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 punished enemies.

Pope devised methods of attracting and reassuring those who might be hostile to his brilliance and yet of challenging subtle readers by offering them dangerous thoughts. Wit and irony are known ways of accomplishing these ends, and good critics have examined Pope’s use of them. He found other ways as well, which are less familiar; and some of them emerge from the new books on Pope by Dustin H. Griffin and Morris R. Brownell.

If we agree that sex and religion are themes inviting indirection, we may also agree that religion, for Pope, was too risky a subject to experiment with. He did venture on opinions that might trouble his co-religionists, especially a tolerance of non-Catholic positions. He blamed great ecclesiastics for timeserving, avarice, and power-hunger. But he did not indulge in satire on allegedly false doctrines, as Dryden and Swift had done. In The Messiah and An Essay on Man, Pope tried, explicitly and implicitly, to avoid controversy.

Sexual themes were treacherous too. The poet’s obvious incapacity drove him to adopt conventional poses for fear of becoming too easy a target of ridicule. Whether he used a rake or a moralist as his mouthpiece, he could hardly afford to sound innovative. But if sexual themes particularly excite word-play, they must have exerted a special charm upon a poet. Pope felt the charm, and characteristically offered both conformist and subversive treatments of those themes.

The association of sexuality with creative power is inevitable. Keeping this linkage in mind, one must notice Pope’s tendency to maintain it and yet to separate the imagery of conception from that of sexual intercourse. He liked to refer to his works as progeny and to the muse as a wife, but not to love-making between the creative pair.

So one may speculate about the scenes of grotesque fantasy that break out in Pope’s best work. Underground, cavernous, and obstetric images, tinged with sexuality, suggest that literary parenthood compensated the poet for the loss of voluptuous pleasure. Pope designed extremely coherent masterpieces around heroines deprived of normal sexual relations: Eloisa to Abelard, Elegy to…an Unfortunate Lady, The Rape of the Lock, An Epistle to a Lady (“Of the Characters of Women”). Even Dulness, in The Dunciad, is an unmarried or parthenogenetic mother. Yet Pope produced no episode of admirable and fulfilled passion.


Two of his most polished works deal sympathetically with women penalized for subversive lust. In Eloisa to Abelard the lover has been castrated and the mistress consigned to a nunnery. In the Elegy to…an Unfortunate Lady a noble heiress has stabbed herself after eloping to a foreign country with a lover whom her guardian uncle had rejected. In both these poems the author encourages us to sympathize with the lawbreaker: “Is it, in heav’n, a crime to love too well?” he asks.

In An Epistle to a Lady the poet compliments his spinster friend Martha Blount (whom he fleetingly endows with a mythical husband and daughter) by opposing her to a series of corrupt, passionate mistresses or wives. In The Rape of the Lock the male figures are ridiculed and defeated, while the females remain unsatisfied.

Against this pattern it seems significant that the scenes of grotesque fantasy depend on images of unpleasant confusion and procreation. I am thinking of the Cave of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock, the Cave of Poverty and Poetry in Book One of The Dunciad, the bowers of the mud nymphs in Book Two of The Dunciad, and similar material.

Spleen of course means melancholy; and in the seventeenth century it was commonplace to regard melancholy as the “balm of wit” and the “breath of poetry.” When the gnome Umbriel descends to the Cave of Spleen, he is visiting a spring of creative imagination. Here Spleen herself is a goddess who can inspire the “poetic fit.” Although the details of this allegorical cave are traditional, Pope colors them with phallic and erotic lights, with hints of perverse coition and gestation. We get a linking of creativity with displaced sexuality and pain:

Men prove with child, as pow’rful fancy works,
And maids turn’d bottles, call
   aloud for corks.

In Book Three of The Dunciad we meet the laureate Cibber lying with his head in the lap of the goddess Dulness while a dark, soporific dew falls and “raptures” overflow—a titillating scene. Later in Book Three another genius of false imagination appears—John Rich, producer of pantomimes. Now Pope brings in imagery of miraculous transformations of the universe echoing the representation of Christ in The Messiah, and suggesting genesis and doomsday at once. The chaos reaches its climax with an egg from which the human race is hatched. So again the work of creative imagination carries hints of asexual conception or parthenogenesis.

