Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers

By Claudia N. Thomas | Go to book overview

Conclusion: Pope's Influence on
Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry

Pope's influence on women's poems extended far beyond their specific imitations of or replies to his poems. Pope's distinctive style was imitated by men and women throughout the century, but women were usually deprived of the Latin models and formal schooling in rhetoric from which Pope derived his effects. Their dependence on Pope and other accessible English writers was therefore pronounced. In one letter, Anna Seward advised Miss Cayley that she master prosody by imitating Pope, Darwin, and Gray (Letters, 3:321-25). Among other techniques, Seward recommended Pope's rhythmic effects to Cayley's attention. Seward's letters demonstrate her painstaking study of Pope's prosody. As her poetic style evolved, she recurred to Pope's couplets for both positive and negative illustrations of her opinions.

Seward's refinements of specific Popeian couplets suggest both her own preferences and the extent of Pope's influence on her style. In another letter, for example, Seward proposed an antislavery poem, envisioning a future "where the swart negroes, 'mid the palmy groves, / Might quaff the citron juice, and woo their sable loves" (Letters, 2:112). She offered the couplet as a quotation. In "Windsor Forest," Pope had imagined England's progress "till the freed Indians in their native Groves / Reap their own Fruits, and woo their Sable Loves" (409-10). Seward retained Pope's precisely balanced structure but adjusted his imagery toward greater specificity. Pope's "Indians" suited his general reference to the dawning empire but was inappropriate for a poem denouncing African slavery. "Freed Negroes" has obvious disadvantages of assonance; Seward probably chose "swart" as a more specific modifier. "Where ... swart" restored to Seward's couplet the assonance Pope had created by "Till ... Indians," amplified by her retention of "woo" in the second line. Seward adjusted Pope's groves from "native" to "palmy," a more specific visual image, and her "citron juice" similarly refines his "Fruits." Seward appreci

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