Alexander Pope was born in London, England in May of 1688. His parents were Edith and Alexander Pope. They were both Catholic and his father made a successful living as a linen merchant. As a young boy Pope was taught to read by his aunt and then attended Twyford School from about 1698 to 1699. His education was stymied by what then was the recently passed Test Acts. These laws banned Catholics from teaching or attending university. He attended two more schools in London before his formal education came an end.
Early Life and Illness
From a young age Pope suffered from a number of health problems. These would plague him throughout his life and would include respiratory issues, high fevers and abdominal pain. It is thought that Pott’s diseases which he contracted as a child, stunted his growth. He stopped growing at 4ft 6in. These facts, in addition to his identity as Catholic, mostly kept Pope out of the public sphere.
When he was twelve his parents moved to Binfield, Berkshire. They lived on an estate that was close to the royal Windsor Forest. This move from London was also the result of anti-Catholic sentiment. There was a statute that kept anyone of the faith from living within ten miles of London. During this period Pope became interested in self-education and spent time reading the works of writers such as Homer and Virgil, as well as Chaucer and John Dryden. He also dedicated himself to studying languages and was able to read in English, French, Latin, Greek and Italian.
Pope became known in and around the literary scene in London. He met William Wycherley, Samuel Garth and made close friends with John Caryll. It was in 1709 that Pope published Pastorals. It was included in the sixth part of Poetical Miscellanies and resulted in Pope being thrust into the spotlight in a way he had not been before. He followed this work with An Essay on Criticism in 1711 which was also well received. It was in this same year that Pope formed the Scriblerus Club alongside fellow writer Jonathan Swift. It was the goal of the club to satirize what they saw as ignorance through the fictional Martin Scriblerus.
In 1712 Pope published what would become one of his most famous poem, ‘The Rape of the Lock.’ It was dedicated to his friend John Caryll. It is a mock-epic, meaning that it satirizes the traditional epic form and all its particular structures. It tells the story of a quarrel between Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre, two stalwarts of society. The poem was republished two years later with an increased focus on one’s own quest to find an individual voice.
‘Windsor-Forest’ a poem that had taken him several years to complete, was published in 1713. It focused on the rule of Queen Anne. This poem, and those which preceded it were collected in Pope’s first volume, Works, published in 1717. It was at this same time that Pope was hard at work on his verse translation of Homer for which he would come to be well remembered. The first volume which contained the Iliad, Books I-IV was published in 1715. It was finished in 1720 and was followed the Odyssey in 1725 and 1726. These translations are noted today for the way they are able to convey accurately the spirit of the original text.
In the early 30s Pope published the philosophical poem, ‘An Essay on Man.’ It was Pope’s intention that this piece become only part of a poetic system of ethics. The poem was written to challenge an anthropocentric, or human-centric, version of the world.
Later Life and Death
In the later part of his life Pope published eleven editions of the Imitations of Horace. They included paraphrases of themes that had been altered to fit in with contemporary society. The pieces were popular from the first edition and spoke on the widespread corruption Pope was witnessing under George II. The last major work of his life was The Dunciad, a narrative poem that celebrates the goddess Dulness and her companions: decay, imbecility and tastelessness.
During the final years of Pope’s life he wrote little. A few lines survive of a proposed epic titled, Brutus, but it was never finished. Alexander Pope died on May 30th 1744, surrounded by friends, in his home.