Alexander Pope, born in 1688, dead in his 56th year, commonly viewed as the last great neo-classicist, could also be viewed as the first of the Romantics — because of his sincerity. As Aubrey Williams has it: “Pope’s poetry can move us deeply because it so often stirs us to a sense of the innate precariousness of all things. The uncertainty of riches, the decay of beauty, and the crash of worlds, these are the prevailing themes and subjects of his poems.”[i] It is as if the boisterous discourse of Dryden, Butler, Rochester, Defoe, Swift, Johnson, Boswell et al. has passed him by. Sure, he can write sarcasm, as in “The rape of the lock,” but his heart is in large-scale works like An essay on man, which opens its “Epistle I” with this:
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
Let us (since Life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of Man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot,
Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the Manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to Man.
Those 8 balanced couplets sound very reserved and sedate, but Pope is not afraid in them to take on John Milton and Paradise lost, the scourge of his Catholic family. He is, like Milton, a religious exile, Continue reading