Alexander Pope was born Catholic at a time when that wasn’t a very good idea for all sorts of reasons,* though the one that mattered most was that it kept him from furthering his studies past the basics, which weren’t nearly enough for someone of his curiosity and intelligence.
So he attended school in secret and, more importantly, turned autodidact and educated himself in languages and literature, thoroughly enough to write a translation of Homer’s major works—from the original Greek, mind—that is still in use today.
Riddle of the World
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Alexander Pope was delicate of health, stunted of height, and twisted of spine from a childhood disease, making it unlikely that he could hold down a regular 17th Century job—or raise a family.
So he made his living writing, and writing about writing—which is a remarkable achievement in any century—and died at the respectable age of 56, surrounded by his dearest friends, including Martha Blount who may well have been his lifelong lover.
On a Certain Lady at Court**
I know the thing that’s most uncommon;
(Envy be silent and attend!)
I know a Reasonable Woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.
Not warp’d by Passion, aw’d by Rumour,
Not grave thro’ Pride, or gay thro’ Folly,
An equal Mixture of good Humour,
And sensible soft Melancholy.
`Has she no Faults then (Envy says) Sir?’
Yes she has one, I must aver:
When all the World conspires to praise her,
The Woman’s deaf, and does not hear.
Alexander Pope wrote many things that insulted—or seemed to insult—a lot of influential people at a time when that really wasn’t a good idea. He used his verse to strip away pomposity, expose willful stupidity, and deflate egos and he rarely, if ever, backed down.
And he was one of the best-known writers of his time. Even his enemies—or especially his enemies— didn’t dare miss a word.
All of this would be enough to make me respect him. His poetry, though, makes me love him.
As with most of the poets of his time, he could be serious, playful, pensive, and condemning in turn, and—of course—supremely suggestive:
See what delights in sylvan scenes appear!
Descending Gods have found Elysium here.
In woods bright Venus with Adonis stray’d,
And chaste Diana haunts the forest shade.
Come lovely nymph, and bless the silent hours,
When swains from shearing seek their nightly bow’rs;
When weary reapers quit the sultry field,
And crown’d with corn, their thanks to Ceres yield.
This harmless grove no lurking viper hides,
But in my breast the serpent Love abides.
Here bees from blossoms sip the rosy dew,
But your Alexis knows no sweets but you.
Oh deign to visit our forsaken seats,
The mossy fountains, and the green retreats!
Where-e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade,
Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade,
Where-e’er you tread, the blushing flow’rs shall rise,
And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.
Oh! How I long with you to pass my days,
Invoke the muses, and resound your praise;
Your praise the birds shall chant in ev’ry grove,
And winds shall waft it to the pow’rs above.
But wou’d you sing, and rival Orpheus’ strain,
The wond’ring forests soon shou’d dance again,
The moving mountains hear the pow’rful call,
And headlong streams hang list’ning in their fall!
But see, the shepherds shun the noon-day heat,
The lowing herds to murm’ring brooks retreat,
To closer shades the panting flocks remove,
Ye Gods! And is there no relief for Love?
But soon the sun with milder rays descends
To the cool ocean, where his journey ends;
On me Love’s fiercer flames for every prey,
By night he scorches, as he burns by day.
Panting herds, y’all.
And he also gives good writing advice that seems as sound today as when he first penned it:
Sound And Sense
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus’ varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
So there you have it: why I adore Alexander Pope and—with one notable exception—his work.
Check out his couplets, too—they’re snarky.
*The Anglican and Catholic Churches played a deadly game of leapfrog throughout this time period, depending on which way the reigning monarch knelt. The 1788 Test Act had been passed a decade or so before the birth of Alexander Pope (pun unintentional, but telling), as an an expansion of the existing statutes that forbade Catholics from teaching school or attending university, voting or holding public office—even the aristocracy. Catholics couldn’t live within ten miles of London, either, which appears to have been no great loss, since they couldn’t actually do anything.
**I don’t honestly know if he wrote this about Miss Blount, but I like to think that this was the kind of person she was.