Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

By Claudia N. Thomas | Go to book overview
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"Appeals to the Ladies":
Pope and His Iliad Readers

After praising Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad as a "poetical wonder," 1 Samuel Johnson censured one aspect of Pope's commentary.

It has, however, been objected with sufficient reason, that there is in the commentary too much of unseasonable levity and affected gaiety; that too many appeals are made to the ladies, and the ease which is so carefully preserved is sometimes the ease of a trifler. Every art has its terms and every kind of instruction its proper style; the gravity of common critics may be tedious, but is less despicable than childish merriment. (Lives, 3:240)

Johnson's remark illustrates the predicament of any scholar analyzing a text at a distance from its historic context. Our late twentieth-century response to Johnson's comment is likely to compound the difficulty. Approaching Pope's commentary from his late eighteenth-century perspective, Johnson was baffled by Pope's avoidance of scholarly "gravity." At first glance, Johnson's stricture seems to anticipate current feminist responses. He appears repulsed by Pope's attempt to usher women readers through the epics by diverting them with "childish merriment." The friend of such women as Elizabeth Carter, Charlotte Lennox, and Hester Lynch Thrale must have understood that "unseasonable levity and affected gaiety" were not necessary to engage women in Homer.

A reading mindful of context diminishes the feminist tendency of Johnson's criticism. Just before discussing Pope's Iliad, Johnson prefers Pope's The Rape of the Lock to Boileau's Le Lutrin because "the freaks, and humours, and spleen, and vanity of women ... do more


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