Introduction to Alexander Pope: Biography, Essays and Poems

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  • 0:04 Background and Biography
  • 2:48 Early Poems
  • 6:58 A Classical Turn
  • 10:35 A Philosophical End
  • 12:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Alexander Pope is one of the most quoted writers in the English language, which means you've probably heard his stuff before - you just don't know it yet. Watch this lesson for an overview of Pope's life and key works!

Background and Biography

Pop quiz: he's one of the most quoted authors in the English language and a scathing satirist to boot. He's responsible for making Homer - Greek Homer, not Homer Simpson - cool again, and he almost ruined Shakespeare. If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm talking about Alexander Pope, one of England's most notable 18th-century poets and satirists. Maybe you think being one of the 18th century's most notable poets and satirists isn't that cool, but I promise you it is, and I'm going to tell you why.

Pope was hilariously born into a Catholic family in London in 1688 (because how could you not be Catholic if your last name was Pope?). This religious affiliation actually caused a lot of trouble for him, all joking aside, for a lot of his life; thanks to the recently (for that time) enacted anti-Catholic Test Acts, it was actually illegal for Pope to seek out a higher education. So, many of us may have used that law as an excuse to kick back with some Mario Kart (or whatever the equivalent time-waster of that era would have been), but not our boy Pope.

From about the age of 12 on, Alexander Pope was really responsible for his own learning, and he took it pretty seriously. He taught himself by reading classic Greek and Roman works of all kinds; he read satires by Horace and epics from Virgil and Homer. These two styles - satire and epic - really pop up a lot in Pope's own works - you can really see how he was influenced by these writers that he studied as a child. Of course, one must also be well-rounded, so during this time he also enjoyed some classics of the English literary tradition, most notably Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Besides his religion, another source of constant trauma for Pope was his health. At age 12, Pope came down with Pott's disease (which is a form of tuberculosis), which led to lifelong complications like difficulty breathing, abdominal pain and even a hunchback. But that's not even the worst of it: Pope never grew above 4 feet 6 inches tall. Some critics have even suggested that the never-ending turmoil caused by his religious affiliation and his sickness and his inability to grow did a good deal to contribute to Pope's satirical fire - the whole 'tears of a clown' theory.

One more cool thing to know about Pope is that he was one of the first people to make a living off of just his writing - that's something a lot of people struggle to do today, so good on him. Pope's relationship to the classics, especially those by Homer, paved the way for this trailblazing lifestyle. We'll explain what that means in a little bit, but for now, it's just important to understand that Pope did understand how to monetize his talent and make it work for him, and that's huge.

Early Poems

Pope's first major works are a series of four short, seasonally themed poems called the Pastorals, and they were published in an anthology in 1709. These poems show off the two important traits of Pope's work that you'll see pop up again and again. First, as we mentioned above, we see his love of the classics; Pope's Pastorals are based on the Roman poet Virgil's works. This will not be the last time that Pope bases his work on the work of Virgil; it's just one example.

Secondly, the Pastorals are written in the style of heroic couplets - those are rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, so named because it feels very epic and celebratory to do things in heroic couplets. Pope was one of the key practitioners of the heroic couplet style, which we can see at work in the opening lines from the Pastorals' Spring:

First in these fields I try the sylvan strains,

Nor blush to sport on Windsor's blissful plains:

So you can see right there how the heroic couplets are a reader-friendly style; they flow naturally and have that pretty rhyme at the end - it almost feels like singing a song.

Anyway, those are heroic couplets, but I think one of Pope's most important works didn't come until after the Pastorals. It's called An Essay on Criticism, but don't be fooled by the title - it's not just an essay. It's also a poem written in his beloved heroic couplets. This work is Pope's attempt to lay out what is basically a philosophy of writing. It takes on important questions of Pope's day that people still really debate: should art and poetry be artificially constructed, or do they come from this unpredictable burst of inner natural genius? What's the role of the critic in art - what's their function, and how do they contribute to art? Do they contribute to art at all?

As it happens, Pope believed that true poets were made, not born, and that the best poetry comes from artfully imitating classic examples (given Pope's education and the way he likes to write, it's really not a surprise to learn that he thinks this). He also believed that critics served the incredibly important function of helping writers to express themselves, but he warns that it's too easy for critics to fall into lazy traps.

We mentioned at the start of this lesson that Pope gets quoted a lot - he's really one of the most quoted authors in the English language. Even if you've never heard of Pope before, you've probably heard some of his quotes, and a few of those actually come from An Essay on Criticism. Some of the most popular include:

  • A little learning is a dangerous thing.
  • To err is human, to forgive divine.
  • Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

I mean, 'fools rush in' became an Elvis song, and I think there was a movie with Matthew Perry - it's become a very popular phrase, even now. These are the kind of witty, perfectly-stated lines that have kept Pope popular even today. To me, I really see a connection between Pope and Oscar Wilde, another figure of English literature who had these witty epigrams that people love to quote and also a really strong love for humor and satire as well.

Pope's most famous poem is indubitably The Rape of the Lock, and that comes a year after An Essay on Criticism. We've got a whole other video on that poem, so we're just going to keep it short here. I do want to state right up front, though, that The Rape of the Lock is in the style of a mock-epic and has nothing to do with a real sexual assault, so don't be afraid to watch it. It's really pretty funny what actually happens.

In this poem, Pope is drawing on classical sources, but now his satire is really kicking into high gear with this poem that takes a very minor incident (in fact it's just the stealing of a lock of hair - that's the 'lock' in the title), but he conflates it with a war to shake the heavens along the lines of Virgil's Aeneid - a very violent, emotional, huge, epic poem. He's trying to elevate this minor event to something as big as an epic. It's really a great piece, and you can learn about it in the other lesson, and then you should go and read it because it's a mock-epic, so it's not as long as the Aeneid, thankfully.

A Classical Turn

Pope never shied away from any of his classical influences in writing, but in 1715, I think, is when he really embraced them completely. This is when he began translating Homer's epic poem The Iliad into English, which is really no small undertaking because that thing is huge. As you might have guessed, Pope exclusively uses heroic couplets for this endeavor; since The Iliad tells the story of a Greek hero, Achilles, the style really fits because it's got that feeling of celebration and of excitement that comes when you tell a story of a great hero, and Achilles certainly was one.

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