The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems

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Vergon and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.


The Rape of the Lock

and other poems

edited with introduction and notes by

Thomas Marc Parrott

this edition 1906

Portrait of Pope

Table of Contents


It has been the aim of the editor in preparing this little book to get together sufficient material to afford a student in one of our high schools or colleges adequate and typical specimens of the vigorous and versatile genius of Alexander Pope. With this purpose he has included in addition to The Rape of the Lock, the Essay on Criticism as furnishing the standard by which Pope himself expected his work to be judged, the First Epistle of the Essay on Man as a characteristic example of his didactic poetry, and the Epistle to Arbuthnot, both for its exhibition of Pope’s genius as a satirist and for the picture it gives of the poet himself. To these are added the famous close of the Dunciad, the Ode to Solitude, a specimen of Pope’s infrequent lyric note, and the Epitaph on Gay.

The first edition of The Rape of the Lock has been given as an appendix in order that the student may have the opportunity of comparing the two forms of this poem, and of realizing the admirable art with which Pope blended old and new in the version that is now the only one known to the average reader. The text throughout is that of the Globe Edition prepared by Professor A. W. Ward.

The editor can lay no claim to originality in the notes with which he has attempted to explain and illustrate these poems. He is indebted at every step to the labors of earlier editors, particularly to Elwin, Courthope, Pattison, and Hales. If he has added anything of his own, it has been in the way of defining certain words whose meaning or connotation has changed since the time of Pope, and in paraphrasing certain passages to bring out a meaning which has been partially obscured by the poet’s effort after brevity and concision.

In the general introduction the editor has aimed not so much to recite the facts of Pope’s life as to draw the portrait of a man whom he believes to have been too often misunderstood and misrepresented. The special introductions to the various poems are intended to acquaint the student with the circumstances under which they were composed, to trace their literary genesis and relationships, and, whenever necessary, to give an outline of the train of thought which they embody. In conclusion the editor would express the hope that his labors in the preparation of this book may help, if only in some slight degree, to stimulate the study of the work of a poet who, with all his limitations, remains one of the abiding glories of English literature, and may contribute not less to a proper appreciation of a man who with all his faults was, on the evidence of those who knew him best, not only a great poet, but a very human and lovable personality.

T. M. P. Princeton University, June 4, 1906.



Perhaps no other great poet in English Literature has been so differently judged at different times as Alexander Pope. Accepted almost on his first appearance as one of the leading poets of the day, he rapidly became recognized as the foremost man of letters of his age. He held this position throughout his life, and for over half a century after his death his works were considered not only as masterpieces, but as the finest models of poetry. With the change of poetic temper that occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century Pope’s fame was overshadowed. The romantic poets and critics even raised the question whether Pope was a poet at all. And as his poetical fame diminished, the harsh judgments of his personal character increased. It is almost incredible with what exulting bitterness critics and editors of Pope have tracked out and exposed his petty intrigues, exaggerated his delinquencies, misrepresented his actions, attempted in short to blast his character as a man.

Both as a man and as a poet Pope is sadly in need of a defender to-day. And a defense is by no means impossible. The depreciation of Pope’s poetry springs, in the main, from an attempt to measure it by other standards than those which he and his age recognized. The attacks upon his character are due, in large measure, to a misunderstanding of the spirit of the times in which he lived and to a forgetfulness of the special circumstances of his own life. Tried in a fair court by impartial judges Pope as a poet would be awarded a place, if not among the noblest singers, at least high among poets of the second order. And the flaws of character which even his warmest apologist must admit would on the one hand be explained, if not excused, by circumstances, and on the other more than counterbalanced by the existence of noble qualities to which his assailants seem to have been quite blind.

Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21, 1688. His father was a Roman Catholic linen draper, who had married a second time. Pope was the only child of this marriage, and seems to have been a delicate, sweet-tempered, precocious, and, perhaps, a rather spoiled child.

