‘Pope has had bad luck,’ F.R. Leavis once declared. It’s true that his reputation suffered a big dip in the 19th century, but otherwise he did pretty well for himself, all things considered. He was only four foot six and suffered from curvature of the spine in an age when physical disabilities were often taken to imply moral deformity. He was a Catholic during years in which Catholics could not attend university, or live within ten miles of London, or (in one of the most bizarre legislative expressions of Protestant paranoia) own a horse worth more than £5.
Pope was born in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, which for Catholics was rather less glorious than it was to their Protestant countrymen. Despite his size, his religion, and the sinister nominative determinism of his name, he managed while still in his twenties to publish his Pastorals (1709), An Essay on Criticism (1711) and the mock-heroic Rape of the Lock (1712-14). These created all kinds of sensation in a London hungry for literary sensations. Pope belonged to the first generation of poets to benefit from the 1710 copyright act, which, though intended principally to protect the interests of stationers, enabled authors to sell the copyright of their writings to publishers, who might hope to benefit from the right to print them for an extended period. In 1714 he negotiated a contract with Bernard Lintot (who was hoping to buy himself a poet who could rival John Dryden in merit and popularity) for a translation of Homer. This was probably the best deal ever struck by an English poet. The fee for the copyright combined with income from the sale of subscription copies of the Iliad made Pope around £5000. That was an eye-watering sum. The contract for Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1667 paid him two instalments of £5 and may have got his widow a further £8. The average annual income for an agricultural labourer in 1710 was a little over £17, and a solicitor at that time might earn around £113 a year. Pope published his Works in 1717, something which no English poet under thirty had ever done before, and by 1719 had earned enough to move to a riverside villa in Twickenham. Here he got himself a beautiful Great Dane called Bounce, one of whose offspring was given to Frederick, Prince of Wales, along with a collar inscribed: ‘I am his highness’s dog at Kew;/Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?’ Who could have been luckier?
Pope loved Bounce and I’m sure Bounce loved Pope. But not everyone has done so. Lytton Strachey said his satires ‘resembled nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such of the passers-by whom the wretch had a grudge against’, and the jeers about A. P--E being an apelike imitator of the ancients or having the body and manners of a lower primate echoed around him throughout his life. But despite all that, Pope still looks like the most self-consciously canonical of 18th-century English poets, even though the canon has been exploded outwards, and even though the number of people who really love reading him is now, I would guess, less than a thousandth of what it was in 1720.
He achieved this status through roughly equal measures of will, luck and brilliance. He absorbed and imitated Jonson, Milton, Spenser, Waller, Cowley, and above all Dryden (who converted to Catholicism late in life), and by doing so he associated himself with the English poets who were being marketed and sold as classics by high-status printers such as Jacob Tonson. He modernised works by Chaucer and Donne, tapping their canonical kudos while making them speak Popish English. He translated Homer as Dryden had translated Virgil, and made him speak Popish too. After Agamemnon has said that he will seize Briseis, Pope’s Achilles is tossed on the horns of antithesis in a way that is not quite Homer but very like Pope:
Achilles heard, with grief and rage opprest,
His heart swell’d high, and labour’d in his breast.
Distracting thoughts by turns his bosom ruled,
Now fired by wrath, and now by reason cool’d.
This reads like a rational cooling of Dryden’s ebullient translation of the same passage:
At this th’ Impatient Hero sowrly smil’d:
His Heart, impetuous in his Bosom boil’d,
And justled by two Tides of equal sway,
Stood, for a while, suspended in his way
Betwixt his Reason, and his Rage untam’d;
One whisper’d soft, and one aloud reclaim’d.
Pope understood that to be included in the English canon which publishers of the age were establishing you shouldn’t overtly claim to be a child of Dryden or part of a literary genealogy of greatness. Doing that in an explicit way would just invite your enemies to mock you. The strategy he adopted was to allude to and echo his illustrious predecessors (as he does here with ‘reason … rage … bosom’), while suggesting that he exerted a civilising influence on them. His readers could congrat-ulate themselves on recognising his allusions, acknowledge his excellence and rejoice in the higher civility of their own age all at once.
