“When I aim at praise, they say I bite.” — Alexander Pope

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
-— Alexander Pope, from “Eloisa to Abelard”

Alexander Pope was born on this day in 1688.

He was so huge in his day, so talked-about, so hated and feared by some writers – and so loved by other writers – that his lapse into total obscurity for over a century – until he was rediscovered in the 20th century, is one of those fascinating – and alarming – literary phenomena. People are “in style” and then they aren’t. They are so much NOT in style that they are forgotten. A link in the chain of cultural continuity is broken. It will take reparative work to connect the chain. It’s good to keep in mind that nothing is forever.

Pope was so famous, so dominant, so feared, it’s not surprising he was a huge target. Writers reacted against Pope – and against the whole Neoclassical era – for 100 years. Every “movement” creates its own counter-movement. Reacting AGAINST something is how the culture moves forward. After Pope’s generation came the Romantics, and we still live in the world made by the Romantics. The Romantics changed everything. The 18th century Enlightenment yielded to subjective Romanticism which morphed into late 19th-century curlicues, which was then demolished for all time by Modernism.

But let’s get back to Pope.

I came across a fact, and I cannot confirm this, but it would not surprise me if it were true: He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, coming after Shakespeare and Tennyson. Wow. Tennyson’s probably in there for “nature is red in tooth and claw” alone, followed closely by ““Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (speak for yourself, pallie.) And Pope, I imagine, could be in there for the sheer popularity of “To err is human. To forgive, divine.” It’s in our lexicon to the degree that people quote it without knowing who wrote it. It doesn’t seem to have been “written” at all. He was so well-known that in 1771, a century after Pope was born, Robert Skipwith wrote to his pal Thomas Jefferson, asking for a list of books to make up “a gentleman’s library.” Under the FINE ARTS section were included:

Pope’s Iliad.
Pope’s works. by Warburton.

It was kind of exciting when one of my favorite movies of the last 30 years stole its title from a poem by Pope. It’s in the quote at the top of this post. And it was funny to see a very stoned Kirsten Dunst in the movie quote him …

and then refer to him as “Pope Alexander”, because clearly she was just quoting what she read in some Quotations book where he was listed as “Pope, Alexander.”

Pope lived during that weird era of upheaval in England in the aftermath of the Commonwealth/Restoration. He was born into a Catholic family, in a time when Catholics were barred from institutions/education. Pope was, as they say, home-schooled, and then went to a secret Roman Catholic school in London. As a child, his voice was so beautiful and flowing his nickname was “Little Nightingale.” Little would be prophetic. He developed a disease when he was 10, which stunted his growth and warped his body. This would be a lifelong affliction. He only grew to be four feet and change tall, and his back was hunched. This probably had something to do with his aggression in print, as well as his ambition – which manifested early. He put himself on display in print, and was only 23 years old when he published his first works, (Pastorals and Essay on Criticism). He became famous almost immediately.

Pope did not “play well with others” or “suffer fools.” One of his favorite words was “duncery.” He pointed fingers at Dunces and published a whole epic poem, with a title echoing The Iliad called The Dunciad. He named names. He also lambasted “dullness”, writing a whole poem about it:

Born a Goddess, Dullness never dies.

Portrait of Alexander Pope. Studio of Godfrey Kneller, 1716

Pope’s form was the “heroic couplet”, the perfect form for his particular brand of cleverness and/or bitchery. If you’re good, you can destroy someone in a couplet. Michael Schmidt, author of Lives of the Poets, wrote that Pope “perfected the precise couplet that clicks shut like a latch.” No escape. Especially for those Pope “went after.” And boy, he went after everyone.

This comparison may seem crazy, but you read about Pope’s “beefs” with other writers of his day, all his contemporaries, is reminiscent of Eminem, whose beefs are legendary. (Just look up “Eminem Ja-Rule” or “Eminem Machine Gun Kelly” – just two examples – to see the LIBRARIES of commentary from hip-hop fans.) Just like Eminem, other writers crossed Pope at their peril. Pope slaughtered other poets in print to such a degree their reputations never recovered. Eminem has done the same thing to everyone who “crossed” him, including an entire magazine which sank into obscurity after he went after them. And let’s remember: we’re talking about fighting with WORDS. There were some poets Pope went after whose names would be buried in obscurity if he hadn’t gone after them, and made them legends in his own work. It may not be a comfortable way to live – in a sense of agitation and resentment – but it would be even WORSE if you didn’t have facility with language.

