This Day In Writing History
On May 21st, 1688, the legendary British poet Alexander Pope was born in London, England. His father was a linen merchant. As a young boy, Pope's education was complicated by the anti-Catholic laws enacted to establish the Church of England as the British empire's official clerical body. Unable to attend public school by law, Pope was taught to read and write by his aunt. He began his formal education at Twyford School in Hampshire, which, although a Church of England public school, looked the other way. Pope would later attend Catholic schools which, though technically illegal, were tolerated in some areas.
When he was twelve years old, Pope contracted Pott's disease, a rare form of tuberculosis that attacks the bones and deforms them. The disease left him a hunchback and stunted his growth. He would grow no taller than 4'6". Already a social pariah because he was Catholic, Pope's deformities alienated him further. He would never marry, but he had many female friends, and wrote them witty letters. One woman, his lifelong friend Martha Blount, was allegedly his lover.
Pope's health problems, which also included respiratory trouble, high fevers, inflammation of the eyes, and stomach pain, didn't affect his mind. He gained a reputation for his intellect, his rapacious wit, and his satirical verse. When his first poetry collection, Pastorals (1709), appeared in the sixth part of publisher Jacob Tonson's anthology Poetical Miscellanies, it made him an overnight sensation.
Pope struck up friendships with fellow writers Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot. Together, they formed the Scriblerus Club, which was dedicated to satirizing ignorance and pedantry via a fictional scholar named Martinus Scriblerus. Pope continued on his path of literary success with his poems The Rape of the Lock (1712) and Windsor Forest (1713).
The Rape of the Lock was one of Pope's most popular poems. The mock-heroic epic poem satirized the high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (named Belinda in the poem) and Lord Petre, (the Baron) who had cut off a lock of her hair without her permission. Pope mocks the conflict in an epic style; after Belinda's hair is stolen, she tries to get it back but it flies through the air and turns into a star.
Pope became friends with poet and playwright Joseph Addison and contributed to Addison's classic play, Cato. He also wrote essays for magazines of the day such as The Guardian and The Spectator. His classic epic poem An Essay on Criticism was first published anonymously in 1711. A satirical attempt to declare and refine his views as a poet and critic, the poem was said to be Pope's response to an ongoing debate on whether poetry should be a natural product of the poet's mind and heart or written according to predetermined, traditional rules such as meter.
In his inimitable style, Pope deliberately leaves the poem unclear and full of contradictions. His own position was that while rules were necessary, so was the passion and imagination that gave poetry its mysterious, sometimes baffling qualities. An Essay on Criticism featured the famous line, "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Alexander Pope's most ambitious projects were his English translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Beginning in 1717, his translation of the Iliad appeared in one volume a year over a six year period. For his translation of the Odyssey, Pope, confronted with the arduousness of the task and his increasingly fragile health, employed his friends William Broome and Elijah Fenton to work on the translation with him. The entire translation was published under Pope's name. When word got out that Pope hadn't translated the entire work himself, his reputation took a hit, but the translation of the Odyssey still sold well. It first appeared in 1726.
Before he began work on the Odyssey, a volume of Shakespeare's plays transcribed and edited by Pope was published. The volume had been commissioned by Pope's publisher. It was hugely controversial - more like a revision of Shakespeare's plays than a transcription. Pope cut over 1,500 lines and relegated them to footnotes, believing them to be of such poor quality that he doubted Shakespeare had ever written them. The lines, he thought, were the result of actors' interpolations. Poet Lewis Theobald wrote a scathing pamphlet denouncing the volume called Shakespeare Restored.
Among Pope's last great works were a series of poems called Imitations of Horace. Appearing between 1733-38, they were satires of life under King George II and the corruption of Robert Walpole's ministry, which Pope believed was tainting Britain. By the time he completed the series in 1738, his health began to deteriorate. He planned to write an epic blank verse poem called Brutus, but he abandoned it and only a few lines have survived. Instead, he devoted his remaining years to revising his final masterwork, The Dunciad. The four-book satirical epic poem told the story of how the goddess Dulness and her servants plunge Britain into a quagmire of imbecility, tastelessness, and ultimately, decay. Originally written in three books, Pope revised it and added a fourth book, which was published in 1742.
Alexander Pope died two years later, on May 30th, 1744. He was 56 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance." - Alexander Pope
Today's video features a reading from Alexander Pope's classic satirical epic poem, The Rape of the Lock. Enjoy!