Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope, 1688–1744, English poet. Although his literary reputation declined somewhat during the 19th cent., he is now recognized as the greatest poet of the 18th cent. and the greatest verse satirist in English.


Pope was born in London of Roman Catholic parents and moved to Binfield in 1700. During his later childhood he was afflicted by a tubercular condition known as Pott's disease that ruined his health and produced a pronounced spinal curvature. He never grew taller than 4 ft 6 in. (1.4 m). His religion debarred him from a Protestant education and from the age of 12 he was almost entirely self-taught.

Although he is known for his literary quarrels, Pope never lacked close friends. In his early years he won the attention of William Wycherley and the poet-critic William Walsh, among others. Before he was 17 Pope was admitted to London society and encouraged as a prodigy. The shortest lived of his friendships was with Joseph Addison and his coterie, who eventually insidiously attacked Pope's Tory leanings. His attachment to the Tory party was strengthened by his warm friendship with Swift and his involvement with the Scriblerus Club.


Pope's poetry basically falls into three periods. The first includes the early descriptive poetry; the Pastorals (1709); Windsor Forest (1713); the Essay on Criticism (1711), a poem written in heroic couplets outlining critical tastes and standards; The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock-heroic poem ridiculing the fashionable world of his day; contributions to the Guardian; and "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" and "Eloise to Abelard," the only pieces he ever wrote dealing with love. In about 1717 Pope formed attachments to Martha Blount, a relationship that lasted his entire life, and to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, with whom he later quarreled bitterly.

Pope's second period includes his magnificent, if somewhat inaccurate, translations of Homer, written in heroic couplets; the completed edition of the Iliad (1720); and the Odyssey (1725–26), written with William Broome and Elijah Fenton. These translations, along with Pope's unsatisfactory edition of Shakespeare (1725), amassed him a large fortune. In 1719 he bought a lease on a house in Twickenham where he and his mother lived for the rest of their lives.

In the last period of his career Pope turned to writing satires and moral poems. These include The Dunciad (1728–43), a scathing satire on dunces and literary hacks in which Pope viciously attacked his enemies, including Lewis Theobald, the critic who had ridiculed Pope's edition of Shakespeare, and the playwright Colley Cibber; Imitations of Horace (1733–38), satirizing social follies and political corruption; An Essay on Man (1734), a poetic summary of current philosophical speculation, his most ambitious work; Moral Essays (1731–35); and the "Epistle to Arbuthnot" (1735), a defense in poetry of his life and his work.


See the Twickenham edition of his poems (7 vol., 1951–61); his prose works ed. by N. Ault (1936, repr. 1968); his letters ed. by G. Sherburn (5 vol., 1956); biographies by G. Sherburn (1934, repr. 1963), N. Ault (1949, repr. 1967), P. Quennell (1968), and M. Maynard (1988); studies by G. Tillotson (1946; 2d ed. 1950; and 1958), F. W. Bateson and N. A. Joukovsky, ed. (1972), J. P. Russo (1972), P. Dixon, ed. (1973), F. M. Keener (1974), D. B. Morris (1984), L. Damrosch, Jr. (1987), and R. A. Brower (1986).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Alexander Pope: Selected full-text books and articles

The Rape of the Lock By Alexander Pope; Geoffrey Tillotson Routledge, 1989
Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1988
Librarian’s tip: literary criticism
Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion By Reuben A. Brower Oxford University Press, 1968
Laureate of Peace: On the Genius of Alexander Pope By G. Wilson Knight Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955
Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope By Bertrand A. Goldgar University of Nebraska Press, 1965
Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers By Claudia N. Thomas Southern Illinois University Press, 1994
Poems in Their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections By Neil Fraistat University of North Carolina Press, 1986
Librarian’s tip: "'Images Reflect from Art to Art' Alexander Pope's Collected Works of 1717" begins on p. 195
The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age By Joseph M. Levine Cornell University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Six "Pope's Iliad"
Professional Imaginative Writing in England, 1670-1740: Hackney for Bread By Brean S. Hammond Oxford University, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Piddling on Broccoli: Pope's Menu and His Ideology"
Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire By S. H. Clark Routledge, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "'Let Blood and Body Bear the Fault': Pope's Exorcism of Desire"
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