Vandaag is het 275 jaar geleden dat de Engelse auteur Alexander Pope is overleden.

Alexander Pope was a famous eighteenth century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson. He’s a representative of classicism, in England they call this “the Augustan age”, because poets like Dryden, Johnson and of course Pope himself are trying to reveal the age of Augustus. As far as poetry is concerned, this implies a generalized form of poetry (as the opposite of the romantic poets who are about to follow and concentrate completely on their ego) and also a form of urbanity (polite, polished). But on the other hand it is also the age of satire: it reflects the animosity that is found in the mind of a number of people. How these two different approaches can go hand in hand, can be best illustrated by a couplet out of Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the lock”:
“On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.”

In this couplet we see the contrast between Art and Nature (the cross versus the breasts) and at the same time the struggle of the crusaders is leaveled down to a low attitude.
As proven above, Pope is famous for his use of the heroic couplet, which consists of two successive rhyming verses with five stresses. Other examples:
“Know then thyself / presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man”
(Alexander Pope, Essay on man)
“All human things are subject to decay,
and when fate summons, monarches must obey.”
Why was the heroic couplet so popular?
1) the metrical regularity was an excellent vehicle of satire by the organisation of materials;
2) usually there is a break in the middle, giving the opportunity for antithesis or balance;
3) the neoclassical doctine is most clearly formulated in the “Essay on man”:
– application of reason on nature, reason is a faculty of the mind, which is looked upon as being the same in mankind at large (*);
– poetry is a form of public utterance and not the expression of an individual mind;
– influence on religion: deism or natural religion as opposed to revealed religion, in which God is “a divine architect”;
– optimism: “whatever is, is right” (compare with Leibniz’ “tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”).

Ronny De Schepper (10/10/1970)

(*) In “Essay on Criticism” Pope writes that art must follow nature, so this seems in contradiction with his other ideas. However, in Pope’s view nature is very reasonably structurized. He believes in an hierarchic chain of being, starting from God over the angels, the human beings, the animals, the plants and ending with lifeless materials. In the same way his “art following nature” implies a normative poetica!

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