Formidable Miniature

Alexander Pope: The Education of Genius 1688-1728

by Peter Quennell
Stein and Day, 278 pp., $7.95

Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope; drawing by David Levine

Mr. Quennell’s biographical studies in the Regency and eighteenth century are known for their feeling for the elegant and bizarre, but not for this quality alone. His Byron, his essays on Boswell, Hogarth, and Gibbon, and particularly on Sterne, show an historian’s care, a moralist’s curiosity about human nature but, above all, a searching interest in the crystallization of each artist’s imagination; and, like pretty well everyone since Lytton Strachey, he is indifferent to the denigration of everything in the eighteenth century by the Romantics of the headstrong Victorian Age.

He could not have chosen a better subject for an exhaustive biography than Pope, who in urbanizing God, Man and Nature, and the primitive heroes of Homer, in docketing the passions and cataloguing the sewage—with all the zest of a rational mind—is one of the opening century’s representative men. The present volume takes up the first forty years of Pope’s life, to The Dunciad, when Pope, the relatively benign sylph, turned finally into Pope the screeching and wretched little dwarf of the caricatures. In this first volume he is still, mostly, the little prince. To write such a life justly is a huge task not only because of the continuing dispute about the poet’s monotonous brilliance, but because Pope’s acquaintance runs into the whole of aristocratic, political, social, and intellectual England; and to bring these people to meaningful life, as Mr. Quennell does, without hamming and gingering up the merely picturesque, is an achievement. He watches closely the poet’s growth, is excellent on the poetry itself, and approaches his prickly character with curiosity and compassion.

Two things mainly strike us about eighteenth-century England now that the histrionic Victorians no longer block the view. The first is that its leaders and writers were in rebellion against the metaphysical poets and were anxious for settlement, in soul and body, after the period of civil and religious strife. They were inventing pragmatism, polishing up a new conformity. They succeeded in their trite, orthodox, and practical way in establishing a society fit for Mr. Worldly Wiseman to live in. They replanned his towns, they reformed his manners, and paid for it all out of the new wealth of the growing mercantile interest. Pope records the new affluent society in his discussion of the Use of Riches in the Moral Essays. It is typical that the essay discusses:

B. What nature wants, commodious Gold bestows,

Tis thus we eat the bread another sows.

But how unequal it bestows, observe,

‘Tis thus we riot while, who sow it, starve.

What Nature wants (a phrase I much distrust)

Extends to Luxury, extends to Lust…..

B. Trade it may help, Society extend.

P. But lures the Pirate, and corrupts the Friend.

B. It raises armies in a Nation’s Aid

P. But bribes a Senate, and the Land’s betrayed.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.