Alexander Pope was born to Alexander Pope Senior (1646–1717), a linen merchant of Plough Court, Lombard Street, London, and his wife Edith (née Turner) (1643–1733), who were both Catholics. Edith's sister Christiana was the wife of the famous miniature Painter Samuel Cooper. Pope's education was affected by the recently enacted Test Acts, which upheld the status of the established Church of England and banned Catholics from teaching, attending a university, voting, or holding public office on pain of perpetual imprisonment. Pope was taught to read by his aunt, and went to Twyford School in about 1698/99. He then went to two Catholic schools in London. Such schools, while illegal, were tolerated in some areas.
In 1700, his family moved to a small estate at Popeswood in Binfield, Berkshire, close to the royal Windsor Forest. This was due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a statute preventing Catholics from living within 10 miles (16 km) of either London or Westminster. Pope would later describe the countryside around the house in his poem Windsor Forest. Pope's formal education ended at this time, and from then on he mostly educated himself by reading the works of classical Writers such as the satirists Horace and Juvenal, the epic poets Homer and Virgil, as well as English authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, william Shakespeare and John Dryden. He also studied many languages and read works by English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets. After five years of study, Pope came into contact with figures from the London literary society such as william Wycherley, william Congreve, Samuel Garth, william Trumbull, and william Walsh.
In May, 1709, Pope's Pastorals was published in the sixth part of Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies. This earned Pope instant fame, and was followed by An Essay on Criticism, published in May 1711, which was equally well received.
An Essay on Criticism was first published anonymously on 15 May 1711. Pope began writing the poem early in his career and took about three years to finish it.
Pope's most famous poem is The Rape of the Lock, first published in 1712, with a revised version published in 1714. A mock-epic, it satirises a high-society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the "Belinda" of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. The satirical style is tempered, however, by a genuine and almost voyeuristic interest in the "beau-monde" (fashionable world) of 18th-century English society. The revised and extended version of the poem brought more clearly into focus its true subject – the onset of acquisitive individualism and a society of conspicuous consumers. In the world of the poem purchased artefacts displace human agency, and 'trivial things' assume dominance.
Pope had been fascinated by Homer since childhood. In 1713, he announced his plans to publish a translation of the Iliad. The work would be available by subscription, with one volume appearing every year over the course of six years. Pope secured a revolutionary deal with the publisher Bernard Lintot, which earned him two hundred guineas (£210) a volume, equivalent to about £28,700 in 2018, a vast sum at the time.
In 1714, the political situation worsened with the death of Queen Anne and the disputed succession between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites, leading to the Jacobite rising of 1715. Though Pope as a Catholic might have been expected to have supported the Jacobites because of his religious and political affiliations, according to Maynard Mack, "where Pope himself stood on these matters can probably never be confidently known". These events led to an immediate downturn in the fortunes of the Tories, and Pope's friend, Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, fled to France.
His translation of the Iliad appeared between 1715 and 1720. It was acclaimed by Samuel Johnson as "a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal" (although the classical scholar Richard Bentley wrote: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.").
Pope lived in his parents' house in Mawson Row, Chiswick, between 1716 and 1719; the red brick building is now the Mawson Arms, commemorating him with a blue plaque.
The money made from his translation of Homer allowed Pope to move in 1719 to a villa at Twickenham, where he created his now famous grotto and gardens. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during the subterranean retreat's excavations enabled it to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers. Pope was said to have remarked that: "Were it to have nymphs as well – it would be complete in everything." Although the house and gardens have long since been demolished, much of this grotto still survives. The grotto now lies beneath Radnor House Independent Co-ed School, and is occasionally opened to the public.
