Poets: Alexander Pope

[Note to readers: additional Saturday features will also be appearing, which may mean multiple posts on a Saturday. Don’t be alarmed — this is normal! Thanks to additional contributions we’ll be featuring not just poetry / short fiction / review of art history but also now renovated original myths. By original, I mean in the sense of “from the origin” – the stories as told before the modern or progressive era.] 

Having had another trip into the modern era, we’re back in the pre-modern era, to a poet roughly contemporary to the well-known Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson – Alexander Pope. If you’ve heard a list of English poets, it’s likely Pope was on the list with other notables such as Keats, Coleridge, Donne, Shakespeare, and so on. You can find an overview of Pope’s life here.

We find in Pope’s life a similar theme to pretty much every other English poet who came from a middle-class background; that is, proximity to London. Being in London allowed a young Pope to make connections and get his work published, as well as get the business he needed to pay his bills – namely, the translation of ancient but influential texts into then-contemporary English. One unappreciated point is that as the influence of poetry waned in later times, so did the value of contemporary translations of ancient poetic works – a change most notably felt in the transition away from monarchy to rule by business interests, a process that was more gradual in England than say, in France, or the United States.

This would make a Pope impossible in later times, but also a number of other poets who were well versed in other languages made some of their living translating poetry. Since poetry rarely translates directly between languages, what is necessary is a person to in fact re-write the poetry (if even possible) in the contemporary language; this is clearly the job of both someone skilled in the language(s) in question, as well as in poetry itself.

Another point is that Pope himself was never very well in health; he was disfigured as a result of illnesses in his youth and never was taller than 5 feet. Despite this, however, he lived quite long and it is believed that one of his long-time female friends was also his lover; this seems plausible in that although Pope was physically ‘small’, reading his works one would never have guessed it.

In addition to this, as a Catholic, he was forbidden from doing a lot of things publicly, holding office, attending school — though not enforced as rigorously as one might expect, nonetheless combined with his ill health, Pope would have been relatively reclusive. Reclusiveness is often poetically associated with the work of being a poet – and for Pope’s part it appears that his physical problems would have prevented him from engaging in a more active vocation. This however did not stop him from making connections and taking on work; as with the “hermitage” of Thoreau, once associated with a society, reclusiveness was incapable of fully cutting these men off from it. [Editor’s note: Pope received last rites on his deathbed and had a Catholic burial.]

Pope is a good transitional figure for a number of subjects, since his English is close to ours we get to see a glimpse of these subjects in a more comprehensible form. An example from one his works (Windsor Forest):

Not proud Olympus yields a nobler sight,
Tho’ Gods assembled grace his tow’ring height,
Than what more humble mountains offer here,
Where, in their blessings, all those Gods appear.
See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crown’d,
Here blushing Flora paints th’ enamell’d ground,
Here Ceres’ gifts in waving prospect stand,
And nodding tempt the joyful reaper’s hand;

A glimpse into the analogic machinery of the post-renaissance mind; “where in their blessings, all these Gods appear.” Similar in vein to how Mencius Moldbug wrote:

It is also a well-defined and cogent statement to say that Lawrence Auster is a servant of God.  One can serve without orders.  Larry doesn’t need God’s cell-phone number to serve God, and nor for that matter does the Pope.  When we say “God,” we know what we mean – it is a shorthand for the superhuman and perfect, for infinite wisdom and intelligence, just as the character of Hamlet is a shorthand for a mercurial and hesitating character.  What, pray tell me, is the Flying Spaghetti Monster a shorthand for?

And so it is with the Gods in these poets – strong representations or shorthands for ideals, or in this case, specifically the material blessings the gods were associated with. (As for the ancient poets, it’s another subject, but I think it is safe to say this is a consistent difference between antique and post-renaissance poetry.) The line between the ‘mere idea’ or ‘mere symbol’ and its reality are not totally clear, and are not intended to be.

Nearly all of Pope’s poetry is written in what is called “Heroic Couplets” – though these are intended to be strictly iambic pentameter, in effect Pope’s poetry consists of pairs of ten-syllable lines, and in the example above the lines consistently end with the proper iambic “foot” (a strong syllable;) however, you will notice that the natural speech pattern does not always match the strict alternation, which is often part of the ‘trick’ of how iambic pentameter seems like speech – in that it holds together even when the internal stresses are not spoken strictly. It’s possible that the form itself relies mainly on the regular length of the line (spoken) combined with consistent endings; notice the lines

See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crown’d,
Here blushing Flora paints th’ enamell’d ground,

Spoken alone, the second line would obviously place stress on “HERE” as with the line following:

Here Ceres’ gifts in waving prospect stand,

But spoken in the form quickly (and perhaps, heroically) the syllables fall roughly into place, though not so much as to feel rigid like a typewriter.