Pope stole another trick from Dryden. He constructed a rival line of contemporary dunce-poets, who were explicitly presented as a genealogy. This lineage of poets (who not coincidentally are now hardly ever read) – Flecknoe, Mac Flecknoe aka Thomas Shadwell, Colley Cibber, piddling Theobald, Richard Blackmore – teems through the Grub Street grunge of Pope’s greatest poem, the mock-heroic satire on books and fools and publishing called The Dunciad. The dynasty of dunces established the notion that literary traditions and bloodlines do exist, since other people belonged to the genealogy of folly. It also implicitly suggested that Pope belonged to the rival tribe of greatness.
So Pope made his own luck. But he was also brilliant. He had a sharper social intelligence than any other English poet, except possibly Chaucer. He wrote in an age of Party – in the political rather than Downing Street sense – and his kind of intelligence was exactly attuned to an environment in which different groups of people knew different things and supported distinct political causes. He knew precisely the overtones and undertones his target readers would hear in any given line, and that enabled him to suggest innumerable things without actually saying them. This was a great skill, although it can turn modern readers off. He often alludes to people and events which he knew his audience knew but which not many readers now know (Charles Gildon, anyone?). So Pope needs notes, and, as Samuel Johnson complained, notes refrigerate the mind by interruption, even if (as in Pope’s Dunciad Variorum) the notes are hilarious spoof scholarly annotations written by imaginary pedants about people one hasn’t heard of.
But, setting aside the problem of not knowing who Pope’s enemies were, the sense that Pope often gives of anticipating exactly how his readers are going to react to his words can be slightly creepy, as though he’s a puppeteer deliberately tweaking your lips into a smile or a grimace of assent. The great set-piece description of the heroine Belinda’s dressing table in The Rape of the Lock is the best instance of his controlling brilliance, the only fault in which is its complete faultlessness:
This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.
The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,
Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white.
Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows,
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.
This is a masterly satire on the bathos of global consumerism: objects from all around the world are yoked together by a violence which is deliberately suppressed by the descriptive language: ‘The tortoise here and elephant unite’ as though they want to, rather than having their tusks and shells cut off and shipped to England. And they all go to make … the paraphernalia on a girl’s dressing table. ‘Bibles’ (plural: how many doesn’t matter) dissolve into ‘billet-doux’, texts so much more sacred to a young woman in the age of Queen Anne than all those dreary epistles from the apostles – and the word ‘Bibles’ virtually has a tag hovering above it which says ‘Smile at the incongruity here.’ You do as you’re told of course, and smile. But a laugh that’s not entirely choreographed by an author is more fun than a laugh that comes from something that flags itself as perfectly mirth-provoking.
What saves Pope from the charge of being too darn conscious of everything he’s doing is the surreal excess of his savagery. Sometimes the puppeteer loosens the strings and the show turns into a tableau of uncontrollably animated monsters of the mind – as when he describes the Goddess Dullness, who presides over The Dunciad Variorum and
beholds the Chaos dark and deep,
Where nameless somethings in their causes sleep […]
How Hints, like spawn, scarce quick in embryo lie,
How new-born Nonsense first is taught to cry,
Maggots half-form’d, in rhyme exactly meet,
And learn to crawl upon poetic feet.
Here one poor Word a hundred clenches makes,
And ductile dullness new meanders takes.
This is meant to be recognised as a rewrite of the realm of Chaos in Paradise Lost, but the rewrite takes over so much of the partially uncontrolled creative force of that wild, whirling space in Milton’s universe that Pope himself seems overrun by its energy. The writing loses itself in the realm of its duncistical enemies: the ‘clenches’ or puns on ‘maggots’ (both ‘grub’ and ‘perverse fancies’ in the language of the period) are teeming with life, tottering on their poetic (metrical and physical) feet, as Pope superanimates the creative processes of his enemies in order to turn their energy to chaos. These moments when the division between satirist and target melts down into a shared fearsome creative spawn of the imagination are the points at which even those who don’t want to like Pope more or less have to like Pope.
