Imitation, Imagery and Alexander Pope

On the title page of William Mason’s 1747  “Musaeus, a Monody on the Death of Mr. Pope” is an engraving that neatly encapsulates both the accompanying poem and the high regard with which Alexander Pope’s body of work was, and still is, held: the goddess Diana holds Pope’s expiring body, her left arm melodramatically raised to the skies in mourning, while a triumvirate of English poets - Milton, Chaucer, and Spencer - bewail his death and prepare to welcome their equal into heaven.

 At just four feet six inches tall, Alexander Pope surmounted the 18th Century literary landscape and to this day stands tall among the pantheon of great English poets. He remains, and please forgive the employment of the rather arbitrary measure of statistics, the most quoted author in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare and Tennyson.


The self-appointed spokesman of Augustan society, Pope found fame with the publication of his satires and canonisation upon his translations of Homer. His upbringing and education, however, was far from that of the university wits who were his contemporaries. Pope shared his birth year, 1688, with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that saw the deposition of King James II, the last Catholic monarch to reign over England, Scotland and Ireland. With the new sovereignty of William and Mary and the subsequent re-establishment of a Protestant state, Catholics were to suffer both politically, losing their right to vote and sit in Parliament, and socially – being barred by statute from living within ten miles of Westminster. Though the laws were more lax in certain sympathetic areas, a Catholic was not allowed to teach on pain of life imprisonment.


Thus Pope, the son of Catholic converts, was educated intermittently by private tutors, often recusant priests, and through his own voracious reading of both the indigenous poets – Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dryden, etc. – and the classics - most influentially the satirists Juvenal and Horace and the masters of epic Homer and Virgil. Pope also taught himself a handful of languages including Latin and Greek. His religion and education, however, were not the only isolating factors; sickly, deformed and hunchbacked from childhood illness, Pope suffered with his health for his entire life, half-blaming his incessant studying. Perhaps surprisingly considering his background, Pope emerged a relentless idealist. He remained a lifelong bachelor but wrote many witty letters to female friends.

Pope published his first work in 1709 – the Pastorals had, however, been written some years earlier (1704-7), begun when the young poet was just sixteen. An emulation of Virgil’s debut, the Eclogues, Pastorals Pope paid direct homage to Virgil in more ways than form however: the shepherds’ names are pinched straight from the Eclogues – Damon, Alexis, Lycidas, etc.. He also gives more than a passing nod to Theocritus and praises Tasso and Spenser among the modern practitioners of the form. Even Samuel Jonson couldn’t help but admire the versification; the alliteration, assonance, repetitions and couplets that gave a hint of the mastery Pope was to achieve in his later works. Pope wrote that the aim of pastoral poetry was to give “an esteem for the virtues of… the Golden Age”, a theme he was to pick up on his next work, the work that would secure him as a major player in the literary circles of the century: An Essay on Criticism. provided Pope with a fitting vehicle, because of their highly stylized form, through which to hone his craft. He took acknowledged pastoral tropes, including the lover’s complaint, a song contest, an elegy, and moved them from the classical world to the banks of the Thames in early 18th th Century England. 

An Essay on Criticism, published in 1711 though perhaps begun as early as 1705 (when Pope was just 17!), is a didactic poem written in Pope’s trademark heroic couplets. The mode is straight from the pages of Horace in “Imitation of the ancients”. It was written with the intention of rarefying the poet’s, indeed any would be poet’s, dual roles as writer and critic. The poem directly addresses the age-old argument concerning whether poetry should be “natural” or instead follow the “artificial” modes and rules of prosody bequeathed from its classical models. Pope extols the ascendency of the classical poets whilst allowing his argument plenty of room to manoeuvre by ratiocinating that the rules of classical poetry are the same rules of nature; art is a mirror to natural law. A deliberate ambiguity is built in: rules may be essential but so are certain other abstract qualities of nature – the “Nameless Graces”, “Lucky License”, and even “Happiness”. “Taste”, whatever that may be, is required to transcend the boundaries of form. Only he with a poetic genius can acquire such “taste”. Thus Pope’s argument takes on a touch of the Cartesian: art, if it is “True Art”, must ape Nature. Nature welcomes aberrations and possesses jaggedness in its form. Nature is created by God. The irregularities that Nature encourages of a divine order which man can never understand. God alone can understand the consonance of Nature but a critic, if in possession of poetic genius, can appreciate its reverberations. Due to the fact that man’s intellect must be finite when compared to God’s, rules, garnered from classical examples, are essential guides. This is not to say, however, that a poet must be dependent on them:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learned to dance

For Pope, a poet is made not born, and if made, made by study of the classics. Poetic genius is not an inherent endowment. Such is the message of the famous couplet:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;

Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring

Pope’s most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, again written in his signature heroic couplets, was published in 1712 then revised and expanded two years later. It is widely regarded as the best example of mock-epic in the English language as well as the keystone in Pope’s canon. Based upon the real life events relayed to Pope by a mutual friend of the characters, the poem is a satirical denunciation of the vanity and conceitedness of the 18th Century’s beau-monde.

