Author Spotlight: Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope is a British poet, author, translator, and one of the first satirists in the world. His body of work gave the world almost as many quotes as William Shakespeare himself. You might recognize him from this sentence: To err is human, to forgive divine.

Pope was born in London on May 21, 1688, to a relatively middle-class family. In 1700, their family moved to Binfield. His family was Roman Catholic, and Pope was often ill, which resulted in him receiving very little formal schooling. He was self-taught in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek and started reading Homer at the age of six. He suffered from multiple ailments such as constant headaches and a spine curvature, which meant he had to wear a corrective brace. He also did not grow beyond four feet six inches, making him a common target for bullies.

Pope started writing at a very early age. One of his earliest works was a poem titled “Ode to Solitude.” His poem “Pastorals,” which he wrote at the age of 16, was published in 1710 in Jacob Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies. Another poem, An Essay on Criticism, was published a year after. The poem was a commentary on the writers and critics of his time. The poem is also the source of many of Alexander Pope’s best-known quotes such as “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The poem contained the “heroic couplet,” which became Pope’s principal measure. This work attracted Jonathan Swift and John Gay, who would become his friends and collaborators for life.

Two years after the publication of An Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock was published. This work would eventually become his most popular and would cement his place as one of the greatest poets and satirists of all time. The work discussed a true-to-life argument between two Catholic families over a lock of hair, written as if the event were an epic poem.

After establishing himself as a satirist, Pope turned to something more scholarly. He started to translate Homer’s Iliad in 1713, eventually publishing a six-volume translation that was released over six years. In 1719, he also started translating Homer’s Odyssey. That same year, Pope created a work that was a bit more controversial. He published a critique of Shakespeare’s work, wherein he “corrected” his text and the meter.

Pope then regained his reputation as a satirist with The Dunciad, a four-part satirical poem which satirizes critics and scholars of the time. This was conveyed through the goddess Dulness, who brought decay, imbecility, and tastelessness to the kingdom of Great Britain. The book was published anonymously, but many were certain that it was Pope who had written it. This caused Pope to earn plenty of enemies to the point where he was reportedly unable to leave his house without two loaded pistols in his pocket.

In 1734, An Essay on Man was published. The poem was more philosophical, intended to poetize a system of ethics. An Essay on Man was similar to Milton’s Paradise Lost, in that it attempted to “vindicate the ways of God to Man.” The poem challenged the human-centric worldview and assumed that man must seek his own salvation.

One of Pope’s later works is an attempt to imitate classical poetry, which was different from his earlier work of simply translating. In Imitations of Horace, he attempted to copy the style of the classical poet Horace to satirize life in the rule of King George II.

Pope’s work started to decline from 1738, with most of his work only revised and expanded versions of The Dunciad. Around this time, he also attempted an epic in blank verse called Brutus, but he was never able to write anything beyond the opening lines.

Throughout his life, Pope’s health was never really good, but his situation got worse in 1744. He died on May 30, 1744, surrounded by friends. He was buried in the nave of St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham.


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