In This Article Alexander Pope

  • Introduction
  • Editions
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections

British and Irish Literature Alexander Pope
by
Tom Jones
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0047

Introduction

Alexander Pope (b. 21 May 1688–d. 30 May 1744) is the preeminent English poet of the early 18th century. He was commercially and critically successful in his time, establishing his fortune by means of a translation of Homer to which subscriptions were sold. He won the friendship and approval of many socially and intellectually influential people, such as Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and William Warburton, through his writing. His technical mastery of the heroic couplet, one of the main modes of English verse composition, has always attracted attention—derisory from the Romantics and Victorians, more admiring from critics of the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Pope’s poetry channels the traditions of earlier English and classical writing, transforming and often subverting or ironizing those traditions, as in his major mock-epic works The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Pope’s writing is controversial, touching on subjects such as gender identity, political commitment, moral attitudes, and the nature of being human. Such controversial interests make his poetry gripping and have also made him the center of charged debates concerning the politics of literary study. Pope was active as a translator, editor, and prose writer, retaining a close interest in the physical existence of his work throughout the publication process, and contributing to the development of copyright law and the modern image of the author. Pope’s poetry invites comparison with the visual arts, and he himself was often depicted in images that sometimes made evident his short stature and the double curvature of his spine from Pott’s disease. These features marked him out for attack throughout his life: he has also become a figure in the study of disability in literature, as he has been for other types of marginality (Catholicism, political opposition, for example). The range of Pope’s work, from social comedy to philosophical epistle to familiar letter, and the range of responses to that work guarantee his continuing interest to undergraduate, scholarly, and popular audiences alike.

Editions

There are several major monuments in the modern editing of Pope’s works. The first point of reference for scholars of Pope remains Butt 1939–1969, but some of the inconveniences of this edition are being addressed by Rumbold 2007 and Rumbold’s colleagues on the Longman edition. Pope 2016 is not a critical edition, but makes extensive reference to the manuscripts of An Essay on Man and offers a contextual introduction and notes. Ault and Cowler 1936–1986 provides the most complete 20th-century edition of Pope’s prose. Hammond 1987 offers an overview of the correspondence as well as selections from the other prose works; this work is also more easily obtained and is probably more accessible for undergraduates. Erskine-Hill 2000 usefully updates the huge labors of Sherburn 1956, making use of many of the documents whose gradual discovery is noted in several of the items in Letters. Shankman 1996 did a great service in making Pope’s Iliad widely available in an affordable paperback.

  • Ault, Norman, and Rosemary Cowler, eds. The Prose Works of Alexander Pope. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1936–1986.

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    Pope’s miscellaneous essays in periodical publications, his prefaces to his own works (his translation of Homer, his “Pastorals”), his pamphlet attacks on Edmund Curll, the majestic parody of a treatise on poetics, Peri Bathous: Or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry, and other prose works are collected here.

  • Butt, John, ed. The Poems of Alexander Pope. 11 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1939–1969.

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    The standard edition of the poems of Pope, and his translation of Homer, with introductions and annotations by prominent scholars of Pope. There are one or two minor problems with the edition, such as the lack of a consistent policy on typography and a complex system of cross-referencing for Pope’s footnotes to The Dunciad.

  • Erskine-Hill, Howard, ed. Alexander Pope: Selected Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Erskine-Hill prints thirteen of the letters discovered since 1956 and also prints in sequence letters that Pope revised and redesignated in his published correspondence. An introduction characterizes Pope as a writer of letters, and the value of his letters for literary scholars and historians.

  • Hammond, Paul, ed. Selected Prose of Alexander Pope. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Presents selections from Pope’s correspondence as well as his other prose works. The introduction focuses on Pope’s self-image.

  • Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. Edited by Tom Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

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    The introduction characterizes Pope’s philosophical attitude, and offers a contextual account of the argument of each Epistle, as well as a sketch of the reception of the poem up to the 20th century.

  • Rumbold, Valerie, ed. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Vol. 3, The Dunciad (1728) and The Dunciad Variorum (1729). Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2007.

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    Only Valerie Rumbold’s edition of the Dunciads of 1728 and 1729 is so far available, but this edition could supersede the Twickenham as a text of Pope’s nontranslated work.

  • Shankman, Stephen, ed. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Alexander Pope. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1996.

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    Reproducing Pope’s translation of and annotations to Homer, this makes one of the most intensely discussed translations of the 18th century available in paperback.

  • Sherburn, George, ed. The Correspondence of Alexander Pope. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

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    The standard edition of Pope’s correspondence, including many letters between other members of Pope’s circle. Annotations provide biographical and historical context, as well as detailing the often complex provenance of letters, and Pope’s struggle to bring them into print. The index has been said to be incomplete.

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