English Men of Letters, launched in 1878 by Macmillan, was a series of popular biographies of the greatest names in English literature. Its volumes—the lives of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth—were fixtures of the Victorian classroom and public library, delivering verdicts about writers’ achievements and personalities that shaped the imaginations of a generation of readers. Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, was in charge of the Alexander Pope volume and took a dim moral view of his subject. Whatever Pope’s accomplishments in other genres, Stephen argued, the fact that he had excelled as a satirist made his personal character—and, by extension, his writing—impossible to defend. Even the most cursory reading of The Dunciad or An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot revealed him as he really was underneath the glitter of a polished style: a “cruel little persecutor,” a man of “abnormal character,” a bully who took pleasure in “coarse abuse” and “sneaking malice.” The viciousness of Pope’s attacks on his targets was enough, Stephen felt, to “make one half ashamed of confessing to reading the Dunciad with pleasure,” without the requisite “spasms both of disgust and moral disapproval.”
Stephen’s judgment, and the extremity of the language in which it was delivered, proved hard to shake. In 1916 the scholar George Saintsbury could still be found deploring what he called Pope’s “poisonous and self-torturing spite.” Lytton Strachey, who made a career out of disagreeing with the Victorians, nonetheless described the poet’s satires in 1925 as “spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window.” When the eccentric poet-critic Edith Sitwell came to write a biography of Pope in 1930, she observed that readers had long been “incited” by popular scholarship “to be unkind and coarse in their view of this unhappy little creature of genius.” She was determined to be an iconoclast: “I hope to exhibit him in his true light as a good and exceedingly lovable man.”
Sitwell had the last fifty years or so of literary criticism in mind when she referred to the prejudicial history of Pope’s representation. But commentators had been “unkind and coarse” about Pope and his poetry for considerably longer than that. During his lifetime, he was the subject of an extraordinary number of ad hominem attacks in verse satires, pamphlets, prints, and advertisements. “A little scurvy, purblind-Elf;…/Deform’d in Shape, of Pigmy Stature:/A proud, conceited, peevish Creature,” began a pamphlet poem that appeared following the publication of The Dunciad in 1728, and went on to compare the satirist to an avaricious flatterer, “Strutting at Court, in Gold Brocade,” and to a toad who “spits his Venom thro’ the Town” and wallows in puerile filth (“T—d, and Spew, and Mud, and Fart”).
These lines contain in miniature the elements that in various combinations characterized all the negative portraits. There is the mockery of Pope’s tiny stature and physical disability, caused by a tuberculosis of the bone he contracted in early childhood; the scolding of what seemed to his rivals the conceited pride he took in his own artistry; the snide suggestion of his greed, ambition, and cultivation of friends in high places; and the representation of his satire as a species of venom, a compulsive and unpleasant bodily expression akin to spitting or throwing up.
The pamphlet, titled Codrus: Or, The Dunciad Dissected, was published by Edmund Curll, a trailblazing bookseller in the City of London who for three decades poured his considerable energies into discrediting Pope and making money in the process. Pope himself was no innocent victim: the delicate versifier of The Rape of the Lock and Windsor-Forest was quite capable of dirty dealings when needed. The series of vindictive and melodramatic episodes that made up their paper war are the subject of Pat Rogers’s lively new history, The Poet and the Publisher. Rogers presents Pope and Curll’s clashes as a long-running courtroom drama, or “Pope v. Curll,” a succession of suits and countersuits that in several cases ended up in the courts for real. Documentary “exhibits” interspersed throughout the narrative—extracts from books, pamphlets, letters, newspapers, bits of advertising copy, many of which are reprinted here for the first time since the eighteenth century—supply readers with the evidence they need to make up their own minds about the case.