Pope’s BFFs were John Gay (author of The Beggar’s Opera) and Jonathan Swift (a TITAN), and this is an important thing to remember. Pope invoked hatred and scorn in many. If his merits were debated for centuries afterwards, if his contemporaries despised/feared him, he was also capable of having deep lifelong friendships.

So here are some examples of how Pope worked. He had educated himself mostly, immersing himself in the classics. He came out with translations of “The Iliad,” highly praised in some quarters, despised in others. He translated the whole thing into couplets, which undercut the heroism, mocked it even (there’s a reason it’s called “mock-heroic”). Couplets made the story pithy and artificial. He did the same thing with “The Odyssey.”

He also came out with his own edited version of the works of Shakespeare, where he “cleaned up” Shakespeare’s lines, “correcting” the meter if it felt “off” to him, and also cut thousands of lines because he personally didn’t like them. !!!

Another interesting thing about him: Pope was practically the inventor of Patreon. He was way out ahead of things. He ran his writing as a business, in an entrepreneurial “gotta get myself out there” way, in an era when that was just not done. He was one of the first poets who “went it alone” – without a sponsor, without a patron from the aristocracy/monarchy. Pope figured out a way to get his work out there, and still maintain his independence in print: He set up a subscription service for his works. And people paid, treating his writinglike breaking-news dispatches. This tells you something about who he was and his stature as a cultural commentator. He released his translation of The Iliad this way, via subscription service. People paid in advance, and when it came out they all received inscribed editions.

Okay this is long enough, and we haven’t even gotten to the quotes below this post. For me, compiling the quotes – from books I own, from poetry anthologies, from poetry sites – is the fun of it. It appeals to my archiving-indexing-obsessive soul! And I just toss them in there willy-nilly. No organizing principle.

Two final things before I go.

In 1712, Pope published “The Rape of the Lock.” It was based on a real-life incident, a ridiculous tempest in a teapot: A guy named Lord Petre was courting a dame named Arabella Fermor. One day, he cut off a lock of her hair without her permission. This caused an uproar between the two families. So Pope decided to write the story of “the rape of the lock” as THOUGH it was a heroic epic, a la The Odyssey. The tale is told in heroic couplets, and written in a breathless tone of voice, as though clipping off a lock of a woman’s hair is akin to the kidnapping of Helen of Troy. This type of thing is part of why his work doesn’t “travel.” If you don’t understand the lampoon of it, if you don’t get the irony and satire, then you won’t understand “The Rape of the Lock” at all.

Pope was used to ruffling feathers with his writing. Feather-ruffling was why he was so popular and so feared. In 1728 came The Dunciad, which went after all of the “dunces” in England, and, by extension, England herself. England was responsible for producing such a plethora of dunces. The Dunciad is overwhelming.

“Lo! the dread empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before the uncreating word:
Thy hand, great anarch! lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all.”

“There’s nothing blackens like the ink of fools.”

“Mad Mathesis alone was unconfined,
Too mad for mere material chains to bind,
Now to pure space lifts her ecstatic stare,
Now running round the circle, finds it square.”

“Joy to great Chaos! let Division reign:
Chromatic tortures soon shall drive them hence,
Break all their nerves, and fritter all their sense:
One trill shall harmonize joy, grief, and rage,
Wake the dull Church, and lull the ranting stage;
To the same notes thy sons shall hum, or snore,
And all thy yawning daughters cry, encore.”


I’ll end by going back to the beginning: One of the first poems Pope wrote, when he was just a teenager, was “Ode on Solitude.” It is dazzlingly confident.

Ode on Solitude

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.


Jonathan Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” (1731)
In Pope, I cannot read a line,
But with a sigh, I wish it mine:
When he can in one couplet fix
More sense than I can do in six:
It gives me such a jealous fit,
I cry, Pox take him, and his wit.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Does something happen to the English imagination in the latter part of the seventeenth century, something radical and irreversible? T.S. Eliot thinks so and calls it a “dissociation of sensibility.” It is plausible to locate it in the complex historical events that led to the Commonwealth and the Restoration: a break with cultural and spiritual continuities and political certainties; a wave of influence from the Continent, especially France, from where a king returned; a new spirit of skepticism, new codes of decorum and politeness, that Enlightenment which cast such murky darkness on the world of instinct, intuition and spontaneity. Something happens to the English mind to create the immense gap between Donne and Pope, between poets who feel thought and poets who think.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism:

The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.

