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Thursday, 6 April 2017

Alexander Pope


Alexander Pope was born on May 21, 1688 to Alexander Pope Senior (1646–1717 of Plough Court, Lombard Street, London, and his wife Edith (née Turner) (1643–1733).

Portrait of Alexander Pope. Studio of Godfrey Kneller

Pope's father was a well to do Catholic linen draper. He'd made his fortune and had retired to the country with his newly wedded wife. They were both in their forties when Alexander was born.

From his early childhood Alexander suffered numerous health problems, including Pott's disease (a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine) which deformed his body and stunted his growth.

Alexander was taught to read by his aunt, and went to Twyford preparatory school in Hampshire in around 1698-99. He was expelled after a year after writing a satire on some faults of his master.

Alexander was subsequently sent to Thomas Deane's school at Marylebone, which he attended for a couple of years.

Because of government restrictions against Catholics after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Alexander was unable to attend a public school or university. So during his teenage years he devoted himself to intensive self-education.


Pope's poetry was a string of epigrams; he was precocious in his technical poetic ability.

Pope's first major work, Pastorals was published in the sixth part of Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies on May 2, 1709. Pope originally wrote the Pastorals at the age of 16 and Tonson had written to the teenager asking to publish back in 1706. It seems that Pope held out for publication on his own conditions.

Pastorals was followed by An Essay on Criticism, a 750 line summary of critical thought since Aristotle, which was published on May 15, 1711. The work made him famous and for the next thirty years, Pope dominated the London literary world.

An Essay on Criticism includes the famous couplet:

To err is human, to forgive divine
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Frontispiece of An Essay on Criticism

Alexander Pope's poem A Rape of the Lock was a mock epic in which two divided families attempt to reconcile after Lord Petre in a light hearted mood cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair. Two cantos were published in 1712, another three more added in 1714.

 A Rape of the Lock was based on coffee-house gossip: Pope wrote of the beverage:

Coffee which makes the politician wise
And see through all things with his half shut eyes.

Pope also referred to tea in Rape of the Lock where Queen Anne does "sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea."

Until his successful translation of Homer's Iliad between 1715-20, Pope was sustained financially by his friendship with various patrons including Martha Blount and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

The popularity of his lucrative translations of Homer's Iliad and later Odyssey (1720-1726) gave Pope financial independence and enabled him to settle in Twickenham in 1719.

Though the Dunciad was first published anonymously in Dublin in 1728, its authorship was not in doubt. A mock epic satire on scholarly dullness, the work was provoked by the ridicule Pope received from scholars for his 1725 edition of Shakespeare.

The second edition of the Dunciad  included a mock pedantic commentary. "And learn, my sons, the wondrous power of noise to move, to raise, to ravish ev'ry heart."

The hapless hero of the Dunciad was modelled on Lewis Theobold, a Shakespearean scholar who had been foolish enough to point out the errors in Pope’s Shakespeare edition.

As well as Theobald, the Dunciad pilloried a host of other "hacks", "scribblers" and "dunces".

Though a masterpiece, the Dunciad  bore bitter fruit, bringing Pope the hostility of its victims and their sympathizers.

The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended this poem to be the centrepiece of a proposed system of ethics that was to be put forth in poetic form, but he did not live to complete it.

The Essay on Man includes the famous couplet

Hope Springs Eternal in the Human Breast.
Man never is, but always to be blest.

After 1738, Pope wrote little. His major work in these years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad. Book Four appeared in 1742, and a complete revision of the whole poem in the following year.

Alexander Pope circa 1742

Pope is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson.


Pope was crippled from the age of 12 due to tuberculosis of the bone. He was constantly in pain from rheumatism and he could neither dress nor undress himself or go to bed or get up without help.


Pope was just 4ft 6inches with spindly arms and legs as a result of his severe illness.

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl 

To keep his miniature body erect, Pope wore a stiff canvas corset to swell his pin sized legs to normal prize.

He normally put on three pairs of stockings to give his legs some appearance of substance.

Pope was very sensitive and had a complex persecution complex, his wit was his only weapon.

