Alexander Pope, an only child, was born in London, on May 21,1688, the year of the Glorious revolution.
His father, a linen-draper, was forty-two, his mother forty-six. Both were Roman Catholics, and his father,
Alexander Sr., retired from business after his son’s birth, perhaps because a new act of Parliament
prohibited Catholics from living within ten miles of London. Between 1696 and 1700 Pope was tutored at
home by a priest, and then enrolled in two Catholic schools, but he was largely self-educated.
His religion would have made it impossible, at the time, to pursue a career in law or medicine or
the Clergy even had he wished to: as a Catholic he was not, for example, permitted to attend a university.
A precocious child, he could read Latin, Greek, French and Italian while still very young,
and (according to his own account of the matter) was already, at sixteen, writing the rather
sophisticated verse later published as his “Pastorals.” Characteristically, however, he would destroy
a great deal of his juvenalia, the continued existence of which might have detracted from the image
of the poet as child prodigy which he desired, later in life, to propagate.
In 1700 the Pope family moved to Whitehill House at Binfield in Windsor Forest, and there, circa 1705,
Pope, until then a healthy child, contracted a tubercular bone disease, attributed at the time to his
“perpetual application” to his studies. Attacks of this disease would recur at intervals throughout
what he would refer to as “this long Disease, my Life.” It left him frail, prone to various other illnesses,
humpbacked, and permanently stunted: fully grown, he would attain a height of only four and one half feet.
In his early twenties he made frequent visits to London, and became acquainted with the literati there,
including Wycherley and Walsh. In 1709 the “Pastorals,” Pope’s first published work, appeared in
Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies. In 1711 he met the Blount sisters, Teresa and Martha: he became
infatuated, briefly, with Teresa, but the amiable Martha remained a close friend for the rest of his life:
he had many friendships with women, perhaps because though he admired them greatly he was too diminutive
ever to be considered as a possible husband or prospective lover. His “Essay on Criticism” was published
anonymously in 1711, and was furiously attacked in print by John Dennis, a famous literary critic of the
day whom Pope had satirized in the poem. Dennis retaliated by referring to Pope as a “hump-backed toad,”
but the “Essay” brought him to the attention of Swift, Addison, Gay, Parnell, Oxford, and Steele, all
Tory members of the Martinus Scriblerus Club, and in 1712 Steele would published Pope’s “Messiah” in the
Spectator No. 378. In the same year, at the suggestion of John Caryll, a friend and a member of the circle
of prominent Catholics which centered on the Englefields and the Blounts, Pope wrote and published the
first version of The Rape of the Lock, ostensibly to reconcile two feuding but prominent Catholic families.
1713 saw the publication of Pope’s “Windsor Forest,” a poem celebrating the Treaty of Utrecht,
which had been negotiated by the Tories. “Windsor Forest” won him a closer friendship with Swift, and in 1714
he published a more complex version of The Rape of the Lock. In 1715 Pope met Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
His letters reveal that he was at least temporarily infatuated with her, though much later he would hold her
up to malicious ridicule in his essay Peri Bathous, published much later, in 1728. By now a sucessful author,
he embarked, between 1715 and 1720, on his verse translation of Homer’s Iliad (which, with his translation of
the Odyssey, written in collaboration with William Broome and Elijah Fenton, would be the great literary labor
of his life) and which, published at intervals over the years, in six volumes,
was also a great popular and financial success.
In 1717, the year the first volume of his collected Works was published, his father died.
With the money his Iliad had earned him, Pope (the first author in English history to be able to sustain
himself financially entirely on the profits derived from the publication of his own works) was able, in 1718,
to lease the villa of Twickenham on the Thames near Richmond, where he moved with his widowed mother:
over the years he entertained his friends there, and oversaw the construction of his famous grotto.
In 1725 he published his edition of Shakespeare’s Works, and the first three volumes of his translation of
the Odyssey also appeared: 1726 saw the appearance of the final three volumes of the same work.
In 1727 Swift and Pope published the first two volumes of their Miscellanies, and Pope himself was at work
on his Dunciad, which had originated as a scheme of the Scriblerus Club: in this, its earliest incarnation,
Lewis Theobald, a Shakespearean scholar who had feuded with Pope (who feuded, during the course of his life,
with innumerable critical and literary rivals) had the dubious honor of being its central character.
The final volume of the Swift-Pope Miscellanies appeared in 1728, and included Peri Bathouse,
which provides us with a notion of how nasty, on occasion, Pope could be: William Broome, a man of talent
if not of genius, had, as we have noted, helped him to write his Odyssey, but Pope offended him not only in
Peri Bathous but in these lines which appear in the first version of the Dunciad, which appeared,
in three books, during that same year: “Hibernian Politicks, O Swift, thy doom,/
And Pope’s, translating three whole years with Broome.” Broome commented on Pope’s ungenerous malice
in a letter: “I often resemble him to an hedgehog; he . . . lies snug and warm, and sets his bristles
out against all mankind. Sure he is fond of being hated. I wonder he is not thrashed: but his littleness
is his protection; no man shoots a wren.” As soon as The Dunciad appeared, the dunces, in their turn,
attacked Pope, but he had much the better of the affair. 1729 brought the publication of
the Dunciad Variorum. The first three epistles of An Essay on Man were published anonymously in 1733,
the year Pope’s mother died. The Fourth epistle of the Essay on Man appeared, also anonymously, in 1734.