Even if they had not become bitter enemies, the two men on either side of the imaginary courtroom were unlikely to have been bosom friends. Curll, born in 1683, was a convinced Protestant who enthusiastically endorsed the coronation of the Hanoverian monarch George I in 1714. Pope, born in 1688, the year of the deposition of James II by the Dutch Protestant king William, was the son of a Roman Catholic merchant. He grew up at a time when the Catholic faith was at its most unpopular in England since the Elizabethan period, its members subject to a growing list of punitive restrictions designed to bar them from entry to the universities, the law courts, the civil service, the City, and Parliament.
After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, there were growing fears that the Jacobites—loyal followers of James II’s exiled son—would mount an invasion to take back the crown. In response, the anti-Catholic straitjacket tightened, and the recusant community was exposed to heavy taxation, sequestrations of property, searches, and arrests, as well as informal suspicions and threats. Pope in particular was considered suspicious because of the circles he moved in. Many of his early literary friends had underground connections to the Jacobite court in France; some were actively involved in plans for invasion. Following the queen’s death, his allies who had been linked to her Tory ministry lost their jobs, were imprisoned, or vanished into exile. He himself—judging by the careful self-censorship of his letters—seems to have been among those placed under surveillance by the Hanoverian authorities.
By 1714, Curll had already made enemies of writers close to Pope, including Jonathan Swift and Matthew Prior, by a series of piratical tricks that would become his trademark: stealing and printing manuscripts never intended for publication, publishing scurrilous works under the names of authors who hadn’t written them, and writing “keys,” pamphlets claiming to unlock the scandalous secrets of texts that were perhaps perfectly innocent. Pope became a prime target because of the remarkably favorable deal he had struck with the bookseller’s rival Bernard Lintot to publish his translation of Homer’s Iliad, the terms of which guaranteed him the sort of returns that most of his fellow professional writers could only dream of. A number of these disgruntled writers were part of Curll’s stable, the small army of willing poets and pamphleteers he maintained and deployed when he needed polemical copy in a hurry.
Given the fraught political moment, any Curll-sponsored attacks on Pope’s Homer project were never going to be just about his uneven knowledge of Greek or his alleged desire to line his pockets. In 1716 it was easy enough for the publisher and his writers to connect their target’s ambitious new enterprise with the failed Jacobite invasion of the previous year and the now extreme unpopularity of the Catholic religion—especially since a large number of the subscribers who had financed the translation were known supporters of the cause (and at least one of them had just been beheaded for treason).
Curll had two characteristic tricks up his sleeve. He opened the hostilities by adding Pope to the list of well-known authors whose names he periodically put to works they weren’t responsible for. Pope responded by contriving to administer him a powerful emetic via a glass of wine, then wrote up the episode as a Curll-style sensational narrative, in which the unfortunate bookseller—in a twist perhaps inspired by Swift’s satirical eulogy for the still-alive astrologer John Partridge in 1708—assumes that his end is nigh and apologizes fulsomely for his wicked piratical dealings.
Incensed, Curll hit back by placing an advertisement for the sale of what he called “The Second Part of Mr. Pope’s Popish Translation of Homer,” a description that suggests he understood the devious potential of the smallest aspects of his trade. The unfortunate associations of the poet’s surname were commonly exploited by his enemies, but Curll—a maker as well as a seller of books—knew that clever tricks of presentation could make them seem worse. The italicization of Pope’s surname—“Mr. Pope”—is conventional, but the italicized adjective—“Popish”—is eccentric, as is the roman printing of “Homer.” Pope, the lines suggested, was to be known by his religion because he was his religion; the two were one and the same, and equally to be distrusted. Rounding off the advertisement was a merry little couplet (another Curll trademark) that skewered Pope by weaponizing the form with which he’d already become synonymous: “Tho of his Wit the Catholick has boasted,/Lintot and Pope by turns shall be roasted.”
