Alexander Pope was born in London, this day in 1688. A sickly child and a Roman Catholic to boot, Pope overcame physical and social obstacles to become the first poet in the English language to earn a living writing - a very good living. Ridiculed for his religion and for his misshapen body (former lady friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described him as “the human question mark”). Undaunted, he wrote such mock epic classics as “The Duciad,” “The Rape of the Lock,” as well as “An Essay on Criticism” and mastered translations of Homer that earned him his fortune. An unabashed Tory and a vicious satirist, Pope gave no quarter to his enemies, even women, as in his description of “Sappho,” which is really a remark about the sanitary habits of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu after her “human question mark” insult. “As Sappho’s diamonds with her dirty smock, Or Sappho at her toilet’s greasy task, With Sappho fragrant at an evening masque: So morning insects that in muck begun, Shine, buzz, and fly-blow in the setting sun.” Pope was a master of the rhymed couplet, a form now in disuse. He was so good at it that even though his couplets are 300 years old, folks recognize and remember them: Here’s a sample: A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.   True wit is nature to advantage dressed, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.   Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.   Here thou, great [Queen} Anna! whom three realms obey, Dost sometimes counsel take-and sometimes tea.   You purchase pain with all that joy can give, And die of nothing but a rage to live.   Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest.   Pope had no illusions about mankind’s goodness. He stated it succinctly in his famous poem, “An Essay on Man” which, in a few lines, most lucidly explains the 18th century idea of the great chain of being, where man is considered the middle link:   Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man. Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise and rudely great; With too much knowledge for the skeptic side, With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest; In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; In doubt his mind or body to prefer; Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err; Alike in ignorance, his reason such Whether he thinks too little or too much; Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d; Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sold judge of truth, in endless error hurled; The glory, the jest, and riddle of the world!   He’s no slouch at the single line, as well:   To err is human, to forgive divine.   For fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Dave Wood is a former vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and syndicated book reviewer.

 Alexander Pope was born in London, this day in 1688.A sickly child and a Roman Catholic to boot, Pope overcame physical and social obstacles to become the first poet in the English language to earn a living writing - a very good living.Ridiculed for his religion and for his misshapen body (former lady friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described him as “the human question mark”). Undaunted, he wrote such mock epic classics as “The Duciad,” “The Rape of the Lock,” as well as “An Essay on Criticism” and mastered translations of Homer that earned him his fortune.An unabashed Tory and a vicious satirist, Pope gave no quarter to his enemies, even women, as in his description of “Sappho,” which is really a remark about the sanitary habits of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu after her “human question mark” insult.“As Sappho’s diamonds with her dirty smock,Or Sappho at her toilet’s greasy task,With Sappho fragrant at an evening masque:So morning insects that in muck begun,Shine, buzz, and fly-blow in the setting sun.”Pope was a master of the rhymed couplet, a form now in disuse. He was so good at it that even though his couplets are 300 years old, folks recognize and remember them: Here’s a sample:A little learning is a dangerous thing;Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring. True wit is nature to advantage dressed,What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. Be not the first by whom the new are tried,Nor yet the last to lay the old aside. Here thou, great [Queen} Anna! whom three realms obey,Dost sometimes counsel take-and sometimes tea. You purchase pain with all that joy can give,And die of nothing but a rage to live. Hope springs eternal in the human breast:Man never is, but always to be blest. Pope had no illusions about mankind’s goodness. He stated it succinctly in his famous poem, “An Essay on Man” which, in a few lines, most lucidly explains the 18th century idea of the great chain of being, where man is considered the middle link: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;The proper study of mankind is man.Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,A being darkly wise and rudely great;With too much knowledge for the skeptic side,With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;In doubt his mind or body to prefer;Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;Alike in ignorance, his reason suchWhether he thinks too little or too much;Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;Created half to rise and half to fall;Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;Sold judge of truth, in endless error hurled;The glory, the jest, and riddle of the world! He’s no slouch at the single line, as well: To err is human, to forgive divine. For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.Dave Wood is a former vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and syndicated book reviewer.

 

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