Pope, Alexander: A Biographical Sketch
- Alexander Pope
- Subject Area: Literature
Source: The Complete Poetical Works of Alexander Pope. Cambridge Edition, ed. Henry W. Boynton (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1903). BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.
Copyright: The text is in the public domain.
Fair Use: This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Alexander Pope was born in London, May 21, 1688. We cannot be sure of anything better than respectability in his ancestry, though late in life he himself claimed kinship with the Earls of Downe. His paternal grandfather is supposed to have been a clergyman of the Church of England. His mother, Edith Turner, came of a family of small gentry and landowners in Yorkshire. Alexander Pope, senior, was a successful linen merchant in London; so successful that he found it possible to retire early from business, and to buy a small estate at Binfield, on the edge of Windsor forest. To this estate, in Pope’s twelfth year, the family removed from Kensington, and here they lived for sixteen years. In 1716 they removed to Chiswick, where a year later the father died. Soon afterwards Pope, then a man of note, leased the estate at Twickenham, on which he was to live till his death, in 1744.
The circumstances of Pope’s early life were in many ways peculiar. One of the main reasons for the choice of Binfield was that a number of Roman Catholic families lived in that neighborhood. They formed a little set sufficiently agreeable for social purposes, though not offering much intellectual stimulus to such a mind as Pope’s very early showed itself to be. But if to be a Roman Catholic in England then meant to move in a narrow social circle, it carried with it also more serious limitations. It 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. Two or three facts recorded of this school experience are worthy of mention: that he was taught the rudiments of Latin and Greek together, according to the Jesuit method; that he left one school in consequence of a flogging which he had earned by satirizing the head master; and that at about the age of ten he built a tragedy on the basis of Ogilvy’s translation of Homer. At twelve he had at least learned the rudiments of Greek, and could read Latin fluently, if not correctly. So far as his failings in scholarship are concerned, Pope’s lack of formal education has probably 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 a by no means wide acquaintance with the literature of Rome. Yet scholarship in those days meant classical learning.
Pope might no doubt have profited by the discipline of a regular academic career. He needed, as Mr. Courthope says, ‘training in thought rather than in taste, which he had by nature.’ But such a mind as his is not likely to submit itself readily to rigid processes of thought. It is impossible not to see, at least, that the boy Pope knew how to read, if not how to study; and that what Latin and Greek he read was approached as literature,—a method more common then than now, it is probable. ‘When I had done with my priests,’ he wrote to Spence, ‘I took to reading by myself, for which I had a very great eagerness and enthusiasm, especially for poetry; and in a very few years I had dipped into a great number of English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. This I did without any design but that of pleasing myself, and got the language by hunting after the stories in the several authors I read: rather than read the books to get the language.’ Virgil and Statius were his favorite Latin poets at this time, as is attested not only by the Pastorals and the early translations of the Thebais, but by the innumerable reminiscences, or ‘imitations,’ as Pope called them, which may be traced in his later work. In the meantime, as a more important result of his having to rely so much upon his own resources, his creative power was beginning to manifest itself with singular maturity. At twelve he wrote couplets which were long afterwards inserted without change in the Essay on Criticism, and even in The Dunciad. The Pastorals, composed at sixteen, though conventional in conception and not seldom mechanical in execution, contain passages in the poet’s ripest manner. With the Essay on Criticism, published five years later, Pope reached his full power. Such development as is to be found in his later work is the result of an increase in mental breadth and satirical force. His style was already formed.
