Alexander Pope hasn't been a popular poet for decades now. In the early 1980s, as part of the English course at Oxford University, you had to spend a term reading one or two canonic poets Chaucer, Langland, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Browning, Yeats and Eliot. (It was a source of disquiet, even in 1984 in Oxford, that no woman was included in the list). Most people did Wordsworth or Milton. I was in a tiny minority, having opted to spend eight weeks studying Pope, and was assigned to one of the stars of the faculty. Roger Lonsdale had just published his New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse. It was that rare thing, an anthology that turned the study of an entire century's literary output on its head. Roger had followed the simple policy of simply reading every piece of poetry published in Britain in the eighteenth century, and deciding what was good or not. Thirty years on, it remains an astounding feat of navigation and human and literary interest. Before the anthology, it was still easy to think of Pope and his friends as at the centre of the literary universe, surrounded by a few interesting minor writers, and then a vast mob of talentless scribblers. Did he still exist at the centre, or was that his particular triumph of marketing, to sell his writing and the standards of judgment by which all literature should be improved at the same time?
For eight weeks, I climbed the stairs in Balliol College, and we talked about one piece of Pope's career after another. Pope is not, on the surface, a particularly varied writer. Almost all his work is in the same metrical form: rhyming couplets in iambic pentameters. Most of it is in the same genre: formal satire. But going through his work inch by inch, you don't feel yourself limited by the constraints; the possibilities are transformative, and the way he looks at the world is immensely generous. We kept talking, I remember, about the rival poets and the poor victims of The Dunciad, Pope's epic assault on the bad writers of the day. (You can't study Pope as a special author at Oxford these days, but you can, interestingly, study one of the victims of The Dunciad, Eliza Haywood). Did he remain at the centre of things? He put himself there, and defined what "the centre" was, but he went on seeming bigger than almost anyone else. Reading Pope like this was one of the most important experiences of my life.
Oh! If to dance all night, and dress all day
Charm'd the smallpox, or chased old age away
Another age shall see the golden ear
Imbrown the slope, and nod on the parterre,
Deep harvests bury all his pride has plann'd
And laughing Ceres reassume the land.