There’s never been a shortage of readers to love and admire Alexander Pope. But if you think you don’t, or wouldn’t, like his poetry, you’re in good company there too. Ever since his own day, detractors have stuck their oar in, some blasting the work and some determined to write off the writer. A noted poet and anthologist, James Reeves, wrote an entire book in 1976 to assail Pope’s achievement and influence. But it has never succeeded; Pope, a combative as well as a marvellously skilled author, keeps coming back for more. He produced more first-rate poems than anyone else in the eighteenth century, as we might guess from his fame across Europe and his huge appeal in America before and after the Revolution.
In truth, much of the hostility he faced in his lifetime had to with fear of his scathing wit. “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see / Men not afraid of God, afraid of me,” he wrote late in his career. The stark clarity with which he states the idea must have made quite a few contemporaries shuffle another step backwards.
It doesn’t take much more to enjoy Pope than a reasonably good ear and a feeling for language. To read his works carefully will give anyone a grounding in how lines sing, how to make words bend and let meanings fold into each other. It will spare you a whole module on the creative writing course. Sound and sense are delicately adjusted, rhyme and rhythm subtly integrated, wit and wisdom dispersed with the utmost economy.
The most single brilliant item is The Rape of the Lock, completed in 1714 when he was only twenty-five. On the surface this relates how a brutal upper-class twit attacks an airhead socialite. You can find the tale amusingly retold by Sophie Gee in her novel The Scandal of the Season (2007). Actually the ravishing of a beauty in this ravishingly beautiful poem amounts to cutting off just one of her curls, but the text constantly insists that a more serious violation has gone on.
What Pope does is imbue this episode with layers of submerged meaning. Though it is easy to follow the narrative, the events are just the excuse for a dazzling exercise in channelling literary sources, which makes the allusive structure of Finnegans Wake seem almost a doddle. The Rape supplies a ridiculously miniaturized version of classical epics like The Iliad, with heroic battles fought at a card-table; an appropriation of Paradise Lost; a reinvention of the fairy lore in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a subversion of fanciful occult systems such as that of the Rosicrucians; and a satire on court life under Queen Anne, as well as a dramatization of the limited marriage market for the gentry among Pope’s own Catholic community. It plays with arcane connections associated with the seasons and the times of day; makes fun of fashionable pseudo-medical ideas linking hysteria to women’s biology; and cruelly exposes the consumerism of a materially obsessed society, while rendering the texture and glitter of its luxury objects in enticing detail.
The main trick is to build up this critique from a phrase, a verse, a couplet, a paragraph, and a canto, all serving as fractals which contain within themselves the central paradox announced in the first two lines: “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs, / What mighty contests rise from trivial things.” The contrasting terms here form what we call antithesis, borrowing an expression originally used in classical rhetoric. Pope extends antithesis to his grammar, his versification, his metaphors, and his narrative.