Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is one of the leading poets of the Augustan era in English literature, named in honour of the Roman emperor Augustus, because Augustan writers sought to return to the values embodied by classical poets from the time of Augustus’ reign. Such a period of English verse – from the late seventeenth century until the second half of the eighteenth – is also sometimes known as ‘neoclassicism’ for this reason.
Alexander Pope embodies these Augustan values, with his taut, classical precision, his fondness for the clipped and closed heroic couplet (rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter), and his championing of reason and intellect over emotion and sensation. The Romantics, of course, would overturn or at least disturb many of these neat values and assumptions, and in many ways, Pope has remained out of fashion ever since. Oscar Wilde even quipped that there were two ways of disliking poetry: one was to dislike it, and the other was to read Pope.
But he’s an extraordinarily funny and sharp writer, whose wit is up there with Wilde’s. Below, we introduce some of Alexander Pope’s best poems.
1. ‘Ode on Solitude’.
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire …
Pope was nothing if not precocious. Born in 1688, he penned this poem in 1700, before he had even reached his teenage years! His mastery of English verse is already apparent, even if his scathing satirical side hasn’t yet developed.
The poem, however, already shows the neoclassical strain emerging in Pope’s work, with the poet’s championing of a small, clearly defined space as sufficient to bring the individual happiness.
Others for language all their care express,
And value books, as women men, for dress:
Their praise is still – ‘the style is excellent’:
The sense, they humbly take upon content.
Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found …
Pope’s precociousness is in further evidence here, in his first great poem which he wrote when he was still in his early twenties: he was 23 when he wrote this didactic poem, which puts forward an argument, as the title suggests. The subject is literary critics, with whom Pope would regularly fall out, and what constitutes good criticism. However, many of the moral and artistic issues Pope mentions are equally applicable to poets.
Although the poem is composed in the taut heroic couplets that would be Pope’s signature, the tone is conversational and the poem highly readable – don’t let the term ‘didactic’ put you off.
Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms,
Repairs her smiles, awakens ev’ry grace,
And calls forth all the wonders of her face;
Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,
And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes.
The busy Sylphs surround their darling care;
These set the head, and those divide the hair,
Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown;
And Betty’s prais’d for labours not her own …
Written the year after An Essay on Criticism, in 1712 – and then expanded two years later – this poem is one of Pope’s best-known. It’s a mock-heroic narrative poem in five parts, relaying how a ‘war’ starts in fashionable eighteenth-century London society when a lock of Belinda’s hair is snipped off. Pope populates his poem with sylphs and other nods to classical epic poetry in order to send up the trivialities of the upper classes during Queen Anne’s reign.
Three of the moons of Uranus – Belinda, Umbriel, and Ariel – are named after characters who appear in this poem (although ‘Ariel’ is also a nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest).
4. Windsor Forest.
See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings:
Short is his joy; he feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.
Ah! what avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?
Published in 1713 although begun in 1707 when Pope was still a teenager, Windsor Forest is an example of a topographical poem: a poem about a particular place.
Set among the royal hunting ground in Berkshire, England, the poem responds to early eighteenth-century political events while also providing some memorable descriptions of nature.
With various-colour’d Lights the Pavement shone,
And all on fire appear’d the glowing Throne;
The Dome’s high Arch reflects the mingled Blaze,
And forms a Rainbow of alternate Rays.
When on the Goddess first I cast my Sight,
Scarce seem’d her Stature of a Cubit’s height,
But swell’d to larger Size, the more I gaz’d,
Till to the Roof her tow’ring Front she rais’d …
Inspired by Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem The House of Fame, this poem from 1715 is, like Chaucer’s original, a dream-vision in which the poet is taken away to a mysterious plane where he is shown a temple erected to Fame, the personification of celebrity. The poem paves the way for Pope’s later (and longer) masterpiece The Dunciad with its responses to early eighteenth-century coffee-house news, gossip, and tittle-tattle.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
‘Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;’
Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n …
This 1717 poem is based upon the well-known medieval story of Héloïse d’Argenteuil, who secretly married her teacher, the French philosopher Peter Abelard. It uses one of Pope’s favourite forms, the verse epistle: a poem written in the form of a letter between two people (whether real or fictional). The title of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was taken from this poem.
7. An Essay on Man.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err …
This work is from the early 1730s and is another example of Pope’s didactic poetry, making an argument in the familiar heroic couplet form. It is another moral work, in which Pope places man within the grand scheme of God’s creation and argues how man should live. The work would inspire Voltaire to write Candide.
8. ‘Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot’.
Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu’d, I said,
Tie up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.
The dog-star rages! nay ’tis past a doubt,
All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land …
This 1735 poem is addressed to Pope’s friend John Arbuthnot, who was a physician, who was dying. Pope is unusually frank about his own approach to poetry, defending his satires against his detractors and attacking those rival poets with whom he had engaged in long feuds.
9. The Dunciad.
Then he: ‘Great tamer of all human art!
First in my care, and ever at my heart;
Dulness! whose good old cause I yet defend,
With whom my Muse began, with whom shall end,
E’er since Sir Fopling’s periwig was praise,
To the last honours of the Butt and Bays:
O thou! of bus’ness the directing soul
To this our head, like bias to the bowl,
Which, as more pond’rous, made its aim more true,
Obliquely waddling to the mark in view …’
Pope’s masterpiece, this long poem is another example of the mock-heroic form, with the title echoing classical epic poems like The Iliad and The Aeneid. Pope kept returning to the poem, over the course of fifteen years between 1728 and 1743, so three different versions of The Dunciad exist, with the target of Pope’s satirical attacks being updated as he moved on to new feuds and different rivals.
The poem is a satire on ‘Dulness’, and especially those Grub Street hacks to revel in dullness various kinds. By this point in his career, Pope had fallen out of favour with the royal court and the bitterness he must have felt is turned into gloriously scathing satire upon all manner of vices in eighteenth-century society.