Most of Pope’s most famous works are long (Rape of the Lock, His Essays on Criticism [clearly inspired in part by Horace’s Ars Poetica], Dunciad, Moral Essays and Essay on Man are all quite long) which is a reason, I think, many of our contemporary readers would never have given him a read. It’s at least my impression that although the desire to write long poems has never dulled, the desire to read them surely ebbs; and so most of us would start in on one of those works and find them more like reading a book or an essay in verse, than reading a poem.

However, if you do get the chance to flip through this collection of his complete works (not necessary to read it from start to finish at first) you’ll run into a large number of medium and short poems, some of this sort:

A Dialogue

SINCE my old friend is grown so great,
As to be Minister of State,
I ’m told, but ’t is not true, I hope,
That Craggs will be ashamed of Pope.

Alas! if I am such a creature,
To grow the worse for growing greater,
Why, faith, in spite of all my brags,
’T is Pope must be ashamed of Craggs.

It has been remarked elsewhere that there is a difference between strictly poetic forms and poetic content; for example that Pope’s satires were often prose transformed into verse. The heroic couplets in particular can be very easy in terms of construction, making it rather simple to adapt many different texts to the verses. In such a case, the verses serve to make the work easier to remember and in the case of a satire, give it a song-like style that can enhance the satirical effect. You will notice with a number of the longer works. other than breaks for major sections, there is not a whole lot of visible internal structure to the poems; their breaks are far more reminiscent of paragraph-breaks than stanzas.

Nonetheless, in addition to a lot of shorter works (and some songs that clearly have stanza form) even the long poems do contain a lot of genuine poetry; things which if you attempted to write them in prose, would seem terribly strange indeed. Here is a peculiar example, which in addition to being satirical is also genuinely poetical. There are also a number of two-liners, like this:

The Curll Miscellanies
VII. Epigram: An Empty House

YOU beat your Pate, and fancy Wit will come:
Knock as you please, there ’s nobody at home

And of course:

On Certain Ladies

WHEN other fair ones to the shades go down,
Still Chloe, Flavia, Delia, stay in town:
Those ghosts of beauty wand’ring here reside,
And haunt the places where their honour died.

You’ll also notice some bracketed names – while I do not know when the practice went out of style, there was a tendency to write someone’s name, who was the subject of a poem (it seems, mainly of ridicule) as [first letter] —– with enough dashes for the rest of the first or last name(s). I believe those who compiled the work, where they could discern the target of the jest, have now helpfully filled in the blanks for us.

Entire separate articles could be written on each of Pope’s major works, which I won’t devote much time to here. A lot of ink seems to have been spilled to try to determine his political or religious orientation; but to the modern reader a lot of his speculations and beliefs regarding man and the world will seem rather conservative and devout, though compared to the rigidity of the more puritanical strains of English religion, he could be described as “rationalistic and pandeistic”. (I am loath to consider how I would have fared.)

In any case, the linked set (Complete Works on Bartleby) seems to contain all of his works in nicely formatted HTML — a rare pleasure in this age, for sure. It contains all sorts of things ranging from Epitaphs for people famous at the time, to translations of Ovid, Chaucer and Horace. Most of it comes out as rather light reading, though there may be a few words you’ll need to look up (i.e. lists, lays & so on.)

Lastly, one of his ‘earliest’ works (there is some doubt as to whether he was antedating some of these) is one of the most interesting, that is, his Discourse on Pastoral Poetry. The four poems attached are quite good in their way, and his description of the “idea” behind Pastoral poetry seems very apt and precise:

If we would copy nature, it may be useful to take this idea along with us, that Pastoral is an image of what they call the golden age: so that we are not to describe our shepherds as shepherds at this day really are, but as they may be conceived then to have been, when the best of men followed the employment. To carry this resemblance yet further, it would not be amiss to give these shepherds some skill in astronomy, as far as it may be useful to that sort of life; and an air of piety to the gods should shine through the poem, which so visibly appears in all the works of antiquity; and it ought to preserve some relish of the old way of writing: the connection should be loose, the narrations and descriptions short,  and the periods concise. Yet it is not sufficient that the sentences only be brief; the whole eclogue should be so too: for we cannot suppose poetry in those days to have been the business of men, but their recreation at vacant hours.

To be quite frank, it was the first set of Pastorals that I actually liked; and here we see an interesting meta-political point about Pastoral poetry, that is, it is poetry about our prehistorical ancestors, who were keepers of flocks (whether sheep or other cattle) – that group of people who according to our present legends at various times conquered a lot of the kingdoms of the world and perhaps indeed were responsible for making them “kingdoms” at all.

But see, Orion sheds unwholesome dews;
Arise, the pines a noxious shade diffuse;
Sharp Boreas blows, and Nature feels decay,
Time conquers all, and we must Time obey.
Adieu, ye vales, ye mountains, streams, and groves;
Adieu, ye shepherds’ rural lays and loves;
Adieu, my flocks; farewell, ye sylvan crew;
Daphne, farewell; and all the world adieu!

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