Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"So Easy to Be Lost": Poet and Self in Pope's 'The Temple of Fame.' (Alexander Pope)

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"So Easy to Be Lost": Poet and Self in Pope's 'The Temple of Fame.' (Alexander Pope)

Article excerpt

When Pope sent Martha Blount a copy of The Temple of Fame, the accompanying letter contained these remarks about fame: "Whatever some may think, Fame is a thing I am much less covetous of, than your Friendship; for that I hope will last all my life, the other I cannot answer for . . . . Now that I talk of fame, I send you my Temple of Fame, which is just come out: but my sentiments about it you will see better by this Epigram:

What's Fame with Men, by custom of the nation, Is call'd in women only Reputation: About them both why keep we such a pother? Part you with one, and I'll renounce the other. (Correspondenc, 1: 280)

Playful and serious, these comments reveal Pope's ambivalent attitude about fame: it is transient; it is dependent upon the views of others; it possesses a commercial value, which one can at least offer to exchange for happiness; and Pope is willing to renounce it. We can only guess at Martha's reaction when she read the poem and discovered the professed denunciation of fame in it, but of the significance the question of fame had for Pope at this stage of his carcer, there can be no doubt.

In a recent review essay Frederick Keener makes an observation with which most of us who study Pope would concur: "the main movement in Pope studies of the past decade and more has been the effort to see the works in relation to the life, and especially to see both works and life as affected by historical circumstances" (81). While some of the recent historical/ideological studies have properly included readings of Pope's earlier works, most of the psychological/biographical scholarship, however, has concerned itself primarily with the later, satiric phase of Pope's poetic production, where the poems, such as the Epistle to Arbuthnot and the Horatian Imitations, are more obviously autobiographical and where the complex issue of satiric persona presents itself so intriguingly.(1)

We now have, therefore, a fairly good idea of Pope's voice, his "Horatian stance," in these later poems; whether we feel that the stance is sincere and genuinely moral or politically posed and hypocritical, we know it is Popean and recognize it when we see it, or when we hear it. But who is the Pope who could compose such disparate works as An Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, and Eloisa to Abelard? In thcse poems, critics, like their New Critical forebears, seem far more comfortable discussing formal elements, from verse paragraphs to antithetical tensions to Pope's famous couplet art. Yet this second decade of the eighteenth century, witnessing the end of the Stuart monarchy, was crucial not only to Britain's history but also to Pope's life. During this time Pope experienced his first encounter with notoriety (with all the good and bad that the term implies), enjoyed the company of the politically mighty and then watched it scatter, and embarked on the literary project that would drain his energy yet make him famous and rich. For a young poet, especially for one living in such a politically and sociologically transitional period, these events produce both thrills and anxiety that cannot be repressed from the poetry, regardless of one's theoretical poetic. Pope's The Temple of Fame is one poem of this early period that is psychologically self-revelatory.

Unfortunately, this personal dimension of The Templr of Fame is largely ignored. Even Dustin Griffin, in his effort to trace a personal presence throughout Pope's career, glances quickly at The Temple of Fame and moves on. Of the little scholarship that exists on the poem, most can be classified as what we call "source studies," examinations of poetic portraits of fame by writers preceding Pope, and, more frequently, comparisons between Pope's poem and Chaucer's unfinished Hous of Fame, Pope's most obvious and direct source, which he generously acknowledges.(2) Such studies are useful but exhaustible; as in navigating an uncharted river, the source is eventually found and explorations cease. …

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