The other thing that saves Pope from being a cardboard cut-out Augustan rationalist is his cruelty. Like many people with high levels of social intelligence he knew exactly how to make one person feel rotten while making everyone else laugh; but (like my grandmother, who was the mistress of the conversational dum-dum bullet – an apparently innocent remark that silently enters the flesh and then explodes inside, with infinite psychological destruction), he didn’t always realise how much a perfectly targeted cruel remark could make his victims hate him. His cruelty was always knowing, and it always rested on knowing exactly what his audience knew about its target. This knowingness augments the savagery because it displays very clearly that your enemy is not just your enemy, but your friends’ enemy too, and that your friends know the dark secrets to which you are cryptically alluding. So at the start of Book 2 of The Dunciad Pope’s hero sits on a throne which directly recalls Satan’s bad eminence in Paradise Lost:
High on a gorgeous seat, that far out-shone
Henley’s gilt tub, or Flecknoe’s Irish throne,
Or that where on her Curlls the public pours,
All-bounteous, fragrant grains and golden showers …
The publisher Edmund Curll was put in the pillory in February 1728 for publishing the memoirs of John Ker, which were supposed to contain secrets of state. ‘Golden showers’ are a perfectly pitched Popean pitcher of piss (or rotten eggs, or other fragrant matter) showered on the head of his enemy. The fact that they’re presented like a complimentary golden bouquet just makes the insult worse: Jove’s descent to Danaë in a shower of gold is transformed by the curious alchemy of Pope’s imagination into a shower of filth. Presenting the insult with mock seriousness as an elevating compliment exponentially increases the hurt, since it implicitly says to the unfortunate Curll: ‘The fact that you were put in the stocks and showered with heaven knows what is the talk of the town, and no matter how obliquely or gildedly I allude to it all my knowing readers will instantly understand just what I mean.’
As Joseph Hone shows in Alexander Pope in the Making, Pope began his writing life as a predominantly manuscript poet writing for ‘tight-knit recusant networks’ in the Thames Valley. Hone argues that for the early part of his career Pope not only wrote for but shared the political attitudes of these Catholic and often outright Jacobite patrons and friends. After the failed Jacobite rising of 1715, Hone argues, Pope ‘countered the changing political circumstances of Hanoverian Britain by rebranding his topical works as timeless literary classics’. In 1715 he published a spoof key to The Rape of the Lock which with solemn absurdity interpreted the poem as a Jacobite allegory. That was a way of getting his retaliation in first against anyone else who tried to read sedition into his writing. In the Works of 1717 he revised earlier manuscript poems ‘to lessen their topical resonance’. He entirely suppressed his early epic Alcander, Prince of Rhodes, and did so at the suggestion of the notable Jacobite Francis Atterbury. Hone argues that this poem was suppressed ‘out of fear, not aesthetic embarrassment’, and was at least implicitly Jacobite – though in the absence of the work itself it’s hard to be sure. Even Pope’s ‘classic’ phase as a translator of Homer may have had a swirling tide of Jacobite conspiracy beneath it: Hone suggests that the process of drumming up subscribers for Pope’s Homer from 1714 onwards may have been used to raise funds for the Jacobite cause.
How much of a Jacobite was Pope? Perhaps both more and less than Hone suggests. There’s no smoking gun which shows definitively that Pope actively supported the return of the Stuart line to the throne, though of course the absence of a smoking gun can sometimes just mean that the perpetrator has thrown it into the Thames. There is a wider point about self-censorship here, however. Self-censorship isn’t always simply a matter of cutting lines that reveal hidden or forbidden beliefs. It can be a matter of imagining what your words might be taken to mean by a group of hostile readers, and revising them to avoid that potential interpretation. Publication in print encourages a poet to hear his own words with others’ ears, and a changing climate of opinion can make more or less innocent remarks originally directed to a small group sound subversive to a wider body of readers. By 1715 Pope knew that his hostile readers – whose ranks were growing almost as rapidly as those of his admirers – would seek to pin a Jacobite label on anything he wrote that seemed even faintly Tory or Catholic. They even referred to his ‘Popish translation of Homer’. It’s not surprising that he carefully reconsidered his earlier works in the changed political environment which followed the death of Queen Anne in 1714. To think of Pope as revising not to suppress his heterodox political beliefs but to close off opportunities for malicious readers would make a lot of sense, given his social intelligence: his ability to make his friends hear what he wanted them to hear in his words was matched by an ability to imagine what his enemies might hear there too. This is not to deny that his early Catholic and Jacobite readership mattered. As Hone suggests, that readership was a crucial component in Pope’s art, however he tried to hide it. His early experience writing for a group of recusants enabled him to develop his later style of nudges, winks and insinuations to those in the know. That mode is well-suited to poems written for small groups of like-minded readers who have something to hide.
