable compliments—'And Congreve lov'd, and Swift endur'd my Lays' (To Arbuthnot, l. 138, Poems, 4.105)—show the positive side of his human relations. His relations with women were various. He was attracted to and loved female society; women, perhaps, enjoyed his company, wit, and attentions, without being able to love a man of his invalid constitution. Pope sometimes found this difficult to bear. Teresa Blount eventually prompted his disapproving letters to mutual acquaintances; Lady Mary, more contemptuous and aggressive, as Pope may have thought, received aggression back in good measure. Martha Blount, on the other hand, he came to love 'upon unalterable principles' (Correspondence, 4.511). In his imitation of Horace's Ode to Venus (7 March 1737) he wrote her an undoubted love poem, while his earlier Epistle To a Lady (1735), actually but not explicitly dedicated to her, trembles on the brink of proposal while certainly offering his devotion. The two were intimate friends, and Martha was chief beneficiary of Pope's will, much to the anger of his half-sister.

In character Pope showed remarkable self-confidence and strength. Throughout what he called 'this long Disease, my Life' (To Arbuthnot, l. 132, Poems, 4.105) he constantly counted on the power of his own talent, and it never let him down. The boy with 'the maddish way' became the man of courage as well as cunning. Like his early friend Southcott he was manipulative, imaginative, and steadfast. He manoeuvred to survive in a society where the odds were against him. For a while he ran with the whigs; he trimmed and equivocated; on behalf of himself and the Blount sisters he speculated in the South Sea Company, yet on other occasions he acted not only imprudently but bravely. In the end he was an unpredictable tory (in the eighteenth-century sense of the term), a Jacobite sympathizer at least, and a lasting Roman Catholic. Even at his death in May 1744, when his friend Nathaniel Hooke, a Catholic, asked whether 'he would not die as his father and mother had done, and whether he should not send for a priest', Pope, surrounded by Catholics, Anglicans, and freethinkers, said: 'I do not suppose that is essential, but it will be/look right [textual crux in Spence], and I heartily thank you for putting me in mind of it'. On the arrival of the priest, 'he exerted all his strength to throw himself out of his bed, that he might receive the last sacraments kneeling on the floor' (Spence, 655 and note). This textual crux seems to carry Pope's equivocation to the end, though he might have quit his Catholicism, had he wished, once both his parents were dead. He himself died at Twickenham on 30 May 1744, and was buried next to his parents in Twickenham church on 5 June.

A crux in Pope's life is his constant claim that moral virtue was more important to him than poetic reputation, whereas his readers, including many of his friends, valued him first as the best poet of the age. Even Swift sought fame through having Pope address an epistle to him. It was of course important for a moral satirist to be thought a good man, but one or two challenged him on this score. In a notable exchange with Pope, Aaron Hill insisted that it was Pope's poetic talent that led to his fame, and to Pope's moral claims Hill replied that: 'at any other time, you would have remembered, that Humility is a moral Virtue'. Still, Pope insisted, 'it is my Morality only that must make me Beloved or Happy' (Correspondence, 3.168, 172). Certainly Pope was loved by many as well as admired. He had a gift for friendship. His attacks need to be balanced by his tributes, just as his equivocations need to be balanced by his bravery and his long record of physical endurance. After his death, his friend the fifth earl of Orrery wrote that he would leave 'his poetical character' to the learned, 'his faults to the envious, the foolish and the vain, but I could dwell for ever on his Virtues'. 'He had a heart … susceptible of friendship … was of a generous hospitable Nature', had 'a mildness in his composition and a sweetness in his Voice … He assumed to himself no superiority from his genius or his character'. Most 'delicate and feeble in the frame of his constitution', he was one whose 'strength lay in his Mind. There he was a Hercules to conquer Hydras and demolish Monsters of every kind' (Harvard U., Houghton L., Eng. MS 2182, vol. 4, Orrery to Barry, 4 June 1744). Orrery's tribute is relevant to the interdependence of personal morality and moral satire, and is the more convincing in not denying faults.

