Pope the Bore

From a talk I gave at the University of Puerto Rico about two years ago regarding Samuel Johnson’s Life of Alexander Pope. 

In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, a biography that centers on the life of one of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century, the reader is treated to a very personal view of the writer/poet/critic/lexicographer/harmless drudge. In this biography, Johnson’s kindness, intellect, views, forceful attitudes, and even brute behavior are prominently displayed for the enjoyment of all. Furthermore, a reading of Johnson and Boswell’s trip to Scotland will result in furthering the reader’s acquaintance with these two great men. These two enjoyable accounts are bound to give any reader a pleasurable time. Boswell’s opening remarks on Johnson’s biography say that his task will be “to write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others” (13). Because of this statement, coupled with the enjoyable reading experience of engaging with Boswell’s Life, I expected that Johnson’s writings about others, meaning The Lives of the English Poets, would be as appealing as his own biography. It is with great enthusiasm that I began reading Johnson’s Life of Pope. I was greatly disappointed. After becoming acquainted with Johnson in Boswell’s work, one expects Johnson’s own writings on others to be just as good. However, Johnson’s life of Pope’s is not. Given Johnson’s extraordinary literary career which includes prose works like Rasselas, and his few, yet extraordinary, works of poetry like London, not to mention his thought-provoking blog-like entries in The Rambler and The Idler, it is very likely that Pope’s own boring life is to blame for the lack of appeal in Johnson’s Life of Pope, instead of Johnson’s own writing style. However, if there is one main flaw with Johnson’s writing style in The Life of Pope, it is that he rarely mentions specific dates. He often goes from one event to the next, narrating the events that revolve around Pope’s publishing career. Johnson’s basic narrative style often follows a pattern that starts with “By this time” Pope had done some great thing related to writing. Johnson then proceeds to give examples of why Pope’s work is great. He talks for a few pages of Pope’s character, and concludes with an analysis of some of Pope’s major works. Still, even though Johnson’s style might have been improved on, the bottom life is that The Life of Pope is not enjoyable because Pope himself was a boring bookworm type of person.

Alexander Pope was born in the city of London to Alexander (senior) and Edith Pope on May 22, 1688. It is possible that “they were of ‘gentle blood’” (Johnson). Both of his parents were devout followers of the Roman Catholic Church. 

According to Johnson, “Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate.” One of his many conditions has been diagnosed to be Pott’s disease (a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine) which deformed his body and stunted his growth. He never grew beyond 1.37 metres (4 feet 6 inches) tall. Johnson’s opinion on Pope’s physical ailments is that “The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood.” Pope’s strength of mind was certainly displayed during his time, when he wrote great works of literature like his Essay on Criticism, The Rape of Locke, and his translation on Homer’s Illiad.

Pope dominated his age to an extent few writers before or since have matched.

Pope’s translation of Homer was acclaimed by Samuel Johnson as “a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal.” However, the classical scholar Richard Bentley wroteof the same translation that “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” This comment was one of the first that marked a dwindling of the public’s interest in pope. After his death, it was almost inevitable a reaction would set in against his poetry, especially with the first stirrings of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century.

The Romantics had little time for Pope, with the exception of Lord Byron, who acclaimed him as “the great moral poet of all times, of all climes, of all feelings, and all stages of existence”. Keats dismissed the style of writers who wrote in heroic couplets, saying that “They rode upon a rocking horse and called it a Pegasus”. In the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold dismissed Pope and Dryden as “classics of our prose.”

When Alexander Pope was eight, he was placed in Hampshire to study under Taverner, a Roman priest, who taught him the Greek and Latin at the same time. He was then transferred to “a school at Twyford near Winchester, and again to another school about Hyde-park Corner” (Johnson), where he and his fellow classmates enacted Ogylby’s Iliad, a work that had impressed a young Pope.

In 1700, due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment, his father quit his trade, and retired to Binfield in Windsor Forest, with about twenty thousand pounds, for which, according to Johnson, “he found no better use than that of locking it up in a chest, and taking from it what his expenses required.”

At the young age of twelve, he devised a plan of study with a singular goal in mind. His primary and principal purpose was to be a poet, with which his father accidentally concurred. Pope chose Dryden as a model to follow, and soon persuaded some friends to take him to the coffeehouse which Dryden frequented. Johnson says that Dryden recognized the genius of young Pope.

The earliest of Pope’s productions is his Ode on Solitude, written before he was twelve, in which according to Johnson “there is nothing more than other forward boys have attained, and which is not equal to Cowley’s performances at the same age.”

