Alexander Pope: A Life
by Maynard Mack
Norton, 975 pp., $22.50
Pope and Horace: Studies in Imitation
by Frank Stack
Cambridge University Press, 316 pp., $39.50
In almost two years, on May 21, 1988, we will arrive at the three hundredth anniversary of Alexander Pope’s birth. Major public manifestations are not to be expected. Pope is a classic of our literature, but he is of that numerous group that one could call shelf-classics. His books are in the research libraries, his poetry is analyzed in graduate seminars; college students as they run the annual obstacle course from Beowulf to Thomas Hardy make brief acquaintance with The Rape of the Lock. But a spontaneous, widespread, popular readership Pope has not had for a matter of centuries now, and does not have today. It is hard to imagine the extent to which in his own day he dominated the literary scene.
Some of the reasons for his remoteness are obvious. Pope lived and wrote the other side of that gigantic watershed of about 1750, from which rose the Romantic movement; despite repeated efforts to escape them, many of the presuppositions of that movement are still with us, and they cannot help making the “correct” style of Pope appear deliberately hard and dry. When Matthew Arnold put down Pope and Dryden as “classics of our prose,” he meant simply that they were not poets of the sort that English readers for a century or so had got used to. On another level entirely, Pope is difficult of access today because he was in good part a social poet, deeply involved in the life of his time. As with Dryden, his satiric verse commented in intimate detail on political events and personalities about whom few modern readers either know or care. The rights and wrongs of the Popish Plot, the deeds and misdeeds of Lord John Hervey, are only to be approached nowadays through a cheval-defrise of footnotes; and who is to say the unprofessional reader is wrong when he decides simply not to bother?
Thus Pope has become largely the province of professionals, for whom those difficulties that deter the amateur reader are active incitements to exploration. Books explaining the allusions and innuendos, showing the point of parodies and parallels, and restoring the zest of faded ironies have appeared in profusion over the last half-century; and naturally those who invested most effort in understanding Pope were most ready to proclaim that he is worth understanding—that he is not only a poet, but one of the supreme poets in English.
Such a contrast, between general apathy and extreme enthusiasm, only perpetuates an extraordinary division about the merits of Pope as a man and a poet that existed from his very early years. The object of many vitriolic hatreds, he also rejoiced in many warm and intimate friendships; his poetry was acclaimed to the skies and denounced to the pit. He was praised as a moralist and abused as a lying hypocrite. The passage of years has reduced the active hostility to general indifference; but the enthusiasts for Pope, though a minority, continue to make high claims for him …