Alexander Pope (21 May 1688- 30 May 1744) is generally regarded as the greatest English poet of the early eighteen century, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer.
Pope was born in London to Alexander Pope, a linen merchant, and Edith who were both Roman Catholics. Pope was taught to read by his aunt and then sent to two Catholic schools, at Twyford and Hyde Park Corner. From early childhood he suffered numerous health problems, including Pott’s disease (a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine) which deformed his body and stunted his growth. He never grew beyond 1,37 m.
In 1700, his family moved to a small estate in Binfield, Berkshire. With his formal education now at an end, Pope embarked on an extensive campaign of reading. As he later remembered: ‘ In a few years I had dipped into a great number of the English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. This I did without any design but that of pleasing myself, and got the languages by hunting after the stories… rather than read the books to get the languages.’ His favourite author was Homer.
First published in 1709 in a volume of Poetical Miscellanies by Jacob Tonson, The Patorals brought instant fame to the twenty year old Pope. They were followed by An Essay of Criticism (1711). Around 1711, Pope made friends with John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. In 1712, Pope, Gay, Swift and Thomas Parnell formed the Scriblerus Club. The aim of the club was to satirise ignorance and pedantry in the form of the fictional scholar Martinus Scriblerus. Pope’s major contribution to the club would be Peri Bathous, or the Artof Sinking in Poetry(1728), a parodic guide on how to write bad verse. The Rape of the Lockeis perhaps Pope’s most popular poem. It is a mock- heroic epic, written to make fun of a high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission.
The climax of Pope’s early career was the publication of his Worksin 1717.
Pope had been fascinated by Homer since childhood. In 1713, he announced plans to publish a translation of Homer’s Iliad. The commercial success of his translation made Pope the first English poet who could live off the sales f his work alone, ‘indebted to no prince or peer alive’, as he put it. His translation of the Iliad duly appeared between 1715 and 1720. It was later acclaimed by Doctor Johnson as ‘a performance which no age or nation could hope to
The money he made allowed Pope to move to a villa at Twickenham in 1719, where he would create a famous grotto and gardens. Encouraged by the very favourable reception of the Iliad, Pope translated the Odyssey. The translation appeared in 1725-1726. In this period Pope also brought out an edition of Shakespeare, which silently ‘regularised’ his meter and rewrote his verse in several places. Lewis Theobald and other scholars attacked Pope’s edition, incurring Pope’s wrath and inspiring the first version of his satire The Dunciad (1728).
In 1731, Pope published his ‘Epistle to Burlington’, on the subject of architecture, the first of four poems which would later be grouped under the title Moral Essays (1731-35). In the epistle, Pope ridiculed the bad taste of the aristocrat ‘Timon’.
Inspired by Bolingbroke’s philosophical ideas, Pope wrote An Essay on Man(1733-4). He published the first part anonymously, in a cunning and successful ploy to win the praise from his fiercest critics and enemies.
After 1738, Pope wrote little. His major work in these years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad. The complete revision of the whole poem appeared in 1743. By this time Pope’s health was failing and he died in his villa on May 30, 1744.
The Rape of the Locke
The Rape of the Locke is one of the most famous English-language examples of the mock-epic. Published in its first version in 1712, when Pope was only 23 years old, the poem served to forge his reputation as a poet and remains his most frequently studied work. The inspiration for the poem was an actual incident among Pope's acquaintances in which Robert, Lord Petre, cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair, and the young people's families fell into strife as a result. John Caryll, another member of this same circle of prominent Roman Catholics, asked Pope to write a light poem that would put the episode into a humorous perspective and reconcile the two families. The poem was originally published in a shorter version, which Pope later revised. In this later version he added the "machinery," the retinue of supernaturals who influence the action as well as the moral of the tale.
Belinda arises to prepare for the day's social activities after sleeping late. Her guardian sylph, Ariel, warned her in a dream that some disaster will befall her, and promises to protect her to the best of his abilities. Belinda takes little notice of this oracle, however. After an elaborate ritual of dressing and primping, she travels on the Thames River to Hampton Court Palace, an ancient royal residence outside of London, where a group of wealthy young socialites are gathering for a party. Among them is the Baron, who has already made up his mind to steal a lock of Belinda's hair. He has risen early to perform and elaborate set of prayers and sacrifices to promote success in this enterprise. When the partygoers arrive at the palace, they enjoy a tense game of cards, which Pope describes in mock-heroic terms as a battle. This is followed by a round of coffee. Then the Baron takes up a pair of scissors and manages, on the third try, to cut off the coveted lock of Belinda's hair. Belinda is furious. Umbriel, a mischievous gnome, journeys down to the Cave of Spleen to procure a sack of sighs and a flask of tears which he then bestows on the heroine to fan the flames of her ire. Clarissa, who had aided the Baron in his crime, now urges Belinda to give up her anger in favour of good humour and good sense, moral qualities which will outlast her vanities. But Clarissa's moralizing falls on deaf ears, and Belinda initiates a scuffle between the ladies and the gentlemen, in which she attempts to recover the severed curl. The lock is lost in the confusion of this mock battle, however; the poet consoles the bereft Belinda with the suggestion that it has been taken up into the heavens and immortalized as a constellation.
The Rape of the Lock is a humorous indictment of the vanities and idleness of 18th-century high society. Basing his poem on a real incident among families of his acquaintance, Pope intended his verses to cool hot tempers and to encourage his friends to laugh at their own folly.
