The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope

By Paul Baines | Go to book overview

later life (Spence 1966:12). At the age of about eight Pope began to learn Latin and Greek from a priest. He subsequently attended clandestine Catholic schools, one in Twyford, from where he was removed after being punished for writing a satire on his master (his earliest satiric venture), and one near Hyde Park Corner, from which he is supposed to have on occasion visited the theatre; he also saw his hero, John Dryden, once (Spence 1966:25). Pope was dismissive of his formal schooling: 'God knows, it extended a very little way' (Spence 1966:8). Indeed, he seems to have valued his independent exploration of literature as a positive escape from the prison-house of grammar-based education, a formal trap which he would later denounce more publicly (Spence 1966:21-2). At the age of eight he had 'discovered' Homer through translation (much as Keats was to do more than a century later): John Ogilby's Iliad (1660) and Odyssey (1665) were huge volumes 'Adorn'd with Sculptures' (engravings), and Pope always 'spoke of the pleasure it then gave him, with a sort of rapture only on reflecting on it' (Spence 1966:14). With George Sandys's illustrated Ovid's Meta-morphosis Englished (1626), and Statius's Thebaid, the Homer texts formed a rich repository of Greek and Latin mythology and narrative which stimulated Pope's imagination through his early career and beyond.


(b)

FOREST RETREATS

In 1698 Pope's father bought a house at Binfield, Berkshire, from his son in law, Charles Rackett, who had married Pope's half-sister Magdalen. This residence on an estate of some nineteen acres of land, close to Windsor with the forest, castle and river Thames to explore, had a determining influence on Pope, turning enforced removal from the capital into the very model of principled retreat, an idyll never entirely besmirched by later events. Though Pope's early works such as the Pastorals (1709) and Windsor-Forest (1713) derive much from literary models, they derive something from an acute observation of the heraldic colouring within the castle and the exercise of agriculture and rural sports in the forest.

Here Pope was free to educate himself: his father's library was well-stocked, and he began to purchase books on his own account, acquiring early editions of Chaucer, Herbert and Milton. His half-sister told Spence that he 'did nothing but write and read', and his own image of himself spending whole days reading under trees, nicely suggests the twin influences of reading and nature: 'I followed everywhere as my

-7-

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