Samuel Johnson:

His effusions were always voluntary.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

At his rhetorical best, Pope is not quite the embattled defender of Enlightened England he declared himself to be. His fear of universal madness, of the return of a nihilistic abyss, is more than a personal pathology or ideology.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

We must honor the chthonian but not necessarily yield to it. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope counsels good humor as the only solution to sex war. So with our enslavement by chthonian nature.

Alexander Pope, scorning the many poets of Charles II’s court:

A mob of gentlemen who wrote verses.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

Pope, the great master of hatred.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

The most brilliant poet of the eighteenth century would have been a composite figure made up of the three poet-friends, Swift, Pope and John Gay. Swift’s savagery rooted in a concern for common people, Pope’s verve and imaginative profligacy, and Gay’s gentle good cheer might, taken together, have given us a writer of Shakespearean–or at least Chaucerian–proportions. Genius was parceled out, not combined, in the eighteenth century.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

[Pope has] perfect pitch.

Thomas de Quincey:

His grammar is, indeed, vicious; preterites and participles he constantly confounds, and registers this class of blunders for ever by the cast-iron index of rhymes that never can mend. But worse than this mode of his viciousness is his syntax, which is so bad as to darken his meaning at times, and at other times to defeat it. But these were errors cleaving to his times; and it would be unfair to exact from Pope a better quality of diction than belonged to his contemporaries. Still it is indisputable that a better model of diction and grammar prevailed a century before Pope. In Spenser, in Shakespeare, in the Bible of King James’s reign, and in Milton, there are very few grammatical errors. But Pope’s defect in language was almost peculiar to himself. It lay in an inability, nursed doubtless by indolence, to carry out and perfect the expression of the thought he wishes to communicate. The language does not realize the idea: it simply suggests or hints it.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Pope complained that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the epicene Lord Hervey had “too much wit” for him. He sensed the icy cruelty of the beau monde, to whom moral discourse is alien because it elevates the inner world over the outer…The salon, like the petrified object-world venerated by the aesthete, is a spectacle of dazzling surfaces. Words, faces, and gestures are exhibited in a blaze of hard glamour. Though he toys with the idea of spiritual hermaphroditism, Pope loathes the androgyne of manners, whom he satirizes as the Amazonian belles and effeminate beaux of The Rape of the Lock. The salon is populated by sophisticates of a classical literacy, but its speed of dialogue and worship of the ephemeral inhibit deliberation and reflection, recklessly breaking with the past. Pope might have said, had the word been available, that the salon was too chic.

Alexander Pope on George Chapman, whose translation of Homer was later immortalized by John Keats:

…a daring fiery spirit that animates his translation, which is something like what one might imagine Homer himself to have writ before he arrived at years of discretion.

Mr. Pope (1928)
By Allen Tate

When Alexander Pope strolled in the city
Strict was the glint of pearl and ”old sedans.
Ladies leaned out more out of fear than pity
For Pope’s tight back was rather a goat’s than man’s

Often one thinks the urn should have more bones
Than skeletons provide for speedy dust,
The urn gets hollow, cobwebs brittle as stones
Weave to the funeral shell a frivolous rust.

And he who dribbled couplets like a snake
Coiled to a lithe precision in the sun
Is missing. The jar is empty; you may break
It only to find that Mr. Pope is gone.

What requisitions of a verity
Prompted the wit and rage between his teeth
One cannot say. Around a crooked tree
A moral climbs whose name should be a wreath.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, February 25, 1948:

I have been reading masses of Pope and Faulkner–a wonderful pair to have together.

Samuel Johnson:

Never was penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.

Howard D. Weinbrot:

Eclectic, hostile, and both sublime and vulgar.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Hence the neoclassic eighteenth-century, unlike the Renaissance, rejects the androgyne. Pope assails epicene Lord Hervey, whom he casts as Neo’s catamite Sporus, for defying the great chain of being. Sporus refuses to confine himself to one social or sexual role, transgressing the burden of male and female, mammal and reptile, even animal and mineral. For Pope, a man knows his own place and his own face. There are no masks.

Alexander Pope on John Gay:

[Gay was] treated with more fondness than respect…He was a natural man, without design, who spoke what he thought and just as he thought it.

