Remembering Pope

To my kindred spirits —

It’s crazy (but entirely explainable) to me that a character would change so significantly in translation, which is just another form of creation.  Steven Shankman explains that Pope’s interest and devotion in allowing his characters – whether Achilles, whether Eloisa – to have many dimensions, to be as angry or as passionate as they want, was what set him apart as a poet.  Pope’s elevation of and emphasis of an angry Achilles in his translation of The Iliad differs widely from George Chapman’s rendering of Achilles, portrayed instead as “an ideal Renaissance hero who, from the opening moment of the poem, is largely in control of his emotions”(65).  So here we have two completely contrasting visions of one of the most important characters in classical literature – Achilles as wrathful, or Achilles as reasonable. This seems pretty important to our general understanding of The Iliad, doesn’t it?

It’s not such a stretch to think that just as our understanding of Achilles depends almost entirely on the way writers have constructed him for our public consumption, our understanding of Pope also depends on the way others have written about him.  The picture of Pope as an angry, vituperative man has always abounded – in his time, and in ours.  Yet what matters is the degree of sympathy granted to him. There might have been less when his enemies were alive, but there is probably (certainly?) more now.

I haven’t read enough of Pope to give my (truly worthless) opinion on whether he possessed genius or not.  I’ll bet he did.  I know that Pope had a lot of enemies in his time, but this week’s critical readings were largely Team Pope, and this was a fact that jumped out at me.  Shankman uses Pope’s version of Achilles elevate both the mythical character and the poet himself, as he repeats and validates Pope’s envisioning of himself as “Achillean warrior for truth” (70). And J. Paul Hunter, who really likes alluding to male genitalia (I was thinking of naming this post “Penis” — just to get your attention, friend.  Are you still reading this?), dismisses those poets who wrote mean-spirited, “anonymous” poems to attack Pope:

–          The couplets, flaccid and repetitious, develop the plot tediously; the poetic texture is like that of the poets had entombed in The Dunciad.  But just as important is the tastelessness and pointlessness. (628)

–          Epistle from a Nobleman, scarcely disguised as by Lord Hervey, appeared a few months after Verses to the Imitator. . . The tone of the poem itself is less shrill than Verses to the Imitator, but its attempt at a relaxed, detached urbanity results instead in a limp, flaccid lack of intensity. (630)

If I feel fondly toward this understanding, posthumous image of Pope, it’s partially because the literary authorities are telling me to. And because a Popean verse is the title of one of my favorite movies of all time – can you guess which?.  So I feel mistrustful, skeptical.  (But Florentina!  Great literature is just great literature! Right!)

It’s at a moment like this that I’ll turn to a critic I admire, one I am more familiar with, for reassurance.  The clearly written prose of Dr. Johnson, a friend I made sophomore year of college and have turned to from time to time (never mind that he thinks women can’t be pastors), is much more reliable.  Johnson gives us an even-keeled review and bio of Pope in his Lives of the Poets – there’s praise, and there are admissions to character faults. Here I found out that Pope was born a sweet, delicate boy and was called, in his youth, “the little nightingale” (Brady 473). But Johnson chastises where appropriate, granting that one could discover in Pope’s character “an appetite to talk too frequently of his own virtues” (479), and that the poet “pretends insensibility to censure and criticism, though it was observed by all who knew him that every pamphlet disturbed his quiet, and that his extreme irritability laid him open to perpetual vexation; but he wished to despise his critics, and therefore hoped that he did despise them” (537).

But of course, we have this final, eloquent praise — “After all this it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, whether Pope was a poet? otherwise than by asking in return, if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?” (559) — and little else needs to be said.

You believe what you want to believe, who you want to believe.

Sincerely yours,


(edited to replace “inordinate” with “eloquent” in the last paragraph)


3 thoughts on “Remembering Pope

  1. “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
    The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
    Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
    Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;”

    …though I’ve never seen the movie. One thing I unfailingly believe in is Pope’s genius. In fact, I’d hardly call the praise at the end “inordinate.” Not that it means all that much, but, courtesy of Pope’s Wikipedia page: he is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson.

    Good company.

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