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Alexander Pope: Biography And Visits

Windsor Great Park

In 1688 Parliament replaced Catholic leaning James II with Protestant William of Orange, who was married to James's Protestant daughter Mary. This event was known as the Glorious Revolution. And it was in this very year, 1688, that poet Alexander Pope was born into a Catholic family. The political events of the year of his birth were to mark Pope's life, and inspire a typical desire in his poetry to overcome differences between people.

Following 1688 Catholics in England found themselves in a difficult situation. A university education was automatically denied Pope. The Pope family was also unable to live in London, after a law passed in 1689 had all Catholics expelled from residence within ten miles of the city. Pope's father had been a successful London linen merchant until this legislation was passed. Pope's family moved from Hammersmith to Binfield in Windsor Forest - now Windsor Great Park - around 1700. Added to these disadvantages a tubercular illness of the spine contracted at age twelve left young Alexander humpbacked, and only about four feet in height. Pope was taught by a succession of tutors, and apart from one year of schooling at Twyford near Winchester, his formal education was virtually over by the time he moved to Binfield. From then on education was was a matter of self teaching, and a wide programme of reading in English and foreign literatures. Pope also started to write, and inspite of the prohibition on living and working in London, he came into contact with many well known figures from London's literary circle. In May 1709 Pope published his first piece of writing, called Pastorals which was an immediate success. A highly promising early reputation was assured by the well received publication of his Essay On Criticism in 1711 and a poem called Windsor Forest published in 1713.

In the face of hostility and misfortune Pope cultivated close personal friendships, with authors such as Jonathon Swift, and John Gay, and with politicians, such as Henry St John, who managed the Tory ministry under Queen Anne. Through his friendships and his poetry Pope trod a thin line between living within the status quo, and challenging it. His challenges generally involved an appeal for the kind of open mindedness which was alien to his times, or perhaps to any time. He wrote in his early poem Windsor Forest:

 

The time shall come, when free as seas or wind

Unbounded Thames shall flow for all mankind

When nations enter with each swelling tide,

And seas but join the regions they divide (397 - 400)

 

Pope accepted that seas divide regions, but he also saw these same seas linking those regions up again. The sea made Britain a separate island, while also providing a highway to the world. Along with the sea as a contradictory image of separation and completeness,

Pope is sometimes portrayed as an elitist writer who was a strong critic of cheap journalistic writing that appealed to the lowest common denominator of taste. But in his approach to his audience Pope's instinct was to show up the false divisions that people create, rather than strengthen a division between the elite and the rest. In his Essay On Criticism of 1711 Pope suggests that only very special people could write and appreciate poetry. Then as the poem develops it becomes very difficult to work out who "special" people are. Special people certainly aren't those who have read a lot: Pope says that sometimes learning makes people stupid: "...by false learning is good sense defaced." He also talks of "The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, with loads of learned lumber in his head." Just as the special people who can read and write poetry are difficult to pin down, the quality of poetry itself is also difficult to define. It is a nameless grace "which no method can teach". Sometimes in finding something good, old ideas of what is good have to be left behind: "From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part." Pope is talking of a quality which is too vague to be bounded in one group of people. "Some foreign writers, some our own despise. The ancients only, or the moderns prize." Certainly the spirit he is looking for is not dictated by social class. Pope pokes fun at poems regarded highly simply because someone posh wrote them:

 

What woful stuff this madrigal would be

If some starved hackney sonnetteer, or me?

But let the lord once own the happy lines

How the wit brightens! How the style refines! (418 - 421)

 

But just when you think that Pope is saying that anyone can write poetry, he turns round and claims that virtually no one can write it. Even though "all burn alike who can or cannot write" it is only the lucky few who manage it. Something so special exists in us all, whilst it remains to the few to express what we all feel: "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."

View from Richmond Hill, looking towards Twickenham

Between 1715 and 1720 Pope produced his translation of The Iliad, after securing a ground breaking subscription deal with the publisher Bernard Lintot. The money Pope made from this venture meant that he became the first English poet able to live from the proceeds of his writing. Not only could he make a living, he could live in grand style in the artistic haven of a large villa in Twickenham. In 1725 - 1726 Pope released a translation of The Odyssey. He had help with this work, but tried to keep the collaboration quiet. This damaged his reputation for a while. He was also attacked for producing an edition of Shakespeare with "regularised" meter, and rewritten sections. Pope did not appreciate the criticism and took his revenge in a mock epic poem called The Dunciad, published in 1728. This poem brought Pope many enemies. Pope even appeared to fear physical attack, his sister reporting that he only ever went out with his Great Dane called Bounce, and a pair of loaded pistols in his pocket.

By 1733 - 34 he was writing his Essay On Man, inspired by the philosophical ideas of his friend Bollingbroke, who was leading the opposition to Robert Walpole's government. In this complex poem Pope was again thinking of a world in which divisions would be overcome, and he wouldn't have to go out with Bounce and his loaded pistols.

 

 

The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine!

Feels at each thread, and lives along the line:

In the nice bee, what sense so subtly true

From poisonous herbs extract the healing brew?

How instinct varies in the grov'ling swine

Compared, half-reasoning elephant, with thine!

'Twixt that and reason, what a nice barrier?

For ever separate, yet for ever near. (1. 217 -224)

 

In some ways the reader of this poem is a "half-reasoning elephant" compared to the skillful spider or bee. There is the rather shocking suggestion here that in some ways bees and spiders are just as admirable man." There only seems to be a "nice" or subtle barrier between things that are apparently very different.

 

The Death of Alexander Pope, by William Mason, 1747

Pope spent the last part of his life revising The Dunciad. His fragile health was failing, and he died in his Twickenham villa on 30th May 1744. The villa was demolished by a later owner, but part of the garden survives as Alexander Pope's Grotto in Twickenham, which can be visited by arrangement.

Pope is buried in the nave of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham. As a Catholic he still seemed unwelcome in London, and didn't make it into Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey where famous writers are traditionally buried. Touchingly the artist William Mason painted a picture of the dying Pope about to be welcomed into heaven by Edmund Spencer, Geoffrey Chaucer, and even by that most Protestant of writers John Milton. In Mason's painting at least it seems the divisions of Pope's life were finally overcome.

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©2006 InfoBritain (updated 01/10)