The Reading Room

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) : The Dr. Seuss of the Diss

What would happen if Dr. Seuss started throwing shade?  To the untrained ear, it might sound something like the satiric barbs of Alexander Pope, diss-master of the Enlightenment. Consider his dismissal of Lord Hervey, referred to here as “Sporus”:
Let Sporus tremble – ‘What? That Thing of silk,Sporus, that mere white curd of Ass’s milk?
Satire or Sense alas! Can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel? (Epistle to Arbuthnot, 305-8)
Too bad ass’s milk isn’t a helpful burn ointment.
Pope was a Catholic, and therefore was relegated to the fringes of Protestant English society in many ways.  He couldn’t attend Cambridge or Oxford, couldn’t hold property, and was barred from appointment to positions his talents merited, yet was revered by many of its brightest lights for his wit and poetic prowess. And he made his share of enemies too. The limits on his options perhaps contributed to his lifelong desire for fame.
Pope wrote almost exclusively in heroic couplets, a now unfashionable verse form consisting of rhymed lines of iambic pentameter (5 “feet” of two syllables each, second syllable in each “foot” is stressed.  “New York” is a handy example of an iamb).  This rhyme scheme takes its name from the fact that 17th century dramatists like John Dryden wrote their heroic plays in the same rhythmic pattern.  To the modern ear, it sounds almost comical, but in the sixteen and seventeen-hundreds it was considered a pinnacle of style, and no one was better at it than Alexander Pope.  No. One.
Pope worked in the classical tradition of the poet as public voice and social monitor, and used his considerable poetic ability to explore a wide variety of topics – many of them things we wouldn’t necessarily associate with poetry today.  For example,  “An Essay on Criticism”, published in 1711, is a tour de force that encapsulates the standards for neoclassical verse in neoclassical verse.   The poem, which stretches to nearly 800 lines of tightly rhymed verse, begins by noting that “‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill” (1-2).  Spoiler: the bigger sin is to write bad criticism, because bad poetry may bore you, but bad criticism will bore you and corrupt your critical faculties.  Pope’s versified literary criticism runs throughout his oeuvre, most notably in The Epistle to Arbuthnot quoted above and the multi-stage mock-epic* The Dunciad (the first incarnation published in 1728, with an expanded version published in 1742)
Another strain which runs throughout Pope’s work is a celebration of England and her growing global empire.  “Windsor Forest” (1713) begins as a paean to England’s rural beauties, and ends with a prophecy of England’s colonial expansion, imagining Queen Anne exhorting the trees of the forest – now turned ships: “oh stretch thy Reign, fair Peace! From Shore to Shore, / Till Conquest cease, and Slav’ry be no more” (407-408).  The dressing table of Arabella in “The Rape of the Lock” displays the luxuriant result of this expansion: 
Unnumber’d Treasures ope at once, and here The various Off’rings of the World appear; 
.  . .
This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks, 
And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.
The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white (129-136)
Eat your hearts out, beauty influencers; Empire is the mother of all sponsor deals.

Pope was increasingly drawn to philosophical and moral questions.  The Essay on Man (1733-34), a four part poem running to over 1200 lines, seeks to “vindicate the ways of God to Man” (16, and yes, before you ask, Pope had read Milton).  Suffice to say that since the first epistle of this poem ends with the declaration that “One truth is clear, ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT’” (294), it was not quite the final word on the subject that Pope imagined. 

More lasting is his economic and social criticism, found chiefly in his Moral Essays: Epistles to Several Persons (published between 1731 and 1735).  The four epistles are addressed to Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham; to “a Lady”; Allen Lord Bathurst; and Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, respectively.  The first two focus on judging the “characters” of men and women, and the second set focuses on “The Use of Riches.”   Though appearing fourth in the collected epistles, that to Burlington was published before Bathurst, and is shorter.  In these poems, Pope criticizes waste caused by lack of taste, in terms that will remind Austen fans of Mansfield Park’s Mr. Rushworth or Sanditon’s Tom Parker.  
Though laughable, the excesses of the tasteless wealthy do serve a larger purpose:
Yet hence the Poor are cloath’d, the Hungry fed;Health to himself, and to his Infants bread
The Lab’rer bears: What his hard Heart denies,His charitable Vanity supplies (169-72)
Pope elaborates on this image in the Epistle to Bathurst, when the heir to a miser unwittingly redistributes his father’s wealth:
Who sees pale Mammon pine amidst his store,Sees but a backward steward for the Poor; 
This year a Reservoir, to keep and spare,
The next a Fountain, spouting thro’ hi Heir,
In lavish steams to quench a Country’s third,And men and dogs shall drink him ‘till they burst (173-178)
Readers of Adam Smith will be put in mind of Smith’s later image of overconsumption resulting in redistribution of wealth from Part IV, Chapter 1:
The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. 
And yes, Smith read Pope and mentions him by name in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (chapter 2: of the love of praise).
As so often in the eighteenth century, the key to moral behavior is balance. Bathurst is exhorted to “teach us. . . . / That secret rare, between th’ extremes to move” (226-27), 
The Sense to value Riches, with the ArtT’enjoy them, . . . 
To balance Fortune by a just expence,
Join with Oeconomy, Magnificence;With Splendour, Charity; with Plenty, Health (219-25)
So Theodore Geisel was working in a venerable tradition when he penned The Sneetches and The Lorax, perhaps an unknowing inheritor of Pope’s earlier rhymed moral and political verse. And while it is true that Pope did not illustrate his work, nor write about cats in hats, he did pen an heroic epistle in the persona of his dog Bounce, and the best verse for a dog collar on record: “I am his Highness’ Dog at Kew; / Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?” (“Epigram. Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness,” 1738).
*a poem, play, or other literary production that uses the conventions of epic poetry such as invocation of muses; length (stretching to multiple “books”), description of battles, visits to the underworld or other divine intervention, etc, to mock a contemporary practice ranging from publishing to flirtation.  This was a Big Deal in the 18c, and Pope used it to tremendous satiric effect in both The Dunciad poems and in “The Rape of the Lock” (two canto version 1712, five canto version 1714), subtitled by Pope “an heroi-comical poem."