Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

By Claudia N. Thomas | Go to book overview

4

Eighteenth-Century Women
and Pope's Early Poetry

Alexander Pope asked Dr. Arbuthnot, "Why did I write? What sin to me unknown / Dipt me in Ink, my Parents', or my own?" ("Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," 126-27). This plaintive query prefaced Pope's apology for his career. Goaded by slander, Pope defended his pursuit of an "idle trade" (129). Raised a gentleman, he had published to please distinguished mentors, not for money or popular acclaim. The phrase "idle trade" captures Pope's ambivalence about writing and publishing. He wished to appear both the leisured gentleman and the professional entitled to wield the "sacred Weapon! left for Truth's defence" ("Epilogue to the Satires: Dialogue II," 212). Rhetorical aptness aside, such conflicting phrases characterize Pope's relation to his art. During his lifetime, literature hovered between avocation and profession, traditional patronage and the marketplace. Pope helped establish the profession but suffered attacks on his qualifications as a man of letters. Accusations that his status and irregular education should have barred him from writing poetry still hounded Pope in 1735.

Women throughout the century faced greater discouragement. From such public issues as women's participation in the literary marketplace to psychological conflict over their entitlement to write, an array of barriers opposed women writers. But increased leisure, literacy, and publishing opportunities beckoned women to write and to publish. Like Pope, many women expressed understandable ambivalence toward a situation seemingly hospitable but mined with deterrents. Inevitably, Alexander Pope figured in women's responses to their dilemma. "That little fellow Pope," as Janet Little called him,' had defeated famous obstacles before conquering Parnassus. Simulta

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