In the midst of this age of Queen Anne, Pope stood out as the foremost literary man. It was a time of sharp struggle between the Whigs and the Tories and each party, eager to strengthen its position, did its best to draw into its ranks the leading men. The leading writers especially were sought, for political pamphlets had much to do in swaying the popular mind. In this way such men as Newton, Steele, Prior and Addison found their way into high offices under the government.
It is not strange then that prose preponderated over verse. Satire and cynicism occupied the best poems and the poet became a man about town. Society everywhere was intriguing for place or power. But the influence of the times on literature was not wholly bad, for the wits corrected many gross faults that had come in with restoration, and brought infinite good sense with grace and terseness of expression.
At this period of Queen Anne's time the four leading literary men were Pope, Swift, Defoe and Addison. The last three represented the prose while Pope was the poet. Pope's life and works were closely intertwined and much influenced by his circumstances. He was born in London, the son of a catholic linen draper, but very early in his life his father retired from business to a small estate at Binfield. Pope's education was of the most miscellaneous character; he received his early training at home and later went for short periods to several schools in and about London. At the age of thirteen, he went home and set himself to study, determined to be a poet. Although he never became a great scholar, he read widely and studied all the best critics and the French and Italian poets.
At the age of sixteen he wrote his Pastorals, which were well received by the London wits. After the Pastorals came the essay on Criticism which was exceedingly popular. It was a criticism of the common opinions of the time in regard to poets. Its force lay not so much in the ideas presented as in originality of its expression. In it, the early development of Pope's style is plainly shown. The Essay on Criticism was followed by the Rape of the Lock, a poem interesting not only for its delicacy and skill of expression but also for its matter which reflects well the sentiments of the time.
These early poems brought Pope much praise but very little money; so in 1715, he began his translation of Homer as a commercial speculation. As he had no knowledge of Greek and was obliged to use Latin and French text, his translation is far from an exact one; in fact a friend remarked to him that he had produced a very good poem but he must not call it Homer's. The translation was, however, very successful, and with his fortune he bought the estate at Twickenham, called by Swift, "Pope's Villa."
Jealousy at the success of his Homer drew out much adverse comment from minor writers, and to crush them. Pope wrote his Dunciad. His epistles, moral essays and satires occupied his last fourteen years. His Essay on Man, although never regarded as of any philosophical value, shows well in its grace and smoothness of diction, the powers of the poet. His last years were given to didactic satires, in which he is without a rival.
The close of his life was full of misfortunes to which the course of political events added many. He died a worn out man at fifty-six. In considering him as a man, full of craftiness and intrigue, with the love of fame as his superior passion, we must keep in mind his terrible physical deformities, which made his whole life one of pain, as well as the character of the age in which he lived.