Alexander Pope

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.

He now turned his attention to the completion of his Iliad, which he offered to subscribers in six quarto volumes, for six guineas. The subscription soon rose to an amount that, while it gratified, at the same time alarmed him, when he thought of the extent of his undertaking; which, he says, disturbed him in his dreams at night, and made him wish that somebody would hang him. It was also given out, by some of his enemies, that he was deficient in Greek; and Addison, who does certainly, in this instance, seem to have been jealous of the fame of Pope, hinted to the Whigs, with a view to impede the subscription, that he was too much of a Tory; whilst this suspected him to be of the other party, in consequence of his contributions to Steele's Guardian. His genius, however, carried him above all difficulties; and at the rate of about fifty lines per day, he soon completed the whole of the volumes, though his repeated alterations delayed the appearance of the sixth until 1720. The clear profit which he gained by this work amounted to L5,324 4s.; a sum that relieved him from his present pecuniary difficulties, and enabled him to secure himself against future ones, by the purchase of considerable annuities.

The Iliad, which is described by the author's biographer already mentioned, as not only one of the noblest versions of English poetry ever seen by the world, but, as one of the greatest events in the annals of learning, was a source of much annoyance to Pope, both during its progress and after its completion. Whilst it failed to gain him a patron, it also lost him a friend; the coldness of Addison he returned with indignation, and the overtures of Lord Halifax with indifference and contempt. He had taken umbrage at the conduct of the former, in endeavoring to create a rivalry between his translation of Homer and Tickall's; the appearance of which, at the same time with his own, he had good reasons for attributing to the instrumentality of Addison. A reconciliation between them was after wards attempted to be brought about, by Steele; but the' interview only increased their mutual dislike, which continued to the end of their lives. Another reason assigned for Pope's quarrel with Addison, is, that he had given one Gildon ten guineas to abuse the former in a letter, which was published respecting Wycherley. 'On hearing of which,' says Pope, wrote a letter to Mr. Addison, to let him know that I was not unacquainted with this behavior of his; that if I were to speak severely of him in return for it, it should not be in such a dirty way; that I should rather tell him myself fairly of his faults, and allow his good qualities; and that it should be something in the following manner. I then adjoined the first sketch of what has since been called my satire on Addison,-the character of Atticus.' Our author's contempt for Lord Halifax arose from that nobleman's delay in the bestowal of his patronage, until he had secured some compliment, in the way of dedication or otherwise, which the poet was not over anxious to render. 'They, probably,' says Johnson, 'were suspicious of each other: Pope would not dedicate till he saw at what rate his praise was valued; Halifax thought himself entitled to confidence, and would give nothing unless he knew what he should receive.'

Pope had removed to his celebrated villa, at Twickenham, in the year 1715, when the first volume of his Iliad was published, from which time he generally continued to reside there. In 1717, he Collected his former works into one quarto volume and in 1720, partaking of the national infatuation, he lost a slight sum of money in the South Sea stock. In 1721, he was induced, by a reward of £217 12s., to give his name and labors to an edition of Shakespeare, in which his various errors were detected and exposed with all the insolence of victory, by Theobald, in a book called, Shakespeare Restored. From this time, says Johnson, Pope became an enemy to editors, collators, and verbal critics; and hoped to persuade the world that he miscarried in this undertaking only by having a mind too great for such minute employments. The same authority tells us that, in 1723, he appeared as a witness on the trial of Bishop Atterbury, and that, in the few words he had to utter, he made several blunders. In 1725, appeared his translation of the Odyssey, in which he was assisted by Broome and Fenton; the former of whom he is said to have treated with great illiberality. About the year 1726, he had the misfortune to be overturned in the water whilst passing a bridge in a friend's coach, by which he narrowly escaped drowning, and lost the use of two of his fingers from the breaking of the windows. Upon this occasion he received a letter of consolation from Voltaire, whom he had previously entertained at this table, where he is said to have talked with so much grossness, that Pope was driven from the room.

