by Edith Stilwell
The Norton Library
Alexander Pope was a poet/litteratur/wit in the early 18th century. He kind of straddled the gap between post-Elizabethan aristocrat pleasing verse and the more radical poetic visions of Wordsworth and De Quincey. Pope surely suffers by being a pre-Romantic figure. He is an Artist of the aristocracy, even though he himself was no aristocrat, and I think this biographical detaili provides an indelible taint to modern taste. Also the work itself- famous poems like The Rape of the Lock or his collaborative literary effort Martin Scriberlus does not maintain an Audience outside the discipline of literature of history.
The highest sales rating of ANY Alexander Pope biography is in the 3 millions for 1988's Alexander Pope: A Life by Maynard Mack. The sales ranking for the #1 selling book by Pope is in the 500,000 range- for the 2009 Oxford World's Classic edition of Collected Works. What I'm trying to say is that Alexander Pope has a small Audience.
Before reading this biography I had heard about The Rape of the Lock, but didn't now anything. Basically, it is what you call a "pastoral" or poem about the countryside- published sometime between 1812 and 1814, and a big part of the appeal was that it was "correct" - I suppose today we would call it "politically correct" in that it did not offend any political/cultural sensibilities. This was a big difference between Pope and romantic poets like Wordsworth and De Quincey- who were much more outre in their exercise of poetic license.
Despite the lack of popular appeal, Pope was situated at a time and place: London fashionable society in the early 18th century- which is an objectively interesting milieu, standing as it does on the threshold of modern Art- whether it be literature, painting, architecture. In all ways London in the early 18th century was on the cusp of Modernity, it just hadn't quite arrived.
Pope, along with contemporaries/successors like Samuel Johnson or his bro Richard Gay (1), were transitional figures between art that is wholly pre-modern, and the beginnings of modern art. They were kind of the seat ushers for the Romantic Movement spectacle- the back drop, if you will. All of these transitional figures are characterized by use of forms like play writing, amateur theatrical performance, versifying and writing letters. There is a kind of analogy to the nature of Pope's artistic output and the output of contemporary multi-functional celebrities- Drawing attention in many fields of endeavor! Arguably not producing any good Art!
I guess there are people out there who think that The Rape of the Lock is a classic example of English Poetry from the 18th century and others who think Martin Scriberlus is an important step in the development of the Novel, but I highly out there are very many of either group.
It's easy to see some kind of BBC/PBS/HBO kind of movie/series that deals with this scene. There would be a lot of foppery- A LOT- it would be like glam rock in that aspect. Unlike the Romantic poets- Pope and his circle were much into hanging out with fashionable ladies- who often paid the bills- this is an overlap with "Court Society" portraits of the early 18th century, and later artistic development would be a move away from that scene- a rejection of it.
(1) Richard Gay is a book discovery winner. He is like the original fancy lad- here is the description straight from Sitwell's text:
He had a childlike delight in finery and good food. He liked plenty of ribbons and a fine wig, and to stay at Bath where he was surrounded by beauties; and those loves and tastes were a constant source of amusement to himself and to his friends, all of whom loved him with great devotion and laughed at him endlessly.