Whatever may have been the importance, for good and ill, of Pope’s early method of education, a far more potent factor in determining the conduct of his life and the nature of his work lay in his bodily limitations. The tradition that in his childhood he was physically normal is made dubious by the reported fact that his father was also small and crooked, though organically sound. At all events, the Pope whom the world knew was anything but normal,—stunted to dwarfishness, thin to emaciation, crooked and feeble, so that he had to wear stays and padding, and all his life subject to severe bodily pain. Pope’s relations with other men were seriously affected by this condition. Masculine society in eighteenth-century England had little place for weaklings. The late hours and heavy drinking of London were as little possible for the delicate constitution of Pope as the hard riding and heavy drinking of the country gentlemen with whom he was thrown at Binfield. In a letter from Binfield in 1710 Pope writes: ‘I assure you I am looked upon in the neighborhood for a very sober and well-disposed person, no great hunter, indeed, but a great esteemer of the noble sport, and only unhappy in my want of constitution for that and drinking.’ It is a misconception of Pope’s character to suppose him lacking in a natural robustness of temper to which only his physical limitations denied outlet. Before reaching manhood he had been given more than one rude lesson in discretion. At one time over-confinement to his books had so much reduced his vitality as to convince him that he had not long to live. A fortunate chance put his case into the hands of a famous London physician, who prescribed a strict diet, little study, and much horseback riding. Pope followed the advice, recovered, and thereafter, for the most part, took excellent care of himself; it was the price which he had to pay for living. One unfortunate result was that he was thrown back upon the companionship of women, always petted, always deferred to, always nursed. Such conditions naturally developed the acid cleverness, the nervous brilliancy of the poet Pope; and it is matter of great wonder that from such conditions anything stronger should survive; that there is, when all is said, so much virility and restraint in the best of his work.
The Pastorals, Pope’s first considerable poetical achievement, were according to the poet written in 1704, at the age of sixteen. They were, like all modern pastorals, conventional; but they contain some genuine poetry, and are wonderful exercises in versification. Their diction is often artificial to the point of absurdity, but now and then possesses a stately grace, as in the famous lines:—
- ‘Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;
- Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade,
- Where’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,
- And all things flourish where you turn your eyes’
Pope had probably been encouraged to write the Pastorals by Sir William Trumbull, to whom the first of them is inscribed. Trumbull was a man of Oxford training, who after a distinguished diplomatic career had come to end his life upon his estate near Binfield, and who had been drawn to the deformed boy by the discovery of their common taste for the classics. For some time before the publication of the Pastorals the manuscript was being circulated privately among such men of established literary reputation as Garth, Walsh, Congreve, and Wycherley, and such patrons of letters as George Granville, Halifax, and Somers. To Walsh in particular Pope afterward expressed his obligation. ‘He used to encourage me much,’ we read in a letter to Spence, written long after, ‘and used to tell me there was one way left of excelling: for though we had several great poets, we never had any one great poet that was correct; and he desired me to make that my study and aim.’ The dictum has become famous, but though Walsh probably meant, by ‘correctness,’ justice of taste as well as measured accuracy of poetic style, his over-praise of the Pastorals leads us to think that form was the main thing in his mind. If Pope’s statement of the date at which the Pastorals were written is reliable, however (and we must keep in mind from the outset the fact that, as Mr. Courthope says, Pope in mature life ‘systematically antedated his compositions in order to obtain credit for precocity’), he did not become acquainted with Walsh until some time after they were written. The critic’s advice, therefore, amounted simply to an encouragement in pursuing the method which Pope had already adopted: in employing a more rigid metrical scheme than any previous poet, even Sandys or Dryden, had attempted. The bookseller Jacob Tonson was shown the manuscript, and offered to publish it; and in 1709 it appeared in Tonson’s Sixth Miscellany.
Through Walsh Pope became acquainted with Wycherley, who introduced the young poet to literary society in London; that is, to the society of the London coffee-houses. The character of the older resorts had already begun to change. Even Will’s had ceased to be the purely literary club of Dryden’s day. It was natural that the age of Anne, in which increasing public honors were paid to literary men, should have been also an age in which literary men took an increasing interest in politics. At about the time when Pope first came up to London, Whig and Tory were beginning to edge away from each other; and though Will’s for a time remained a sort of neutral ground, the old hearty interchange of thought and companionship was no longer possible. Part-political, part-literary clubs, like the Kitcat, the October Club, and the Scriblerus Club, sapped the strength of the older and freer institution; and its doom was sealed when in 1712 Addison established at Button’s a resort for literary Whigs.
