Alexander Pope: The Critical Heritage

By John Barnard | Go to book overview
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Critics of Pope's work have always found it difficult to separate the man from the poet. It is a confusion most apparent in Pope's lifetime. His critics, like his own satires, were dominated by the Augustan interest in personality. In England, the often hectic interest in Pope's character and writings was fed by a rapid accumulation of pamphlets and other trivia. Well over two hundred separate pamphlets for and against Pope were published between 1711 and 1744, the year of his death. To these publications must be added the frequent outbreaks of journalistic warfare, as well as a multiplicity of comments in letters and diaries. On the Continent, a stream of translations quickly spread Pope's fame, creating further detractors and supporters, who made their own substantial addition to eighteenth-century criticism of Pope.

The great difficulty in selecting from this mass of material was to balance the conflicting demands of criticism, literary history, and biography. Most of Pope's contemporaries were too close to their subject to see the larger issues clearly, if they could see them at all, and most of them are of little critical stature. In choosing passages from criticism written in Pope's lifetime, I have attempted to show its effect upon Pope's development as well as the critical positions taken. Much of this ephemeral material is now hard to come by, even with the publication of J.V. Guerinot's Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope 1711-1744 (1969). Consequently, Pope's own comments on poetry, though throwing more light on his work than any other contemporary critic, have been largely omitted since they are easily available.

A few pamphlets and poems from both sides are given in their entirety, but most of the documents are extracted from larger works. Private letters and informal comments are an important subsidiary source of information. Substantial passages are taken from John Dennis's frequently shrewd but always one-sided attacks, and from Joseph Spence's sympathetic critique of The Odyssey. The criticism written after Pope's death is of a much higher standard than the first phase, and gives a valuable index of the development of eighteenth-century critical thinking. The publication of the second volume of Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope in 1782


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Alexander Pope: The Critical Heritage


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