Alexander Pope's talent for inspiring enmity is central to his reputation. His contemporary enemies were impressive in quantity and intensity: J.V. Guerinot's bibliography of Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope (1969) lists over six hundred items, including works in dreadful verse and sputtering prose denouncing Pope's poetry, religion, morality and body - some illustrated by pictures caricaturing the hunchbacked poet as an ape with a papal tiara. The first extended treatment of his work, Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, accused him of lacking imagination, and went so far as to doubt whether his works should be called poetry. Matthew Arnold took this line further, dismissing Pope and Dryden as 'classics of our prose'. Attacks on Pope's morals also continued in the 19th century: C.W. Dilke was shocked to discover that Pope had 'cooked' a few letters in his published correspondence by claiming that he had sent them to persons more famous than the actual addressees; Whitwell Elwin assailed this piece of petty chicanery - utterly ordinary by the standards of most published 18th-century correspondence - as a dark sin against universal morality. It was a short distance from Elwin's hostile footnotes to Lytton Strachey's famous description of Pope as a monkey pouring boiling oil down on his victims. F.W. Bateson, who edited one volume of the Twickenham edition, came away with a low opinion of Pope's mind: 'Pope couldn't think,' he wrote in 1971. 'Is there a single memorable aperçu in all his letters? The contrast with Gray, or Keats, or even Hopkins, is glaring.' Ignoring Pope's outsider status, a product of his Roman Catholic faith and his physical handicap, some self-proclaimed New Historicists have slandered him as an apologist for such establishment vices as colonialism, which he explicitly and powerfully deplored.
LRB 16 December 1993 | PDF Download