The dire offences of Alexander Pope
By Pat Rogers
There’s never been a shortage of readers to love and admire Alexander Pope. But if you think you don’t, or wouldn’t, like his poetry, you’re in good company there too. Ever since his own day, detractors have stuck their oar in, some blasting the work and some determined to write off the writer. A noted poet and anthologist, James Reeves, wrote an entire book in 1976 to assail Pope’s achievement and influence. But it has never succeeded; Pope, a combative as well as a marvellously skilled author, keeps coming back for more. He produced more first-rate poems than anyone else in the eighteenth century, as we might guess from his fame across Europe and his huge appeal in America before and after the Revolution.
In truth, much of the hostility he faced in his lifetime had to with fear of his scathing wit. “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see / Men not afraid of God, afraid of me,” he wrote late in his career. The stark clarity with which he states the idea must have made quite a few contemporaries shuffle another step backwards.
It doesn’t take much more to enjoy Pope than a reasonably good ear and a feeling for language. To read his works carefully will give anyone a grounding in how lines sing, how to make words bend and let meanings fold into each other. It will spare you a whole module on the creative writing course. Sound and sense are delicately adjusted, rhyme and rhythm subtly integrated, wit and wisdom dispersed with the utmost economy.
The most single brilliant item is The Rape of the Lock, completed in 1714 when he was only twenty-five. On the surface this relates how a brutal upper-class twit attacks an airhead socialite. You can find the tale amusingly retold by Sophie Gee in her novel The Scandal of the Season (2007). Actually the ravishing of a beauty in this ravishingly beautiful poem amounts to cutting off just one of her curls, but the text constantly insists that a more serious violation has gone on.What Pope does is imbue this episode with layers of submerged meaning. Though it is easy to follow the narrative, the events are just the excuse for a dazzling exercise in channelling literary sources, which makes the allusive structure of Finnegans Wake seem almost a doddle. The Rape supplies a ridiculously miniaturized version of classical epics like The Iliad, with heroic battles fought at a card-table; an appropriation of Paradise Lost; a reinvention of the fairy lore in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a subversion of fanciful occult systems such as that of the Rosicrucians; and a satire on court life under Queen Anne, as well as a dramatization of the limited marriage market for the gentry among Pope’s own Catholic community. It plays with arcane connections associated with the seasons and the times of day; makes fun of fashionable pseudo-medical ideas linking hysteria to women’s biology; and cruelly exposes the consumerism of a materially obsessed society, while rendering the texture and glitter of its luxury objects in enticing detail.
The main trick is to build up this critique from a phrase, a verse, a couplet, a paragraph, and a canto, all serving as fractals which contain within themselves the central paradox announced in the first two lines: “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs, / What mighty contests rise from trivial things.” The contrasting terms here form what we call antithesis, borrowing an expression originally used in classical rhetoric. Pope extends antithesis to his grammar, his versification, his metaphors, and his narrative.
A single bit of wordplay encapsulates this process. It comes in the famous pun that describes the queen’s routine at Hampton Court, where she “sometimes counsel take[s] — and sometimes tea.” In the previous couplet, British statesmen plot the fall of “foreign tyrants,” but also of “nymphs at home.” Everything from the tiniest unit up to the overall shape of the work is designed to enforce the same balanced oppositions between the grand and the slight. And none of it ever ceases to be funny.
Pope’s supreme technique meant he could excel in almost every genre available to him. His powerful satire The Dunciad makes mincemeat of the vapid scribblers in Grub Street. You don’t have to know who they were to get most of the jokes. An Epistle to a Lady might have been written as a set text for modern feminists, so provocatively does it raise issues on the gender front for debate and appraisal. An Epistle to Bathurst provides a telling picture of the repercussions of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. While Pope doesn’t forget the investors who lost everything, he bothers less about perpetrators in the financial industry than about the hypocrisy of a corrupt crew in government and parliament whose regulatory touch was so light as to be invisible.
For a long time An Essay on Man was about the most cited treatise worldwide on morals and metaphysics, while An Essay on Criticism wittily expounds – well, criticism. Pope’s version of Homer remains among the few translations of a masterpiece to constitute a major work in its own right when converted to the host language. He also wrote superb prose, for example in his good humoured but damning retorts to the scandalous publisher Edmund Curll.
In case you thought Pope sounds a bit remote, you might recall when you last heard someone use phrases like these: “To err is human, to forgive divine” ; “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” ; “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” ; “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” ; “A little learning is a dangerous thing” ; “Damn with faint praise.” We owe them all to one man. These and many more have entered the stock of colloquial language, an idiom Pope learnt to utilize in sparkling poems that explore the full range of the human comedy.
Pat Rogers, Distinguished University Professor, University of South Florida, editor of The Major Works of Alexander Pope for the Oxford World’s Classics, and author of works on Swift, Defoe, Fielding, Johnson, Boswell, and Austen among others.
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Image credit: Portrait of Queen Anne by John Smith (1652–1742) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons