The eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is not the most fashionable English poet: few people read his poetry for pleasure, one suspects, and even in universities he is not as popular or central to the canon as he once was. With his Augustan rationalism and his perfectly crafted heroic couplets, his love of chiasmus and antithesis and other rhetorical devices, he can come across as artificial, cold, even ‘unpoetic’.
Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, another great wit, Oscar Wilde, quipped that there were two ways of disliking poetry: one is to dislike it, and the other is to read Pope.
Yet despite his reputation for being stuffy and perhaps even a little snarky (sometimes very snarky when he takes to attacking his rivals in print), Alexander Pope has left his mark on everything from the solar system (the moons of the planet Uranus are named after characters from the works of two English writers – one is Shakespeare, and the other is Pope) to the English language.
And if you don’t believe me, have a read of the quotations selected below – which represent some of the best, and best-known, lines in all of Pope’s work – and see how many of them are already familiar to you.
This is the first of three quotations from the same work by Alexander Pope, his 1711 work An Essay on Criticism. All three of them have entered common use. (Well, actually, we’ll have more quotations from this work later on in the list, because it’s too darn quotable.)
Pope was just 23 when he wrote this work (though in fact his very first poem, ‘On Solitude’, was written when he was a prodigy of just 12 years of age!), but there was clearly already a wise head on his young shoulders. ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ has become almost a timeless proverb.
Here’s another now-famous proverb from An Essay on Criticism. Although Pope is specifically offering advice to literary critics in this work, his advice has often become more wide-ranging than that, and applicable to a whole host of situations. Here, he cautions us to be cautious.
‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’.
Often misquoted as ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, this line is also, you’ve guessed it, from An Essay on Criticism. It is more dangerous, Pope argues, for a man to know a little than to know nothing at all, since his ‘little learning’ encourages him to show off and talk about things which he doesn’t know enough about. Millions of people on social media daily fail to heed this advice.
‘Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’.
Pope’s 1717 poem ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ 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.
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 …
‘Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer.’
Here’s another phrase we can thank Alexander Pope for: to ‘damn with faint praise’. This one is from one of Pope’s verse epistles (letters written as poetry): his ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’, from 1734.
‘What dire offence from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things!’
These are the opening words of Pope’s 1712 mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock, about a ‘war’ between two rival upper-class families which breaks out after a man snips off a lock of a woman’s hair. The epic battles of the Iliad from classical Greece are reduced to the ballrooms of fashionable early eighteenth-century London society.
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).
‘Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.’
This couplet is also from The Rape of the Lock, and sees Pope addressing Queen Anne (1702-14), in a classic example of bathos and zeugma (a rhetorical device whereby a single verb – here, ‘take’ – refers to both something serious, namely counsel, and something trivial, namely tea, a relatively new drink in England at the time).
‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’.
And here’s another common phrase we owe to Pope: ‘hope springs eternal’. This one is taken from the other famous ‘essay’ poem Pope wrote, his didactic poem An Essay on Man:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come …
‘The proper study of mankind is Man.’
And here’s another famous passage from An Essay on Man. Drawing on the words of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece, ‘Know Thyself’, Alexander Pope exhorts us to study ourselves and the species to which we belong: forget about knowing God or his ways, for such knowledge is off-limits to us mere mortals.
Instead, we should spend our time studying ourselves. Pope’s lines are the rallying cry for the Enlightenment, then in full swing in Europe, and arguing for empiricism – studying things by observing them – over superstition or taking things at face value:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
‘Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.’
Let’s return to the earlier An Essay on Criticism for some more handy advice on writing. Here we find Pope enjoining the writer (and critic) not to be overly wordy, because an overblown writing style is often used to conceal a paucity of thought or ‘sense’ beneath those words.
‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.’
Another line from An Essay on Criticism, again offering us some useful guidance on how to be a good writer – and Pope’s advice remains as true now as it was over three hundred years ago. To be a good writer, one must learn the ‘art’ of writing, and know all of the rhetorical ‘tricks’ and devices a writer can put in service of an idea.
‘I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?’
We’ll conclude this pick of the best Alexander Pope quotations with a famous couplet which was reportedly inscribed on the collar that was round the neck of a dog that Pope gave to the Prince of Wales in 1738. The couplet reminds us that Pope was the greatest satirist of his age, and makes the point that all men are ‘dogs’ who are in service of another man.