In 1726 the publisher took pleasure in the spectacle of Pope’s humiliation at the hands of a scholar named Lewis Theobald, who correctly pointed out multiple errors in his edition of Shakespeare. The publication of Theobald’s minutely argued refutation, Shakespeare Restored, coincided with a visit of Swift’s to Pope’s villa in Twickenham. Although it remains unclear exactly when Pope embarked on his project to satirize what he saw as the rise of “dunce” culture under the Hanoverians, it seems plausible that the idea of shaping The Dunciad around Theobald as its ridiculed antihero was Swift’s suggested revenge.1
Pope’s epic satire, first published in 1728 and then in expanded versions in 1729 and 1743, is an attempt to show that the work of men such as Theobald—detailed, historically minded scholarship, with a touch of the pedantic—belongs to the same grubby, sensationalist, subliterary culture that Pope associated with Curll and his fellow profiteering booksellers. The poem lays its scene inside the commercial world of Grub Street, populated by squabbling, irrepressible poets, pamphleteers, publishers, patrons, and critics, as well as the greedy readers who consumed their output or used it as a convenient means to wrap fish. Its opening scene portrays Theobald’s being anointed not as a model of scholarly eminence, but as the new “king” of the “dunces.”
The Dunciad traces the westward spread of an empire of duncery presided over by the malevolent goddess Dulness, as she invades the realm of high culture and gentlemanly learning in Westminster from her traditional haunts in the City of London. The poem’s verse becomes as much a model of journeyman writing as a vehicle for satirizing it. Pope’s couplets take their shape from the kind of work—repetitive, monotonous, senseless—that the “dunces” churn out for money. In book 1, Theobald wearily describes the labors he undertakes on Dulness’s behalf:
For thee I dim these eyes, and stuff this head,
With all such reading as was never read;
For thee supplying, in the worst of days,
Notes to dull books, and prologues to dull plays;
For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,
And write about it, Goddess, and about it;
What Theobald reads and writes is important—the recondite books, the trifling “notes” and “prologues” to “dull” books and plays—but just as important is how such reading and writing looks and sounds. Couplets can be snappy, witty, ringing, portentous; here they are deliberately cautious, circling, and inconclusive. The repetitive syntax (“dim these eyes…stuff this head”; “notes to dull books…prologues to dull plays”; “For thee…For thee…For thee”) gestures to the unbroken tedium of Theobald’s work, while the paradoxes—the idea of reading what is “never read,” and of explaining something for the purpose of making “men doubt it”—hint at a convoluted manner and writing that is either hopeless or mere vanity. Everything comes together in the final line of the passage, with its inspired translation of “about” from the metaphorical realm (in which a book can be “about” something) to the realm of space and objects, where to “write about it…and about it” means to circle one’s subject matter, evade it, smother it, or obscure it completely.
In 1729 Pope made it clear what the most extreme consequences of writing “about” something could be. His Dunciad Variorum, the second edition of the poem, bristles with mock-scholarly notes appended to almost every line, swallowing up the page and overwhelming the verses they purport to explain. Some notes, in what we can take to be Pope’s own voice, seize the opportunity to give Theobald a dose of his own critical medicine: “He since publish’d an Edition of Shakespeare with numerous alterations of the Text, upon bare Conjectures.” Other notes, put into the mouth of a fictional polymath named Martinus Scriblerus, ape Theobald and his fellow critics directly, demonstrating the absurdity of spending time and ink on solving textual problems that aren’t really problems at all. “I have a just value for the Letter E,” Scriblerus declares, unable to get past the title of the poem without a comment, “yet cannot it induce me to agree with those who would add yet another e to it, and call it the Dunceiade.”
Real observations—usually hostile ones—made about the first version of the poem after publication also appear in the notes, co-opted as threads that wind about and about the text. Curll, unsurprisingly, crops up here, as the author of multiple aggressive pamphlets in which he glossed and disputed lines from the poem with a literalism that played into his enemy’s hands. To a sly line at the beginning of book 2, reminding readers that the bookseller had recently been pilloried at Charing Cross, Pope faithfully reproduces Curll’s corrections in a note on his own previous note: “Edm. Curl stood in the Pillory at Charing-Cross, in March, 1727–8. N.B. Mr. Curl loudly complain’d of this Note as an Untruth, protesting ‘that he stood in the Pillory not in March but in February.’” Nothing Pope could have written himself would have been any more to the point.