The poem is perhaps the most outstanding example in the English language of the genre of mock-epic. The epic had long been considered one of the most serious of literary forms; it had been applied, in the classical period, to the lofty subject matter of love and war, and, more recently, by Milton, to the intricacies of the Christian faith. The strategy of Pope's mock-epic is not to mock the form itself, but to mock his society in its very failure to rise to epic standards, exposing its pettiness by casting it against the grandeur of the traditional epic subjects and the bravery and fortitude of epic heroes: Pope's mock-heroic treatment in The Rape of the Lock underscores the ridiculousness of a society in which values have lost all proportion, and the trivial is handled with the gravity and solemnity that ought to be accorded to truly important issues. The society on display in this poem is one that fails to distinguish between things that matter and things that do not. The poem mocks the men it portrays by showing them as unworthy of a form that suited a more heroic culture. Thus the mock-epic resembles the epic in that its central concerns are serious and often moral, but the fact that the approach must now be satirical rather than earnest is symptomatic of how far the culture has fallen.
Pope's use of the mock-epic genre is intricate and exhaustive. The Rape of the Lock is a poem in which every element of the contemporary scene conjures up some image from epic tradition or the classical world view, and the pieces are wrought together with a cleverness and expertise that makes the poem surprising and delightful. Pope's transformations are numerous, striking, and loaded with moral implications. The great battles of epic become bouts of gambling and flirtatious tiffs. The great, if capricious, Greek and Roman gods are converted into a relatively undifferentiated army of basically ineffectual sprites. Cosmetics, clothing, and jewellery substitute for armour and weapons, and the rituals of religious sacrifice are transplanted to the dressing room and the altar of love.
An Essay on Man
An enormous emphasis was placed on the ability to think and reason during the Enlightenment. People during this era thought and reasoned about a variety of topics. Some people concerned themselves with the issue of God, which consequently caused many to question the church. Others were concerned with the organization of the Universe, and man’s place within that Universe. The first epistle of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” can be considered an articulation of the Enlightenment because it encompasses three major concerns of the people during the Enlightenment. Pope addresses man’s ability to reason and think for himself, he questions the church and the nature of Christianity, and he also speculates about man’s place in the world, as apart of the great chain of life.
The ability to reason was the central focus of the Enlightenment also denoted The Age of Reason. Pope begins epistle one by appealing to the reason of his audience. He writes, “Together let us beat this ample field, / Try to open, what the covert yield!” Pope encourages his audience to use the reason they have been given, to examine those things that have been advised against. To reason about those issues which have been kept in secrecy. He then goes on to write “say first, of God above, or man below, / What can we reason, but from what we know?” Pope again is addressing the ability of his audience to reason. He is trying to bring them into the 18th century, asking them to look for evidence in the knowledge they receive, rather then allowing the church to spoon-feed them all of their knowledge.
During the Enlightenment, people began to question the church for the first time. Pope exemplifies this when he writes, “no Christians thirst for gold.” Pope subtly questions the nature of Christianity and Christians by exposing their own sinful desire for material goods. His words are simple, but they say a lot. By acknowledging that these Christians sin, and “thirst for gold,” he asks then why a man is looked down upon if they do not aspire to be Christian, since Christians have a sinful nature just like that of every other man. Pope was not alone in questioning Christianity and the church. David Hume writes, “the Truth of Christian Religion is less than the Evidence for the Truth of our Senses…” Many writers during the Enlightenment not only questioned Christianity, but also the church in general. Epistle one of Pope’s “Essay on Man,” is merely one of the pieces of literature during the 18th century, which voices its ideas on the subject.
Another issue that Pope, as well as his readers concerned themselves with during the Enlightenment, was man’s place within the Universe. Pope addresses this issue when he writes, “vast chain of being! which from God began, / Natures ethereal, human, angel, man…” Pope expresses his opinion that man’s place in the Universe, is within “Nature’s chain.” Therefore, man is simply a link within that chain. Pope’s idea that there is this chain or structure to the Universe, is representative of the belief by many Enlightenment thinkers, that there is a “best” way to structure things. During the Enlightenment everything was being organized, and classified. From the structure of society, to the structure of the Universe, there existed a common belief that organization was key to producing the “best” of anything.
The Great Chain of Being
The Great Chain of Being or scala naturae is a classical and western medieval conception of the order of the universe, whose chief characteristic is a strict hierarchical system.
It is a conception of the world's structure that was accepted, and unquestioned, by most educated men from the time of Lucretius until the Copernican revolution . The Chain of Being is composed of a great number of hierarchal links, from the most base and foundational elements up to the very highest perfection - in other words, God, or the Prime Mover.
God, and beneath him the angels, both existing wholly in spirit form, sit at the top of the ladder. Earthly flesh is fallible and ever-changing: mutable. Spirit, however, is unchanging and permanent. This sense of permanence is crucial to understanding this conception of reality. One does not abandon one's place in the chain; it is not only unthinkable, but generally impossible. (One exception might be in the realm of alchemy, where alchemists attempted to transmute base elements, such as lead, into higher elements, either silver, or more often, gold- the highest element.)
In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain; these elements possess only the attribute of existence. Moving on up the chain, each succeeding link contains the positive attributes of the previous link, and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Beasts add not only motion, but appetite as well.
Man is a special instance in this conception. He is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh drag one down. The Christian fall of Lucifer is especially terrible, because that angel is wholly spirit, who yet defies God, the ultimate perfection.