Pope gives several distinct representations of the poetic character. The most familiar is the public idealization of an uncorrupt spokesman for patriotic and social virtue. With such a character Pope liked to identify his own career. Yet implicitly this ideal public figure belittles another, viz. the inspired artist celebrated by Horace and echoed by Pope in his Epistle to Augustus:

‘Tis he, who gives my breast a thousand pains,
Can make me feel each passion that he feigns,
Inrage, compose, with more than magic art,
With pity, and with terror, tear my heart.

Here “poet” obviously means seductive playwright and manipulator of emotions rather than didactic satirist.

But there is yet another figure, for which Pope has contempt, and which he embodies in the persons of failed or inept authors. This is the one that attracts his greatest energy, his most imaginative language. Therefore, although it alludes normally to writers whom Pope disliked, one suspects that it also reflects Pope’s doubts about his own status. He might be a uniquely gifted poet; but if one puts aside traditional hyperboles, what did the laurel crown amount to?

We have to notice how often Pope connects the act of composition with pain, confusion, misshapen birth and growth, delusive transformation. In such scenes we do not meet orderliness, truth, the dignity of art, and the securing of reality. We meet chaos, monsterhood, illusion: “the chaos dark and deep, / Where nameless somethings in their causes sleep” (Dunciad I, 55-56). We meet contempt for the makers of verse: “Pensive poets painful vigils keep, / Sleepless themselves, to give their readers sleep” (Dunciad I, 93-94). Attacking the decay of humanistic education, Pope ridicules the standard practice of training schoolboys to compose Latin verses: “We hang one jingling padlock on the mind: / A poet the first day, he dips his quill; / And what the last? a very poet still” (Dunciad IV, 162-164).


These examples are from the last years of Pope’s career and deal with bad poetry, not good. In his earliest work, we meet similar passages:

Still run on poets in a raging vein,
Ev’n to the dregs and squeezings of the brain;
Strain out the last, dull droppings of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of im- potence!
—Essay on Criticism, 11.606-609

This linking of composition to a hard stool and sexual failure also belongs to an attack on bad writing. But the images have too much power to rest in the boundaries of explicit meaning.

When Pope refers directly to his own vocation as an author, he writes, “I’ve had my purgatory here betimes, / And paid for all my satires, all my rhymes” (Donne IV, 5-6). It was only half-jokingly that he once said of the poetic enterprise, “Must not one be prepared to endure the reproaches of men, want, and much fasting, nay martyrdom in its cause.” Voluptuous pleasure and the art of writing well, “lastingly well, immortally well,” are irreconcilably opposed to each other.

If one sets aside the associations with authorship, unsublimated sexuality takes one along a more direct road, but not to marriage, parenthood, and stability. In The Rape of the Lock, disorderly lust glances at us from the first couplet; and it pounds on us in the final canto. “Die” for sexual climax, “thing” for vagina, “hair” displaced from the groin to the head, all remind one that the proper study of nubile females is men.

“What dire offence from am’rous causes springs, / What mighty quarrels rise from trivial things, / I sing,” says Pope as he begins a story connecting love with theft and war. The couplet sounds plain enough until we hear an echo of Horace joining the same themes and calling the vagina (or lust) a shameful cause-of war (cunnus taeterrima belli / causa—Sat. I. iii. 107). Once we remember that Pope would translate “cunnus” as “thing,” the language of decorum becomes a screen for impropriety.

In Canto Five of The Rape of the Lock, the battle of the sexes takes a more liberal form; and when Belinda defeats the Baron with a pinch of snuff, he declares,

Thou by some other shalt be laid as low.
Nor think, to die dejects my lofty mind;
All that I dread, is leaving you behind!

Here the poet openly and not very delicately sympathizes with the natural impulse of young blood. So also in the early cantos of The Rape of the Lock, Pope celebrates Belinda’s delight in her own beauty:

Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms,
Repairs her smiles, awakens ev’ry grace,
And calls forth all the wonders of her face.