In 1727, he joined with Swift in the publication of three volumes of Miscellanies, wherein was inserted his Art of Sinking in Poetry; and in the following year appeared his Dunciad, a general attack against all the inferior authors of his time, whom he distinguished by the appellation of The Dunces. On the day the book was first vended,' says Pope, a crowd of authors besieged the shop; entreaties, advices, threats of law and battery, nay, cries of treason, were all employed to hinder the coming out of the Dunciad.' The poem excited a great sensation in all quarters, and was presented to the king and queen by Sir Robert Walpole. It is said to have blasted the literary reputation of all those whom it touched, and to have driven many of them to such an extent of hatred against the author, that they held weekly clubs to consider how they might injure him, and brought his image in clay for the purpose of executing him in effigy. In 1731, he published a poem on Taste, by which he incurred the odium of all parties, in consequence of ridiculing, under the name of Timon, his former friend and patron, the Duke of Chandos; to whom he wrote an explanatory letter, as full of hypocrisy as his verses were of ingratitude. In 1733, he published anonymously, the first, and in 1735, under his own name, the fourth part of his Essay on Man; the idea of which he acknowledges to have received from Bolingbroke, who is said to have ridiculed Pope as having advanced in it principles of which he did not perceive the consequence, and as blindly propagating opinions contrary to his own. Pope certainly appears to more advantage as a poet than a theologist in this production; which was on its translation into French, attacked with great skill by Professor Crousaz, of Switzerland, who discovered that many of the positions contained inferences against the doctrines of revelation. Warburton, however, defended the essay, in a manner that ever afterwards secured him the gratitude and friendship of Pope, who took the opportunity of acknowledging that he had not explained his own meaning properly, and of disclaiming any intention to propagate the principles of Bolingbroke.

His next poems in succession, were An Epistle to lord Bathurst, the Characters of Men and of Women, several imitations of Horace. Dr. Donne's Satires, and an Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. In 1737, he published, by subscription, a quarto volume of his Correspondence; for the previous publication of which, by Curill, whom he had prosecuted in the house of lords, he accounts, in his preface, by saying that his letters had been stolen from a friend's library, and thence sent privately to the press. There is, however, good reason to believe that they were printed with his own connivance, in order to give him an opportunity of subsequently publishing them himself, without incurring the imputation of vanity. In 1738, at which time he was visited by the Prince of Wales, and was of the opposition party, he published two Satirical Dialogues, in which he attacked several statesmen, but with a view rather of displaying his powers as a satirist than his sentiments as a patriot. These works were followed, in 1742, by a fourth book of The Dunciad, which brought on a paper war between himself and Cibber; his attack against whom he repeated, in a new edition of that work, in a strain of virulence that contributed more to the amusement of his readers than to his own reputation. From this time his vital powers gradually declined; he gave over original composition, and passed his time in the correction and revisal of his former works, and in social intercourse with his intimate friends, the chief of whom appear to have been Warburton and lord Bolingbroke. An asthma, with which he had been for some years affected, now terminating in a dropsy, his end visibly approached; he met it with resignation and calmness; and after having taken the sacrament, and exclaimed, a short time previously to death, there is nothing meritorious but friendship and virtue!' he expired, on the 30th of May, 1744, so placidly that the attendants did not ascertain the exact time of his dissolution. He was interred at Twickenham, where a monument was erected to him by Warburton, to whom he left half his library and the copyright of such of his works already printed as were not otherwise disposed of.

The character of Pope has been differently estimated by his biographers, Warburton, Bowles, Warton and Johnson. The last seems to have treated it in the most impartial manner; but his view of it is too diffuse and incongruous to be altogether satisfactory. Upon the whole Pope seems to have been more deserving of praise than he is represented; he has been considered exclusively in his literary character to have had justice done to him as a man. His reputation even as a poet, in the complete sense of the word, has been a subject of dispute with many; but it is idle to deny him a title to which none have so zealously, if so successfully, aspired. It is not to be denied that, upon the ground-work of others, he has raised some of his most beautiful superstructures; but from whatever sources he may have drawn his ideas, he has transferred them immortally to his own verses, by the manner in which he there enshrined them. His Iliad will probably continue to supersede all other translations; whilst the exquisite machinery of the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock, and the vigorous animation and pathetic tenderness pervading his Verses on the Unfortunate Lady, evince an original genius which may successfully challenge competition. His avowed model was Dryden; between whom and himself, Johnson, in drawing an elaborate comparison, says, that where the one delights the other astonishes; that Dryden is sometimes vehement and rapid, - Pope always smooth, uniform, and gentle. His conclusion seems to be that the former wrote the brighter paragraphs, the latter the better poems. Pope,' he observes, had perhaps the judgment of Dryden; but Dryden certainly wanted the diligence of Pope.' His Ode to St. Cecelia's Day, the same authority thinks inferior to Dryden's, but his Epistle of Eloise to Abelard he ranks as one of the most happy productions of human wit. For seductive eloquence and splendor of imagery, his Essay on Man is unequaled; but stripped of their ornaments, the sentiments will be found commonplaces and the diction bombastic. His epistolary writings, composed, doubtless, with a view to publication, attest the care and elegance of his pen, but are too full of that affectation and ambition, with which he himself confesses his early letters to have been vitiated.

