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Alexander Pope:
The 18th Century Prodigy

Alexander Pope was born in 1688 to a Roman Catholic linen merchant. He received his education primarily at home due to laws that favored the established Church of England. Because of an illness known as Pott’s Disease, a form of tuberculosis that affects the spine, he never grew past 4’6”. In addition, he suffered from severe headaches and asthma throughout his life.

Pope’s mother, Edith Turner Pope, was 44 years old when Alexander, her only son, was born. His father, also named Alexander, was an Anglican vicar who converted to Catholicism, an act which caused the Popes a lot of problems while living in Anglican England.

Despite the legal obstacles that made education difficult for young Alexander, he was taught well by an aunt and learned Latin and Greek from a local priest. Later, he learned to read poetry in Italian and French. For the most part, his education had to be carried out clandestinely, even his attendance at Catholic schools.

In 1700, at the age of 12, his family moved to Binfield in Windsor Forest. It proved to be a deciding moment for young Alexander. It was there where he drank a cup of infected milk and contracted his disease. He developed a hunchback, and that coupled with his truncated height made him the subject of much mockery and ridicule all of his life. His literary critics used it against him, calling him “a hunchback toad.”

Alexander Pope started writing poetry at the age of 12. He was so talented some of his fans considered him a prodigy. However, his first major work to be recognized was An Essay on Criticism, written just after moving to London and which catapulted him to fame and shame among his contemporaries. He was but 23 years old when An Essay was published in 1711, but he had written it two years before. To be so young and to have written such a work is a credit to his imagination and craftiness as a poet.

While in London, Alexander Pope associated with Whigs early on, but migrated toward the Tories and joined a club by the name of the Scriblerus Club. He quickly made friends with Jonathan Swift, John Gay, William Congreve and the first Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley.

His most popular poem, The Rape of the Lock, was published in 1712 as two cantos and revised in 1714 with five cantos.

The poem is a satire written as heroic epic and was penned upon request by a friend of Pope’s. It tells the story of Lord Petre and Arabella Fermor, a real life Catholic aristocrat and her suitor, but Alexander Pope changed the names of the characters. Lord Petre had cut off a lock of Arabella’s hair without her permission and the event had the two families feuding. Pope made fun of their predicament by comparing it to the Greek gods and their petty squabbles.

As a matter of trivia, two moons of Uranus were named after two characters in this story – Belinda and Umbriel.

Alexander Pope realized a great amount of success in his lifetime. He is one of the few poets ever to have received that level of stardom while alive. The road to fame could be credited to these first two works of verse, but his later works didn’t hurt. In fact, much of his wealth and fame were due to his non-dramatic writings.

He soon started translating the works of Homer into English. The money he made from this endeavor allowed him to move to Twickenham, where Catholics were not the subject of persecution from the Jacobites.

While in Twickenham Alexander Pope studied horticulture landscape gardening. He designed a beautiful grotto in a tunnel at his home and linked a waterfront with his garden in the back yard. This little villa attracted other writers and was situated about 15 miles from London. He even assisted Swift with the publication of Gulliver’s Travels.

Pope became romantically entwined with a neighbor, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whom he referred to as “Sappho” in “Imitations of Horace.” But that cooled down into nothing more than a friendship and he started a lifelong relationship with Martha Blount.

During his lifetime he was involved in several nasty quarrels with other writers and critics. When he published an edition of William Shakespeare’s works it was attacked and he responded with the publication of The Dunciad in 1728. The Dunciad ridiculed bad writers, scientists and critics.

On May 30, 1744, he died and left all of his property to Blount. The growth of Romanticism relegated Pope to a thing of the past as the Romantics considered his work outdated.

In the 1930’s, however, his work was revived and since then it has survived as the great literature Alexander Pope intended it to be. Whether one agrees with his critics or his friends, the student of poetry will ignore Pope to his own peril.

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