He was a very precocious child. At the age of twelve he was writing an Ode on Solitude. He chose his vocation early, for writing poetry was the business of his life.
In his childhood, his parents removed from London to Binfield, a village in Berkshire, nine miles from Windsor. When he was nearly thirty years old, his translation of the Iliad enabled him to buy a house and grounds at Twickenham on the Thames, about twelve miles above London. He lived here for the rest of his life, indulging his taste for landscape gardening and entertaining the greatest men of the age.
After early middle life, his writings made him pecuniarily independent, but he suffered much from ill health. In his Lives of the English Poets, Dr. Samuel Johnson says of Pope:—
“By natural deformity, or accidental distortion, his vital functions were so much disordered that his life was a long disease... When he rose, he was invested in a bodice made of stiff canvas, being scarce able to hold himself erect till they were laced, and he then put on a flannel waistcoat. One side was contracted. His legs were so slender that he enlarged their bulk with three pair of stockings...
“In all his intercourse with mankind,
he had great delight in
artifice, and endeavored to attain all his purposes by indirect and
unsuspected methods. He hardly drank tea without a stratagem.”
The publication of his correspondence tangled him in a mesh of deceptions, because his desire to appear in a favorable light led him to change letters that he had sent to friends. His double-dealing, intense jealousy, and irritability, due to his physical condition, caused him to become involved in many quarrels, which gave him the opportunity to indulge to the utmost his own satiric tendency. In one of his late satires, The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, he charged Addison with the inclination to—
“Damn with faint praise, assent
with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer.”
On the basis of what he wrote, we may divide his life into three periods. During his first thirty years, he produced various kinds of verse, like the Essay on Criticism and The Rape of the Lock. The middle period of his life was marked by his translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In his third period, he wrote moral and didactic poems, like the Essay on Man, and satires, like the Dunciad.
[Illustration: POPE’S VILLA AT TWICKENHAM. From an old print.]
Some Poems of the First Period: Essay on Criticism and The Rape of the Lock.—Pope’s first published poem, The Pastorals, which appeared in 1709, was followed in 1711 by An Essay on Criticism,—an exquisite setting of a number of gems of criticism which had for a long time been current. Pope’s intention in writing this poem may be seen from what he himself says: “It seems not so much the perfection of sense to say things that have never been said before, as to express those best that have been said oftenest.”