This might also suggest that Pope, later in his career, did not seek simply to be a ‘timeless classic’, but retained a kind of literary Jacobitism (akin to that which runs through the works Dryden wrote after his conversion to Catholicism) which is more a style of insinuation than a matter of overt political action or beliefs. That form of stylistic, doctrinally deniable, quasi-Jacobitism can be heard rumbling right through his career until the apocalyptic ending of the revised Dunciad of 1742:
Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.
After the accession of George I in 1714, to say in public that you thought the House of Stuart should be on the throne rather than a load of dim and philistine Protestant Germans was to give yourself a first-class ticket to the pillory or worse; but to attack a false lineage of dunce-poets who had usurped the throne of wit and brought lambent Dullness into the realm, and who seemed coincidentally to be mostly Whig supporters of Hanoverian rule, well, that was just fine and dandy, and in these high matters honi soit qui mal y pense. Anyone who said this was treasonous Jacobitism could be told that it was really all about poetic lineages and the purely literary-critical distinction between the dull and the great.
To make himself a ‘classic’ author Pope had to tack and weave through the shoals of politics and religion. He also had to work the market for printed books. He did this with more success than any other writer of his age, but that didn’t mean it was ever easy. When he represented the Grub Street printing presses in The Dunciad as a heaving mass of grubby plagiarists and pirates ready to bury the classic author in filth he wasn’t entirely making it up. He struggled throughout his life to prevent or suppress pirated versions and parodies of his works, which could simultaneously lose him money and damage his reputation. He was probably not alone among 18th-century authors in wanting to poison the publishers who threatened him in this way, but he was probably the only poet to have actually done so. In March 1716 he met ‘spindle-shanked Edmund Curll, muck-raking publisher’, along with his own favoured publisher, Lintot, at a tavern. Curll had just published a set of three Court Poems which he ascribed to Pope (‘the laudable translator of Homer’), although only one was in fact by Pope. Pope had warned Curll off the unauthorised publication, but he went ahead regardless, for regardlessness came naturally to him. Pope took his revenge by lacing Curll’s glass of sack with an emetic, which the miraculously meticulous Pat Rogers, for whom no detail in the long series of bouts of Curll v. Pope is too small, thinks was probably antimony potassium tartrate. So now you know. Pope then went off and wrote a gleeful pamphlet, composed exactly in the manner of publications favoured by Curll, describing the publisher’s deathbed farewells to those he held dear, and his highly pathetical speeches of remorse. These all reached a mighty climax: ‘The poor Man continued for some Hours with all his disconsolate Family about him in Tears, expecting his final Dissolution; when of a sudden he was surprisingly relieved by a plentiful foetid Stool, which obliged them all to retire out of the Room.’
The feud between Pope and Curll lasted for decades. Rogers sets out the detail, blow by blow, courtroom style, with such even-handedness that one ends up feeling a bit sorry for Curll, who was not only poisoned by Pope in 1716, but was blanket-tossed by the pupils of Westminster School for having tried to print without permission a funeral oration by their head boy. So who cares if he pirated texts by Swift, or repeatedly issued pornographic works under titles like Eunuchism and Onanism Display’d, or The Nun in Her Smock, or invented keys to The Dunciad and Gulliver’s Travels, or published a scurrilous Popiad, as well as the almost unimaginably ingrown Curliad: a Hypercritic upon the Dunciad Variorum? Rogers shows how the fiercely personal quarrel intersected with politics and religion. Curll, though an opportunist, was no friend of Tories and hit Pope hard with accusations of Jacobitism in 1716 when anti-Catholic paranoia was at its most intense. Rogers also asks the vital question about pots and kettles: was Pope – who sought and won a reputation as a ‘classic’ poet – as much a manipulator of markets and of publishing fashions as his Grub Street enemy Curll?
