Sunday, September 4, 2011

Required Poet: Alexander Pope

I can’t even think of any sort of witty or snarky remarks about this stuff. Poetry is just so hard for me anyway, and then these four poems just seemed to go and on forever. And the longer the poem went on the more confused I got. Let’s just get this over with.


Alexander Pope was known for his satirical verse and his use of the heroic couplet, which was a relatively new genre of poetry during his time. The heroic couplet is commonly used in narrative poetry (poetry with a plot) and epic poetry (which is just long narrative poetry, so it fits right in here) constructed from rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. All four of the poems from Pope that made it on the list are constructed in this way. For example:

‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dangerous is the offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense. (Opening lines of An Essay on Criticism)

Now, The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic narrative poem, which means it parodies the Classical stereotype of the hero in heroic literature. The title of the poem sounds much more serious than the story actually is. The only thing stolen or “raped” from the female in the story was a lock of hair. The poem could also be called high burlesque: it was created to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner of more serious works.


There isn’t going to be much more to add here that I haven’t already spoken of in genre. As I already mentioned, all four of the poems are written using the heroic couplet, and all four are also narrative or epic poems. They go on at length about a serious subject at the time (or they mock a serious subject as is the case with The Rape of the Lock).

In both of his Essays, Pope is seeking to almost argue a point or justify a case that he believes to be important to the society of his time. And while the Essays are like arguments or discussions, both The Rape of the Lock and Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot are satirical, although the later was written in the response to Pope learning that his friend was dying, so he wrote the poem in memory of their friendship. But even his Epistle ends up being an argument or discussion between “Atticus” and “Sporus” in which Pope defends his satirical work and actively attacks opponents and rivals. Only The Rape of the Lock (out of these four poems) appears to leave out the autobiographical, although it was based on a real event that Pope heard of through his friend, John Caryll.


Around 1711 Pope became a part of the same friendship circle as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), known as the Scriblerus Club. The aim of the group was to satirize ignorance.

Pope was a Catholic, which of course caused him to be somewhat removed from society. However, his health was another factor that kept him alienated. Because of tuberculosis, he grew to a height of only 4 ft. 6 in. and had a sever hunchback. He died at age 56 after receiving the Last Rites from a Priest the day before.

Pope also translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also produced a new edition of Shakespeare’s work, although this would cause him to be criticized as he would remove over 11500 of Shakespeare’s lines and put them in the footnotes as he could not believe Shakespeare wrote them because they we “excessively bad.”

And now, I will give a little snippet about each poem:

An Essay on Criticism

This poem was initially published anonymously and took three years to finish. The poem was a response the question of whether poetry should be written as the poet feels, or have pre-set rules taken from the poems of the past. Pope discusses both the rules that govern poetry (and the classical authors that dealt with such rules) and also the rules that a critic should follow when passing judgment on someone’s poetry. The discussion end with Pope asserting that the ideal critic (according to the standards he presents) is also the ideal man. Pope was also using this work out his own position as poet and critic.

Rape of the Lock

Pope’s friend, John Caryll, told him the story of Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre who cut off a lock of Arabella’s hair without her permission, and the consequent argument cause a split between the two families. Pope proceeds to mock both the real story and the heroic tradition.

Essay on Man

For me, this was by far the most tedious one of the four, and not surprisingly, it is also the longest. It is a philosophical poem in which Pope attempts to “vindicate the ways of God to Man” (a variation of John Milton’s attempt to “justify the ways of God to Man” in Paradise Lost). The poem may not be exclusively Christian, but the bottom line is that man has fallen and must seek salvation. The four epistles that are addressed to Lord Bolingbroke assert that the universe is a perfect work of God, and man sees it as imperfect and evil only because of our limited view and intelligence; therefore, we need faith.

An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

As I mentioned earlier, Pope wrote this in memorial to his friendship with Dr. Arbuthnot upon learning that he is dying. John Arbuthnot was also part of the Scriblerus Club and was a former physician to Queen Anne. The two speakers, Atticus and Sporus, represent Joseph Addison and John Hervey. Addison is depicted as having great talent that is wasted because of fear and jealousy, while Hervey is sexually perverse, malicious, absurd, and dangerous. I have to say I do love the idea of calling effectively calling out your enemies through satire.

We’ll be sticking with poetry for awhile now, so next week I’ll keep on moving with T.S. Eliot, which, I am happy to say, I think I’ll be able to draw much more out of than I was today with Pope.

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