Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) was an 18th-century English poet best known for his satirical verse, as well as for his translation of Homer. He was born in London to Catholic parents. His education was affected by the penal laws of the age which banned Catholics from teaching on pain of perpetual imprisonment. He learned to read with the help of an aunt. He attended two Catholic schools in London which, while illegal, were tolerated.
From the age of 12, he suffered numerous health problems related to a form of tuberculosis that affected his bones, deformed his body and stunted his growth, leaving him with a severe hunchback. He never grew beyond 1.37 metres (4 feet, 6 inches) tall. That tuberculosis infection caused other health problems including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes, and abdominal pain. Having suffered isolation due to his Catholicism, his poor health only added to his problems.
The anti-Catholicism of the time saw the Pope family forced to move to a small estate near Windsor Forest. Pope’s formal education ended at this time, and from then on he mostly educated himself by reading the works of classical writers such as the Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal, the epic poets Homer and Virgil, as well as English authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and John Dryden. He also studied many languages and read works by English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets.
Pope made friends with Tory writers John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell and John Arbuthnot, who together formed the satirical Scriblerus Club whose aim was to satirise ignorance and pedantry in the form of the fictional scholar Martinus Scriblerus. He also made friends with Whig writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
His well known poem The Rape of the Lock is often considered his most popular poem. It was a mock-heroic epic, written to make fun of a high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the “Belinda” of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. In his poem he treats his characters in an epic style; when the Baron steals her hair and she tries to get it back, it flies into the air and turns into a star.
With money earned from his translations of Homer, Pope took on the lease of a villa at Crossdeep, Twickenham in 1719. He spent considerable time and money on improving the house and redesigning the gardens. He became known as the wasp of Twickenham and wrote many of his great works there. An Essay on Criticism exhibited the heroic couplet style, a new genre of poetry, and Pope’s most ambitious work. This lengthy poem, debating the question of whether poetry should be natural, or written according to predetermined artificial rules inherited from the classical past, was an attempt to identify and refine his own positions as a poet and critic.
Though another masterpiece, The Dunciad, which ruthlessly satirised Colley Cibber who later became the Poet Laureate, was first published anonymously in Dublin, its authorship was not in doubt. It pilloried a host of hacks, scribblers and dunces. It has been called in many ways the greatest act of folly in Pope’s life… it bore bitter fruit. It brought the poet in his own time the hostility of its victims and their sympathizers, who pursued him implacably from then on with a few damaging truths and a host of slanders and lies. The threats were often physical. According to his sister, Pope would never go for a walk without the company of his dog, Bounce, (see below) and a pair of loaded pistols in his pocket. Is there a modern poet, (except perhaps the American poet-critic, William Logan) who has had to suffer such threats and such danger? Perhaps his diminutive size helped. I wonder he is not thrashed, wrote William Broome, Pope’s former collaborator on the Odyssey who found himself lambasted in The Dunciad, but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren.
After 1738, Pope wrote little. His major work in those years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad. By now his health, which had never been good, was failing, and he died in his villa at Twickenham surrounded by friends on 30 May 1744. On the previous day, 29 May 1744, Pope called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. He lies buried next to his mother in the nave of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham. His friend William Warburton later erected a monument to him on the north wall (see image right) commenting on his preference for Twickenham over Westminster Abbey incorporating Pope’s own poetic epitaph.
EPIGRAMS AND EPITAPHS
Alexander Pope was a master of the epigram. As David Barber has noted in his wide-ranging and astute review essay on the epigram, It is edifying, for example, to be reminded that the eighteenth century’s esteem for the verse epigram reflected not just a veneration for classical models of literary conduct but the hardbitten conviction that it was an arrow every well-armed poet should carry in his quiver. Pope’s longer poems and epistles abound in epigrammatic bull’s-eyes that long ago assumed a life of their own as apothegms and catchphrases (“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”), yet when he confined himself to the epigram proper, he could let fly a poisoned dart or feathered shaft very much in the expertly opportune manner of Martial.
In the age of Twitter, Pope can be adopted to the exigencies of that form as Claude Willan attempted to prove when he announced his grand project on his blog, I am tweeting the 1711 edition of the Essay on Criticism, @m_scriblerus. One couplet per tweet. Two tweets per day. It will take me a little over six months…Couplets are already the length of medium-length tweets. He put much effort into the project and succeeded in tweeting most of Book One before he ran out of energy. Perhaps he was dispirited by having only 21 followers but he did manage to prove that Pope’s couplets have an epigrammatic power suitable for tweeting. He continues to tweet, with substantially more followers, on his own Twitter account @CluadeWillan.
