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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > P > Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Poet, son of Alexander Pope and his second wife, Edith Turner, b. in London, England, 22 May, 1688; d. at Twickenham, England, 30 May, 1744. His parents were both Catholics, and the son lived and died in the profession of the faith to which he was born. The poet's father was a linen merchant in Lombard Street, London, who before the end of the seventeenth century retired on a moderate fortune first to Kensington, then to Binfield, and finally to Chiswick, where he died in 1717. Soon after this event Pope with his mother removed to the villa at Twickenham, which became his permanent abode, and which, with its five acres, its gardens, and its grotto, will be forever associated with his memory. As a child he was very delicate, and he retained a constitutional weakness as well as a deformity of body all through his life, while in stature he was very diminutive. His early education was spasmodic and irregular, but before he was twelve he had picked up a smattering of Latin and Greek from various tutors and at sundry schools, and subsequently he acquired a similar knowledge of French and Italian. From his thirteenth year onward he was self-instructed and he was an extensive reader. Barred from a political and to a great extent from a professional career by the penal laws then in force against Catholics, he did not feel the restraint very acutely, for his earliest aspiration was to be a poet, and at an exceptionally youthful period he was engaged in writing verses. His first idea was to compose a great epic, the subject that presented itself being a mythological one, with Alcander, a prince of Rhodes, as hero; and perhaps he never wholly relinquished his intention of producing such a poem, for after his death there was found among his papers a plan for an epic on Brutus, the mythical great-grandson of Æneas and reputed founder of Britain. The Alcander epic, which had reached as many as 4000 lines, was laid aside and never completed. Pope's first publication was the "Pastorals"; "January and May", the latter a version of Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale"; and the "Episode of Sarpedon" from the "Iliad". These appeared in 1709 in Tonson's "Poetical Miscellanies". His "Essay on Criticism" appeared in May, 1711, and some months later was warmly, if not enthusiastically, commended by Addison in the "Spectator" (No. 253, 20 Dec., 1711). Steele was eager to get hold of the rising poet to contribute to the paper, and eventually succeeded, for practically the entire literary portion of one issue of the "Spectator" (No. 378, 14 May, 1712) is given over to Pope's "Messiah: A Sacred Eclogue". In 1712 the first edition of "The Rape of the Lock", in two cantos, came out in Lintot's "Miscellany". Later Pope extended the work to five cantos, and by introducing the supernatural machinery of sylphs and gnomes and all the light militia of the lower sky, he gave to the world in 1714 one of its airiest, most delightful, and most cherished specimens of the mock-heroic poem. In the April of the preceding year (1713), Addison's tragedy of "Cato" was produced with almost unparalleled success at Drury Lane Theatre and the prologue, a dignified and spirited composition, as Macaulay describes it, was written by Pope. It was published with the play and also in No. 33 of the "Guardian". To the "Guardian" also Pope contributed eight papers in 1713. In the same year he published his "Windsor Forest" and the "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day". "The Wife of Bath", from Chaucer, and two translations from the "Odyssey"—the "Arrival of Ulysses at Ithaca" and the "Garden of Alcinous"—came out in 1714 in a volume of miscellanies edited by Steele for Tonson, the publisher. "The Temple of Fame", in which Steele said there were a thousand beauties, was separately published in the following year, 1715.