Epic poetry is arguably the most serious of all poetic modes. It is the home of grand and elevated themes and subject-matter such as war, love, death, the foundation of civilzation, and religious faith. By penning a mock-epic it is important to remember that Pope, while not treating the form as sacrosanct, was also not belittling it. The mockery is not aimed at the mode but at the Augustan society, that in the poet’s eyes was failing to live up to the standards warranted by an epic. The juxtaposition of a lofty form against the picayune frivolities of a self-inflated society creates a jarringly grandiose effect. The failings and trivial obsessions are exposed when treated as epic subjects. Pope’s message is clear: high society has lost all sense of what is truly important.

The title of the poem is the first clue to Pope’s satirical methods: the rape of Helen is being replaced by the theft of a lock of hair as the play’s narrative catalyst. The Iliad is not the only weapon in the poet’s arsenal, however; Pope’s exhaustive comparisons, filling every possible moment of each scene, are taken from a great selection of classical literature, Greek and Roman. Aeneas’ voyage along the Tiber becomes Belinda travelling up the Thames; the livery and armour of war is swapped for women’s clothes, jewellery and make-up; grand battles are now gambling bouts and lovers’ naggings; the famous ekphrasis of Achilles’ shield is transported to Belinda’s petticoats; the pantheon of gods have become no more than impotent sylphs; religious offerings and sacrifice are transposed to the bedrooms and dressing chambers. Invocations and lamentations still occur but over trivial matters of decorum rather than tragic moments of anguish. As Belinda attempts to grab back her stolen lock it flies into the air and immediately turns into a star.

The instance of the eponymous crime is presented thus:

The Peer now spreads the glittering Forfex wide,

T' inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.

Ev'n then, before the fatal Engine clos'd,

A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos'd;

Fate urged the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,

(But Airy Substance soon unites again)

The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever

From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!

Imagery usually reserved for the fields of war has been squandered on the blades of a pair of ladies’ scissors coming together. Pope creates a majestic ridiculousness and exposed the rotten core of his age.

In a surprising twist the intentions of Pope’s mock-heroic poem is very similar to its classical ancestor the epic. The Rape of the Lock concerns itself with the serious issue of morality, a worthy theme indeed; it is, however, the fact that society’s standards have fallen so drastically since the ancient empires fell that a very different approach, that of satire, is necessary. Pope successful revisited this method in his later masterpiece The Dunciad (1728) and its expansions and sequels (1729, 1743). These satires recounted the progress of the goddess Dulness over the earth and with it the enslaught of stupidity and tastelessness. This coming was treated analogously to the founding of Rome and beginnings of Roman Civilzation in Virgil’s Aeneid. 

The greatest labour of Pope’s life, and his obsession since childhood, was his verse translations of Homer; the first four books of the Iliad we published in 1715, the complete poem not being available until a six volume edition was printed in 1720. The Odyssey, a co-authored project with William Broome, was similarly published in separate volumes during 1725 and 1726. The hard work paid off and Pope earned around £10,000 for his translations allowing him to “…live and thrive / Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive.”, thanks solely to Homer.

The achievement of Pope’s version of the epics was neither in the accuracy of the translation nor the recreation of the originals’ essence. Instead, via Homer,Pope managed to capture the Augustan zeitgeist. John Everett Butt succinctly sums up the odd achievement: Pope created a translation “Virgilian in its dignity, moral purpose, and pictorial splendour, yet one that consistently kept Homer in view and alluded to him throughout. Pope offered his readers the Iliad and the Odyssey as he felt sure Homer would have written them had he lived in early 18th-century England”.

Dr Johnson described this feat as "a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal", though the scholar Richard Bentley sniped: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer."

Though this essay has been something of a whistle-stop tour through Alexander Pope’s life and works, stopping but fleetingly to catch glances a few select instances of classical references, I hope that it goes some way to achieving its aim of providing a short introduction to a very multifaceted subject.