Pope’s Poetic Darts

Alexander Pope was born in London on this day in 1688, the only child of middle-aged, Catholic parents. This was the year of the Glorious Revolution, and the broom that swept out Catholic James II and swept in constitutional reform also brought new restrictions and suspicions upon English Catholics. Barred from politics and from attending university, Pope began as an outsider and seemed destined to remain so. In his early teens he contracted a tubercular bone disease that caused him to be hunchbacked, no more than 4′ 6″ tall, and plagued by various secondary ailments.

This convergence of circumstances, say Pope’s biographers, helped to create the distance necessary for satire. But Pope also had a genius for firing his poetic darts with formal polish, as in these familiar couplets from his Essay on Criticism:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

Nay fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

Lytton Strachey concluded that such compactness “resembled 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 — and we are delighted.” One of Pope’s targets, William Broome, was less diplomatic: “I wonder he is not thrashed: but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren.”

Scandal of the Season (2007), a historical novel by the Princeton English scholar Sophie Gee, is an imaginative retelling of the specific events and wider social intrigues surrounding Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. The famous snip of trophy hair is stolen in Gee’s penultimate chapter; in the last chapter, Pope triumphantly reads his scandal-satirizing poem to a coffee house crowded with friends, enemies, and literary rivals, the outsider-monkey taking the laurel crown:

All around him the room fell silent and attentive as they quieted their babble. He began to read the opening lines of his poem:

    What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
    What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
    I sing.

He glanced up, and saw that they were watching him entranced. Not a breath could be heard besides his own voice. Everybody was spellbound, and a wild rush of exhilaration overcame him. He had done it, he thought — he had written a poem that would make him the most famous poet in England.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.