In November of 1713 a turning point was reached in Pope's fortunes. He issued proposals for the publication, by subscription, of a translation of Homer's "Iliad" into English verse, with notes. The matter was warmly taken up, and subscriptions poured in apace. His friends stood by him, Swift in particular obtaining a long list of influential patrons. Work was at once begun on the undertaking, and the first four books appeared in 1715, the remaining volumes coming out at intervals in 1716, 1717, 1718, and 1720, when the task was completed. Three years later he undertook the translation of the "Odyssey", which, with the aid of Broome and Fenton as collaborators, he completed by 1726. Pope's exact share was twelve books; the rest were by his assistants. By Homer Pope made close on £2000, which, added to what his father had left him, placed him in a position of independence for the remainder of his life. While engaged on his great translation Pope found time for other forms of literary work, and in 1717 he published two of the very best of his lyrics, namely, the "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" and the "Epistle of Eloïsa to Abelard", and he joined with Gay and Arbuthnot in writing and producing the unsuccessful farce "Three Hours after Marriage". He also undertook for Tonson, the publisher, an annotated edition of Shakespeare, which appeared in 1725, a task for which Pope's powers were unequal, for he was not sufficiently versed in the literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, and although the preface is very fine and many shrewd emendations were made in the text, Pope's Shakespeare was on the whole far from being a success. It was at once attacked by Theobald, who thus exposed himself to the characteristic vengeance which Pope was shortly to take by making him the first hero of the "Dunciad". In 1713-14 Pope, with Swift, Arbuthnot, and other leaders of the Tory Party, had formed a sort of literary society called the Scriblerus Club, and had amused themselves by burlesquing the vagaries of literature in the "Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus", which, although included in the edition of Pope's prose works in 1741, was mainly the composition of Arbuthnot. Arising partly out of the performance of "Scriblerus", Pope and Swift published in 1727-28 three volumes of their "Miscellanies", which contained among other things Pope's "Treatise on the Bathos, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry", illustrated by examples from the inferior poets of the day. These "Miscellanies", and particularly the "Bathos", drew down upon the authors a torrent of abuse from every quill-driver and poetaster who had been in reality attacked or fancied himself ridiculed. The "Dunciad" was in turn the outcome of these invectives. This celebrated satire first appeared, in three books, in May, 1728, and an enlarged edition followed in 1729. In 1742 a further issue appeared with the addition of a fourth book, and in 1743 the poem came out in its final form with Theobald dethroned and Colley Cibber installed in his room as King of the Dunces. The publication of this swinging satire naturally increased the fury against Pope, who was roundly abused in all the moods and tenses. Nor did he shrink from the fray. He gave back blow for blow for eight years, 1730-37, in a weekly sheet, the "Grub Street Journal", as well as paying off old scores when opportunity offered in his avowed and more ambitious publications.

While thus engaged Pope came more directly than ever before under the influence of Bolingbroke, with whom he had been on intimate terms in the palmy pre-Georgian days. Bolingbroke undoubtedly indoctrinated Pope with the trends of his own system of metaphysics and natural theology, and the fruit was seen in the "Essay on Man", in four "Epistles" (1732- 34), and in the "Moral Essays", also in four "Epistles" (1731- 35). The fifth Epistle—"To Mr. Addison, occasioned by his 'Dialogues on Medals'"—placed arbitrarily enough by Warburton in this series of "Moral Essays", was actually written in 1715, and has appeared in Tickell's edition of Addison's works in 1720. Bolingbroke, in another connexion, once said of Pope that he was "a very great wit, but a very indifferent philosopher"; and in these "Essays", especially in the "Essay on Man", he was endeavouring to expound a system of philosophy which he but imperfectly understood. The result is that the tendency of his principal theories is towards fatalism and naturalism, and the consequent reduction of man to a mere puppet. This position Pope never had the intention of taking up, and he shrank from it when it was forcibly exposed by Crousaz as logically leading to Spinozism. To clear himself of the charge of a denial of revealed religion and, in Johnson's celebrated phrase, of representing "the whole course of things as a necessary concatenation of indissoluble fatality", he wrote, in 1738, the "Universal Prayer", which is now generally appended to the "Essay on Man", but which, despite the piety it displays, is not entirely convincing. From 1732 to 1738 he was busy with the composition and publication of his "Imitations of Horace", which, in diction and versification at least, some critics consider his masterpieces. He also at this period published two of the "Satires of Dr. Donne", which he had versified earlier in life. In 1735 appeared the "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, or Prologue to the Satires", and in 1738 the "Epilogue to the Satires, in Two Dialogues". In 1737 he published an authorized and carefully prepared edition of his "Correspondence", which had been brought out in 1735 by Curil in what Pope alleged to be a garbled form.

With the publication of the "Dunciad", in 1743, Pope's literary activity ceased. He indeed set about the collection of his works with a view to an authoritative edition; but he was obliged to abandon the attempt. His health, always poor, began rapidly to fail. He always expressed undoubting confidence in a future state, and when his end was obviously approaching he willingly yielded to the representations of a Catholic friend that he should see a priest. It was noticed by those about him that after he had received the last sacraments his frame of mind was very peaceable. He died calmly the next day, 30 May, 1744, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. He was buried near the monument which he had raised to the memory of his father and mother at Twickenham.

