chapter
18 Pages

(a) A CATHOLIC CHILDHOOD

Because Pope was not primarily a lyric poet like Donne, or an explorer of private mental experience like Wordsworth, we tend to think of him as essentially a public voice, the satirist of civil follies rather than the analyst of personal emotions. Many of the vices Pope attacked are forms of egotism: avarice, power-seeking, narcissism. The lack of a real or implied partner to address poems to also suggests a reticence about private life which disappoints a voyeuristic age. Nonetheless personal character remained for Pope a fundamental element of poetic voice. Satire has to have a position from which to criticise the world; and since Pope could not acquire the kind of state position which validated the work of his closest model, John Dryden (1631-1700), he developed a position of moral authority derived from his own status as a private, right-thinking citizen, living in principled independence of state patronage, willing to implicate the personal experience on which his voice as a social critic was based. While one could read through the complete poems of Dryden without learning much about his life, Pope insistently manages a particular kind of self-involvement even in his most public, apocalyptic works. Much criticism of him – plenty of it more venomous and scurrilous than anything he produced himself in criticizing others – was based on his own life, character, and body. A competent artist, he controlled the dissemination of portraits and other images of himself, and bestowed extraordinary care on the presentation and publication of his work, mastering book trade processes as no writer had ever done before to produce a meticulous version of his ‘corpus’ in print [189-99]. In these ways, he seems a very modern figure. This first section will give an account of the main features of what we know of Pope’s biography, and of how he turned his personal experience into public poetry.