Today is the birthday of Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), considered one of the greatest English poets, and the foremost poet of the early eighteenth century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive poetry, including The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism, as well as for his translation of Homer. After Shakespeare, Pope is the second-most quoted writer in the English language, as per The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations some of his verses having even become popular idioms in common parlance.
Pope’s poetic career testifies to his persistence in the face of disadvantages, of health and of circumstance. He and his family were Catholics and thus fell subject to the Test Acts, prohibitive measures which severely hampered the prosperity of Catholics after the abdication of James II. Catholics were banned from living within ten miles of London, and from attending public schools or universities. For this reason, except for a few spurious Catholic schools, Pope was largely self-educated. He was taught to read by his aunt and became a lover of books. He learned French, Italian, Latin, and Greek by himself, and discovered Homer at the age of six. As a child Pope survived being once trampled by a cow, but when he was 12 began struggling with tuberculosis of the spine (Pott disease), along with fits of crippling headaches which troubled him throughout his life.
In the year 1709, Pope showcased his precocious metrical skill with the publication of Pastorals, his first major poems. They earned him instant fame. By the time he was 23 he had written An Essay on Criticism, released in 1711. A kind of poetic manifesto in the vein of Horace’s Ars Poetica, the essay was met with enthusiastic attention and won Pope a wider circle of prominent friends, most notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who had recently started collaborating on the influential The Spectator. The critic John Dennis, having located an ironic and veiled portrait of himself, was outraged by what he considered the impudence of the younger author. Dennis hated Pope for the rest of his life, and, save for a temporary reconciliation, dedicated his efforts to insulting him in print, to which Pope retaliated in kind, making Dennis the butt of much satire.
The Rape of the Lock, perhaps the poet’s most famous poem, appeared first in 1712, followed by a revised and enlarged version in 1714. When Lord Petre forcibly snipped off a lock from Miss Arabella Fermor’s head (the “Belinda” of the poem), the incident gave rise to a high-society quarrel between the families. With the idea of allaying this, Pope treated the subject in a playful and witty mock-heroic epic. The narrative poem brings into focus the onset of acquisitive individualism and conspicuous consumption, where purchased goods assume dominance over moral agency.
A folio comprising a collection of his poems appeared in 1717, together with two new ones written about the passion of love. These were Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and the famous proto-romantic poem Eloisa to Abelard. Though Pope never married, about this time he became strongly attached to Lady M. Montagu, whom he indirectly referenced in the popular poem Eloisa to Abelard, and to Martha Blount, with whom his friendship continued throughout his life.
In his career as a satirist, Pope made his share of enemies as the critics, politicians, and certain other prominent figures felt the sting of his sharp-witted satires. Some were so virulent, that Pope even carried pistols at one point while walking his dog. After 1738, Pope composed relatively little. He toyed with the idea of writing a patriotic epic called Brutus. He mainly revised and expanded his masterpiece The Dunciad. Book Four appeared in 1742, and a complete revision of the whole poem in the following year. In this version, he replaced Lewis Theobald with the Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, as “king of dunces”. However, his real target in the poem is the Whig politician Robert Walpole. By now Pope’s health was failing, and when told by his physician, on the morning of his death, that he was better, Pope replied: “Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms”.
Here are some memorable lines:
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
If you want to know what God thinks about money just look at the people He gives it to.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
To err is human, to forgive, divine.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast
Man never thinks himself happy, but when he enjoys those things which others want or desire.
The more you read Pope, the more you realize how profoundly he influenced common rhetoric.
For my recipe today I have chosen Orange Fool from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse. I chose it because I like the recipe but also because a YouTube video of the recipe (below) caused great indignation from Trump supporters because they were convinced it was making fun of Trump. Pope would be laughing his heart out at that idiocy.
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool.
But you yourself may prove to show it,
Every fool is not a poet.
A fool is a fruit dessert popular since the 16th century. The word “fool” in this case may be a cognate of the Arabic “ful” which is made of mashed beans (an old fav of mine). The original is as follows:
Take the Juice of six Oranges and Six Eggs well beaten, a Pint of Cream, a quarter of a Pound of Sugar, a little Cinnamon and Nutmeg; mix all together, and keep stirring over a slow Fire, till it is thick, then put in a little Piece of Butter, and keep stirring till cold, and dish it up.
Not hard to replicate. You would be best served using a double boiler to avoid turning the mixture to scrambled eggs. Or . . . you can follow this video: