ALEXANDER POPE’S POETRY

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INTRODUCTION

Alexander Pope remains one of the witty and intelligent satirists in England. Pope’s poetry demonstrates the features of Neo-classical literature in England. People today arguably see Pope as the greatest English verse-satirist. He is great by reason of an extraordinarily rich and rapid play of mind. He works with a great variety of satiric modes and devices: concise epigrammatic shafts; sly juxtapositions; light mock-heroic as in “The Rape of the Lock”, the meaningful – fantastic and atmosphere in “The Dunciad”; the life-history as of the London citizen Sir Balaam, etc. In this unit, we shall examine the nature of Pope’s poetry and an analysis of his poem.

A Short Biography of Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was born Alexander and Edith Pope in the spring of 1688. Pope’s father was a linen-draper and a young convert to Catholicism. Pope’s father moved his family from London to Binfield, Berkshire in the face of repressive, anti –catholic legislation from parliament. Described by his biographer, John Spencer as “a child of a particularly sweet temper”, and with a voice so melodious as to be nicknamed the “little Nightingale”, the child Pope bears little resemblance to the irascible and outspoken moralist of the later poems. He was barred from attending public school or university because of his religion, Pope was largely self – educated. He taught himself French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and read widely discovering Homer at the age of six.

At twelve, Pope composed his earliest extant work, “Ode to Solitude”; the same year saw the onset of the debilitating bone deformity that would plague Pope until the end of his life. Originally attributed to the severity of his studies, the illness is now commonly accepted as Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine that stunted his growth – Pope’s height did not exceed four and a half feet – and rendered him hunchbacked, asthmatic, frail, and prone to violent headaches. His physical appearance would make him an easy target for his many literary enemies in later years, who would refer to the poet as a “hump-backed toad”.

Essay on Criticism was published anonymously in 1711 and established the heroic couplets as Pope’s principal measure and attracted the attention of Jonathan Swift and John Gay who later became Pope’s friends. They later formed the Scriblerus Club, a congregation of writers who try to satirize ignorance and poor taste through the invented figure of Martins Scriblerus. In 1712, Pope published “The Rape of the Lock” which made him famous. Pope published many other works before his death in 1744.

The Style of Pope’s Poetry

Pope’s ‘essays’, such as “An Essay on Criticism” (1711) and “An Essay on Man” (1734) mark an important shift away from the often topical poetry of the Restoration and towards the general and universal claims associated with the enlightenment. In “An Essay on Criticism”, Pope sets out to describe what is required for good literary criticism. Against the familiar opposition between critics and authors he argues that the best critics will be the best writers. For Pope, writers and critics ought to follow Nature. Pope’s “nature” combines a late Renaissance classicism with Newtonian mechanical physics. Following from Newton’s discovery of universal mathematical formulae to explain natural phenomena, Pope’s nature is a function of and compatible with rules. Pope offers a vision of criticism that is consistent with his sense of the relationship between nature, rules and standardization.

With “An essay on Man”, the symmetry of Pope’s form is brought to bear on some of the same questions Milton had addressed in a different way in “Paradise Lost”. Like Milton in “Paradise Lost”, Pope begins with a “Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit’ (Norton Anthology, P. 2264, 1.8 (A)). But everything about the form has been changed. Rather than an epic, Pope’s poem is an epistle. Rather than black verse, Pope was the heroic couplet, rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. Where “An Essay on Criticism” seems to have understand literary criticism in Newtonian terms, “An Essay on Man” understands Newtonian philosophy through a carefully symmetrical poetic form. Nearly every line of “An Essay on Man” is balanced with five syllables on either side of a break called a ‘caesura’. Such balance within each line is complemented by the lines’ rhyming in pairs.

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