During his first years of London experience, Pope probably knew Richard Steele more intimately than any one else. They had met at Will’s, and through Steele Pope had been presented to Addison, and had later become a frequenter of Button’s. It was Steele who urged Pope to write the Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day, who got his Messiah published in The Spectator and printed various short papers of his in The Guardian. Another Whig friend was Jervas the painter, a pupil of Kneller, but an artist of no very considerable achievement. The poet at one time had some lessons in painting from him, and always held him in esteem. So far Pope allowed himself to associate with the Whigs; but he had no intention of taking rank as a Whig partisan. If he wrote prose for Whig journals, it was in honor of the Tory government that the conclusion was added to Windsor Forest in 1713. To Swift’s admiration for this poem, Pope owed the beginning of his life-long friendship with the Dean; but it was a friendship which committed him no more to Toryism than Addison’s had to Whiggery. ‘As old Dryden said before me,’ he wrote in 1713, ‘it is not the violent I desire to please; and in very truth, I believe they will all find me, at long run, a mere Papist.’ One amusing fact about Pope’s early experience at Button’s is that he is known to have commended the verses of Addison’s satellites, Budgell and Tickell and Philips, whom later he was to attack so bitterly. The first cause of offence was not long in coming; and an offence sown in the mind of Pope was certain to grow very fast and to live very long. The story of Pope’s falling out with Addison and his friends is the story of the first of a long series of personal enmities which embittered Pope’s life, and, it is too clear, impoverished his work.
The Pastorals were published by Tonson at the end of a volume which opened with some exercises in the same kind of verse by Ambrose Philips. Pope was disposed to commend the work of Philips, even going so far as to say that ‘there were no better eclogues in the language.’ His ardor was somewhat cooled when The Spectator, in a paper which was unmistakably Addison’s, printed an extended comparison of his work and Philips’s, considerably to the advantage of the latter; and was converted into a cold rage by the fact that presently the position taken by The Spectator was expanded in five papers in The Guardian. The subtlety and ingenuity of Pope’s method of retort was an interesting indication of the disingenuousness which became a settled quality of his prose writing. Whatever his poetry may not have been, it was certainly downright; but his method of getting it before the public, of annotating it, and of reinforcing its thought, was habitually circuitous and not seldom dishonest. Pope promptly wrote a sixth paper to The Guardian, ostensibly keeping to Tickell’s argument, but really speaking in irony from beginning to end, picking out the weakest points in Philips’s style and matter, and damning them by fulsome praise. Steele, it is said, was so far deceived as to print the paper in good faith. Pope’s revenge among the wits was complete; but he never forgot a score by paying it. In the Satires and The Dunciad, poor namby-pamby Philips comes up again and again for a punishment to which, in recompense, he now owes his fame.
Pope’s attitude toward Addison is a more serious matter to the critic. Up to the year 1714 Pope, whatever irritation he may have felt toward Addison, had chosen to ‘take it out of’ the followers of the great man rather than out of the great man himself. The insertion of the Tory passage in Windsor Forest might have been taken as a direct challenge to the Whig champion, whose famous celebration of the Whig victory at Blenheim had been so popular. That his relations with Addison were not affected by it is shown by his supplying a prologue for Cato, which was produced within a month of the publication of Windsor Forest. Cato itself was to supply the real bone of contention. It was attacked by the veteran critic John Dennis, against whose strictures Pope undertook to take up the cudgels, in an anonymous Narrative of Dr. Robert Norris on the Frenzy of J. D. It is uncertain whether Addison suspected that Pope was its author, and that his championship was inspired by the desire for personal revenge for Dennis’s treatment of the Essay on Criticism; but he disclaimed responsibility for the rejoinder in a letter written for him to the publisher by Steele. The result was a resentment which bore its final fruit in the lines on Atticus in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Addison, it must be noticed, had warmly praised the Essay on Criticism (1711), and the simpler version of The Rape of the Lock, published a year later; but the publication of Tickell’s version of the first book of the Iliad simultaneously with Pope’s first volume, and Addison’s preference of the weaker version, does not leave the latter quite free from suspicion of parti pris.
