Biography of Alexander Pope, England's Most Quoted Poet

The satirist and poet who mocked the powerful

Illustration of Alexander Pope
Engraving of Alexander Pope, artist unknown.

Georgios Art/Getty Images

Alexander Pope (May 21, 1688 – May 30, 1744) is one of the best-known and most-quoted poets in the English language. He specialized in satirical writing, which earned him some enemies but helped his witty language endure for centuries.

Fast Facts: Alexander Pope

  • Occupation: Poet, satirist, writer
  • Known For: Pope's poetry satirized English politics and society of the day, which earned him both admirers and enemies during a particularly turbulent era of British history. His writings have endured and made him one of the most quoted English writers, second only to Shakespeare.
  • Born: May 21, 1688 in London, England
  • Died: May 30, 1744 in Twickenham, Middlesex, England
  • Parents: Alexander Pope and Edith Turner
  • Notable Quote: "Teach me to feel another's woe, to hide the fault I see, that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me."

Early Life

Pope was born into a Catholic family in London. His father, also named Alexander, was a successful linen merchant, and his mother, Edith, was from a middle class family. Pope’s early life coincided with major upheaval in England; the same year he was born, William and Mary deposed James II in the Glorious Revolution. Because of the severe restrictions on the public lives of Catholics, Pope was educated at Catholic schools in London that were technically illegal, but quietly tolerated.

When Pope was twelve, his family moved away from London to a village in Berkshire, due to laws forbidding Catholics to live within ten miles of London and a corresponding wave of anti-Catholic sentiment and action. Pope was unable to continue his formal education while living in the countryside, but instead taught himself by reading texts by classical authors and poetry in several languages. Pope’s health also further isolated him; he suffered from a form of spinal tuberculosis at the age of twelve that stunted his growth and left him with a hunchback, chronic pain, and respiratory problems.

Engraving of Alexander Pope in a coat and turban
Engraving of Alexander Pope, artist unknown. Georgios Art/Getty Images 

Despite these struggles, Pope was introduced to the literary establishment as a young man, largely thanks to the mentorship of the poet John Caryll, who took Pope under his wing. William Walsh, a lesser-known poet, helped Pope revise his first major work, The Pastorals, and the Blount sisters, Teresa and Martha, became lifelong friends.

First Publications

When Pope published his first work, The Pastorals, in 1709, it was met with almost instant acclaim. Two years later, he published An Essay on Criticism, which includes some of the earliest famous quotes from Pope’s writing ("To err is human, to forgive divine” and “Fools rush in”) and was also very well received.

Around this time, Pope befriended a group of contemporary writers: Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot. The writers formed a satirical quartet called the Scriblerus Club, targeting ignorance and pedantry alike through the character of “Martinus Scriblerus.” In 1712, Pope’s sharp satirical tongue turned to a real-life high society scandal with his most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock. The scandal revolved around an aristocrat who cut off a lock of hair from a beautiful woman without her permission, and Pope’s poem both satirized high society and mused upon consumerism and its relationship to human agency.

Illustration of
Illustration of Pope's Villa from 1871. The house was demolished, but much of the grotto remained.  whitemay/Getty Images

During the period of turmoil following Queen Anne’s death in 1714 and the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, Pope remained publicly neutral, despite his Catholic upbringing. He also worked on a translation of Homer’s Iliad during this time. For a few years, he lived in his parents’ house in Chiswick, but in 1719, the profits from his translation of Homer enabled him to buy his own home, a villa in Twickenham. The villa, later known simply as “Pope’s villa,” became a tranquil place for Pope, where he created a garden and grotto. The grotto still stands, despite much of the rest of the villa having been destroyed or rebuilt.

Career as Satirist

As Pope’s career continued, his satirical writings became more and more pointed. The Dunciad, first published anonymously in 1728, would come to be considered a masterful piece of poetry but earned him a huge amount of hostility. The poem is a mock-heroic narrative that celebrates an imaginary goddess and her human agents who bring ruin to Great Britain. The allusions in the poem were aimed at many prominent and aristocratic figures of the day, as well as the Whig-led government.

Pope’s satire earned him so many enemies that, for a time, whenever he left the house, he brought his Great Dane with him and carried pistols, in case of a surprise attack by one of his targets or their supporters. In contrast, his An Essay on Man was more philosophical, reflecting on the natural order of the universe and suggesting that even the imperfections in the world are part of a rational order.

An Essay on Man differs from much of Pope’s work in its optimism. It argues that life functions according to a divine and rational order, even when things seem confusing from inside the eye of the storm, so to speak. He did, however, return to his satirical roots with Imitations of Horace, a satire of what Pope perceived to be the corruption and poor cultural taste during the reign of George II.

Close-up of a volume of Pope's poetry
Pope's poetry has endured, despite going out of style for a time. Getty Images

Final Years and Legacy

After 1738, Pope mostly stopped producing new work. He began working on additions and revisions to the Dunciad, publishing a new “book” in 1742 and a complete revision in 1743. In the new version, Pope more clearly satirized and criticized Horace Walpole, a Whig politician who was in power and who Pope blamed for many of the problems in British society.

By that point, however, Pope’s lifelong poor health was catching up to him. He had suffered from chronic pain, respiratory problems, a hunchback, frequent high fevers, and other problems since childhood. In 1744, his doctor reassured him that he was improving, but Pope only made a joke and accepted his fate. He received the last rites of the Catholic Church on May 29, 1744 and died at his villa, surrounded by his friends, the following day. He was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham.

In the decades following his death, Pope’s poetry went out of fashion for a time. While Lord Byron cited Pope’s poetry as an inspiration, others, such as William Wordsworth, criticized it for being too elegant or decadent. However, in the 20th century, interest in Pope’s poetry had a resurgence, and his reputation was elevated along with this new wave of interest. In these recent decades, his reputation has rebounded to the point of being considered one of the greatest English poets of all time, thanks to his thoughtful, ever-quotable writing.

Sources

  • Butt, John Everett. “Alexander Pope.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-Pope-English-author.
  • Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Rogers, Pat. The Cambridge Companion to Alexander Pope. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2007.