A Political Biography of Alexander Pope

A Political Biography of Alexander Pope

A Political Biography of Alexander Pope

A Political Biography of Alexander Pope

Synopsis

This is the first study to assess the entire career of Alexander Pope(1688-1744) in relation to the political issues of his time.

Excerpt

A political biography must first of all be a biography. In other words, it needs to tell the story of a life with special reference to politics – which we could roughly define as the subject’s interactions with public controversy of his or her time. There are particular grounds for caution in the case of an individual like Pope, for whom the vocation of writing mattered far more than the day-to-day struggles in parliament, and who (for good reasons, to be spelled out shortly) seldom intervened directly in the political process. This book does not seek to conduct a full structural analysis of the party system in the early Hanoverian age, or to offer a minute description of the course of events in Westminster, the streets of London or the shires. Nor shall I give a comprehensive account of the leading players in the ideological battles Pope witnessed. What the book attempts is to locate Pope’s position in the major controversies of the day, and to say enough of the issues to make sense of the stance he took – or in some cases did not take. Many key figures in the contests and dissentions, such as the Duke of Marlborough, the Earl of Oxford, Lord Bolingbroke, Robert Walpole, Francis Atterbury and William Pulteney, were well known to him: some became intimate friends. The pages that follow will explore these relationships, but in the context of Pope’s own development as a man and a writer. It is the trajectory of his career that determines the shape of this narrative, rather than the external course of politics.

His personal inclinations, as well as issues of health and religion, debarred Pope from activity in the public sphere – something that marks him off from many of his contemporaries in the literary world. Unlike Swift and Manley, he did not conduct journals or write pamphlets in the cause of party. Uage pgnum="1" pgid="pg10" pubid="b2002593" type="intro">

Our book is about Daniel Defoe’s political career, but this phrase may be thought to call for some defining. Evidently, someone who functions mainly by means of his pen does not have a political career in the same sense as a statesman, whose daily and nightly preoccupation is power. There was indeed a brief and extraordinary moment in 1701 when Defoe might be said to have wielded power and have become a man of action: the time when he presented himself at Westminster, guarded by sixteen ‘gentlemen of quality’, to deliver a paper of grievances and demands (Legion’s Memorial) on behalf of ‘two hundred thousand Englishmen’. No doubt, too, by his advice to his patron Robert Harley, he exercised influence, but influence is not the same as power. By Defoe’s ‘political career’, therefore, we are meaning his influence, or attempts at influence, as a purveyor of ideas and opinions, and also the influence, sometimes very unnerving, of political events on him. In consequence – the fact might seem like an irony but of course is not – we know a great deal more about Defoe’s political ideas than we do about Harley’s. Whatever ideas Harley had, and sometimes one wonders whether he actually had any, as distinct from instincts or schemes, he would have been inclined to keep to himself.

We must be clear, also, about another distinction. Defoe wrote voluminously on very many different topics, and one of them, from early on, was social reform. In 1697 he published a book-length Essay upon Projects, in which he made proposals for the development of banking and highroads, friendly societies and insurance; for setting up academies (and in particular an academy for women); and for improvement of the system for employing seamen and the law regarding bankruptcy. He claimed to have been working on these ideas for five years, and there is no doubt that ‘improvement’ of this kind was a lasting interest on his part. He would pursue it, or anyway economic . . .

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