A couple of weeks ago I had lunch in the Phoenix Inn in Twyford, near Winchester. The food and the beer were both good, neither of which is the point of this post. There was a notice on the wall behind me about Alexander Pope being expelled from the village’s prep school for writing inflammatory verses about one of the masters. I had made him the favourite poet of the Earl of Meldon in The Heart That Lies and I was intrigued by the relatively local connection. Since I didn’t know anything about his life, I thought I’d find out what I could and read a few more of his poems.
Pope wrote witty and satirical poetry. His most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, is about the theft of a lock of hair by one of his friends from another friend. It’s a lot more than the bit of froth that I’ve made it sound. When I started looking into his life I was surprised to discover that he is more quoted than any other author save Shakespeare. The best known quotation is probably “The proper study of mankind is man”, which I’ve misquoted above. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” is one of his, as are “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and “To err is human, to forgive divine”.
He was born in London in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when the Catholic James II was forced from the throne on the birth of his son due to fears of a Catholic monarchy. It was thought that this could cause a return to the anarchy of the Civil War and James’s Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, was invited to take the throne with his wife, Mary.
Pope’s parents were Catholic and he received an indifferent education, partly at Twyford and partly at two illegal Catholic schools in London. Catholics were not so much second class subjects at the time as not subjects at all. They were not allowed to attend university or to teach, vote or hold public office. In addition to a poor education, Pope also suffered from a serious illness that left him disabled at twelve. As a result he was a short man, less than five foot, apparently. School of any kind was out of the question thereafter and he mostly educated himself.
His first works were published in 1709, although he claimed to have written them when he was 16. The Rape of the Lock was published in 1714 and made his reputation. Despite his physical condition, he was untiring and continued writing until his death. He was one of a very small number of poets to make his living entirely from writing poetry.
Pope translated The Iliad and The Odyssey. The former gained a large following.
In 1718 he moved to a villa in Twickenham, which became popular due to its grounds, which were his main interest.
The Essay on Man, from which I have misappropriated the title of this post, was published in 1733. It’s a positive affirmation of faith, stating that man really isn’t in a position to understand God and should accept this. Once someone acknowledges their place in “the Great Chain of Being” they can live as they should and be happy. Pope intended it to be part of a larger work, but died before he could complete it. Other works include An Essay on Criticism (1711), Eloisa to Abelard (1717) and The Dunciad (1728).
Like many people with sharp wit and a satirical bent, Pope made enemies. He was not assisted in this by his character, as he was vain, vindictive, unjust and sensitive to criticism. He lost many friends as a result. Despite this, he was considered the greatest poet of his age by his contemporaries.
By the early nineteenth century Pope had largely fallen out of favour. Wordsworth found his style too decadent to represent the human condition truly. Byron, however, liked Pope’s work.
He died in 1744.