Mr. Pope’s Welcome from Greece
by John Gay

Long hast thou, friend, been absent from thy soil,
Like patient Ithacus at siege of Troy;
I have been witness of thy six years’ toil,
Thy daily labours and thy night’s annoy,
Lost to thy native land with great turmoil,
On the wide sea, oft threat’ning to destroy:
Methinks with thee I’ve trod Sigaean ground,
And heard the shores of Hellespont resound.

Did I not see thee when thou first sett’st sail
To seek adventures fair in Homer’s land?
Did I not see thy sinking spirits fail
And wish thy bark had never left the strand?
Ev’n in mid ocean didst thou quail
And oft lift up thy holy eye and hand,
Praying the Virgin dear and saintly choir,
Back to the port to bring thy bark entire.
(full poem here Those 18th century guys did go on.)

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

How do you refine John Milton? Pope and Dr. Johnson alike handle Milton in their own poetry in ways very different from Pope’s refinement of Dryden or Johnson’s reliance upon Pope. The exquisite parodies of Milton in The Rape of the Lock, and the wonderfully grotesque Miltonic mock-sublimities of The Dunciad, are remarkable examples of the Nietzschean, daemonic dance of influence-as-parody, much more than they are mimetic or mercantile refinements. Milton and nature are hardly everywhere the same, and Paradise Lost is a difficult native resource to convert into trade.

Thomas de Quincey:

The Satires were so far of external origin. They were not prompted by the “satiric heart,” but by the prevailing fashion of the Walpolian era, the fashion of unrestrained invective. Pope was conscious of a talent for caustic effects, conscious that he could do better than any one what every one else was doing–sting with epigram.

Samuel Johnson:

He wrote in such a manner as might expose him to few hazards. He used almost always the same fabric of verse; and, indeed, by those few essays which he made of any other, he did not enlarge his reputation…By perpetual practice, language had, in his mind, a systematic arrangement; having always the same use for words, he had words so selected and combined as to be ready at his call.

William Broome, who collaborated with Pope, on the reaction to Pope’s The Dunciad:

“I wonder he is not thrashed, but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren.”

William Blake:

I do not condemn Pope or Dryden because they did not understand imagination, but because they did not understand verse.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets, on “Rape of the Lock”:

Pope is at home in the world he describes, half seduced by its opulence, and if not willing to forgive, reluctant to chastise excesses, which he pushes in his poem to further excess. Yet at the fringes of his poem a cruel social world peeps in.

Thomas de Quincey on Pope’s “Essay on Man”:

[It] sins chiefly by want of central principle, and by want thereof of all coherency amongst the separate thoughts.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn:

Any poetry removed from popular diction will inevitably become as esoteric as eighteenth-century satire (perfected by Alexander Pope), whose dense allusiveness and preciosity drove the early Romantic poets into the countryside to find living speech again.

Ford Madox Ford:

It has well been said of Pope that his work divides itself into three periods which correspond to the three reigns under which he wrote. Under Queen Anne he was a personal pastoral English poet; under George I he was a translator and ‘made much money by satisfying the French-classical taste of his day with versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey and with bitter-sweet poems of the bag-wig and sword-knot type’…The heavy materialism and gross agnostic alchoholism settled on the country that had driven out the Stuarts and forgotten the piety and music of Herbert and Donne; so Pope turned his mind to the problems of his age. And in a series of poems that were ‘serious’ and censorious enough he made his muse sing his day.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

[In The Rape of the Lock], the gorgeous Belinda, universal flirt, is aptly portrayed as a sunrise, warm to all but partial to none in particular. The Popean wit, Mozartean in its classical playfulness, achieves apotheosis in a couplet that commends itself to everyone:

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

He was able in the Essay on Man to change the description of nature as a “mighty maze, and all without a plan” to a “mighty maze but not without a plan” when it was suggested that his vision was too negative. So radical a change, casually made, reveals the shallow current of his thought.

Jonathan Swift, letter to Pope, 1725:

I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians – I will not speak of my own trade – soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion. By consequence you are to embrace it immediately, and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit of no dispute; nay, I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point.

Reuben Brower on “The Rape of the Lock”:

By inventing the sylphs Pope solved the almost impossible problems that the theorists set for the heroic poet. He is almost certainly the only modern poet to create a company of believable deities which are not simply the ancient classical divinities in modern dress, and which are not offensive to a Christian audience.

