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Don’t love to love yah Alexander Pope

January 18, 2015


Here’s why Alexander Pope is so great.  I love him but I don’t love to love him.  Actually I don’t love HIM at all.  There is nothing contextually or biographically endearing about Pope to contaminate the purity of my regard for his verse.  He’s an irritating little shit.

There are some poets who you want to be better than they really are.  William Blake for example.  Everything about the life and personality of William Blake makes you want to enjoy his poems.  But I can’t. Blake’s poems are smaller than he is.   Then there are characters whose literary merit is certain but you’re never sure whether your affection for the author isn’t doing half the work of interpretation.

Pope suffered a variety of disabilities.  As a Catholic, he was debarred from many walks of life in early eighteenth-century England.  He was formally and legally disqualified from full citizenship.  Having the name “Pope” in a fiercely protestant country didn’t help either.   He was also a midget, a hunchback, and ill for pretty much his entire life.  But he had a further handicap in the shape of his own personality.  Because even after you’ve cut him some slack for having drawn so many short straws in life – he still manages to alienate your affections.

He’s not a hero or an antihero.  “Women wanted him – Men wanted to be him” is never a phrase used to describe Alexander Pope.

Nor is he ideologically sympathetic.  You can bestow a degree of Jacobite romance to him if you like, and Pat Rogers has worked hard on this.  But his is a Jacobitism (if it is a Jacobitism) of a rather autocratic nature.   His Bolinbroke inflected “Great Chain of Being” notion of cosmic hierarchical harmony is intrinsically horrible, like any attempt to deny the reality of suffering in the name of some larger aesthetics.  Many of the people mocked in The Dunciad are mocked merely because they lack aristocratic patrons and have to live in the vicinity of the Fleet Ditch.

Yet the poetry itself is marvellous.  Its liquid authority is breath-taking.  His ability to forge paragraphs out of closed couplets gives the English language a kind of reassurance and authority it has never possessed before or since.  When Pope tells you something, he seems to be reminding you of something you’ve always known.   And beyond the specific (often objectionable) content of his verse there is a kind of admirable striving towards an ideal of balance.   His moral satires, as well as being very funny, represent a kind of homecoming, a valorisation of an ideal of sanity that is as fragile as it is rare.

When I love the poetry of Pope, I know that I’m getting close to something like “objective” criticism.  And this makes me “love” him all the more.


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  1. He is the Ovid of English verse.

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