Literary Creativity, and
Alexander Pope's rhetorical constructions of femininity have stimulated recent critical debate. Such studies as Laura Brown's Marxist Alexander Pope (1985) and Ellen Pollak's feminist The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (1985) have analyzed Pope's poems from specific, late twentieth-century points of view. 1 Their perspectives emphasize Pope's role as a spokesperson for his culture, both writers arraigning him for opinions less defensible today than 250 years ago. Pope appears a straightforward misogynist in both studies: according to Brown, he trivialized and commodified women; in Pollak's account, he insulted and oppressed them.
Brown's and Pollak's books have inspired provocative rereadings of Pope and his contemporaries. Ruth Salvaggio's Enlightened Absence (1988), for example, has applied French feminist theory to works by Newton, Swift, Pope, and Anne Finch, although Salvaggio regards the male poets with more pity than anger. 2 All three studies raise questions about the sufficiency of modern insight to elucidate eighteenth-century texts. If Pope was a brutal misogynist, why did contemporary enemies dismiss him as a women's toy, and his writings as a ladies' pastime? If Pope deemed women inconsequential, why did he bother to cultivate a female audience? Why did he sympathize with women's limitations in such poems as "Epistle to Miss Blount, with the Works of Voiture" (1712)? And how did eighteenth-century women readers receive his writings? These questions demand a more extensive and accurate context than current opinions provide.
The women who read and responded to Pope's writings formed a prominent aspect of that context. In "Engendering the Reader: 'Wit and Poetry and Pope' Once More" (1988), Penelope Wilson has advocated a reader-response approach to the sexual politics of Pope's rhetoric. Complaining that few contemporary women readers' responses to Pope survive, Wilson nevertheless argues that the most fruitful area