Whatever may have been the rights of the difficulty between Addison and Pope, there is no doubt that in one point, evidently a mere point of judgment, Addison was wrong. After pronouncing the first version of The Rape of the Lock, published in 1712, ‘a delicious little thing, and merum sal,’ he advised against Pope’s plan for expanding it. Without the additions which the author made, in spite of this advice, it would hardly stand, as it now does, an acknowledged masterpiece in its kind. Despite the apparently local and temporary nature of its theme, the poem attracted much greater attention when, in 1714, it appeared in the new form. The poem affords the purest expression of Pope’s genius: his imagination applied without strain to a theme with which it was exactly fitted to cope, his satirical power exercised without the goad of personal rancor, and his light and elegant versification unhampered by the fancied necessity for weightiness. Nothing more just has been said about the poem than this by Hazlitt (On Dryden and Pope): ‘It is the most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented. It is as admirable in proportion as it is made of nothing:—
- “More subtle web Arachne cannot spin,
- Nor the fine nets, which oft we woven see
- Of scorched dew, do not in th’ air more lightly flee.”
It is made of gauze and silver spangles. The most glittering appearance is given to everything,—to paste, pomatum, billet-doux, and patches. Airs, languid airs, breathe around; the atmosphere is perfumed with affectation. A toilette is described with the solemnity of an altar raised to the Goddess of Vanity, and the history of a silver bodkin is given with all the pomp of heraldry. No pains are spared, no profusion of ornaments, no splendor of poetic diction, to set off the meanest things. The balance between the concealed irony and the assumed gravity is as nicely trimmed as the balance of power in Europe. The little is made great, and the great little. You hardly know whether to laugh or weep. It is the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-heroic.’
If The Rape of the Lock was Pope’s masterpiece in the field of impersonal satire, the Essay on Criticism, which belongs to the same period of the poet’s life, was his masterpiece in the realm of poetic generalization. It was, according to the account of the poet, composed in 1709 and published in 1711. The present editor is inclined to think that justice has never been done to this extraordinary work, either as a product of precocity, or in its own right. It is, in his opinion, not only a manual of criticism, to which the practitioner may apply for sound guidance upon almost any given point, but an exhaustive satire upon false methods of criticism. It is a compendious rule of criticism which works both ways; hardly less rigorous than Aristotle, hardly less catholic than Sainte-Beuve. It does not, as has been alleged, constitute a mere helter-skelter summary of critical platitudes: there is hardly a predicament in modern criticism from which it does not suggest an adequate means of extrication. At all events, it represented, as Mr. Courthope says, the ‘first attempt to trace for English readers the just boundaries of taste.’
The Essay on Criticism was not, like The Rape of the Lock, devoid of the note of personal enmity which was to mark so much of the poet’s later work. John Dennis had probably employed his slashing method in reviewing the Pastorals, and in the Essay Pope took occasion for revenge in the lines on Appius, which unmistakably applied to the author of Appius and Virginia; and which after Dennis’s rejoinder were to be followed up by the attacks in the Satires and The Dunciad.
With the accession of the house of Hanover in 1714 the literary situation in London was considerably modified. The common ground upon which Whigs and Tories had, with diminishing success, continued to associate, was taken from under their feet. Politics became the first issue, and literature was relegated to a subordinate position. Fortunately the list of subscribers to Pope’s translation of the Iliad had been made up before the death of Anne. During the few years in which the process of public readjustment absorbed the attention of London, Pope was hard at work upon the most exacting task he had yet undertaken.
