Saturday, May 21, 2011

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was born on May 21, 1688. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917, his parents were Catholic and their son was raised Catholic, which in that age meant his choice of career and his opportunities for education were limited:

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.

This site includes link to his poetry on-line and offers these notes on his work:

According to Reuben Brower, “Pope became after Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton the most European of English poets” (The Poetry of Allusion) because his learning and facility with Latin and Greek allowed him to follow and surpass Dryden’s example as a poet, critic, and translator.

Like Dryden, much of Pope’s poetry, and all of his major poems, are inextricably linked to his mastery of the heroic couplet. Aubrey Williams goes so far as to praise Pope’s early Pastorals for introducing “a couplet style more refined and musical than any before in English versification” (DLB 95). In Pope’s hands a form that has since gone progressively moribund, but which was ubiquitous in his day, could move seamlessly from pastoral to satire to epic or moral epistle and be consistently effective.

His Essay on Criticism (1711) established Pope as a significant poetic voice. It also prompted the first of many printed, personal attacks. John Dennis, a prominent critic whom Pope ridiculed in the Essay, aimed his venomous response at Pope’s ailing body, his character, and his religious faith. Joseph Addison, on the other hand, praised Pope for both insight and execution, and Samuel Johnson later hailed the poem for exhibiting “every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactick composition” (Life of Pope). Windsor-Forest, The Rape of the Lock, and The Temple of Fame followed and confirmed Pope’s place among celebrated poets, a place marked again by the publication of The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope. Pope was only 29.

If Pope’s translations of Homer have received less attention than his other works over the years, it is only because translations rarely receive their due. He spent nearly a decade translating Homer’s Greek into English heroic couplets and may have damaged his fragile health in the process. The success of the result entrenched Pope as his generation’s foremost man of letters. More importantly, Pope achieved financial security and independence through subscription sales of his translations, an accomplishment that allowed him to “retire” to a villa at Twickenham.

Regarding the translation of Homer, the classical scholar Richard Bentley told him, "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer."

Although born and raised a Catholic, it seems that Pope rather fell away from the Church. A priest did come to him on his deathbed--he died May 30, 1744.

1 comment:

  1. And is claimed to be the most often quoted writer of the English language!