Ghe Riverside Press






The Riverside Press Cambridge

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]



ALEXANDER POPE was born in London in 1688. He was the only son of parents who both came of respectable English stock. His father, a successful linen merchant, re tired early from business, buying an estate at Binfield, on the edge of Windsor Forest. Here the family lived till 1716, when they removed to Chiswick, where a year later the father died. Soon afterwards Pope, then a man of note, leased the small estate at Twickenham, on which he lived till his death in 1744.

The Popes were Roman Catholics, and the boy was consequently debarred from public school and university ; so that beyond the inferior instruction afforded by the small Catholic schools which he attended till his twelfth year, Pope had no formal education. At that


he had learned the rudiments of Greek, and could read Latin fluently, if not correctly. In the mean time, partly perhaps because he was thrown so much upon his own resources, his powers were already ripening. At twelve he wrote couplets which he afterwards inserted without change in the Essay on Criticism, and even in The Dunciad. The Pastorals, composed at sixteen, though conventional in conception and often mechanical in execution, contain passages in the poet's most mature and polished manner. With the Essay on Critis, cism, published five years later, Pope reached his maturity. Whatever development is to be found in his later work is the result of an increase in satirical power. His style was already formed.

At fourteen he learned to read French with some facility, but during the next five or six years seems to have given


most of the time not devoted to composition to the reading of English and Latin poets, Vergil, Statius, and Dryden being his favorites. For several years before the publication of the Pastorals, the manuscript was being circulated privately. Congreve, Garth, Wycherley, Walsh the critic, Halifax and Somers, eager patrons of letters, all predicted fame for the young author. In 1709 the little series was printed, and at once gave him a position which was strengthened greatly by the work of the years immediately following. The Essay on Criticism, published in 1711, favorably noticed by Addison, as was The Rape of the Lock, which, in its simpler version, appeared a year later. The publication of the translations from Homer, the first instalment of which the first four books of the Iliad published in 1715, brought Pope money enough to make him independent, and praise enough to satisfy even his hunger for approbation. The Odyssey was not completed till 1723. For his work in Homer he received nearly £9000, a small fortune in those days. In 1729 and the year following appeared three books of The Dunciad, and in 1739 the fourth book, the Satires, and the Moral Essays, including the Essay on Man. All of this mass of verse was written in the heroic couplets of which he had become master in boyhood ; his latest work is marked by the same wit, conciseness, and hard brilliancy of finish which gained the attention and the praise of his earliest critics.



It may be doubted if Pope's lack of formal education has not been made too much of. He had no bent for accurate scholarship, nor was breadth and accuracy of scholarship an accomplishment of that age. Addison, whose literary career was preceded by a long period of university residence, knew very

little of Greek literature, and had by no means a wide acquaintanceship with the literature of Rome. Yet scholarship in those days meant classical learning.

A far more potent factor in determining the conduct of Pope's life and the nature of his work lay in his bodily limitations. He was deformed from birth, stunted to dwarfishness, thin to emaciation, crooked and feeble so that he had to be stayed here and padded there; and at times subject to acute suffering. More serious than the physical inconveniences attending this condition was the morbid self-consciousness sure to be induced by deformity in one of the irritable family of poets. But the physical inconveniences in themselves were by no means small, especially as they affected his relations to other men. Masculine society in the eighteenth century laid no slight physical burden upon its members. Late hours and heavy drinking were more than the delicate constitution of Pope could endure. Consequently he was thrown back upon the companionship of women, always petted, always deferred to, always nursed. From such conditions might naturally develop the acid cleverness, the nervous brilliancy of the man Pope. We can expect from them no touch of the hearty, wholesome vigor which belonged, for example, to his master Dryden. As for emotion, we may look for the sharpness and intensity of prejudice rather than for the warmth and color of passion. Pope was not incapable of feeling ; his affection for his mother was undoubtedly deep-rooted and genuine. But it is certain that neither deep passion for one nor broad sympa. thy for all was possible to the gifted valetudinarian. On the contrary, his keenest pleasure lay in the nursing of his vanity, and in the exercise of a certain petty virulence against those who had offended his self-esteem. Nor is he more profound in thought than in feeling. “He did not write because he thought, but thought in order to write,"

says M. Taine.

Pope numbered among his acquaintance all the prominent men of the time; that he had few friends was largely his own fault. His contemptuous scorn of inferiority exposed him to the hatred of minor men ; to the favor and

« ForrigeFortsett »