The removal of the family from Binfield to Chiswick was made by Pope’s desire. He was now not only a famous author, but a man of fashion; and on both accounts he wished to be nearer London. In leaving the coffee-house society—of which, in truth, he had never been a full member—he had found entrance into ‘aristocratic circles;’ and we hear much in his letters from this time on of the noblemen whose hospitality he accepted, while standing clear of their direct patronage. At Chiswick he found more society and less leisure. Many times during the next few years he accuses himself of laziness, but it does not appear that his mild junketings with the nobilities gave him more relaxation from the toil of his Homer translation than he needed. The first books of the Iliad were published in 1715, and the last books of the Odyssey in 1723. The cripple and man of the world who could do that in the intervals of his house parties and his sieges of physical pain was certainly producing his full share of work.
The Iliad was hailed with applause on all sides, and handsomely paid for. It was in one way a task for which the translator would appear to have been quite unfitted. The Rape of the Lock had proved him the mouthpiece of a conventional and sophisticated age; and conventionality and sophistication are not qualities to go naturally with Homer. The elegance of Pope’s verse becomes at times a mincing neatness, and his fashionable poetic diction in the mouths of Hector and Achilles rings thin and metallic. But though Pope inevitably missed the simplicity and the hearty surge and swing of Homer, he did manage to retain something of his vigor; and his Iliad is still the classic English version. Only half of the Odyssey translation which followed was really the work of Pope, and even his own part was deficient in the spirit which had marked the first translation. It had indeed been undertaken from a very different motive: he could not hope to add greatly to the credit which his Iliad had gained for him, but the cash might readily be increased. The translator actually received nearly £9000 for both translations—a small fortune in those days. Pope’s relations with his collaborators in the affair of the Odyssey are to be noticed, though they have perhaps been too much dwelt upon by the commentators. The facts are briefly these: Fenton translated four books and Broome eight. Both were Cambridge men of parts, Fenton the more brilliant and Broome the more thorough. The latter furnished also all the notes. Pope paid them a very small price for their labor, though not less than they had bargained for, and gave them very little credit for it. Moreover, when he found that there was some stir against him for advertising an Odyssey which was to be his only in part, he induced Broome to write a postscript note claiming only three books for his own share and two for Fenton’s, and insisting that whatever merit they might have was due to Pope’s minute revision.
Before attempting the Odyssey, Pope was unfortunately led to prepare an edition of Shakespeare, which showed some ingenuity in textual emendation. Phrases were, however, too frequently altered as ‘vulgar,’ and metres as ‘incorrect.’ The work was on the whole so mediocre as fairly to lay itself open to the strictures of Theobald, who was consequently made the original hero of The Dunciad. In 1718 the poet leased the estate at Twickenham, and set to work upon the improvements which became a hobby. He had planned to build a town house, but was fortunately dissuaded. The laying out of the tiny five acres of grounds is now a matter of history: the paths, the wilderness, the quincunx, the obelisk to his mother’s memory, above all the grotto,—they are more like actors than stage properties in the quiet drama of Pope’s later years.
His work after the completion of the Homer translation was almost entirely restricted to satire. Even the Moral Essays are largely satirical, for Pope’s didacticism was always tinged with laughter. It was too seldom a kindly laughter. His capacity for personal hatred was suffered not only to remain, but to grow upon him; until it became at length one of the ruling motives of his literary life. His first conception of The Dunciad was formed as early as 1720. Sometime within the five years following he seems to have broached his project for wholesale revenge to Swift, who, oddly enough, dissuaded him: ‘Take care the bad poets do not outwit you,’ he wrote, ‘as they have the good ones in every age, whom they have provoked to transmit their names to posterity. Mævius is as well known as Virgil, and Gildon will be as well known as you if his name gets into your verses.’ Thereto Pope dutifully assents: ‘I am much happier for finding our judgments jump in the notion that all scribblers should be passed by in silence. . . . So let Gildon and Philips rest in peace.’ It is not many years later that we find Swift encouraging Pope to go on with The Dunciad, and Pope accepting the advice with an even better grace than in the former instance. The first judgment of both authors was of course the right one. The Dunciad, with all its cleverness, remains the record of a strife between persons whom we do not now care about. It has no determinable significance beyond that; it lacks the didactic soundness of his Essay on Criticism, and the graceful lightness of The Rape of the Lock. Only in a few detached passages in the Moral Essays and Satires, indeed, did he ever succeed in approaching either of these qualities.