Alexander Pope, Preface to the Works of Shakespeare (1725):

It is ever the nature of parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Jonson had much the more learning, it was said on the other hand that Shakespeare had none at all; and because Shakespeare had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Jonson wanted both. Because Shakespeare borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Jonson borrowed everything.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “The Rape of the Lock”:

One of the most poised and artful poems in Western literature.

David B. Morris:

There is no more profound kinship between Pope and Dryden than the belief that poetry advances by refining the achievements of the past.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

His best writing depends on the elusive way he makes solid an abstract or moralizing passage by combining unexpected words, and by rhyme that seals the “conjunction disjunctive” (Coleridge’s phrase) of the couplets … Pope’s [couplets] contain at their best a paradox, an irresolution, which compels us to read on.

Dr. Samuel Johnson:

Pope searches the pages o Dryden for happy combinations of Delphick diction, but it will not be denied that he added much to what he found. He cultivated our language with so much diligence and art, that he has left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version may be said to have tuned the English tongue; for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody. Such a series of lines so elaborately corrected, and so sweetly modulated, took possession of the publick ear; the vulgar was enamoured of the poem, and the learned wondered at the translation.

Allen Ginsberg to students in a “Basic Poetics,” class, on Christopher Smart, May 26, 1980:

“Kerouac’s long line comes somewhat out of Christopher Smart also. Smart is smarter than anybody else around. His language is smarter than Pope or Dryden. Their’s is very stiff, compared to the liquidity and intelligence and humor (of Smart), as well as classical scholarship involved, as well as a pure vernacular improvisation and contemporary quotidian reverence.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

The line from Jonson to [Samuel] Johnson may be called the Neoclassic, a version of literary history that has its most influential manifesto in Pope’s early Essay on Criticism, regarded by Johnson as sufficient in itself to “have placed him among the first criticks and the first poets,” another uncharacteristic of Johnsonian hyperbole, doubtless traceable to ideological exuberance.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Pope…thinks in shapes and forms, exploits reversals, contains his meanings in the figures themselves but works as it were with atomized forms and metaphors, divorced from the expected context and releasing new meanings in an original context. His poetry tends to fragment into brilliant shards.

William Blake on Pope’s translation of the Iliad:
Thus Hayley on his Toilette seeing the sope
Cries Homer is very much improved by Pope.

Alexander Pope, letter to John Gay (16 October 1727):

I have many years magnify’d in my own mind, and repeated to you a ninth Beatitude, added to the eight in the Scripture: Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

H.L. Mencken:

The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope – all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 per centers, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.

Martin Price on “The Rape of the Lock”:

The heroic-turned-artful.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson:

I mentioned the vulgar saying, that Pope’s Homer was not a good representation of the original. Johnson. “Sir, it is the greatest work of the kind that has ever been produced.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “The Rape of the Lock”:

Pope is neither like Donne nor his modernist followers, who give us a sense that baroque elaboration of metaphor is almost infinitely possible, nor is Pope like Milton and his Romantic followers, including such twentieth-century Romantics as W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, who so station their allusions as to make further figuration almost redundant. In his own mode of refinement, Pope lightly but strongly intimates that more turnings of allusion always are possible, while charmingly insinuating that the elegance and justice of his tropes will constitute a proper haven for the amiable reader.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

He writes with assurance and authority which set at nothing the animosity his character arouses. He wrote even his letters for publication; in his privacies (there are few intimacies) he felt himself to be on show, accountable to his idea of himself.

Dr. Samuel Johnson on “The Dunciad”:

Pope’s irascibility prevailed … Pope confessed his own pain by his anger; but he gave no pain to those who had provoked him.

George Gilfillan, 1856, on Pope’s talent:

“…a rose peering into the summer air, fine, rather than powerful.”

Lord Byron, letter, 1821:

I look upon a proper appreciation of Pope as a touchstone of taste.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

In Dryden and Pope, refining the tradition meant extending the realm of Enlightenment, by continuing to dispel the empire of Enthusiasm. Theodicy without enthusiasm might be described as the project of Pope’s Essay on Man, an admirable project doubtless, but perhaps not suited to the Muse.

Alexander Pope:

The most positive men are the most credulous.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets, on Pope’s use of satire:

For Pope the ideal order is no longer tangibly embodied, there is no “right” party, no legitimate order: his satiric exaggerations do not always suggest a norm, his distortions contain more malice than instructive justness.

Lytton Strachey, 1925:

The verses, when they were written, resemble nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such passers-by whom the wretch had a grudge against.