What marks Pope out from virtually every other classic writer of verse and prose in the eighteenth century—from Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Johnson; from Addison, Gay, Thomson, Smart, Gray, and Goldsmith (and among the many noted women writers of the eighteenth century it would be equally hard to find an example who could vie with him)—is the extraordinary sequence of different imaginative works which he achieved, almost, as it seems, every five years of his short adult life. Further, a book could easily be written on his small and often non-couplet poems. The rhyming couplet itself, employed in all Pope's major works, is managed with such skill and feeling, that what at a superficial glance looks like relentless uniformity is on a closer and more sensitive reading, infinite variety. An example may be allowed at this point, one in which Pope is himself reflecting on his art and his time of life:

This subtle Thief of Life, this paltry Time,What will it leave me, if it snatch my Rhime?If ev'ry Wheel of that unweary'd MillThat turn'd ten thousand Verses, now stands still.

Epistle 2, ii.76–9, Poems, 4.171The heroic couplet is a simple and easily scanned symmetry—or asymmetry. Even a slight shift from an expected paradigm is thus perceptible and may be questioned for its aptness. Here the not quite medial pause in line 76 (six syllables first, then four) lends an intensifying brevity to the paradox: 'paltry Time'. Line 77 is exactly balanced, five and five, on a true medial pause and ironically counterpoints the implication that the poet will be left with virtually nothing, reminding the reader as by its symmetry it does of the common notion that what is lost is balanced by what is gained or retained. These two end-pausing lines are succeeded by a rolling enjambment in which the sense almost, but not quite, reaches without a pause the end of line 79: this is Pope's 'unweary'd Mill' of verse, an image of labour, associated with the grinding of corn and the stamping of coin, with currents of water and the winds of heaven, suddenly checked by the late pause in the last line. Not one of these four lines is structured in the same way, but varies with its meditated sense. Further, the rhyming couplet gives rhyming words a prominence beyond their position in syntax. The salience here of 'Time' and 'Rhime' is the more marked because it reverses a conventional expectation of the opposite order ('Rhime' and 'Time'), and indeed Pope had often remarked that he had more important things to do with his time than just carry on rhyming. Here then the rhyme stresses a notable turn. It is noticeable, too, that 'Rhime' is aligned with 'Life', each stolen and snatched away, as Belinda's lock by the Baron. The association of 'subtle', 'Thief', and 'snatch' also suggests, not steady ageing but sudden loss of ability ('What if I woke up one morning and found I couldn't write any more?'). To all this may be added how plain and simple is Pope's diction here. No word is elaborate. No word flaunts exceptional learning. Of the thirty-three words in the two couplets, only six are of more than one syllable. Only one word is of more than two syllables and that, appropriately, is 'unweary'd', salient in the one unpausing line.

Pope's young friend Henry Brooke, protégé of Swift, told him in 1739 (two years after the above passage was written) that:

there is one great and consistent genius evident through the whole of your works, but that genius seems the smaller by being divided … each distinct performance is as the performance of a separate author, and no one being large enough to contain you in your full dimensions, though perfectly drawn … your genius is like your sense, one is too crowded for the common eye, and the other for a common reader.

Correspondence, 4.199

It is a striking tribute, but not without its problems. Brooke did not attempt to define Pope's 'one great and consistent genius' but went on to suggest that the poet would have done better to excel rather than imitate Homer, and that 'I wish you had wrote more upon divine subjects'. Like the work of many of the great artists of the world Pope's art still defies his most admiring critics.

Subsequent reputation

Pope's reception after his death may be thought first to have divided, then rejected, and finally restored the two things which he insisted on as interdependent parts of his achievement: his moral record as a man, and his poetic record as a public satirist.