The sylphs—spirits whose function it is to guard Belinda’s visible charms—are depicted with easy (if smiling) approval. Their humble office is to “tend the fair”; so long as Belinda refrains from matrimony, they shield the elements of her beauty—

To save the powder from too rude a gale,
Nor let th’imprison’d essences ex- hale,
To draw fresh colors from the ver- nal flow’rs,
To steal from rainbows ere they drop in show’rs
A brighter wash; to curl their wav- ing hairs,
Assist their blushes, and inspire their airs;
Nay oft, in dreams, invention we bestow,
To change a flounce, or add a

Belinda makes us live among changing appearances, unfixed emotions, fascinating discords, elegant but furious rivalries, stylized and comic wars. There is nothing placid, domestic, or parental about The Rape of the Lock. Its few snatches of security only prepare us for long passages of delightful uneasiness.

Yet in some masterful lines of elevated reasoning, one of Belinda’s friends, named Clarissa, warns her of the transience of voluptuous pleasure and of beauty. She reminds us that courtship ought to fix its goal on marriage and motherhood:

Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;
What then remains, but well our pow’r to use,
And keep good humor still whate’er we lose?

This is sane as well as eloquent. Only, as it happens, when the Baron wished to snip off the lock of Belinda’s hair, it was the same Clarissa who passed him the scissors.

Transcending sexuality, the poet is left with one of the conceptions of his art. The preoccupation of the poem with time and change heightens the brief joy in youthful ardor but implies that creative imagination alone can triumph over age and death. Elsewhere, Pope will question this power, but at the end of The Rape of the Lock it triumphs.

Yet once more reworking the tired pun on “die,” once more identifying the eye of beauty with the eye of heaven, Pope brings nature and art together as he immortalizes the maiden whom he cannot enjoy. Here we meet that ideal of the poet as artist which enabled Pope to soar above his private self-disgust and his public role as satiric moralist; in a prophecy that has come true, he offers Belinda the prize that he alone can grant:

For, after all the murders of your eye,
When, after millions slain, your self shall die;
When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust;
This lock, the muse shall consecrate to fame,
And mid’st the stars inscribe Belin- da’s name!

As if to strengthen the concept of himself as a potent creator, Pope sometimes merged the literary imagination with that of the painter, sculptor, architect, musician, and landscape gardener. This notion of a single esemplastic power expressing itself in various materials is commonplace today. We blend it with the idea of the artist as responsive critic, enjoying the works of others while he creates his own. In this sense we may speak of an integrated aesthetic sensibility.

But such a sensibility is by no means universal among great writers. Swift, Johnson, Frost, and Faulkner lack it as conspicuously as Dryden, Pope, Proust, and Stevens possess it. How valid the principle is in fact remains a subject for speculation. Certainly, Pope, for all his eagerness to join forces with nonliterary genius, never approached Proust in his penetration of other arts.

Dustin Griffin, in Alexander Pope: The Poet in the Poems, explores several of the themes I have been touching; and my own remarks sometimes echo his discussions. Griffin studies the ways in which Pope appears or is felt as a character in his works. He shows how the poet’s view of his own personality gives depth and life to the verse.

Griffin’s accomplishment is uneven. The weakest element in the work seems a confusion between two approaches. One is the contrast or parallel between Pope’s inner nature and his public self-portrait. The other is the analysis of the various poses which Pope took up in order to strengthen the character he set before his readers. The first approach often becomes a mechanical exercise.

After acknowledging that the familiar letters are as much deliberate constructions as the poems, what (I wonder) does Griffin establish by saying, of An Essay on Man, “Pope’s analysis corresponds closely with his own view of himself in his correspondence”? In spite of his knowledge, Griffin keeps writing as if the letters revealed the true Alexander Pope.

While he distinguishes among the several attitudes that Pope enjoyed assuming, Griffin makes the error of suggesting that a change of position implies a regrettable inconsistency. So he produces unreal self-contradictions which he then tries speciously to resolve, such as the lover of privacy against the public figure, or the man against the poet.