Pope’s religion and his chronic ill-health are two facts of the highest importance to be taken into consideration in any study of his life or judgment of his character. The high hopes of the Catholics for a restoration of their religion had been totally destroyed by the Revolution of 1688. During all Pope’s lifetime they were a sect at once feared, hated, and oppressed by the severest laws. They were excluded from the schools and universities, they were burdened with double taxes, and forbidden to acquire real estate. All public careers were closed to them, and their property and even their persons were in times of excitement at the mercy of informers. In the last year of Pope’s life a proclamation was issued forbidding Catholics to come within ten miles of London, and Pope himself, in spite of his influential friends, thought it wise to comply with this edict. A fierce outburst of persecution often evokes in the persecuted some of the noblest qualities of human nature; but a long-continued and crushing tyranny that extends to all the details of daily life is only too likely to have the most unfortunate results on those who are subjected to it. And as a matter of fact we find that the well-to-do Catholics of Pope’s day lived in an atmosphere of disaffection, political intrigue, and evasion of the law, most unfavorable for the development of that frank, courageous, and patriotic spirit for the lack of which Pope himself has so often been made the object of reproach.

In a well-known passage of the Epistle to Arbuthnot, Pope has spoken of his life as one long disease. He was in fact a humpbacked dwarf, not over four feet six inches in height, with long, spider-like legs and arms. He was subject to violent headaches, and his face was lined and contracted with the marks of suffering. In youth he so completely ruined his health by perpetual studies that his life was despaired of, and only the most careful treatment saved him from an early death. Toward the close of his life he became so weak that he could neither dress nor undress without assistance. He had to be laced up in stiff stays in order to sit erect, and wore a fur doublet and three pairs of stockings to protect himself against the cold. With these physical defects he had the extreme sensitiveness of mind that usually accompanies chronic ill health, and this sensitiveness was outraged incessantly by the brutal customs of the age. Pope’s enemies made as free with his person as with his poetry, and there is little doubt that he felt the former attacks the more bitterly of the two. Dennis, his first critic, called him “a short squab gentleman, the very bow of the God of love; his outward form is downright monkey.” A rival poet whom he had offended hung up a rod in a coffee house where men of letters resorted, and threatened to whip Pope like a naughty child if he showed his face there. It is said, though perhaps not on the best authority, that when Pope once forgot himself so far as to make love to Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the lady’s answer was “a fit of immoderate laughter.” In an appendix to the Dunciad Pope collected some of the epithets with which his enemies had pelted him, “an ape,” “an ass,” “a frog,” “a coward,” “a fool,” “a little abject thing.” He affected, indeed, to despise his assailants, but there is only too good evidence that their poisoned arrows rankled in his heart. Richardson, the painter, found him one day reading the latest abusive pamphlet. “These things are my diversion,” said the poet, striving to put the best face on it; but as he read, his friends saw his features “writhen with anguish,” and prayed to be delivered from all such “diversions” as these. Pope’s enemies and their savage abuse are mostly forgotten to-day. Pope’s furious retorts have been secured to immortality by his genius. It would have been nobler, no doubt, to have answered by silence only; but before one condemns Pope it is only fair to realize the causes of his bitterness.

Pope’s education was short and irregular. He was taught the rudiments of Latin and Greek by his family priest, attended for a brief period a school in the country and another in London, and at the early age of twelve left school altogether, and settling down at his father’s house in the country began to read to his heart’s delight. He roamed through the classic poets, translating passages that pleased him, went up for a time to London to get lessons in French and Italian, and above all read with eagerness and attention the works of older English poets, — Spenser, Waller, and Dryden. He had already, it would seem, determined to become a poet, and his father, delighted with the clever boy’s talent, used to set him topics, force him to correct his verses over and over, and finally, when satisfied, dismiss him with the praise, “These are good rhymes.” He wrote a comedy, a tragedy, an epic poem, all of which he afterward destroyed and, as he laughingly confessed in later years, he thought himself “the greatest genius that ever was.”

Pope was not alone, however, in holding a high opinion of his talents. While still a boy in his teens he was taken up and patronized by a number of gentlemen, Trumbull, Walsh, and Cromwell, all dabblers in poetry and criticism. He was introduced to the dramatist Wycherly, nearly fifty years his senior, and helped to polish some of the old man’s verses. His own works were passed about in manuscript from hand to hand till one of them came to the eyes of Dryden’s old publisher, Tonson. Tonson wrote Pope a respectful letter asking for the honor of being allowed to publish them. One may fancy the delight with which the sixteen-year-old boy received this offer. It is a proof of Pope’s patience as well as his precocity that he delayed three years before accepting it. It was not till 1709 that his first published verses, the Pastorals, a fragment translated from Homer, and a modernized version of one of the Canterbury Tales, appeared in Tonson’s Miscellany.