When Pope in his will left the copyright of his printed works to William Warburton, expecting that Warburton would both edit his works and write his biography, he cast his reputation into the hands of Hanoverian England. He may have thought this the best strategy to protect his fame. It certainly secured him an influential defender in the short term. Warburton's edition of Pope's Works (1751; revised 1766) can be neither relied on nor ignored. A wrong point is his extension of Pope's footnote on Clarissa's speech in The Rape of the Lock; a moot point his designation of To Arbuthnot as 'Prologue to the Satires' (that is, chiefly, to the Imitations of Horace). Unable, in the end, to write the life of Pope, he persuaded his protégé the lawyer Owen Ruffhead to do so: Ruffhead's Life of Alexander Pope, esq. was published in 1769. Joseph Spence would have been a better choice as a biographer, since he had known Pope longer than Warburton, and was reasonably familiar with the Catholic side of Pope's life and connections. His records of Pope's conversation could almost have made him his Boswell. Warburton may have felt Spence knew too much. Yet while Ruffhead saw Pope through the lens of Warburton, his Life has a lot to be said for it. He was allowed to consult Spence's collections, gives a good account of Pope's falling out with Addison, and is almost always an appreciative defender of the poetry. The religious issue comes out mainly at the end where he seems to claim Pope a protestant in all but name.

Ruffhead's defence of Pope was directed against Joseph Warton who, in volume 1 of his Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (1756), was disposed to think him not in the highest rank of poets, masters of the sublime and pathetic such as Spenser and Milton, but eminent in a lower rank. Warton's book betokened a change of taste and of times. It may not be entirely accidental that it was in the 1750s, when the Hanoverians were firmly in the saddle, that public stability prompted poets and readers to turn inwards. Grand public satire was less admired and less needed, together with the joy of wit and the exhilaration of attack and defence. For Warton, Pope was mainly to be admired for the nature poetry of Windsor-Forest, the inventiveness of The Rape of the Lock, and the pathetic and passionate appeal of 'Eloisa to Abelard'.

The great defender of Pope in the later decades of the eighteenth century was Samuel Johnson. Like Spence, Johnson went back a long way. He had himself been part of the literary opposition in the late 1730s and, though he never met Pope, the two had had several shared acquaintances, including the poet Richard Savage and the fifth earl of Orrery. In his Lives of the Poets (1779, 1781) he far outgoes Ruffhead as a biographer and Warton as a critic. Johnson approaches Pope from late eighteenth-century political and literary viewpoints. On both life and writings he is judicious in the strongest and most positive sense of the term. His readiness, in his magisterially independent mode, to acknowledge faults and failings in Pope and his writings lends force to his positive judgments though, as always in Johnson, every word and every period must be pondered:

Pope had likewise genius; a mind active, ambitious, and adventurous, always investigating, always aspiring; in its widest searches still longing to go forward; in its highest flights still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows, always endeavouring more than it can do.

Johnson, 3.217

The biographical details of Johnson's 'Life' are exquisitely chosen and suggestive: 'His dress of ceremony was black, with a tye-wig, and a little sword' and he 'once slumbered at his own table while the Prince of Wales was talking of poetry' (ibid., 3.198).

The poets of the Romantic period, sometimes supposed to be in total reaction against Pope, were nevertheless subtly divided over him. Wordsworth, perhaps the greatest first-generation Romantic, denounced the school of Dryden and Pope as not writing from 'the amiable, ennobling and intense passions' (to Walter Scott, 7 Nov 1805). Byron, perhaps the greatest second-generation Romantic, defended him and imitated him. 'We are sneeringly told that he is the “Poet of Reason”, as if this were a reason for his being no poet' (Some observations upon an article in Blackwood's Magasine, 15 March 1820). A third major poet of the period, George Crabbe, imitated but changed the vision of Pope's couplet art.

This balance of views may not look too bad for Pope, but the case for his continual influence goes deeper. It is no accident that, at the opening of an early sequence in each of Wordsworth's and Byron's greatest long poems, each poet used the same locution, designed to introduce bitter disappointment: 'Was it for this …?' (The Prelude, 1805, i.271, The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. J. Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and S. Gill, 1979, 1, 42–3; Don Juan, i.147–51, Lord Byron, The Major Works, ed. J. McGann, 1986) familiar from Pope's Rape of the Lock, iv.97–102 (Poems, 2.191–2). There were, indeed, examples of the phrase before as well as after Pope's poem, and it goes back to Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso, but both Byron and Wordsworth here drew on a common current of rhetorical poetry which flowed through the work of Pope. Wordsworth's card-game in Prelude, i.532–62 imitates and echoes Pope's card-game in The Rape of the Lock, iii.25–100 (Poems, 2.171–4), the game in each case being used to comment on high politics. Further, a couplet of Pope which might in itself seem almost pre-Romantic:

