Alexander Pope’s Selected Poems

The Rape of the Lock and Other Major WritingsIn a letter to a friend, Alexander Pope wrote, “My life in thought and imagination is as much superior to my life in action and reality as the best soul can be to the vilest body.” The metaphor is general enough to have wide appeal, but for Pope it was especially poignant: a tubercular illness stunted his growth and twisted his spine while he was still a child, leaving him standing only four and a half feet tall with a pronounced hunchback. Complications from this illness, including chronic aches and pains, fevers, migraines and respiratory troubles, would plague him for the rest of his life. To make matters worse, he was a Catholic in Protestant England, forbidden from teaching or attending university, and permanently the subject of public scorn and ridicule. Reading was his retreat from the world and writing his revenge upon it.

The young Pope was the consummate child prodigy, possessing natural poetic gifts rivaled only by the likes of Milton and Keats. When he writes, “As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame, / I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came,” he is making no empty boast: he was only 21 when his Pastorals brought him national recognition, and just 23 when his Essay On Criticism scandalized his detractors. He was also a vocal advocate of the importance of revision and craftsmanship, and extent copies of his various writings showcase how indefatigably he worked at polishing his verse. “True ease in writing,” he reminds us, “comes from art, not Chance, / As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

My copy of his works includes the major poems still widely read – The Rape of the LockThe Dunciad, the Essay on Man and the Essay on Criticism, as well as various smaller works and epistles – but omits his translations of Homer or his edition of Shakespeare, save for the prefaces. Perhaps had he been born in another time, or without the physical and social disabilities imposed upon him, he might have fulfilled his promise as England’s greatest poet and written a true epic poem. Instead, Pope wrote The Dunciad, a mock epic caustic in wit and cynical in outlook. The part of social critic, wit, satirist and redeemer was, if Pope is to be believed, reluctantly adopted – he “stoop’d to truth, and moralized his song” – but I wish to avoid painting him as bitter. For sheer acerbity he cannot match his friend, Jonathan Swift, though he is much the better poet; Pope’s greatest strength, cleverly hidden by his tone but nonetheless undeniable, is his wisdom. 

“Wisdom,” like “liberty” and “freedom,” is looked on with suspicion nowadays, its meaning diluted and distorted beyond recognition, but there was a time when it could be spoken of without irony. A wise writer or poet understands human nature, understands us in our most basic motivations, and from this understanding grows a kind of prophetic power: if you know how we have acted before, you can more accurately predict how we will act in the future. It is this quality that has made him so widely quoted – behind only Shakespeare and Tennyson, of all the English poets, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations – and has given his best lines an almost scriptural authority: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” or “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

I would be remiss if I did not also mention a personal reason for loving Pope: he is the best antidote I know of to modern life. The study of history reveals some periods to be more fecund than others – art and science and philosophy requiring certain social conditions to flourish – and Pope keenly felt himself trapped in one of history’s troughs. Here he is describing the calamity that was the fall of Rome, in words so powerful and succinct they rival Gibbon:

Thus long succeeding critics justly reigned,
License repressed, and useful laws ordained:
Learning and Rome alike in empire grew,
And arts still followed where her eagle flew;
From the same foes, at last, both felt their doom,
And the same age saw learning fall and Rome.
With tyranny, then superstition joined,
As that the body, this enslaved the mind;
Much was believed, but little understood,
And to be dull was construed to be good:
A second deluge learning thus o’errun,
And the monks finished what the Goths begun.

Are we in such a trough? Fundamentalist religion is on the rise, across all continents, but “superstition” encompasses more than mere religion. I would include the cults of self-esteem and political correctness that have made a mockery of higher education, as well as the rampant consumerism that has supplanted all other virtues as the highest ideal of Western society. Pope placed his faith in history (“But sober History restrained her rage, / And promised vengeance on a barb’rous age”), which taught him to be neither too cynical nor too optimistic, but for my part I cannot read the final section of The Dunciad without the uncomfortable sense of familiarity.

It is a small consolation, at least, that when learning and culture languish, satire thrives, and the 20th century, despite its horrors (or, rather, because of them), gave us Karl Kraus, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Joseph Heller, Dr. Strangelove, Monty Python, George Carlin and Matt Groening, to name just a few. Pope has as much to say about the modern world as any of these, and is every bit as biting, every bit as funny.