Alexander Pope's poetic vocation seems to have begun in childhood, despite a haphazard and irregular education. He taught himself to write, so he said, by imitating the ancients. Was there any other way? If his schooling left him at twelve years old scarcely able to construe Cicero's De officiis (so he remembered), he soon applied himself so diligently to the classical authors that he could translate into verse "many Passages of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Statius and the most eminent Latin and Greek Poets." He also read the French critics for theory and even tried his hand at epic, "in Imitation of the Ancients." When that proved too ambitious, he turned instead to pastoral, recalling perhaps that his hero, Virgil, had done the very same thing.1 Were all these early efforts only imitations? he was asked many years later. "Just that," replied Pope. By concentrating all attention on the Greek and Latin poets, he formed his own taste, which he insisted in 1743 "was very near as good as it is now."2 In the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, Pope had necessarily to find his place, and the ancients were, inevitably, his first recourse.
Pastoral poetry must seem an odd place for combat, but Pope's choice of the genre was bound to draw him into battle.3 Pastoral was, of course, a specifically ancient affair, authorized by the works of Theocritus and____________________