So slow th'unprofitable Moments roll,That lock up all the Functions of my soul

Epistle 1, i.39–40, Poems, 4.281echoes into Prelude (1805), i.248: 'Doth lock my functions up in blank reserve', each poet using 'functions' to express a natural spiritual activity which presses against the 'lock' of circumstance and constraint. Byron, for his part, wrote a new heroi-comical poem in A Vision of Judgement (1822), while in Don Juan he frequently recalls and recasts Pope, as here where Byron quotes from Pope's 'Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady', line 9:

He that reserves his laurels for posterityWho does not always claim that bright reversion …

Dedication, l. 9Despite Byron's telling defence of Pope, the lake school locked away for many decades any 'bright reversion' in favour of Pope.

Meanwhile Pope's other world, the recusant world of the Catholic with its continental connections, was almost entirely forgotten. Then, in 1852, Charles Wentworth Dilke seems to have heard of an archive of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century papers still apparently preserved by Catholic priests in the Harting area of west Sussex. He discreetly bought it. They were the Caryll papers, eventually given by Dilke's family to the British Museum (Add. MSS 28224–28554, 28259, 28618–28619). Among the thirty-three manuscript volumes (as eventually ordered) he discovered Caryll's transcripts of Pope's letters to him. This revelation of Pope's procedure with his own letters, seen out of the context of the poet's situation, seemed, to his next editor, the Revd Whitwell Elwin, the final proof of Pope's duplicity. Elwin thought that Pope had simply faked his correspondence and cheated his friends. Thus Pope's moral satire and his moral record were both now seen in the worst of lights. In these unpropitious circumstances the great Victorian edition of Pope's Works (including his letters) was produced by Elwin and J. C. Courthope (1871–89). Courthope added a short and balanced biography. Yet this was Pope's lowest point, and even while the new edition was in process Matthew Arnold, in a much quoted essay, described Dryden and Pope as 'not classics of our poetry but classics of our prose' (M. Arnold, Thomas Gray, The English Poets, 1880).

Of Pope there remained in the mind of that time a residual air of elegance, a dim memory of brilliance, and a perverse and perhaps puerile relish for Pope's imputed wickedness as a satirist. This was the age of Aubrey Beardsley and Lytton Strachey. Three factors, however, restored Pope to admiration and fame in the twentieth century. The first was an academic tradition of literary history, represented by Courthope and George Saintsbury in Britain, and by R. H. Griffith, Austin Warren, and George Sherburn in the USA. Secondly, the ‘new criticism’, a fresh interest in the close analysis of literary texts irrespective of biographical or cultural context, now served Pope well. Wit was again appreciated and artifice not deplored. It is in this light that Pope figures in Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928):

Then the little gentleman said,He said next,He said finally,*Here it cannot be denied was true wit, true wisdom, true profundity. The company was thrown into complete dismay.*These sayings are too well known to require repetition, and besides they are all to be found in his published works.

Orlando, chap. 4William Empson, T. S. Eliot, and F. R. Leavis found in him something to relish and something to admire. Eliot, at one point, found something he thought he could exploit, for in his drafts for The Waste Land (1922) he originally opened 'The fire sermon' with a long passage of heroic couplets in the manner of Pope. Of this pastiche Ezra Pound wrote to Eliot: 'Pope has done this so well that you cannot do it better' (T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, a Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, ed. V. Eliot, 1971, 127). Eliot abandoned the passage.

This notable conjunction, however, indicates the third reason why Pope rose again. It was because before and still more after the First World War it was hard to feel confident in the western world. Both The Dunciad and The Waste Land disclose visions of fallen empires and broken cities. When the nation is challenged or declines, when the civil order seems in jeopardy, Pope and Dryden are likely to come up. They understood a riven and contested society; they knew something of the fidelities and anxieties of civilization.