By the 1730s the publisher and the poet were locked together in such a vicious dogfight that it’s hard to tell whose teeth were sunk into whose hide or which was the lower sort of cur. The key episode was the publication of Pope’s letters. Pope wanted to publish a carefully curated collection of his letters to people of note. These would display his critical sagacity and his social connections. But he didn’t want to look too much like a papistical peacock blowing his own trumpet, so held off from printing an authorised edition himself. He was also worried that some of his letters, if published in unedited form, could be used against him. In 1726 Curll had got hold of a clutch of Pope’s letters, which he gladly printed, since Pope’s name made money, and the opportunity to make money while pissing off Pope was for Curll simply irresistible. Then, in 1733, he advertised his intention of publishing a Life of Pope, for which ‘nothing shall be wanting but his (universally desired) Death,’ and asked people to supply him with ‘Memoirs &c’ to fuel it.
Pope, knowing that a Life by Curll would not be a garland of compliments, struck back in the most bizarre manner. He responded to Curll’s advertisement under the pseudonym ‘P.T.’ and wrote offering the publisher a cache of letters by Alexander Pope. He then hired someone, possibly the out-of-work actor and artist James Worsdale, to dress up as a clergyman and deliver to Curll by night some printed copies of Pope’s letters as well as some manuscripts. Curll duly advertised these and sold them under the title Mr Pope’s Literary Correspondence.
As Claudio says in Measure for Measure, ‘Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die,’ and Curll, by gobbling up Pope’s letters, seemed to have ingested another dose of poison. Since it appeared that some of the letters in the collection of epistles to and from Pope were by members of the nobility, Curll was accused of breach of privilege and summoned before the House of Lords. How Pope must have chuckled. But he didn’t get the last laugh. Curll triumphantly vindicated himself, and the Lords found no breach of privilege in the published letters. P.T. (alias Pope, no doubt biting his lip) then wrote to congratulate Curll on his ‘victory over the Lords, the Pope and the Devil’. Curll exultantly went on to publish a series of volumes of Pope’s letters in 1735-36, while Pope repeatedly complained in public about ‘the Follies and Impertinence of Edmund Curll’s Edition’. He published a narrative account of the affair which set out in the hoitiest of toity manners his horror at the piratical proceedings of that filthy Grub Street publisher Edmund Curll, who had (though Pope did not confess this) been provoked in his malfeasance in publishing Pope’s letters by one Alexander Pope.
Curll’s great strength was that he never gave up. It was also his weakness. He eventually overreached by republishing a collection of letters between Pope and Swift which had been illicitly printed in Dublin. Pope scented blood, and in the summer of 1741 initiated a humdinger of a court case in Chancery, in which he claimed that he owned the copyright of his letters. He enlisted as his barrister the future Lord Mansfield, who later in life made one of the key decisions in the evolution of English copyright law. The decision in Pope v. Curll was also a crucial one. It established what is still, more or less, the position under English law with respect to the copyright of letters. The recipient owns the physical object, having received as it were a gift of paper and ink from the correspondent, but what came to be called the intellectual property (the words and the right to benefit from publication of them) remains the property of the author. Hence Curll could not legitimately publish Pope’s letters even if he had purchased the autograph copies of them from a third party. Only Pope could publish Pope’s letters. The decision enabled Pope to become a ‘classic’ author, whose Works and whose Letters – published, of course, purely to correct the appalling distortions of the monster Curll – could sit together on the shelves of the great and the good. The cost of this skulduggery to Pope’s reputation was immense: it was a major reason for the collapse of his critical standing in the 19th century. But perhaps it is from such acts of skulduggery that classic authors are made.
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