But only in fictions do characters remain one of these things or the other. It is a mark of humanity and indeed of health to react from self-service to public benevolence, from contemplation to partisanship, from diffidence to confidence. Griffin sounds not only misguided but condescending when he speaks of Pope as achieving “a measure of self-integration”; and I am troubled to hear such simplicity carried to the point of obfuscation in statements like, “Pope made poetry out of the moments of integration and the moments of chaos or inconsistency.”

So also the search for the poet’s presence in his works often leads to uninformative generalizations. I’m not sure what one learns on being told that Pope makes his presence felt in The Dunciad by the energy and inventiveness of his imagination. Still less seems to emerge when Griffin says that the poem reveals the author’s characteristic preoccupations.

But the accomplishment of the book is genuine. Griffin argues persuasively and subtly that in handling the character of Thersites in the Iliad, Pope half-consciously alluded to himself. He shows how, in An Essay on Man, the poet’s self-characterization dramatizes the polarities of the world’s order and man’s puzzling mystery. He analyzes Pope’s fascination with the “dark and attractive / repulsive eroticized underworld” of the poet’s creative genius.

Above all, Griffin demonstrates the depth of self-reference in Pope’s character of Sporus. This is one of the best known, most brilliant passages of English poetry written between 1660 and 1790. The verses constitute an annihilation of the person of Lord Hervey, a courtier of the reign of George II and a favorite of Queen Caroline.

In destroying Hervey’s reputation, Pope felt he was exposing the corruption of the entire royal court and of the king’s prime minister, Robert Walpole. Through the whip-cracking rhythms of his climax, Pope ridicules the victim’s well-known bisexuality and compares him to Satan, while giving the queen the part of Eve. (“Parts” refers primarily to intellectual talents; “wit” to literary gifts, here degraded to flattery; “toilet” is the dressing table; “board” is the dinner table.)

Amphibious thing! that acting either part.
The trifling head, or the corrupted heart!
Fop at the toilet, flatt’rer at the board,
Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord.
Eve’s tempter thus the rabbins have exprest,
A cherub’s face, a reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust.

In the most startling and acute pages of his book Griffin shows that crucial details of this portrait may be found in attacks written against Pope himself, and that the poet consciously or unconsciously, was exorcising doubts about his own nature in the denunciation of Hervey’s.

A work of greater learning than Griffin’s and of fundamental value is Morris Brownell’s Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England. Mainly this is a gathering of all the evidence of Pope’s concern with nonliterary arts: painting, gardening, architecture, sculpture, music. Of Pope’s response to music there is small evidence. All Brownell can do is to deny that the poet failed to appreciate the art. In sculpture, although Pope posed for busts of himself, he attempted little as a critic. Brownell makes much of Pope’s attention to commemorative monuments. But it was mainly the inscriptions that fascinated him; and here he showed excellent taste, preferring pointed, dignified, epigrammatic utterance:

Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

Architecture occupied Pope mainly as a division of gardening. Otherwise, he was content to follow the lead of his friend Lord Burlington and promote the movement to make Palladio’s designs and the work of Inigo Jones the models for English buildings. His own house at Twickenham was distinctly Palladian. Yet, as Brownell points out, this taste did not keep Pope from enjoying other styles, including Gothic irregularity. He delighted in the medieval jumble of Stanton Harcourt.

Apart from gardening, the art that meant most to Pope was painting. Brownell draws on W.K. Wimsatt’s copious study of the portraits of Pope, and he brings together data from the letters, the conversations with Joseph Spence, Maynard Mack’s The Garden and the City, and other sources. Not only was Pope often the subject of influential paintings, but he studied the art, practiced connoisseurship, and made friends of men like Jervas, Kneller, and Jonathan Richardson.

Brownell applies his information judiciously to the analysis of poems in which metaphors from painting are important. The results, especially for the translation of Homer and An Epistle to a Lady (“Of the Characters of Women”) really illuminate Pope’s genius. If I have a caveat, it is only that in his concentration on Pope’s patterns of light and dark, color and line, Brownell ignores the patterns of sound that support the design. In the following passage, for example, the long i’s and a’s break out with the brilliant lighting of the unclouded landscape:

So when thick clouds inwrap the mountain’s head,
O’er heav’ns expanse like one black cieling spread;
Sudden, the Thund’rer, with a flashing ray,
Bursts thro’ the darkness, and lets down the day:
The hills shine out, the rocks in prospect rise,
And streams, and vales, and forests strike the eyes,
The smiling scene wide opens to the sight,
And all th’unmeasur’d aether flames with light.