His time was now spent wholly in reading and writing. As he read the Classics, Johnson writes, he amused himself with translating them; and at fourteen made a version of the first book of the Thebais, which, with some revision, he afterwards published. This way of saying that Pope did scholarly work is probably not the way Pope himself would have said it, as Pope said that “Amusement is the happiness of those who cannot think” (Moncur).

The next year, at fifteen, presumably, as Johnson does not mention exact dates, Pope wanted to make himself acquainted with modern languages, so he went to London to study French and Italian. Of Italian, Johnson writes, learning he does not appear to have ever made much use in his subsequent studies.

Pope, not yet sixteen, was introduced to Sir William Trumbal, a statesman of sixty, and so distinguished himself that their interviews ended in friendship and correspondence. Johnson writes in regard to Pope’s correspondence with several critics and writers, like Wycherley  and Denis, that “it is pleasant to remark how soon [perhaps at seventeen years of age, as Johnson does not provide age nor dates] Pope learned the cant of an author, and began to treat critics with contempt, though he had yet suffered nothing from them.”

Wycherley’s esteem of Pope “was such that he submitted some poems to his revision; and when Pope was sufficiently bold in his criticisms and liberal in his alterations, Wycherley was angry to see his pages defaced, and felt more pain from the detection than content from the amendment of his faults” (Johnson). Their correspondence gave the public knowledge of Pope’s epistolary “powers”, as they were published in a volume of his Miscellanies.

At seventeen, Pope began to frequent Will’s, a coffee-house, where the wits of that time used to assemble, and where Dryden had, when he lived, been accustomed to preside.

Pope’s writings caught the attention of Denis, a renowned critic at the time, and had his most important works under attack. However, the public’s decision was often made in favor of Pope regardless of the negative criticism.

Although he never married, it is said that he had many women friends to whom he wrote them letters. However, in his Life, Johnson only mentions one of these instances:

She was a woman of eminent rank and large fortune, the ward of an uncle, who, having given her a proper education, expected like other guardians that she should make at least an equal match; and such he proposed to her, but found it rejected in favor of a young gentleman of inferior condition.

Having discovered the correspondence between the two lovers, and finding the young lady determined to abide by her own choice, he supposed that separation might do what can rarely be done by arguments, and sent her into a foreign country, where she was obliged to converse only with those from whom her uncle had nothing to fear.

From this account, given with evident intention to raise the lady’s character, it does not appear that she had any claim to praise, nor much to compassion. She seems to have been impatient, violent, and ungovernable

In 1712, at the age of twenty four, he wrote The Rape of Lock, a poem of gargantuan proportions (both in length and popularity) that according to Johnson, is “the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of all his compositions, occasioned by a frolick of gallantry”. The Rape of the Lock stands, in the classes of literature, according to Johnson, as the most exquisite example of ludicrous poetry. Many years afterwards Dennis published some comments on it, “with very little force, and with no effect; for the opinion of the public was already settled, and it was no longer at the mercy of criticism” (Johnson).

On 1713, or on 1712, Pope began working on a translation of The Illiad, for which he asked for subscriptions. The uncertainty of the date happens due to Johnson’s own narrative style. After talking about the Rape of Lock, Johnson says that “The next year” he began working on The Illiad. However, he also says, referring to the same work, that He began it in 1712, his twenty-fifth year, and concluded it in 1718, his thirtieth year. According to Johnson, “there was reason to believe that Pope’s attempt would be successful”, as “he was in the full bloom of reputation, and was personally known to almost all whom dignity of employment or splendor of reputation had made eminent.”

However, in asking for subscriptions, Pope found out that he had enemies. All who do not encouraged him defamed him. To those who censured his politicks were added enemies yet more dangerous, who called in question his knowledge of Greek, and his qualifications for a translator of Homer.

The publication of the Iliad was at last completed in 1720.

Opinions about Pope’s Illiad were split. Johnson would call it “the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen”, and state that “its publication must therefore be considered as one of the great events in the annals of learning”, but “when Addison’s opinion was asked he declared the versions to be both good, but Tickell’s the best that had ever been written; and sometimes said that they were both good, but that Tickell had more of Homer.” Richard Bentley agreed that Pope’s Illiad was not Homeric enough. . Pope intended to print together the four versions of Dryden, Maynwaring, Pope, and Tickell, that they might be readily compared and fairly estimated, but copyright issues prevented this from happening.

He published the same year an edition of Shakespeare. Johnson states that Pope in his edition “undoubtedly did many things wrong, and left many things undone; but let him not be defrauded of his due praise: he was the first that knew, at least the first that told, by what helps the text might be improved.”

