Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was born on May 21, 1688 in London. His father was a linen-draper of Plough Court, Lombard Street. Despite his family’s Catholic faith, which barred him from attending university, Pope learned Greek and Latin under the tutelage of a local priest and, later, at Catholic school. In 1700, Pope’s family moved to Binfield in Winsor Forest, where Pope undertook a regime of rigorous self-education once his formal education was complete. He read, studied, and translated, sometimes teaching himself languages through the act of translation. It was at Binfield that the sixteen-year-old Pope composed his Pastorals (published 1709). Around this same time, Pope contracted some form of tuberculosis, probably Pott’s Disease, which weakened his spine, stunted his growth, and permanently damaged his health.
After the onset of his illness, Pope resolved to go to London to learn French and Italian. In the circles of fashionable London society (not the trade districts of Hammersmith or City, where he lived as a child), Pope made a number of literary acquaintances including William Wycherley and William Congreve, both noted comic dramatists. It seems likely that Pope’s manuscript of the Pastorals circulated among these powerful literary figures, shaping Pope’s career.
With the help of his literary acquaintances, Pope began to publish his works. As the title of the poem suggests, the Pastorals distilled the English pastoral into poetic form, echoing Virgil’s Eclogues. Even at this early point in Pope’s career, he did not limit his poetic subject matter. His second major poem, An Essay on Criticism (1711), took a more discursive tone, closer to Horace’s Ars poetica. An Essay on Criticism gained the attentions of Joseph Addison, one of the founders of The Spectator, and he included some of Pope’s works in the publication. During the first decade of the eighteenth century, Pope also composed a descriptive and historical poem on his native region of Windsor Forest, entitled Windsor-Forest (1713), which caught the attention of Jonathan Swift with whom he would later found the Scriblerus club. By the time Windsor-Forest was published, The Rape of the Lock (1714) had already been circulated anonymously, but Pope revised and lengthened the work for publication and claimed authorship. The publication of The Rape of the Lock marked the conclusion of Pope’s literary apprenticeship, and he embarked on his own projects.
Now a famous poet, Pope began work on several projects. He commenced writing a translation of Homer’s The Iliad (1720), which took him six years to complete. He then undertook a translation of The Odyssey (1726). The two works were immensely popular, establishing Pope’s fortune and solidifying his fame. He also produced an edition of Shakespeare’s works, which was completed in 1725. At the same time, Pope was drawn to a friendship with a group of writers with Tory sympathies who styled themselves the Scriblerus club. Counting Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, and Thomas Parnell among its members, the group dedicated itself to the mockery of false learning and antiquarianism.
Following the Jacobite (Catholic) rebellion of 1715, which protested the accession of George I and during which many Tories lost their political standing, several of Pope’s friends were imprisoned in the Tower of London. As a Catholic with Tory sympathies, whose literary friends and political allies were on the losing side, Pope had to be very careful. Because Catholics were no longer welcome in London’s center, Pope moved to Twickenham. Pope emerged from the crisis unscathed and remained relatively quiet for a few years. A small poem published in 1728 marked Pope’s return to the world of political writing. In continuation of his work for the Scribelus club, Pope composed The Dunciad (1728-42, revised 1743) which daringly satirized contemporary authors he viewed as bad writers, Lewis Theobald in particular. Though the poem was ostensibly a satire on bad writers, it contained allusions that seemed to challenge the Hanoverian rule. There was a general outcry following the publication of The Dunciad, and it seemed that his reputation as a satiric poet was solidified.
After the first publication of The Dunciad, Pope turned to other subjects in his poetry. In An Essay on Man (1732-4), Pope abandoned satire to focus on philosophy and metaphysics. The poem attempts to outline man’s place and purpose in the universe and his relation to God. During the 1730s, he also began work on his Imitations of Horace (1733-8), which had neither a political nor a moral agenda. Rather, the poems range from imitations of Horace’s satires and epistles to reflections of Horace’s mode and style. The works collected in Imitations of Horace had little precedent in English literature—in either style or subject matter—and indicated Pope’s move away from poetic imitation of his English contemporaries. In the 1740s Pope returned to The Dunciad and revised his 1728 version. The New Dunciad (1742) replaced Lewis Theobald with Colley Cibber as the satiric subject. Cibber had been the poet laureate since 1730, and Pope believed his works demonstrated shallowness and complacency. He died shortly afterward in 1744, having suffered from ill health most of his life.
What distinguishes Pope from his many accomplished contemporaries is his breadth. Unlike many eighteenth-century writers of verse and prose—Swift, Addison, Gay, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, etc.—Pope seems to have reinvented his literary self every five to ten years. Despite his reputation as a satirist, he contributed to virtually every genre from pastoral to rural history to mock epic to translation to moral philosophy to the autobiographical poetry of the Imitations of Horace.
Study Guides on Works by Alexander Pope
The Rape of the Lock (1714) had its origins in an actual incident that occurred in 1711. Robert, Lord Petre surreptitiously cut a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor, who he had been courting at the time. The Fermors took offense, and a schism...