Thursday, 25 April 2013

Alexander Pope as a Poet


Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21, 1688, disadvantaged from the start by being born into a Roman Catholic family (at a time when Catholics were severely restricted in their liberty and property by the English government). Barred from an English university education by his religion, he nevertheless received some schooling at a couple of Catholic institutions, but soon supplemented this with his own extensive reading in Greek and Latin authors. He began writing verse by doing translations of these authors, and imitations and adaptations of others such as Chaucer, Waller, and Cowley.

Pope is by far the most important poetic figure of the age called after him (1700-1740). His importance lies in the fact that he exercised the greatest influence on the classical poetry of the century. His poetry was intellectual, didactic and satiric, and was almost written in heroic couplet. It is never of the highest class, but within its limits, it stands unrivalled in the language.

Pseudo Classicist

The true classicism is meant to be a combination of poetic ardor and excellence of form. In Pope the true poetic ardor and energy is absent but he is exceedingly careful about the technique of form and style. When we look at the contents of Pope's poetry we do not find anything worthwhile. Satire, didactic poetry, and a flimsy mock-heroic poem---are all his poetic achievements. They are mere products of intellect, and artificially constructed; they do not reproduce true classical spirit. Hence it is not correct to describe Pope as a true classicist. (Milton, with his poetic impulse and perfection of form, is a true classicist.) The classicism of Pope is the shadow of classicism; it is false or pseudo-classicism.

Intellectual Poetry

Pope's poetry was of his age, and it reflected in full measure the spirit of the age. It is intellectual and its appeal is to the mind rather than to the heart. It is full of wit and epigram, the brilliancy of which is unsurpassed. Pope is next to Shakespeare, in contributing quotable lines of verse, which are remarkable for their pregnancy, neatness and brevity. Here are some of his famous quotes.

Ø  To err is human, to forgive divine.
Ø  Never elated when someone's oppressed, never dejected when another one's blessed.
Ø  We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt will think us so.
Ø  For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

The Rape Of The Lock As A Social Satire

This poem shows Pope's genius for satirical poetry which exposes in a witty manner the follies and absurdities of the high society of the times. All the recognized weapons of satire have been employed by Pope in a most effective manner. The principal targets of satire in this poem are aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of Pope's day. Ladies who learns to roll their eyes and to blush in a coquettish manner. Pope ridicules the fickleness and superficiality of the ladies by referring to their hearts as moving toy-shops and their varying vanities.

A Poet Of Wit And Fancy

Pope's subjects of poetry in which he excelled are of the satirical and mock-heroic kind. He is the unchallenged master of artificial poetry, a poetry dealing with artificial life, and in this sphere, 'The Rape of the Lock' stands unmatched. Among the great English poets who had preceded Pope, Chaucer was the painter of actual life, Spenser of imaginative life, Shakespeare of ideal life, and Milton of moral and spiritual life. 

It remained for Pope to give rhythmical utterance to artificial life, and he was eminently fitted for this task because he was gifted with the power of intellectual expression and perfect propriety of phrase.

            It is true that Pope had not much to express, he had hardly any original thing to say, his thoughts are mostly borrowed or common place, but what gives distinction to his poetry is its lucid expression, His aim was to set the gems, not to create them. Lessing said: Pope's great merit lay in what we call the mechanic of poetry.

Pope's Heroic Couplet

Pope is the unchallenged master of the heroic couplet, just as Milton is of blank verse. Almost all of Pope's poetry is written in the heroic couplet. The rhythm of Pope's couplet has perfect smoothness and regularity which have a pleasing effect upon the ear. Pope mostly used the ‘stops’ couplet--- that is, there is a final pause after every couplet; one couplet does not flow into the next couplet, carrying on its sense. This kind of couplet limits the scope of the poet for he has to cut his thoughts to the size of the couplet. But Pope was the master not the victim of the heroic couplet. He condensed his thoughts so precisely and chose his words so aptly that he could express his complete thought within the range of two lines.

Pope, A Classic In Prose

Mathew Arnold has called Pope as 'classic in prose'. It looks like a paradox, since Pope was a poet and not a prose-writer. What Arnold means to say is that Pope's poetic style has all those qualities which gave distinction to prose i.e. lucidity, balance, imagination, warmth, wit, clearness and logic etc. but is wanting in that moving and transporting quality which is the hall-mark of true poetry. Lowell said: ‘Measured by any high standard of imagination, he will be found wanting; tried by any test of wit, he is unrivalled’.

Some Limitations

Pope's poetry is not only superficial but is limited in its range. Firstly, it is the poetry of society in the city, as in The Rape of the Lock-- a poetry of satire and a philosophic poetry, which is dry and has no warmth of experience behind it. Pope said: "The proper study of mankind is man". But it was mankind as seen only in the small society of London. Stopford Brooke rightly remarks: ‘The vast range of humanity beyond London was left without sympathy, as if it did not exist. This was not only insular, it was insolent’.
So far as Pope's versification is concerned it was limited to the heroic couplet. Though he handled this measure with masterly skill, it shows mechanical skill rather than genuine art.  


  1. This is very good written article, however do you want to get Pakistani rishtay or read urdu poetry sms or urdu poetry

  2. What an article written by Shuaib Asghar,really impressive & helpful for those who are studying about Pope.

  3. I really appreciate for too much hardwork,keep it up

  4. i like the article and the background too

  5. Thank you for giving us a clear and complete idea of one of the literary geniuses.

  6. Waoo this is fantastics articale