With the publication of the Pastorals, Pope embarked upon his life as a man of letters. They seem to have brought him a certain recognition, but hardly fame. That he obtained by his next poem, the Essay on Criticism, which appeared in 1711. It was applauded in the Spectator, and Pope seems about this time to have made the acquaintance of Addison and the little senate which met in Button’s coffee house. His poem the Messiah appeared in the Spectator in May 1712; the first draft of The Rape of the Lock in a poetical miscellany in the same year, and Addison’s request, in 1713, that he compose a prologue for the tragedy of Cato set the final stamp upon his rank as a poet.

Pope’s friendly relations with Addison and his circle were not, however, long continued. In the year 1713 he gradually drew away from them and came under the influence of Swift, then at the height of his power in political and social life. Swift introduced him to the brilliant Tories, politicians and lovers of letters, Harley, Bolingbroke, and Atterbury, who were then at the head of affairs. Pope’s new friends seem to have treated him with a deference which he had never experienced before, and which bound him to them in unbroken affection. Harley used to regret that Pope’s religion rendered him legally incapable of holding a sinecure office in the government, such as was frequently bestowed in those days upon men of letters, and Swift jestingly offered the young poet twenty guineas to become a Protestant. But now, as later, Pope was firmly resolved not to abandon the faith of his parents for the sake of worldly advantage. And in order to secure the independence he valued so highly he resolved to embark upon the great work of his life, the translation of Homer.

“What led me into that,” he told a friend long after, “was purely the want of money. I had then none; not even to buy books.”

It seems that about this time, 1713, Pope’s father had experienced some heavy financial losses, and the poet, whose receipts in money had so far been by no means in proportion to the reputation his works had brought him, now resolved to use that reputation as a means of securing from the public a sum which would at least keep him for life from poverty or the necessity of begging for patronage. It is worth noting that Pope was the first Englishman of letters who threw himself thus boldly upon the public and earned his living by his pen.

The arrangements for the publication and sale of Pope’s translation of Homer were made with care and pushed on with enthusiasm. He issued in 1713 his proposals for an edition to be published by subscription, and his friends at once became enthusiastic canvassers. We have a characteristic picture of Swift at this time, bustling about a crowded ante-chamber, and informing the company that the best poet in England was Mr. Pope (a Papist) who had begun a translation of Homer for which they must all subscribe, “for,” says he, “the author shall not begin to print till I have a thousand guineas for him.” The work was to be in six volumes, each costing a guinea. Pope obtained 575 subscribers, many of whom took more than one set. Lintot, the publisher, gave Pope £1200 for the work and agreed to supply the subscription copies free of charge. As a result Pope made something between £5000 and £6000, a sum absolutely unprecedented in the history of English literature, and amply sufficient to make him independent for life.

But the sum was honestly earned by hard and wearisome work. Pope was no Greek scholar; it is said, indeed, that he was just able to make out the sense of the original with a translation. And in addition to the fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, he had engaged to furnish an introduction and notes. At first the magnitude of the undertaking frightened him.

“What terrible moments,” he said to Spence, “does one feel after one has engaged for a large work. In the beginning of my translating the Iliad, I wished anybody would hang me a hundred times. It sat so heavily on my mind at first that I often used to dream of it and do sometimes still.”

In spite of his discouragement, however, and of the ill health which so constantly beset him, Pope fell gallantly upon his task, and as time went on came almost to enjoy it. He used to translate thirty or forty verses in the morning before rising and, in his own characteristic phrase, “piddled over them for the rest of the day.” He used every assistance possible, drew freely upon the scholarship of friends, corrected and recorrected with a view to obtaining clearness and point, and finally succeeded in producing a version which not only satisfied his own critical judgment, but was at once accepted by the English-speaking world as the standard translation of Homer.

