The life of Alexander Pope, told through five interesting pieces of biographical trivia
1. He was known as ‘the Wasp of Twickenham’. Poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) earned this nickname because of his stinging satirical attacks on the famous people of the age, especially other writers. Pope’s long mock-epic The Dunciad (1728-43) – a sort of comic version of Virgil’s Aeneid that takes dullness rather than war and conquest as its subject – scathingly excoriates virtually anyone Pope didn’t like: the stupid, the tasteless, the incompetent. The seeds of the idea for The Dunciad appear to have been sown in a disagreement over Shakespearean scholarship: Pope’s edition of the works of William Shakespeare had been criticised by Lewis Theobald (who claimed to have ‘discovered’ Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio). Theobald was right – Pope’s edition of Shakespeare was flawed – but Pope had other issues with Theobald. So in 1728, in the first version of The Dunciad, Pope cast Theobald in the role of the King of Dunces as ‘Tibbald’.
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance. – Alexander Pope
2. Samuel Johnson claimed that Alexander Pope cured headaches by inhaling the steam of coffee, which Pope referred to as ‘Mocha’s happy tree’. Samuel Johnson, himself a fascinating figure in the eighteenth-century literary world, was a tea-drinker himself (known to drink a ridiculous amount of it in one sitting), but the coffee-house was the new establishment of the age, and Pope wrote elsewhere about ‘Mocha’s happy tree’ and advised ‘drink strong coffee’.
3. Fearing attacks from rivals, Pope rarely left his house without a brace of pistols and his dog, a Great Dane named Bounce. Pope, who was only 4’6″ tall and suffered from a curvature of the spine, was advised by friends not to leave his house on his own after a thwarted attack by the son of critic John Dennis. But Pope said he would not let such ‘villains’ win, and would still go about town as usual. However, he took the precautions of the gun and the Great Dane before he went out!
4. He’s given us a number of famous phrases. The phrase ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ originated in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711); E. M. Forster later used it as the title of his 1905 novel Where Angels Fear to Tread. The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) also borrowed its title from Pope: the line appears in his Eloisa to Abelard. As we’ve previously revealed, the line of poetry with the most Google hits is Alexander Pope’s ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’.
Learning is like mercury, one of the most powerful and excellent things in the world in skillful hands; in unskillful, the most mischievous. —Alexander Pope
5. Three of the moons of the planet Uranus are named after characters from Pope’s poetry. All 27 known satellites of the planet Uranus are named after literary characters. William Shakespeare provides 24 of the moons with their names (which include Oberon, Puck, Stephano, and Margaret), with the other three being named in honour of the heroine and two of the Sylphs from Pope’s mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock (1714): Belinda, Umbriel, and Ariel. Rather pleasingly, the last of these is also the name of a fairy from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Pope also features in our history of English poetry told in 8 short poems.
Image: Portrait of Alexander Pope, via Wikimedia Commons.