ALEXANDER POPE by Peter Quennell


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Destiny teases many, but only goes to bed with a few. It bestowed upon Alexander Pope a sense of mission unrivaled in English literature, but whether or not he became the great neo-classical stylist he sought all his life to be is still a debatable question, even after three centuries of criticism. Certainly, Pope, ""the Wicked Wasp of Twickenham,"" was set apart at an early age from the herd: his Catholicism denied him entrance to the university, and an adolescent illness permanently disfigured his body, inducing that melancholic temperament which made him bookish, rancorous, and dazzlingly witty. Peter Quennell, in his excellent biography, takes the Adlerian view: out of ""the feeling that he was weak where others were powerful, and powerful where the 'tall fellows' who surrounded him were insignificant and ineffective, sprang the agonized life-long conflict that he endeavored to resolve through poetry."" Some, including Quennell, see, beneath the icy elegance and ironclad couplets, a sweet and spontaneous nature struggling to break through, or at least the terrible frustration of a born romanticist (at twelve, for instance, Pope wrote the almost Shelleyan Ode on Solitude) chronically turning against itself in misogynistic (the hapless relations with the Blount sisters or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu) and misanthropic despair. The surprising thing about Pope is that much of his greatest work was written in his youth (Quennell's biography concludes with the appearance of The Dunciad in Pope's fortieth year), and yet all of it sounds majestically middle-aged. In a sense, Pope, the master comic moralist, hardly lived at all.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1968
Publisher: Stein & Day