With landscape gardening—the subject of half the book—matters of controversy obtrude themselves. Here, as in general, Brownell provides a compendious view of the state of the art and sets the contribution of the poet against this survey. He assembles an impressive cumulation of relevant facts, orders them clearly, and enriches them with useful and often handsome illustrations. He gives us abundant evidence to judge for ourselves.

Yet the tendency of his argument remains less persuasive than he wants it to be. Brownell claims that Pope was a pioneer in the art of landscape gardening, that he promoted the “picturesque” style, and that he strongly influenced leaders of taste by his example and advice.

A primary difficulty is our ignorance of the famous garden that Pope labored on at Twickenham. His house stood on a piece of ground fronting the Thames and backing on the London road. Behind, and across the road, lay the garden, which Pope reached by a splendid grotto tunneled under the building.

Among the facts established by Brownell is the great number of pictures made of Pope’s villa. He suggests that the long list indicates the influence of the poet’s example. But the paintings, drawings, and prints are all of the façade of the house and therefore hide the garden, of which indeed no image remains. The tributes in verse or picture are largely to the shrine of the poet rather than to the character of his garden.

Only one reliable and detailed description of the garden survives, a rhapsodic account published four years after Pope died. It fully testifies to the irregular, picturesque style of the place. But to this report Brownell would like to add a much earlier description of a garden in Joseph Spence’s Essay on Pope’s Odyssey. I find the case unpersuasive. Too many details do not fit Twickenham, and too much that we know about Twickenham is missing from Spence’s account of “the gardens of Horatio.”

Brownell’s bold propositions often leave me unconvinced. Repeatedly, he asserts that Pope had a decisive hand in a historic garden, but he only produces evidence that Pope knew the owner or landscape architect, that he visited and discussed plans for the garden, that he proposed buildings or other decorative features. The statement, for example, that “Shenstone’s theory and practice of gardening derive directly from Pope’s” is simply not proved.

But Brownell does show quite enough—e.g., that Pope and Shenstone belong to the same tradition, and that in practice Shenstone agreed with Pope. In a few important places, Brownell can make the case that Pope’s influence was crucial—for instance, the grotto and shell temples at Stowe, or the whole plan of Ralph Allen’s Prior Park. Elsewhere, there are many probabilities but few certainties.

Again, Pope’s taste reveals itself as broader than the styles he particularly favored; and this fact points to a general tendency among the gardeners, architects, and landowners whom he visited or worked with. The development of the “picturesque” landscape garden, with its appearance suggesting a painting by Poussin, with its lack of obvious boundaries, its asymmetry and serpentine paths, with its woods interrupting the lawns, its surprising vistas and intimate relation to the surrounding countryside or neighboring village, all this development did not militate against an appreciation of the older, formal plans connected with the French and the Dutch.

Brownell writes at times as if there were an intrinsic polarity between the two styles. But he also observes that Oakley Park—a place in which Pope had a large hand—was on the model of Fontainebleau. So also Riskins, which delighted Pope, was identified with “French formality.”

It is further worth noticing that for all Pope’s passion for gardening and landscape in general, he interfered with nature to a degree that might startle modern gardeners. Again and again his suggestions ran to the construction of ornamental buildings, of obelisks, of a bridge built in order to terminate a prospect. At Riskins he would have liked Bathurst to raise “two or three mounts” because the place was flat, and “nothing can please without variety.”

I am sorry that Brownell would like to relate Pope’s aesthetics to a “liberal Whig ideology.” I cannot see that such a connection exists, especially since Pope had so many ties with Tories. It would be better to suggest that through his integrated aesthetic sensibility he associated himself with men of rank, wealth, and power who valued his judgment and let him meet them as not only a friend but a superior.

This Issue

December 20, 1979