At the time of the publication of the Dunciad Variorum, Pope’s influential friendships on both sides of the political divide kept him—outwardly at least—on cordial terms with the governing Whigs. Through the influence of the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, George II received a presentation copy of the poem in 1729, which he claimed to have “perused” and liked. (We have to assume that he missed the line “Still Dunce the second reigns like Dunce the first” near the beginning of book 1.) From this point, however, relations soured rapidly. This was partly a result of personal and professional grievances Pope held against Walpole himself. The minister had snubbed his closest friends, repeatedly ignoring requests for favor from Swift and John Gay, and banning the sequel to Gay’s Beggar’s Opera from the stage.
There were also entrenched ideological differences. According to those in opposition, Walpole and his class of war-enriched Whig magnates were bent on destroying traditional social hierarchies in favor of corrupt new relationships based on money. Pope’s satires of the early 1730s are full of pointed comments about venality, luxury, and philistinism, as well as attacks on the new forms of credit that made corruption both invisible and endemic: “In vain may Heroes fight, and Patriots rave;/If secret Gold saps on from knave to knave.”
Curll, loyal to Walpole, stepped up his smear campaign in response to this new tone. Shortly after the appearance of The Dunciad, he tried to alarm Pope by printing “A POPP upon Pope,” the vivid narrative of what seems to have been an entirely made-up assault on Pope’s person (“he voided large Quantities of Blood, which being yellow,…his Physician, has since affirm’d, had a great Proportion of Gall mix’d with it”). In 1735 the bookseller took the extraordinary step of sneaking into Pope’s private garden at Twickenham with an artist, then selling the artist’s sketch of it as a print—framed by his own, distinctly unsavory description of “our Bard’s Grotto, Subterraneous Way, Gardens, Statues, Inscriptions, and his Dog BOUNCE.”
Most seriously of all, in the same year he printed an unauthorized edition of Pope’s private correspondence. These were letters that, in a devious scheme worthy of Curll himself, Pope had leaked to his enemy using an alias, hoping to trick Curll into printing a volume whose contents he could later claim were stolen. Curll survived an investigation in the House of Lords into the affair and was permitted to continue with his plans, printing not just the letters but also compromising details of the means by which he had come by them, and publicizing wherever he could Pope’s discreditable part in the affair.
Rogers’s narrative makes clear the degree to which Pope felt cornered by Curll’s ingenuity, and not only cornered but invaded: his private retreat penetrated, his letters either in enemy hands or vulnerable to theft, and even his poetry available to be appropriated. The artist’s print of Twickenham, with a touch of brilliance on Curll’s part, was captioned with a couplet from a recent Pope satire.
How far all this threatened Pope’s autonomy, and the confidence he felt in the real-world power of his writing, registers obliquely in his poems of the late 1730s. Earlier in the decade Pope had taken inspiration from the Roman satirists Horace and Persius and composed a satire in dialogue. His First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated (1733) follows Horace by placing himself—or a speaker who represents him—in conversation with a suave lawyer, whose cautions of prudence enable him to proclaim that he will carry on attacking “shameless, guilty Men” in positions of power, despite the possible repercussions. In keeping with its classical models, the satire features an interlocutor who represents aspects of the corrupt society under attack, and it allows Pope, or the dramatized Pope, to come out on top.
Pope’s engagements with classical precedent, though, were rarely straightforward, and his later dialogues, while seeming to play the same rhetorical trick, are markedly less sure of themselves. In the two-part Epilogue to the Satires (1738) there is—as before—a satirist full of rage and conviction, lashing out against a politics he despises, and an obviously corrupt interlocutor who tries to make him toe the party line. What the poem dramatizes most clearly, though, in spite of its setup, is the difficulty of being heard and believed.
