Today in Literary History – May 21, 1688 – Poet Alexander Pope is born

Alexander Pope, the great satiric poet, was born on May 21, 1688. Pope suffered from many physical ailments including Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine. He was hunchbacked and stood at only four feet six inches. In addition he had severe respiratory difficulties and abdominal pains.

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Pope came from a Catholic family during the time of Protestant reign and so his educational prospects were limited. He was mostly self educated through extensive reading of the classics, which he read in the original Latin and Greek as well as being fluent in French and Italian.

Pope first came to prominence with a verse translation of the Iliad, followed up with an ambitious long poem, An Essay on Criticism, in 1711, which used many classical allusions to explore the potential uses of poetry. The poem gave the English language many phrases that would become commonplace, such as “To err is human, to forgive divine,” “A little learning is a dang’rous thing” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

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The following year he wrote his most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, a mock-heroic epic based on an actual high society scandal in which an aristocratic suitor stole a lock of hair from his beloved as a keepsake without her permission. Pope takes this rather silly quarrel and treats it with the high seriousness of a Homeric battle. Along the way he pokes fun at the shallowness of the upper classes.

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Pope’s satires, especially The Dunciad in 1728, where he parodied fellow poets and writers, earned him many enemies. One reason that Pope was so free to write what he wanted is that he didn’t have to rely on a wealthy or prominent patron; he was a rare author at the time who was able to support himself by book sales alone. He died in 1744 at the age of fifty-six.

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