Reading eight hundred pages of rhyming is not for the faint-hearted. That said, Alexander Pope makes this feat slightly easier with his wide range of subject matter. Whether satirizing, writing romance or history, or just ranting, this guy does it all and does it elegantly.
Pope’s early work is frankly astounding. At age twelve he paraphrases Homer, breathing life into stories made stale by retelling and the passage of time. By seventeen he’s translated both Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale,” about a love triangle with some fairly twisted motives, and “The Wife of Bath,” in which a woman puts not one but five husbands through a merry hell. Both poems are long (twenty and twelve pages, respectively) but darkly funny and thus quick reads.
By his early twenties, Pope outgrows paraphrases and translations and starts his own writing. “An Essay on Criticism” isn’t a bad start; it’s cleverly written and has a ring of defiance, but Pope stumbles into stereotype when he inevitably portrays critics as arrogant bad guys and poets as the valiant underdogs. Given this, and my natural cynicism for romance in literature, I went into “Eloisa to Abelard” with some apprehension. The story (of a couple separated for years by calamity) seemed sure to be brimming with sentimentality, but I was startled by Pope’s poignant expression of vulnerability, self-doubt, and loneliness–and his ability to do so without inducing eye-rolling or nausea in the reader. This would have been my favorite of the poems Pope wrote as a young adult, if only it weren’t for “On a Lady who Pissed at the Tragedy of Cato.” Short, sweet, and hilarious, the poem not only paints a vivid picture but imparts a sensible message. After all, if you’re attending a sad play, why cry when you can just pee yourself?
Unfortunately, Pope runs out of steam after age thirty. His poems consist of pointless babbling or religious babbling, made all the more tedious by his incessant rhyming. Pope retains his elegance, but his sense of humor and knack for story-telling evaporate. I found “An Essay on Man” to be little more than fifty pages elaborating on the idea that God knows best and mankind’s place is to keep our heads down and our mouths shut (an odd notion for a writer to live by). This was followed by fifty pages of moral essays. Pope does finally try his hand at satire again, furnishing his later career with its only bright spot. “The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated” is a fictional dialogue between Pope and a friend in which the poet cheerfully acknowledges the criticism of his satire as “too bold” and just as cheerfully rejects his friend’s advice to be sensible, stop writing, and settle down. This triumph is drowned in more mind-numbing rambling, and the few amusing epitaphs tacked onto the end of the book by editor John Butt aren’t enough to revive the reader.
There’s something to be said for doing one thing well, but there’s also something to be said for testing your limits. As prolific and willing to experiment with themes as Pope was, the fact that every poem sounds the same is frustrating. Pope’s rhymes were charming at first; hundreds of pages later, they started to grate on my nerves. This is a poet best taken in small doses. You have been warned.