All these interests and concerns contributed to the twentieth-century Twickenham edition of Pope's Poems—in eleven volumes (1939–69), with John Butt as general editor—which includes the Homer translations. George Sherburn published The Correspondence of Alexander Pope in 1956; J. M. Osborn published the first full and reliable edition of Spence's Anecdotes in 1966, and in 1985 Maynard Mack, Pope's most learned and intelligent advocate in recent times, published Alexander Pope: a Life, of which it has been written that 'it stands as the rock of all biographical studies of Pope', offering 'a wealth of authenticated detail unlikely ever to be seriously challenged' (Baines, 45).

There was in the later twentieth century a further development. Revisionist history grew dissatisfied with historiography written from the winners' viewpoint. It was recognized that at any given moment few particular outcomes are or seem inevitable: to live with intelligence is to live with a sense of more than one possible future. Thus (for example) new attention was now paid to the Levellers in the seventeenth century and to the Jacobites in the eighteenth: two movements which at various points looked powerful but travelled towards eventual defeat. The Catholic recusant community was largely Jacobite while the Jacobite movement (at least in England and Scotland) was largely protestant. The Catholics, who eventually secured social equality, have been drawn out of the shadows by modern Catholic historiography. Jacobitism, which barely survived the end of the eighteenth century, has been the focus of what has recently been described as 'an explosion of work on Jacobitism and literature' (K. King, Jane Barker, Exile, 2000, 147). Thus of the two worlds Pope inhabited, the one more shadowed, touched on at the beginning of this life, is at present coming back into view, to pose new questions about both Pope the man and Pope the poet.



  • BL, corresp. and papers relating to pirated edition of his letters, Add. MS 65161
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters and literary MSS; papers [copies]
  • Hunt. L., papers
  • LMA
  • Morgan L., papers
  • NRA, priv. coll., papers, mainly relating to his will
  • NYPL, papers
  • TNA: PRO, 11/561, sig. 218
  • Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, papers
  • Yale U., Farmington, Lewis Walpole Library, papers
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., letters
  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 4807–4809, 28101; Egerton MSS 1946–1960; Stowe MSS 970, 972–973; Lansdowne MS 852; Harley MS 7316, RP 2190
  • BL, letters to Lord Bathurst, loan 57/74
  • BL, letters to John Caryll, Add. MSS 28616–28619 [copies]
  • BL, corresp., mainly with Sir William Trumbull, 139
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters, mostly to Bridges
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Henry Cromwell
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Charles Ford [copies]
  • Longleat House, Wiltshire, corresp. with Lord Oxford, William Wycherley, and others
  • priv. coll., corresp. with T. Blount and M. Blount
  • Warks. CRO, papers relating to his Twickenham villa


  • oils, 1695, Yale U.
  • attrib. C. Jervas, oils, 1714, NPG
  • C. Jervas, oils, 1714, Bodl. Oxf.
  • J. Smith, mezzotint, 1717 (after G. Kneller), BM, NPG
  • G. Kneller, oils, 1719, Raby Castle, Durham
  • studio of M. Dahl, oils, 1727, NPG
  • J. M. Rysbrack, marble bust, 1730, Athenaeum Club, London
  • J. Richardson the elder, oils, 1736, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • J. Richardson the elder, 1737, NPG [see illus.]
  • attrib. J. Richardson the elder, oils, 1737–1738, NPG
  • L. F. Roubiliac, marble bust, 1738, Temple Newsam, West Yorkshire
  • L. F. Roubiliac, terracotta bust, 1738, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
  • W. Hoare, pastel drawing, 1739–1743, NPG
  • W. Hoare, red chalk drawing, 1739–1743, NPG
  • J. Richardson the elder, oils, 1742, FM Cam.
  • J. B. Vanloo, oils, 1742, Scone Palace, Perth and Kinross
  • attrib. J. Richardson the elder (after G. Kneller, type of 1721), Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • G. White, mezzotint (after G. Kneller, type of 1721), BM, NPG
  • portraits, repro. in Wimsatt, Portraits of Alexander Pope

Wealth at Death

Between £5000 and £6000 in money or bonds: will, The prose works of Alexander Pope, ed. R. Cowler, 2 (1986), 499–515; J. Spence, Observations, anecdotes and characters of books and men, ed. J. M. Osborn, 1 (1966), 158 [items 358–9]

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London