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ALEXANDER POPE was born in London in 1688. His father, who was a linen-draper by trade, was the son of a clergyman of the Church of England, but had been converted in youth to Roman Catholicism. Not long after the poet's birth his father retired to Binfield in Windsor Forest. As a Roman Catholic the young Pope was debarred from entering Public School or University. He was educated privately by priests, but also read widely for himself, especially in the Latin, English, French and Italian poets. His health was severely injured, whether by illness or accident is not certain, at the age of twelve, and Pope grew up stunted in stature and with a spinal curvature which rendered him hunch-backed. His poetic talents appeared very early, and were encouraged by his father. While still a child he wrote a play based on Homer's Iliad, to be acted by himself and his companions. Some of the pieces printed among the Minor Poems at the end of the present selection date from his 'teens, while the Pastorals, his first published work, date from his sixteenth year. By this time Pope had already attracted the attention of several neighbouring gentry with literary tastes. Among these were the poet and critic Walsh (to whom the Pastorals were to be dedicated) and the old dramatist Wycherley.
Pope's Pastorals, which had circulated in manuscript, came to the notice of the eminent London publisher and bookseller, Jacob Tonson, who printed them in his Miscellany for 1709. Pope now began to frequent London literary circles, and at first was drawn into that of Addison, whose meeting-place was Button's Coffee House. To this period belong such characteristic early poems as An Essay on Criticism (1711) and The Rape of the Lock (1712). Windsor Forest (1713), besides paying tribute to the countryside of Pope's boyhood, concluded with a passage prophesying a coming age of
peace and prosperity as a result of the Peace of Utrecht, whereby Queen Anne's Tory ministry had ended the war with France. Addison and his friends were Whigs, but the sympathies of Pope, as a Roman Catholic, were inevitably with the Tories. It is not therefore surprising that he should move away from Addison's circle. He had already quarrelled with one of its members, Ambrose Philips, over the merits of their respective Pastorals.
Pope now formed a far stronger and more enduring friendship with the Tory wits, Swift and Bolingbroke. Together with Arbuthnot they founded The Scriblerus Club which also included Gay and the Irish poet Thomas Parnell. Its object was a concerted attack by means of satire and irony on pedantry and dull and bad writing of all kinds.
From 1715 to 1720 Pope was almost exclusively occupied with his translation of Homer's Iliad. His embarking on this task represents in more ways than one, a critical turning-point in his career. The profits he received from its sale by subscription were to render him financially independent for the rest of his life. But it was also a challenge to his endurance and self-discipline. A more mature and intellectually stronger poet was to emerge.
As for the translation itself, it is, in spite of several limitations, a major achievement. Pope's knowledge of Greek was in fact slight, and he relied considerably on earlier translations, both French and English (including Chapman's Elizabethan version). Nevertheless what he produced was a major Augustan poem in its own right. A poet so great and so universal as Homer needs reinterpreting and fresh translation for each succeeding age. To-day, no doubt, we seek qualities in Homer other than those which Pope and his generation most admired. We will find more modern —and probably much inferior-translations more illuminating. The Augustan polish of Pope will seem appropriate enough to us in those poems where he is dealing directly with his own time but transferred to heroic Greece it may strike us as incongruous. Nevertheless, his translation has a swiftness of pace and a rhetorical vigour which still make it eminently readable.