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Bill R. Moore
- Published on Amazon.com
Samuel Johnson said that it may be a thousand years before another man comes along with powers of versification equal to Alexander Pope. It is a testament to Pope's greatness that this still does not seem hyperbolic. Indeed, in the nearly three centuries since he wrote, only a few English poets even rival his variety, and only Alfred Tennyson rivals his sheer technical mastery and quotability. The first thing one notices is his near-superhuman command of poetry's technical aspects; perhaps no one else in English has such an astonishing touch with meter, rhyme, stress, etc. His poetic variety is also notable; though best known for his unmatched heroic couplets, he mastered a diverse array of mediums. This is of course all the more striking since the moderns threw most of this out the proverbial window a century ago, making Pope a poet one essentially either loves or hates, though all can at least appreciate him. He is the acknowledged master to those who prefer formal poetry, while those who like free verse and other non-traditional forms may well think him stilted, old-fashioned, and portentous. His legend indeed became partly eclipsed when non-traditional poetry became standard, but the last few decades have seen a welcomed revival. It is clear that, whatever one prefers, Pope simply has no peer in terms of stately, precise English verse.
But Pope was far more than just a technical wizard; he is at least as notable for intellectual depth. Indeed, only Percy Shelley and Thomas Hardy among English poets are even in his league for matching craft with philosophical vigor and other thought-provoking material. It is no coincidence that several of Pope's poems, including some of the most famous, have "Essay" in the title. They essentially are essays on the philosophical issues of his day but in poetic form - a novelty then and now. Readers should not let this scare them; though often dense, Pope is nearly always readable. His language is frequently elevated, but the fact that he is quoted more often by English speakers than nearly any other writer - often without their even knowing it, so famous has his work become - shows that he is accessible. Pope's key asset here is clearness; he is so articulate and precise that we rarely wonder what he means, in great contrast to most writers of his vintage. His key issues are not ours, but his greatness and clearness are such that we can still read with interest and attention. This is all the more remarkable when we consider that his optimistic, religion-based worldview now seems distinctly naïve. Pope is one of its last exponents still read with anything but historical interest - nay, without laughter. His intellectual robustness is such that he makes the perspective seem respectable; it would take a very skilled rhetorician to refute him, and there is almost certainly no one alive who would even think of doing it in verse.
Pope's erudite reputation is well-deserved, but he is also perhaps English poetry's premier satirist. He was known to wield a fearsome pen that more than made up for his physical inadequacy, viciously mocking opponents so thoroughly that few were able to even attempt defense - all in immaculate, ever-interesting verse. His references, often disguised, to contemporary people and events are now lost on us, but we can still easily appreciate his wit and humor. Pope's verse continues to stand as some of the most bitingly satirical and humorous in English - a true sign of his astonishing variety.
As for this particular edition, it is a treasure for the curious. Containing nine poems, including full versions of the lengthy works "An Essay on Criticism," "The Rape of the Lock," and "Essay on Man," spread out over about one hundred pages, this gives an excellent overview. "Essay on Man" is Pope's greatest philosophical poem, a tour de force of his philosophy that still holds up intellectually and of course poetically. The equally great "An Essay on Criticism" is the most successful example of literary criticism in verse; many have tried, but none have come close. Pope does much to back up his views, but his essentially common sense approach has wide appeal. "The Rape of the Lock" is Pope's most famous satirical poem, a mock epic that still amuses many. The other six selections are some of Pope's best and most famous short works, showcasing his command of various forms, unparalleled skill at epigrammatic verse, and often startling lyrical beauty. Again showing his variety, they range from highly emotional to thought-provoking to humorous.
Like other Dover Thrift Editions, this is essentially a bare bones volume, though it has more supplementary material than most. There is a short biographical note and, unusually for Dover, a small number of footnotes. The latter are very helpful in identifying contemporary references but do little to explicate Pope's numerous learned allusions to things now far from common knowledge, especially classical mythology. Many will be confused and lost. Even so, this is a superb primer for the curious and will likely lead them to read more. One could hardly hope for a greater selection in such a convenient and inexpensive volume; the value is simply incredible. The dedicated will of course be disappointed by the incompleteness as well as things like the absence of line numbers and should seek out more comprehensive and/or deluxe volumes, but everyone else would do well to start here.