The interlocutor (notated as “Fr.” or “F.”—ironically, “Friend”—to Pope’s “P.”) is impossible to have a conversation with. Contrary to Pope’s previous practice, the Friend gets the first word in dialogue 1 and the last word in dialogue 2, bookending the debate with snide comments. His interruptions and sly imputations attempt, literally, to put words in his opponent’s mouth:
P. Ye Rev’rend Atheists!—F. Scandal! name them, Who?
P. Why that’s the thing you bid me not to do.
Who starv’d a Sister, who forswore a Debt,
I never nam’d—the Town’s enquiring yet.
The pois’ning Dame—Fr. You mean—P. I don’t.—Fr. You do.
P. See! now I keep the Secret, and not you.
The back-and-forth squabbling, densely packing multiple volleys into single lines, points to a world where what you mean is less important than what you can be taken to mean, a broken public sphere in which civilized political exchange is a thing of the past. In the first dialogue, Pope has his adversary sneeringly quote his previous work back at him, pulling the Curll stunt of turning allusion into a weapon:
Fr. Why now, this moment, don’t I see you steal?
’Tis all from Horace: Horace long before ye
Said, “Tories call’d him Whig, and Whigs a Tory.”
And taught his Romans, in much better metre,
“To laugh at Fools who put their trust in Peter.”
The two lines in quotation marks are from a recent satire of Pope’s, a poem that is indeed—on the surface at least—“all from Horace,” since it takes a Horatian satire as its model. There is a little joke here at the Friend’s expense, which is that he himself has been made to “steal” from Horace earlier in the dialogue, as he accuses Pope of doing (he also, at one remove, steals from Pope in these lines by quoting him). Underneath the play of allusion and self-allusion, though, is the gloomier suggestion that to write—or, more precisely, to publish—is to lose control of your voice: you might be imitated or sympathetically alluded to, but just as likely misquoted, pilfered from, or pirated.
“I am determined to publish no more in my life time,” Pope wrote to the Earl of Marchmont in 1741, three years before his death. This was, he said, principally because of “the Zeal I have to speak the Whole Truth, & neither to praise or dispraise by halves.” At this juncture he had politics on his mind—the bitterness and disappointment he felt at what he saw as the failure of the opposition to Walpole—but he was also thinking about his poetry. His late dialogues represent an attempt at speaking the truth “by halves,” scoring points at the cost of giving space to ideas and voices he felt had no place in public life. Once he was dissatisfied with partial measures, there was nowhere else to go.
The Curll affair shows Pope in a light he was anxious not to be seen in. In the fight to control his copy, he became embroiled in a media-constructed environment he increasingly struggled to manage to his satisfaction, and whose roguish tactics he couldn’t afford not to adopt. Rogers’s book is salutary because it gives us a modern sense of a figure usually portrayed as ultra-traditional, revealing him instead as a writer whose concerns about self-image and the power of presentation might be thought close to our own. Another excellent new study, Joseph Hone’s Alexander Pope in the Making, achieves something similar, directing us toward the strategic manner in which Pope constructed himself as a “classic author” during his lifetime, seeking to fix his reputation before others could fix it for him.2
To read Pope like this is to read him against the grain, or against the seductive narrative of his place in the literary scene that he himself set in motion. The foundational Pope scholarship of the twentieth century largely took for granted the existence of a clear divide between the independent, high-minded bard of Twickenham and the commercial “duncery” he satirized, and even contemporaries found his hierarchies and categories hard to resist. Curll thought he was turning the tables in his Compleat Key to the Dunciad when he called Pope “a very great DUNCE” for taking six years to write his epic satire, but in an important sense all he was doing was acquiescing in the poet’s view of things. The world Pope actually lived in wasn’t divided into people who were dunces and people who weren’t, and his life and poetry seem now at their most fascinating when they register the blurring of the lines.