Vanity and affectation were principal features in the character of Pope; like Byron, he pretended a hatred of the world, whilst his highest pleasure consisted in pleasing those who lived in it; and his egotism is sufficiently manifest in the contempt with which he treated all excellence in others that had not some affinity with his own. One of his boasts was, that he never obtained the notice of one titled acquaintance by adulation or servility; and Johnson, in confirming this, says, that he never flattered those whom he did not love or praised those whom he did not esteem. An exception to this, however, appears in his conduct towards Lord Hervey and Lady Wortley Montagu, in a memoir of whom he will be found apologizing in a strain of meanness and hypocrisy commensurate with the grossness and vindictiveness of his previous abuse. But though sometimes violent in his attacks and mean in his retreat, he was warm and constant in his friendships; and his social qualities, says Johnson, exhibit a perpetual and unclouded effulgence of general benevolence. Though his fortune was far from splendid, he assisted Dodsley with L100 to open a shop, and of the subscription of L40 a-year that he raised for Savage, L20 were paid by himself.

In his domestic concerns, he was frugal almost to parsimoniousness; in proof of which, it is said, that he used to write his compositions on the backs of letters; and after a scanty entertainment to two of his guests, would place a single pint of wine, with two small glasses, upon the table, and say, Gentlemen, I leave you to your wine.' He, however, would sometimes give a splendid dinner to a party of his friends, and is said him self to have been so great an epicure, that his heart was often won by a present of some luxury for his table. He used constantly to call for coffee in the night, when it is not probable he took much sleep, if the story of Lord Oxford's domestic be true, that she was called from her bed, by him, four times in one night, to supply him with paper, lest he should lose a thought. He did not excel in conversation; and it was said no merriment of others, or of his own, excited him to laughter. There appears to have been a certain littleness and artifice in his intercourse with mankind, particularly with regard to trifles, which made Lady Bolingbroke say that he played the politician about cabbages and turnips.' In his person, he was so much beneath the middle stature, that, to bring him to a level with corm mon tables, it was necessary to raise his seat; his countenance was, upon the whole, prepossessing, and his eyes were animated and expressive. His physical debility continued throughout his life; to conceal the tenuity of his legs, he wore three pairs of stockings; and being unable to dress or undress himself, could neither retire to rest, nor rise, without assistance.

An important feature in his private history, is his intimacy with Martha Blount, the daughter of a Catholic gentleman, near Reading, who is said to have been his intimate confidant and companion through life. She possessed great influence over him, and though she treated him with great neglect for some time previous to his death, he left her the greater part of his property. With this temporary exception, those to whom Pope was attached, remained his warm friends 'to the last; and Bolingbroke, who wept over him in his last illness, said, I never knew in my life a man that had so tender a heart for his particular friends, or more general friendship for mankind.' Having discovered, however, after the death of Pope, whom he had commissioned to procure a few impressions of his Patriot King, that he had ordered one thousand five hundred copies to be privately printed, Bolingbroke was so enraged at the transaction, that he exerted his utmost efforts to blast the memory of the man over whom he had so lately shed tears of affection and regret. For this artifice, of which the motive is not apparent, Warburton attempted to apologize; but in so unsatisfactory a manner, that it produced an answer, by Mallet, in A Letter to the most Impudent Man living.

We conclude our memoir of this paradoxical character, with the following anecdotes respecting him: - Lord Halifax having expressed himself dissatisfied with several passages in Pope's translation of the Iliad, the latter observed to Garth, that, as he could not see where any alteration could be made for the better, his lordship's observation had laid him under some difficulty. All that you need do,' said Garth, laughing, 'is to leave them just as they are; call on Lord Halifax two or three months hence, thank him for his kind observations on those passages, and then read them to him as altered.' Pope followed his advice, waited on Lord Halifax some time after, said he hoped his lordship would find his objections to those passages removed, read them to him exactly as they were at first, and his lordship was extremely pleased with them, and cried out, ay, now they are perfectly right; nothing can be better.'

On Pope's receiving, at his house, the Prince of Wales, with the most dutiful expression of attachment, the former remarked, how shall we reconcile your love to a prince with your professed indisposition to kings, since princes will be kings in time? Sir,' replied the poet, I consider royalty under that noble and authorized type of the lion; while he is young, and before his nails are grown, he may be approached and caressed with safety and pleasure.' During his last illness, a squabble happening between his two physicians, Dr. Burton and Dr. Thompson, who mutually charged each other with hastening the death of their patient by improper prescriptions, Pope silenced them by saying, gentlemen, I only learn by your discourse that I am in a dangerous way; therefore all I now ask is, that the following epigram may be added, after my death, to the next edition of The Dunciad, by way of postscript

Dunces rejoice, forgive all censures past, 
The greatest dunce has your foe at last.

Pope, though some have attributed them to Young, is also said to have composed, on being asked for an extempore couplet, by lord Chesterfield, the following lines, with the pencil of that nobleman:

Accept a miracle, instead of wit 
See two dull lines with Stanhope's pencil writ.