‘Pope’s writings,’ says Mr. Courthope, ‘fall naturally into two classes: those which were inspired by fancy or reflection, and those which grew from personal feeling or circumstance.’ The Moral Essays belonged to the former of these classes, the Satires to the latter. The Moral Essays, and more particularly the Essay on Man, are the product of a materialism which marked the age, and which was set before Pope in something like systematic form by Bolingbroke. As Bolingbroke was primarily a politician, and dabbled in philosophy only because the favorite game was for a great part of his life denied him, it could not be expected that much more than shallow generalization would come out of him. At all events, his system of sophistry was all that Pope needed for a thread upon which to string his couplets. Whatever we may think of the Essay on Man now, we need not forget that so keen a critic as Voltaire once called it ‘the most beautiful, the most awful, the most sublime didactic poem that has ever been written in any language.’ Even in our day a conservative critic can say of it: ‘Form and art triumph even in the midst of error; a framework of fallacious generalization gives coherence to the epigrammatic statement of a multitude of individual truths.’
Some of the difficulty that we have found in The Dunciad is present in the Satires. They are full of personalities. As a rule, however, the persons hit off are of some account, both in themselves and as types, rather than as mere objects of private rancor. Altogether these poems contain, besides the famous portraits of contemporaries, many passages of universal application to the virtues and the shortcomings of any practical age.
With the completion of the Satires in 1738, Pope’s work was practically done. His remaining years were to be spent mainly in revising his works and correspondence; the final additions and alterations to The Dunciad being the only task of special importance which in his weakening health, and decreasing creative impulse, he was able to undertake. The range of the poet’s possible achievement was never very great; and he had now lost most of the living motives of his work. He had numbered among his acquaintances all the prominent men of the time; and not a few of them had been friends upon whom he depended for encouragement and companionship. Gay had died in 1732, Pope’s mother a year later, and Arbuthnot in 1735. Swift was meantime rapidly breaking up in mind and body, and by 1740 Pope was separated from him by a chasm as impassable as that of death. Bolingbroke remained to him, and he was to have one other friend, Warburton, upon whom he relied for advice and aid during his last years, and who became his literary executor. These, however, were friendships of the mind rather than of the heart; and there is something a little pathetic in the spectacle of the still brilliant poet’s dependence upon the chill and disappointed politician Bolingbroke and the worthy and adoring Bishop Warburton, who can hardly have been a lively companion.
Critics are now fairly well agreed as to Pope’s service to English poetry. Intellectually he was clever rather than profound, and, in consequence, though so much of his work was of the didactic type, he made few original contributions to poetic thought. A poem of Pope’s is a collection of brilliant fragments. He kept a note-book full of clever distiches set down at random; presently so many couplets are taken and classified, others are added, a title is found, and the world applauds. If we except The Rape of the Lock, and possibly the Epistle to Arbuthnot, none of his poems can be called organic in structure. The patching is neatly done, but the result is patchwork. The Essay on Man, therefore, which most of his contemporaries considered his greatest work, appears to us a mosaic of cleverly phrased platitudes and epigrams. Many of the couplets have become proverbial; the work as a whole cannot be taken seriously. ‘But the supposition is,’ says Lowell, ‘that in the Essay on Man Pope did not himself know what he was writing. He was only the condenser and epigrammatizer of Bolingbroke—a very fitting St. John for such a gospel.’ It is to another and less pretentious sort of work that we must turn to find the great versifier at his best.
