Alexander Pope is one of those old literary guys you've heard of, but you've never read, right? You certainly don't know any of his poetry.
Or do you?
Ever heard the expression "a little learning is a dangerous thing"? That's from Pope. How about "fools rush in where angels fear to tread"? No, it's not Elvis Presley. Or "To err is human, to forgive divine"? Pope again. Or "Woman's at best, a contradiction still"? The hoary old chauvinist is Alexander Pope.
Read Pope and you continually come across bits you already know, quotations you thought were from Shakespeare or Anonymous. Alexander Pope in his day was the master of the one-liner. Or two-liner actually, since much of his work is in rhyming couplets. For example, that famous passage about forgiveness is half of:
Good nature and good sense must ever join,
To err is human, to forgive divine.
It's in Pope's early Essay on Criticism (1711), which isn't an essay in prose at all but a long poetic attack on critics. If you enjoy stinging wit with substantial ideas behind it, you may find this the most rewarding of all Pope's writing.
In the early 1700s the literate crowd in England could hardly wait to read the latest quipping work from the pen of Alexander Pope. For a while, in an age when poetry was the preeminent form of entertainment among those who could read, he was the darling of the upper crust.
Self-taught and just four and a half feet tall, Alexander Pope seemed unlikely to become the most popular British poet of the eighteenth century. Born a Roman Catholic in London at the time of the Protestant revolution, he was barred from attending university. Curvature of the spine, asthma and tuberculosis afflicted him. Perhaps the discrimination to which he was subjected for his religion, his stature and his lack of education led him to hone his skills chiefly as a satirical writer.
His first major success came with The Rape of the Lock (1712) which is a mock-heroic treatment of an actual incident involving a gentleman cutting a lock of hair from a beautiful young lady.
Over the next decades Pope laboured on a translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and edited The Works of Shakespeare, as well as engaged in literary vendettas. The latter resulted in what many consider his masterpiece, The Dunciad, published in various forms from 1728 to 1742 with one of his detractors in the title role.
During his life he also produced some wonderful shorter poems, not all vitriolic and some even romantic and laudatory, such as "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717), "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" (1717) and "Intended for Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey" (1735), printed here in its entirety:
Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light!
— Eric McMillan