If the epitaph is a specialised form of the epigram, Pope is equally a master of that form. I have written about and included some of his epitaphs in another post, Tombstone Tropes 1. Others are included below. Some of his best are, unfortunately, too long to be included in a tweet.
POPE AND BOUNCE
Alexander Pope was a lover of dogs, particularly large dogs, all of his life. As a result of the satiric thrust of his writings, he was occasionally threatened with physical violence. Due to his poor health and small stature – only four feet six inches tall – he would have been unable to defend himself against a violent attack and depended on his dog to protect him.
His favourite dog was a giant, female Great Dane with impeccable manners whom he called Bounce, the ideal dog for a writer. (See image right.) While Pope worked, Bounce lay quietly at his feet. And when Pope went for walks, carrying a brace of loaded pistols, Bounce ambled by his side. Dogs were often referenced in his poetry. When Bounce had a litter (thund’ring Offspring all around) the most celebrated pup was the one that Alexander Pope gave as a gift to the Prince of Wales. That pup came with a collar inscribed with Pope’s legendary lines: I am His Highness’ Dog at Kew;/Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?
On one occasion Bounce is reputed to have saved Alexander Pope’s life. As the great Australian poet, A. D. Hope explained, In the evenings after Pope retired to bed, it was Bounce’s habit to remain downstairs in front of the fire, soaking up the heat from the dying embers. On one particular evening, however, everything changed. Earlier that day, Alexander Pope had hired a new valet. Bounce took an abnormal dislike to the man and, that night, after the valet helped Pope into bed, Bounce abandoned the fireplace, crept up into her master’s bedroom, and crawled under the bed to sleep. Pope was awakened much later by the sound of someone in his room. When he peered out from behind his bed curtains, he saw the dark figure of a man approaching with a knife in his hand. Physically incapable of defending himself, Pope could do nothing but scream for help. Hearing the cries of her master, Bounce charged out from under the bed and knocked the assailant to the ground. She held him there, barking until the rest of the household was awakened. The armed intruder turned out to be none other than Pope’s new valet, who had intended to kill Pope, rob him, and flee into the night before his crime was detected.
Bounce died while being looked after by John Boyle, the 5th Earl of Orrery. Pope wrote to Orrery after her death on the 10th of April, 1744. His letter read, in part: I dread to enquire into the particulars of the Fate of Bounce. Perhaps you conceald them, as Heav’n often does Unhappy Events, in pity to the Survivors, or not to hasten on my End by Sorrow. I doubt not how much Bounce was lamented: They might say as the Athenians did to Arcite, in Chaucer,
Ah Arcite! gentle Knight! Why would’st though die,
When though had’st Gold enough, and Emilye?
Ah Bounce! ah gentle Beast! why wouldst thou dye,
When thou hadst Meat enough and Orrery?
This couplet. later to be known as “Lines on Bounce,” was the last that Alexander Pope ever wrote. Bounce died while in the care of John Boyle, 5th Earl of Orrery. Pope died less than two months later on the 30th of May, 1744.
Brief Poems by Alexander Pope
Epigram Engraved On The Collar Of A Dog Which I Gave To His Royal Highness
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
Epigram from the French
Sir, I admit your gen’ral Rule
That every Poet is a Fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every Fool is not a Poet.
Peter complains, that God has given
To his poor Babe a Life so short:
Consider Peter, he’s in Heaven;
‘Tis good to have a Friend at Court.
Lines Written in Evelyn’s Book on Coins
Tom Wood of Chiswick, deep divine,
To Painter Kent gave all this coin.
’T is the first coin, I ’m bold to say,
That ever churchman gave to lay.
An Empty House
You beat your Pate, and fancy Wit will come:
Knock as you please, there ’s nobody at home.
Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
Epitaph on the Stanton-Harcourt Lovers
Here lie two poor lovers, who had the mishap
Tho’ very chaste people, to die of a clap.
Explanation of this epitaph available on the briefpoems literary epitaphs post
Apply’d to F. C.
Here Francis Ch_+s lies—Be civil!
The rest God knows—perhaps the Devil.
Epitaph On John Gay
Well then, poor G_+ lies under ground!
So there’s an end of honest Jack.
So little Justice here he found,
‘Tis ten to one he’ll ne’er come back.
For One Who Would Not Be Buried in Westminster Abbey
Heroes and King! your distance keep;
In peace let one poor Poet sleep,
Who never flatter’d folks like you:
Let Horace blush, and Virgil too.
Lines on Bounce
Ah Bounce! ah gentle beast, why wouldst thou die,
When thou has meat enough, and gentle Orrery?
According to multiple biographers, this couplet was the last that Alexander Pope ever wrote. His dog, “Bounce”, died while in the care of John Boyle, 5th Earl of Orrery. Pope died less than two months later on the 30th of May, 1744.