The Rape of the Lock affords exactly the field in which Pope was fitted to excel. The very qualities of artificiality and sophistication which mar the Homer translations make the story of Belinda and her Baron a perfect thing of its kind. Here is the conventional society which Pope knew, and with which—however he might sneer at it—he really sympathized. The polished trivialities, the shallow gallantry, the hardly veiled coarseness of the London which Pope understood, are here to the life. Depth of emotion, of imagination, of thought, are absent, and properly so; but here are present in their purest forms the flashing wit, the ingenious fancy, the malicious innuendo, of which Pope was undoubtedly master.
In versification his merit is to have done one thing incomparably well. Not only is his latest work marked by the same wit, conciseness, and brilliancy of finish which gained the attention of his earliest critics, but it employs the same metrical form which in boyhood he had brought to a singular perfection. The heroic couplet is now pretty much out of fashion: ‘correctness’ is no longer the first quality which we demand of poetry. No doubt we are fortunate to have escaped the trammels of the rigid mode which so long restrained the flight of English verse. But however tedious and wooden Pope’s instrument may have become in later hands, however mistaken he himself may have been in emphasizing its limitations, there is no doubt that it was the instrument best suited to his hand, and that he secured by means of it a surprising variety of effect.
We have chronicled thus far a few of the facts of Pope’s life and work. Something—it cannot be very much—remains to be said of his private character. It was a character of marked contradictions, the nether side of which—the weaknesses and positive faults—has, as is common in such cases, been laid bare with sufficient pitilessness. He was, we are told, malicious, penurious, secretive, unchivalrous, underhanded, implacable. He could address Lady Mary Wortley one day with fulsome adulation, and the next—and ever after—with foul abuse. He could deliberately goad his dunces to self-betrayal by his Treatise on the Bathos, and presently flay them in The Dunciad by way of revenge. He could by circuitous means cause his letters—letters carefully edited by him—to be published, and prosecute the publisher for outraging his sensibilities. He could stoop to compassing the most minute ends of private malice by the most elaborate and leisurely methods. He played life as a game composed of a series of petty moves, and, as one of his friends said, ‘could hardly drink a cup of tea without a stratagem.’
But let us see what we might be fairly saying on the other side. If he was capable of malice, he was incapable of flattery; if he was dishonest in the little matters, he was honest in the great ones; if he held mediocrity in contempt, he had an ungrudging welcome for excellence. In later life he had encouragement for the younger generation of writers,—Johnson, Young, Thomson, and poor Savage. If he allowed a fancied injury to separate him from Addison, he had still to boast of the friendship of men like Gay, Arbuthnot, and Swift; and they had to boast of his. He nursed his mother in extreme old age with anxious devotion, and mourned her death with unaffected grief. In his best satirical mood, the best in English verse, he did not hesitate to arraign the highest as well as the lowest; not even Swift could be so fearless. Such things are to be remembered of this correct versifier and merciless satirist Pope: that with only half the body, and hardly more than half the bodily experience, of a man, he had his full share of a man’s failings and a man’s virtues; and that the failings were on the whole upon a less significant plane than the virtues.
Much has been written of Pope’s attitude toward women, and much has been written of his acrid habit of mind. The relation between these facts has been, perhaps, insufficiently grasped. Pope was not by nature a celibate or a hater of women. He was, on the contrary, fond of their society, and anxious to make himself agreeable to them. His failure with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was deserved; the relation was a mere affair of gallantry, which she took good care to snuff out when the adorer’s protestations began to weary her. She was not a womanly person, and forestalled much public indignation at Pope’s subsequent abuse by adopting an equally brutal system of retort.
