ALEXANDER POPE was born in Lombard Street, London, of Roman Catholic parents, on the 22d of May, 1688. He was according to Johnson, more willing to show what his father was not, than what he was; but his principal biographers make him the son of a linen-draper, who had grown rich enough to retire from business to Binfield, near Windsor. Alexander was deformed from his birth, and of so delicate a constitution, and such weakness of body, that he constantly wore stays; and when taking the air on the water, had a sedan-chair in the boat, in which he sat with the glasses down. He received the early part of his education at home, and, when about eight, was placed under the care of one Taverner, a Romish priest, who taught him the rudiments of Latin and Greek. His taste for poetry was first excited by the perusal of Ogilby's Homer and Sandy's Ovid; and, on his removal to school at Twyford, near Winchester, he exercised his talents in verse, by lampooning the master. He was next sent to a school in the vicinity of Hyde Park Corner, whence his occasional visits to the play-house induced such a fondness for theatrical exhibitions, that he composed a play from Ogilby's Iliad, with some verses of his own intermixed, which was acted by his schoolfellows.
About twelve years of age, when he wrote his earliest production, The Ode of Solitude, he was called by his father to Binfield, where he improved himself by translating into verse the Latin classics, and in reading the English poets. The versification of Dryden particularly struck him, and he conceived such a veneration for the genius of that poet, that he persuaded some friends to take him to the coffeehouse which he frequented, and pleased himself with having seen him. As early as 1702, he had put into more elegant verse Chaucer's January and May, and The Prologue to the Wife of Bath; and in the same year, he translated the epistle of Sappho to Phaon, from Ovid. At this time, the smoothness of his versification, which might be said to be formed, surpassed his original; 'but this,' says Johnson, 'is a small part of his praise; he discovered such acquaintance both with human and public affairs, as is not easily conceived to have been attainable by a boy of fourteen, in Windsor Forest.'
In 1703, he passed some time in London, in the study of the French and Italian languages; and on his return to Binfield, wrote a comedy, a tragedy, or epic poem, with panegyrics on all the princes of Europe, and, as he confesses, 'thought himself the greatest genius that ever was.' Many of the productions upon which he founded this idea of himself, he subsequently destroyed; nor is it from an earlier period than 1705, that his life, as an author, is properly computed. In that year, he wrote his Pastorals, which, together with the very elegant and learned preface, received the praise of all the poets and the critics of the time; to whose society he, in the following year, more particularly introduced himself, by attending Will's Coffee-house, in London, where most of them used to assemble. His pastorals did not appear until 1709, and in the same year he wrote, and in 1711 published, his Essay on Criticism, which he seems to have considered either so learned or so obscure; as to declare that 'not one gentleman in sixty, even of a liberal education, could understand it.' The piece was translated into French and German, and however overrated may have been the author's estimation of it, has not been inadequately praised by Johnson, who observes that it displayed extent of comprehension nicety of distinction, acquaintance with mankind, and knowledge both of ancient and modern learning, not often attained by the maturest age and longest experience. The essay, however, was not without opponents, and was attacked in a bitter and elaborate pamphlet, by Dennis, in consequence of some lines applied to him by Pope, whom he designated as 'a little affected hypocrite, who had nothing in his mouth at the same time but truth, candor, friendship, good-nature, humanity and magnanimity.' In this year, he also wrote his Messiah, first published in The Spectator, and his verses on the Unfortunate Lady, who, we are told by Ruffhead, having been removed by her guardian into a foreign country to avoid the addresses of Pope, put an end to her life by stabbing herself with a sword.
His next production was The Rape of the Lock, which is considered the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of all his compositions. The origin of it is too well known to need repetition here; but it is doubtful, as generally asserted, whether it had the effect of reconciling the parties whose conduct gave rise to the subject. On its first appearance, Addison called it a delicious little thing, and urged Pope not to alter it: he was, however, too confident of improving it to follow this advice, and considerably altered, and added to, the poem. 'His attempt,' says Johnson, 'was justified by its success: The Rape of the Lock stands forward in the classes of literature as the most exquisite example of ludicrous poetry.' In 1712, he published The Temple of Fame, and, about the same period, his Eloise to Abelard; to the composition of which he was led, according to Savage, by the perusal of Prior's Nut-brown Maid. In 1713, appeared his Windsor Forest, the conclusion of which is said to have given pain to. Addison, both as a poet and politician; but this is doubted by Johnson, who, in proof of the apparent friendship that continued to exist between the two poets, refers to the prologue of Cato, written by Pope, and also to a defense of that tragedy against the attacks of Dennis. About this time, the subject of our memoir is said to have studied painting under Jervis, and to have made progress enough to take the portraits of several of his friends.