He is in my opinion the most elegant, the most correct poet; and at the same time the most harmonious that England ever gave birth to.

Maynard Mack on “The Dunciad”:

In many ways [it was] the greatest act of folly in Pope’s life. [It would become] one of the most challenging and distinctive works in the history of English poetry, [but] it bore bitter fruit. It brought the poet in his own time the hostility of its victims and their sympathizers, who pursued him implacably from then on with a few damaging truths and a host of slanders and lies.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets, on Pope’s “Ode on Solitude”:

Like the voice of an inmate of Gray’s churchyard, its resignation (a literary stance) is credible because the form is so astonishingly achieved, phrases building precisely, now gathering evidence, now deploying it, so that the conclusion is not only just but inevitable. The second stanza anticipates the future poet: fields yield bread and sheep clothing, the images translated into a market value: it matters less what they are than what they provide.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

“When I aim at praise, they say I bite,” Pope protests, and we recognize that no satirist since in the language, from Byron to Waugh, is Pope’s peer. But if that were the limit of Pope’s satirical art, we would not be obliged to admit him among the strongest poets in the language. What makes him so formidable, a Milton among satirists, is The Dunciad, certainly the poetic masterpiece of its century.

Alexander Pope:

I never knew any man in my life who could not bear another’s misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.

Oscar Wilde:

There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.

John Dennis, Reflections Critical and Satyrical, upon a Late Rhapsody, Call’d, An Essay upon Criticism (1711):

A young, squab, short gentleman, whose outward form, though it should be that of downright monkey, would not differ so much from human shape as his unthinking immaterial part does from human understanding. … As there is no creature in nature so venomous, there is nothing so stupid and so impotent as a hunch-back’d toad. … This little author may extol the ancients as much and as long as he pleases, but he has reason to thank the good gods that he was born a modern. For had he been born of Grecian parents, and his father by consequence had by law the absolute disposal of him, his life had been no longer than that of one of his poems,—the life of half a day.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “The Dunciad”:

Clearly, Johnson strongly misread The Dunciad, since he refused to believe that the poem’s design was moral. He found in it “petulance and malignity enough,” granted it some beauties, and condemned “the grossness of its images,” which he rightly found Swiftian. Certainly a comparison of the savagery of The Dunciad with the compassion of The Vanity of Human Wishes will convince us that Johnson had a profounder moral intellect than Pope, and was much the better man, but The Dunciad is immensely the finer poem, beautifully eloquent and humane as The Vanity of Human Wishes remains.

William Cowper, “Critical Remarks on Pope’s Homer”, 1785:

The Iliad and the Odyssey, in his hands, have no more the air of antiquity than if he had himself invented them.

Alexander Pope:

It is with narrow-souled people as with narrow necked bottles: the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out.

John Dennis, Remarks upon Mr. Pope’s Translation of Homer (1717):

The little gentleman … with a most comical and unparalleled assurance, has undertaken to translate Homer from Greek, of which he does not know one word, into English, which he understands almost as little.

Magdalen Rackett, Pope’s sister, on all the threats he received post-“Dunciad”:

“My brother does not seem to know what fear is.”

Alexander Pope:

True politeness consists in the being easy one-self, and making every body about one as easy as we can.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “The Rape of the Lock”:

The greatness of The Rape of the Lock is that it may be the only poem that seems to demand Mozartean comparisons, because it too is infinitely nuanced, absolutely controlled, and yet finally poignant in the highest degree.

William Wordsworth:

As far as Pope goes, he succeeds; but his Homer is not Homer, but Pope.

Alexander Pope:

He who tells a lie, is not sensible how great a task he undertakes; for he must be forced to invent twenty more to maintain that one.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “The Dunciad”:

The trouble at the core of Milton is also Pope’s, whose relation to Milton was very unlike his relation to Dryden. Whatever the force of the poetic past was to Pope, that part of it he felt emanating from Milton was beyond refinement. “Darkness visible,” the Miltonic legacy after all, returned as the inevitable trope for Pope’s sense of what lay always beyond the possibilities of the Enlightenment.

Alexander Pope’s final words on his deathbed in 1774:

“Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms.”

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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2 Responses to “When I aim at praise, they say I bite.” — Alexander Pope

  1. SK says:

    Fabulous collection of quotes. Thank you.

    — Pope fan

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much – I always appreciate it when I hear people like these huge quote roundups, because I do love doing them.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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