Pope also published a work called Characters of Men, in which he talks about human behavior, innate instincts, and rationalization, concepts that are very similar to what Freaud would write in his theory regarding human behavior and the id, ego, and superego nearly 100 years after. Johnson says that “Pope has formed his theory with so little skill that, in the examples by which he illustrates and confirms it, he has confounded passions, appetites, and habits.”

Johnson then talks of a few of the many literary accomplishments pope had, the last of which is mentioned being The Dunciad, which “he laid aside his Epick Poem, (The Dunciad) perhaps without much loss to mankind” (Johnson).

Although he was not a good conversationalist (Johnson states that in familiar or convivial conversation it does not appear that he excelled.) and he was extremely proud and egocentric, and was very much an anti-social kind of person (Johnson says that of his social qualities, if an estimate be made from his Letters, an opinion too favorable cannot easily be formed),  “he sometimes, however, made a splendid dinner, and is said to have wanted no part of the skill or elegance which such performances require.” Johnson also states that Alexander Pope was a good and steadfast friend.

Johnson writes:

He very frequently professes contempt of the world, and represents himself as looking on mankind, sometimes with gay indifference, as on emmets of a hillock below his serious attention, and sometimes with gloomy indignation, as on monsters more worthy of hatred than of pity. These were dispositions apparently counterfeited.

His scorn of the Great is repeated too often to be real: no man thinks much of that which he despises; and as falsehood is always in danger of inconsistency he makes it his boast at another time that he lives among them.

Johnson states that of his intellectual character the constituent and fundamental principle was Good Sense, a prompt and intuitive perception of consonance and propriety.

Alexander Pope died in the evening of May 13th, 1744, so placidly that “the attendants did not discern the exact time of his expiration” (Johnson). Not only was his life a quiet and boring one, centering around reading, writing, and talking poetry, but his death was also uneventful. Some people live their lives to the fullest, and when they leave, they do so in a grandiose manner. Pope’s life simply faded out. He was buried at Twickenham, near his father and mother, where a monument has been erected to him by his commentator, the Bishop of Gloucester.

Regarding his analysis on Pope’s work, Johnson’s ‘critical’ views, at least in pope, are a repetitive “I like it” stated in different words. With the exceptions of a few pastorals (That The Messiah excels the Pollio is no great praise, if it be considered from what original the improvements are derived) and opinions on double rhymes (He has a few double rhymes, and always, I think, unsuccessfully, except once in The Rape of the Lock, all of Pope’s poems, to Johnson, are brilliantly made in one way or another.)

Johnson’s Opinion on Pope’s works are as follows:

  • Pope’s Pastorals are not however composed but with close thought; they have reference to the times of the day, the seasons of the year, and the periods of human life


  • To the praises which have been accumulated on The Rape of the Lock by readers of every class, from the critick to the waiting-maid, it is difficult to make any addition.


  • It has been objected by some, who wish to be numbered among the sons of learning, that Pope’s version of Homer is not Homerical; that it exhibits no resemblance of the original and characteristick manner of the Father of Poetry, as it wants his awful simplicity, his artless grandeur, his unaffected majesty. This cannot be totally denied, but it must be remembered that “necessitas quod cogit defendit,” that may be lawfully done which cannot be forborne. Time and place will always enforce regard. In estimating this translation consideration must be had of the nature of our language, the form of our metre, and, above all, of the change which two thousand years have made in the modes of life and the habits of thought. I suppose many readers of the English Iliad, when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found.


  • Of the Odyssey nothing remains to be observed; the same general praise may be given to both translations, and a particular examination of either would require a large volume.


  • Even on The Dunciad, which had it not been completed would have been “not a great loss to mankind”, Johnson says: Of The Dunciad the hint is confessedly taken from Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, but the plan is so enlarged and diversified as justly to claim the praise of an original, and affords perhaps the best specimen that has yet appeared of personal satire ludicrously pompous.


  • Although The Essay on Man is “certainly not the happiest of Pope’s performances”, it was “a work of great labour and long consideration.” This Essay affords an egregious instance of the predominance of genius, the dazzling splendour of imagery, and the seductive powers of eloquence.


  • The Imitations of Horace seem to have been written as relaxations of his genius


  • Pope had, in proportions very nicely adjusted to each other, all the qualities that constitute genius.  


Johnson conclude’s Pope’s Life by asking that, “if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?” Depending on the reader’s taste, in Blake, Wordsworth, Milton, Arnold, Yeats, Whitman, Dickenson, De Burgos, Mistral, Haydon, whomever engraved Gilgamesh in stone slabs all across Ancient Sumer, or even in the man who during the eighteenth century used to excel in poetry, prose, criticism, and lexicography, but could never surpass his pupil in writing the life of others.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 15, 2010, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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