Probably no writer, as such, ever made more enemies than Pope. Not only did he lash Bufo and Sporus, Sappho and Atosa, and scores of others by their own names or under thin disguise, but he boasted that he made a hundred smart in Timon and in Balaam. Herein indeed he over-reached himself, for the great majority of the victims of his satire would have been long ago forgotten but that he has embalmed them for all time in the "Dunciad" and elsewhere. But if he had the fatal gift of arousing enmity and the fault of vindictiveness in the persecution of those who had incurred his wrath, it must be put to the credit side of his account that scattered throughout his works there are many generous tributes to worth among his contemporaries. He possessed beyond question a deep fund of affection. He was a loving and devoted son, a loyal and constant friend. His happy relations with Arbuthnot and Swift, with Atterbury and Oxford, with Parnell and Prior, with Bolingbroke and Gay, with Warburton and Spence, and with many others of his acquaintances were interrupted only by death. His friendship with Addison, which augured so auspiciously at first, was unfortunately soon clouded over. The question of their estrangement has been so voluminously discussed by Johnson, Macaulay, Ward, and others that it is unnecessary, as it would be unprofitable, to pursue it here in detail. It will perhaps be sufficient to say that there were probably faults on both sides. If Pope was unduly suspicious, Addison was certainly too partial to the members of his own immediate little coterie. And if for real or fancied slights or wrongs Pope took an exemplary vengeance in his celebrated character of Atticus (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, II, 193-214), it must always be borne in mind that he has taken care in many passages to pay compliments to Addison, and not empty compliments either, but as handsome as they were well deserved. A reference, for example, to Epistle I of the Second Book of Horace, will sufficiently prove the truth of this statement. Regarding Pope's position in the literature of his country, there has been an extraordinary amount of controversy; some critics going the length of denying him the right to be called a poet at all. Opinion has fluctuated remarkably on his merits. By his contemporaries he was regarded with a sort of reverential awe. To his immediate successors he was the grand exemplar of what a poet should be. His standing was first assailed by Joseph Warton, in 1756, in his "Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope", but Johnson gave the great weight of his authority to the other side. During the Romantic reaction of the last part of the eighteenth century he lost caste to some extent, and his reputation was very seriously jeopardized in the height of the Romantic movement from about 1820 onward. He was, however, warmly defended by Campbell, Byron, and others. Nor is he without stalwart champions in our own day. At present opinion appears to have crystallized in the direction of recognizing him as among the really great names of English literature. Johnson's criticism may, on the whole, be regarded as sound. His opinion, expressed in his biography of the poet, is that Pope had in proportions very nicely adjusted to one another all the qualities that constitute genius, invention, imagination, judgment, rare power of expression, and melody in metre; and he replies to the question that had been raised, as to whether Pope was a poet, by asking in return: If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found? To treat this subject fully would lead to a discussion of two very vexed questions, namely what poetry really is, and what the proper subjects of poetry are. It will perhaps serve the purpose if the opinion be indicated that, when detraction has done its worst, Pope will still stand out, not perhaps as a master-genius, but as the typical man of letters and as the great representative English poet of the first half of the eighteenth century.


     DENNIS, Reflections upon a late Rhapsody called an Essay upon Cricticism (London, 1711); IDEM, True Character of Mr. Pope (London, 1716); IDEM, Remarks upon Mr. Pope's Translation of Homer, with the Letters concerning Windsor Forest and the Temple of Fame (London, 1717); SPENCE, An Essay on Pope's Translation of Homer's Odyssey (London, 1727); IDEM, Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men, collected from the Conversation of Mr. Pope and others (London, 1820); AYRE, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Alexander Pope (London, 1745); WARTON, Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, I (London, 1756), II (London, 1782); JOHNSON, Life of Pope (London, 1781); EARL OF CARLISLE, Two Lectures on the Poetry of Pope (London, 1851); WARD, Introductory Memoir prefixed to the Globe ed. of The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope (London, 1869); EDWIN ABBOTT, A Concordance to the Works of Alexander Pope, with an Introduction by E. A. ABBOTT (London, 1875); STEPHEN, Alexander Pope in "English Men of Letters" series (London and New York, 1880); EMILY MORSE SYMONDS, Mr. Pope, His Life and Times (London, 1909); eds. of Pope's Works by WARBURTON (London, 1751, reprinted 1769, with Life by RUFFHEAD); BOWLES, with Life (London, 1806, new ed. 1847); ROSCOE, with Life (London, 1824, new ed., 1847); CARRUTHERS, with Life (London, 1853, second ed. of the Life, 1846); and EDWIN AND COURTHOPE, with Life by COURTHOPE (London, 1871-1889).

About this page

APA citation. Lennox, P. (1911). Alexander Pope. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Lennox, Patrick. "Alexander Pope." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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