His failure with Martha Blount was of a very different sort, and of far greater significance. She was the younger of two daughters belonging to one of the Roman Catholic families in Pope’s Windsor Forest circle of acquaintance. With her and with her sister Teresa, Pope was for many years upon terms of the closest intimacy. They were not much alike; and though Pope made a habit of addressing them with guarded impartiality in his correspondence, it is to be seen almost from the first that his feeling for the more practical and worldly older sister was less warm than his feeling for the amiable and feminine “Patty.” Eventually, after years of friendship, the poet made a few indirect overtures to Martha in the direction of marriage; and at last ventured to express himself plainly to Teresa. To his unspeakable humiliation and grief, she treated his honest declaration as an affront to her sister, and upon precisely the painful ground of his deformity, which had for so many years kept him from speaking. Pope could not help feeling that however Martha might, if left to herself, have received his advances, it was now out of the question to pursue them. His behavior under the circumstances was full of dignity. It was impossible for the friendship to be renewed upon the old footing, but his only revenge beyond that of the necessary withdrawal from familiar intercourse was to settle a pension upon Teresa at the time, and to leave most of his property by will to Martha. We can hardly imagine Pope madly in love, but that he had a calm and steadfast affection for Martha Blount we cannot doubt. He was disposed to marry, and he would have liked to marry her. She represented the ideal of womanhood in his mind; and to her, in the heat of his most savage bouts of idol-breaking, he pauses to raise a white shaft of love and faith.
If the present editor, after a careful and well-rewarded study of the poet and the man, has any mite of interpretation to offer, it is not that Pope was a greater poet, but that he was a better man, than he is commonly painted; an unamiable man, yet not for that reason altogether unworthy of regard; a man with little meannesses carried upon his sleeve for all the world to mock at, and with the large magnanimity which could face the world alone, without advantages of birth or wealth or education or even health, and win a great victory. Such a man cannot conceivably be supposed to have stumbled upon success. Not only inspired cleverness of hand, but force of character and sanity of mind must be responsible for his work. After the lapse of nearly two centuries it should perhaps be right to indulge ourselves somewhat more sparingly in condemnation of his foibles, and to recall more willingly the sound kernel of character which is the basis of his personality. Whatever slander he may have retailed about the camp-fire, whatever foolish vanity he may have had in his uniform, Pope fought the good fight. ‘After all,’ he wrote to Bishop Atterbury, who was trying to make a Protestant of him, ‘I verily believe your Lordship and I are both of the same religion, if we were thoroughly understood by one another, and that all honest and reasonable Christians would be so, if they did but talk together every day; and had nothing to do together but to serve God and live in peace with their neighbors.’
H. W. B.
- Blackstone: A Memoir by Sharswood
- Burke: A Biographical Note
- Chaucer’s Life by Walter Skeat
- Cicero’s Life and Politics
- Clinton, George (1739–1812)
- Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536)
- Dicey: His Life & Law of the Constitution
- Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac (1714-1780)
- François Guizot (1787-1874)
- Guyot, Yves (1843-1928)
- Harrington’s Life by John Toland
- Hooker’s Life by Isaac Walton
- Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1767-1835)
- Hume’s Life written by Himself
- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
- Kalidasa: Life and Works
- Life & Works of Richard Cantillon by Henry Higgs
- Life of Goethe
- Locke, John (1632-1704)
- Locke: A Life
- Mackay, Thomas (1849-1912)
- Mandeville: His Life and Work
- Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794)
- Mencius: A Life
- Milton, John (1608-1674)
- Montaigne: A Sketch
- Murray Rothbard on Herbert Hoover
- Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
- North, Sir Dudley (1641-1691)
- Penn: Life and Times and Work
- Petty’s Life and Economic Thought
- Plutarch’s Own Life
- Plutarch’s Parallel Lives
- Pope, Alexander: A Biographical Sketch
- Price, Richard (1723-1791)
- Raico on Benjamin Constant
- Raico on Wilhelm von Humboldt
- Randolph, John (1773-1833)
- Robinson, John: A Memoir
- Rothbard on Mencken
- Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
- Stael: Life and Works
- Sumner: A Sketch
- The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882)
- Thierry, Augustin (1795-1856)
- Tucker, Benjamin (1854-1939)
- Vattel: Life and Works
- Voltaire: Incidents in his Life
- Walter Bagehot, a memoir by Richard Holt Hutton
- Washington: Marshall’s Life
- William Brough and Gresham’s Law
- Young, Arthur (1741-1820)
- Young, Arthur: A Biographical Sketch