The Powers of Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England

by Morris R. Brownell
Oxford University Press, 401 pp., $38.50

Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope; drawing by David Levine

Near the source of Alexander Pope’s work is an anxiety understandable when we consider his health and religion. As a Roman Catholic in a Protestant nation, Pope suffered maddening penalties. He could not attend a university or hold a civil office. He paid double the normal tax on land, and the law forbade him to reside within ten miles of London. All Roman Catholics were exposed to charges of conspiring against the government.

But Pope’s worst affliction was tuberculosis of the spine, which gave him rickets and a progressive, lopsided curvature of the back. It made him grotesquely short and gradually weakened his thin limbs. It produced much languor, a susceptibility to bad colds, and other painful or unpleasant symptoms which worsened as he aged. Pope had to wear a stiff corset, warm clothes, and (over the skinny legs) three pairs of stockings. Normal sexual relations were out of the question.

Frail, vulnerable, and (in effect) impotent, Pope had a natural desire for the security of well-placed friends. One of the mainsprings of his imagination was the need to protect himself. Still he was conscious of his genius and longed for fame. He yearned to exercise heroic power through the gift of poetry.

To gain the recognition he wanted, Pope had to mask many emotions. As an adolescent, he began a career of seeking out men of talent, rank, or power, winning their friendship, and making them serve him. To do so, he learned to charm them with tact and wit, paying careful compliments and accommodating himself to the moods of the mighty.

Not only in his poems but also in his letters and conversation, Pope systematically maintained careful representations of himself that would uphold an appearance of strength, independence, and natural benevolence, all in keeping with the doctrines he recommended in verse. What records we have of his conversation suggest that he hoped his sentiments would be repeated. The rhetoric of his most familiar letters continually sounds like that of a senator emitting platitudes for his own obituary:

I thank God that as for myself, I am below all the accidents of state changes by my circumstances, and above them by my philosophy. Good will to all, are the points I have most at heart….

A second reader—Posterity—generally looked over the poet’s epistolary shoulder.

I assume that such constraints, added to those of health and religion, nourished a deep resentfulness which compounded the original anxiety. The poetic instinct bent itself to please those whom Pope needed, while the very impulse to create started from subterranean discomfort. Words are the common resource of those who cannot act, but Pope’s words had many duties. They vented painful emotions which the poet dared not express simply. They conveyed an air of assurance to cloak a fundamental unease. They made up for a lack of sexual authority. They rewarded friends and…

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