Due to his stinging attacks on his contemporaries Pope earned the nickname "The Wicked Wasp of Twickenham."


Notorious for his waspish humour, Pope once engraved on the silver collar of a dog that he gave to Frederick, Prince of Wales. "I am his Highness' dog at Kew. Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?"

After the erection of Shakespeare's statue in Westminster Abbey, Pope wrote "After One Hundred and Thirty years nap. Enter Shakespeare with a loud clap."

Pope contributed to the humor magazine Grub Street Journal.


Although he never married, Pope had many female pals to whom he wrote witty letters. Allegedly, his lifelong friend Martha Blount was his lover.

Pope was friendly with the married Lady Mary Wortley Montagu for a time. She wrote verse, traveled and introduced inoculation into England and was generally eccentric. Their friendship eventuallyended after a violent quarrel.

Feminists have disagreed with Pope for regarding women as intellectually and physically inferior to men.

Pope by Charles Jervas

Pope was friends with the writer Thomas Addison and the satirist Jonathan Swift, but anyone who antagonized him provoked him into using his poisonous pen..

In the 1720s, he formed the Scriblerus Club with Swift and other friends including John Gay.

Pope often frequented Button's Coffee House in Russell Street, Covent Garden with Addison and Swift.


Pope was a keen landscape gardener, and he devoted a lot of his time to his garden and grotto on his Twickenham estate.

A talented painter, Alexander Pope stayed with the portrait artist Charles Jervas for a while from 1713 and studied painting in his studio.

Pope was a dog-lover. He once wrote: "histories are more full of the examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends".

He had a Great Dane called Bounce and according to his sister, Pope would never go for a walk without the company of his faithful canine companion.


In 1700, Pope's family were forced to move from London due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a statute preventing Catholics from living within 10 miles (16 km) of either London or Westminster.
They moved to a small estate at Popeswood in Binfield, Berkshire, close to the royal Windsor Forest, where Pope spent his teenage years.

Pope composed The Rape of the Lock at West Grinstead at West Sussex.

He completed the fifth volume of his translation of The Iliad in 1718 at Pope's Tower at Stanton Harecourt, Berkshire.

In 1718 Pope moved with his mother to a villa at Crossdeep, Twickenham with five acres of land where he spent the rest of his life. Many wealthy Londoners had houses in the area.

The land, which Pope leased from Thomas Vernon, lay close to the water on a stretch of the River Thames known as Cross Deepwith. He created there his now famous grotto and gardens.

The celebrated grotto, which was ornamented with spars and marble, was, in fact, an imaginative method of linking the riverside gardens with the gardens which lay on the other side of the road leading from Twickenham to Teddington.

Pope's villa at Twickenham, showing the grotto. From a watercolour produced soon after his death.

The serendipitous discovery of a spring during the subterranean retreat's excavations enabled the location to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers.

Pope was assisted by the professional gardeners William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and his friends, the Lords Peterborough and Bathurst.

The gardens included an obelisk to the memory of the poet's mother (who died in 1732 and was buried in Twickenham Parish Church).

Pope's friend Lady Suffolk was once given a Turkish basket of figs. The poet for some reason planted a bit of the basket and this grew into the second Weeping Willow to be seen in England.


By 1744 Pope's health, which had never been good, was failing. On May 29, 1744, the poet called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

When told by his physician, on the morning of his death, that he was better, Pope groaned to a friend: "Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms."

Alexander Pope died aged 56 in his Twickenham villa surrounded by friends on May 30, 1744, at about eleven o'clock at night. His last words were "Friendship itself is but a part of virtue."

The death of Alexander Pope from Museus, a threnody by William Mason. Diana holds the dying Pope, and John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer prepare to welcome him to heaven.

He was buried in the nave of the Church of England Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham.

Jonathan Swift wrote in tribute to his friend in 1731:

In Pope I cannot read a line
But with a sigh I wish it mine
When he can in one couplet fix
More sense than I can do in six
It gives me such a jealous fit, I cry
Pox take him & his wit
On The Death of Dr Swift

Sources History WorldThe Frank Muir book: An irreverent companion to social history

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