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“I lisped in numbers, and the numbers came.” At the age of sixteen he wrote the “Pastorals,” and boldly announced to the world that he was a poet. In 1711 he published his “Essay on Criticism,” which was much praised by Addison. In 1712 appeared the mock-heroic poem “The Rape of the Lock,” which raised him to the highest pinnacle of fame, and the “Messiah," in imitation of Vergil's Fourth Eclogue. Though he was now the most popular poet of his day, yet the pecuniary profits derived from the publication of his works had been small; and, as his father had nearly exhausted his fortune, Pope, in 1713, took advantage of his popularity, and issued proposals for a translation of the “Iliad” of Homer. The work was finished in 1718-1720, and he received for it over £5000.
With part of this sum he purchased the villa of Twickenham, whither he repaired with his mother in 1718, his father having died the year before. He resided at Twickenham for the remainder of his life. Here he amused himself by embellishing his grounds, received the homage of the famous men and women of his time, with whom he was in constant intercourse, and busied himself with his writings.
Encouraged by his success with the “Iliad,” he put forth, in 1725, in conjunction with Boone and Fenton, the “Odyssey." In 1727-1728 he and Swift together wrote the “Miscellanies.” In 1728 "The Dunciad” was published anonymously, but there was no mistaking the author, and it was universally ascribed to Pope. This poem is a vindictive satire against the small celebrities of his day, prompted by literary jealousy. “And against whom is this petty irritation felt? Against feeble journalists, brutal pamphleteers, starving rimesters, a crew of hackney authors, Bohemians of ink and paper below literature. To sting and wound these unfortunates gave Pope pleasure as he sat, meditating stabs, in his elegant villa, the resort of the rich and the noble! By attacking these, he lowers himself to their level” (Pattison).
In 1732–1734 appeared "An Essay on Man; "and in the last years of his life Pope devoted himself to writing the “Moral Essays," the “Imitations of Horace," the “Satires,” the “ Epistles," and the fourth book of “The Dunciad.”
Pope's mother died in 1733, and after that, although surrounded by many close friends, he began to feel himself alone. He had always been in ill health, and as he grew older he developed a fretfulness and irritability of disposition which taxed the patience of his companions to the utmost.
Dr. Johnson thus describes the last days of his life: “In May, 1744, his death was approaching. On the 6th he was all day delirious, which he mentioned, four days afterwards, as a sufficient humiliation of the vanity of man. He afterwards complained of seeing things as through a curtain, and in false colors ; and one day, in the presence of Dodsley, asked what arm it was that came out from the wall. He said that his greatest inconvenience was inability to think. He died in the evening of the thirtieth day of May, 1744, so placidly that the attendants did not discern the exact time of his expiration. He was buried at Twickenham, near his father and mother, where a monument has been erected to him by his commentator, Warburton, bishop of Gloucester."
Inasmuch as the study of Pope's works is the study of the man behind them, it is but just to consider his physical condition before passing judgment. Born to a life that was “one long disease,” however much he may have been to some an object of contempt, he was a fit subject for charity, if not for pity. A
dwarf in stature, crooked in form, weak of constitution, vain because of precocity too much flattered, irritable from ill health, he was hampered greatly in the race of life. In his childhood he was amiable and sweet-tempered; in his maturer years he was “the wasp of Twickenham.” Even as a child he saw that he was different from other children; later he brooded over this difference, and perhaps accused Nature of injustice. If he was "crafty and malignant, vain and conceited, whimsical and passionate," it may have been but the reaction of his futile resentment against fate, in an endeavor to revenge himself upon the enemies he could attack-men. Had he been of a brave or heroical nature, he would not have sought to recompense his own defects by impairing the virtue of others.
We must not, however, overlook the good side of his character. Bolingbroke said of him: "I never in my life knew a man who had so tender a heart for his particular friends ; " and Adolphus Ward, in summing up his character, says: “In compensation for his bodily infirmities, Nature had bestowed upon him a brilliant eye and a melodious voice. To counteract the debilitating effects of his miserable health, he had been gifted with an indefatigable activity of mind, aided by an extraordinary memory. But he also possessed an affectionate heart, to whose promptings he listened in all the dearest relations of life. He was the best of sons to both his parents, a kind brother, and to those who had once engaged his affections, a faithful and devoted friend. No suspicion perverted the attachment which united him to the associates of his youth, to the Carylls and Cromwells and Blounts, and to the friends of his manhood, to Swift and Arbuthnot and Gay, and to Bolingbroke, whom he thought 'superior to anything he had seen in human nature.' Nor was he a friend in sunshine only. The exile of many was cheered by his sympathy; and Swift predicted that, among all his friends, Pope would grieve longest for his death. His relations to women were those of tender friendship or affected gallantry, but they exercised no momentous influence upon his life. Lastly, a true generosity of spirit held him fast to his father's faith; and as he became the tool of no political faction, so he permitted no arguments of self-interest to weigh against the dictates of an unaffected piety.”,
Pope was undoubtedly the greatest poet of his time, that is, of the first half of the eighteenth century. But this period was not characterized by what is truly great in creative literature. Pope does not “hold the mirror up to nature,” but he reflects in an admirable way the moral and social ideas of his time.
The literature of the “Augustan Age," or, as it is sometimes called, the “Age of Queen Anne,” or the “ Classical Period,” "sought to flatter and to please, but never attempted to elevate, and fixed for English poetry that factitious and stilted poetic diction which was echoed and reëchoed by imitators till it became ashamed and vexed at its own empty reiterations.” Its perfection of form far from compensated for its want of intense feeling, its felicity of diction for the absence of the naturalness of expression and the splendor of imagination which had characterized the preceding age. In a state of society void of earnestness and lofty enthusiasms, given over to conventionalities, gayeties, and frivolities, we might expect to find a class of writers acute, but not profound, sententious, but without true sentiment, brilliant, but incapable of sustained elegance, satirical from insincerity, not through moral indignation, witty, but lacking kindly humor, now and then pathetic with an artificial pathos lacking tears.
Of this class of writers Pope stands at the head. “He was
emphatically the poet of the highly artificial age in which he lived; and his excellence lay in, or at least was fostered and perfected by, the accordance of all his tastes and talents, of his whole moral and intellectual constitution, with the spirit of that condition of things. Not touches of natural emotion, but the titillation of wit and fancy,—not tones of natural music, but the tone of good society,—make up the charm of his poetry, the polish, pungency, and brilliancy of which, however, in its most happily executed passages, leave nothing in that style to be desired” (CRAIK). "No writer who neglected the graces of style could gain acceptance by the public. This fastidiousness of the public ear required on the part of writers greatly increased labor. It was no longer possible to take a sheet of paper and write out your thoughts as fast as the pen would move. "The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease' were distanced in the race. It was evident that, under the new standard thus set up, the prize would be to him who should be willing to take most trouble about his style. Pope at once took the lead in the race of writers, because he took more pains than they. He labored day and night to form himself for his purpose, that, viz., of becoming a writer of finished verse. To improve his mind, to enlarge his view of the world, to store up knowledge,- these were things unknown to him. Any ideas, any thoughts, such as custom, chance, society, or sect may suggest, are good enough; but each idea must be turned over till it has been reduced to its neatest and most epigrammatic expression” (Pattison).
If to be a great poet is to be the best poet of a certain kind, then Pope is a great poet. Yet he is not a "poet born,” but a “poet made," and is the product of his own efforts, as Wordsworth is said to be the poetic product of his own ideas. He