The first volume came out in June, 1715, and to Pope’s dismay and wrath a rival translation appeared almost simultaneously. Tickell, one of Addison’s “little senate,” had also begun a translation of the Iliad, and although he announced in the preface that he intended to withdraw in favor of Pope and take up a translation of the Odyssey, the poet’s suspicions were at once aroused. And they were quickly fanned into a flame by the gossip of the town which reported that Addison, the recognized authority in literary criticism, pronounced Tickell’s version “the best that ever was in any language.” Rumor went so far, in fact, as to hint pretty broadly that Addison himself was the author, in part, at least, of Tickell’s book; and Pope, who had been encouraged by Addison to begin his long task, felt at once that he had been betrayed. His resentment was all the more bitter since he fancied that Addison, now at the height of his power and prosperity in the world of letters and of politics, had attempted to ruin an enterprise on which the younger man had set all his hopes of success and independence, for no better reason than literary jealousy and political estrangement. We know now that Pope was mistaken, but there was beyond question some reason at the time for his thinking as he did, and it is to the bitterness which this incident caused in his mind that we owe the famous satiric portrait of Addison as Atticus.

The last volume of the Iliad appeared in the spring of 1720, and in it Pope gave a renewed proof of his independence by dedicating the whole work, not to some lord who would have rewarded him with a handsome present, but to his old acquaintance, Congreve, the last survivor of the brilliant comic dramatists of Dryden’s day. And now resting for a time from his long labors, Pope turned to the adornment and cultivation of the little house and garden that he had leased at Twickenham.

Pope’s father had died in 1717, and the poet, rejecting politely but firmly the suggestion of his friend, Atterbury, that he might now turn Protestant, devoted himself with double tenderness to the care of his aged and infirm mother. He brought her with him to Twickenham, where she lived till 1733, dying in that year at the great age of ninety-one. It may have been partly on her account that Pope pitched upon Twickenham as his abiding place. Beautifully situated on the banks of the Thames, it was at once a quiet country place and yet of easy access to London, to Hampton Court, or to Kew. The five acres of land that lay about the house furnished Pope with inexhaustible entertainment for the rest of his life. He “twisted and twirled and harmonized” his bit of ground “till it appeared two or three sweet little lawns opening and opening beyond one another, the whole surrounded by impenetrable woods.” Following the taste of his times in landscape gardening, he adorned his lawns with artificial mounds, a shell temple, an obelisk, and a colonnade. But the crowning glory was the grotto, a tunnel decorated fantastically with shells and bits of looking-glass, which Pope dug under a road that ran through his grounds. Here Pope received in state, and his house and garden was for years the center of the most brilliant society in England. Here Swift came on his rare visits from Ireland, and Bolingbroke on his return from exile. Arbuthnot, Pope’s beloved physician, was a frequent visitor, and Peterborough, one of the most distinguished of English soldiers, condescended to help lay out the garden. Congreve came too, at times, and Gay, the laziest and most good-natured of poets. Nor was the society of women lacking at these gatherings. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wittiest woman in England, was often there, until her bitter quarrel with the poet; the grim old Duchess of Marlborough appeared once or twice in Pope’s last years; and the Princess of Wales came with her husband to inspire the leaders of the opposition to the hated Walpole and the miserly king. And from first to last, the good angel of the place was the blue-eyed, sweet-tempered Patty Blount, Pope’s best and dearest friend. Not long after the completion of the Iliad, Pope undertook to edit Shakespeare, and completed the work in 1724. The edition is, of course, quite superseded now, but it has its place in the history of Shakespearean studies as the first that made an effort, though irregular and incomplete, to restore the true text by collation and conjecture. It has its place, too, in the story of Pope’s life, since the bitter criticism which it received, all the more unpleasant to the poet since it was in the main true, was one of the principal causes of his writing the Dunciad. Between the publication of his edition of Shakespeare, however, and the appearance of the Dunciad, Pope resolved to complete his translation of Homer, and with the assistance of a pair of friends, got out a version of the Odyssey in 1725. Like the Iliad, this was published by subscription, and as in the former case the greatest men in England were eager to show their appreciation of the poet by filling up his lists. Sir Robert Walpole, the great Whig statesman, took ten copies, and Harley, the fallen Tory leader, put himself, his wife, and his daughter down for sixteen. Pope made, it is said, about £3700 by this work.

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