In this period, Pope was also employed by the publisher Jacob Tonson to produce an opulent new edition of Shakespeare. When it finally appeared, in 1725, this edition silently "regularised" Shakespeare's metre and rewrote his verse in a number of places. Pope also demoted about 1560 lines of Shakespearean material to footnotes, arguing that they were so "excessively bad" that Shakespeare could never have written them. (Other lines were excluded from the edition altogether.) In 1726, the Lawyer, poet and pantomime deviser Lewis Theobald published a scathing pamphlet called Shakespeare Restored, which catalogued the errors in Pope's work and suggested a number of revisions to the text.
Encouraged by the success of the Iliad, Pope translated the Odyssey. The translation appeared in 1726, but this time, confronted with the arduousness of the task, he enlisted the help of william Broome and Elijah Fenton. Pope attempted to conceal the extent of the collaboration (he himself translated only twelve books, Broome eight and Fenton four), but the secret leaked out. It did some damage to Pope's reputation for a time, but not to his profits.
The second edition of Pope's Shakespeare appeared in 1728, but aside from making some minor revisions to the preface, it seems that Pope had little to do with it. Most later 18th-century editors of Shakespeare dismissed Pope's creatively motivated approach to textual criticism. Pope's preface, however, continued to be highly rated. It was suggested that Shakespeare's texts were thoroughly contaminated by actors' interpolations and they would influence editors for most of the 18th century.
In 1731, Pope published his "Epistle to Burlington", on the subject of architecture, the first of four poems which would later be grouped under the title Moral Essays (1731–35). In the epistle, Pope ridiculed the bad taste of the aristocrat "Timon". Pope's enemies claimed he was attacking the Duke of Chandos and his estate, Cannons. Though the charge was untrue, it did Pope a great deal of damage.
An Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended this poem to be the centrepiece of a proposed system of ethics that was to be put forth in poetic form. It was a piece of work that Pope intended to make into a larger work; however, he did not live to complete it.
The Imitations of Horace followed (1733–38). These were written in the popular Augustan form of the "imitation" of a classical poet, not so much a translation of his works as an updating with contemporary references. Pope used the model of Horace to satirise life under George II, especially what he regarded as the widespread corruption tainting the country under Walpole's influence and the poor quality of the court's artistic taste.
Pope also added a wholly original poem, An Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot, as an introduction to the "Imitations". It reviews his own literary career and includes the famous portraits of Lord Hervey ("Sporus") and Addison ("Atticus"). In 1738 he wrote the Universal Prayer.
After 1738, Pope wrote little. He toyed with the idea of composing a patriotic epic in blank verse called Brutus, but only the opening lines survive. His major work in these years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad. Book Four appeared in 1742, and a complete revision of the whole poem in the following year. In this version, Pope replaced the "hero", Lewis Theobald, with the poet laureate Colley Cibber as "king of dunces". But the real focus of the revised poem is Walpole and all his works. By now Pope's health, which had never been good, was failing. When told by his physician, on the morning of his death, that he was better, Pope replied: "Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms." He died in his villa surrounded by friends on 30 May 1744, about eleven o'clock at night. On the previous day, 29 May 1744, Pope had called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church. He was buried in the nave of St Mary's Church, Twickenham.
By the mid-18th century new fashions in poetry emerged. A decade after Pope's death, Joseph Warton claimed that Pope's style of poetry was not the most excellent form of the art. The Romantic movement that rose to prominence in early 19th-century England was more ambivalent towards his work. Though Lord Byron identified Pope as one of his chief influences (believing his scathing satire of contemporary English literature English Bards and Scotch Reviewers to be a continuance of Pope's tradition), william Wordsworth found Pope's style fundamentally too decadent a representation of the human condition. George Gilfillan in his study of 1856 described Pope's talent as 'a rose peering into the summer air, fine, rather than powerful.
In the 20th century Pope's reputation was revived. Pope's work was, of course, full of references to the people and places of his time, and these aided people's understanding of the past. The postwar period stressed the power of Pope's poetry, recognising that Pope's immersion in Christian and Biblical culture lent depth to his poetry. For Example, Maynard Mack, the great Pope scholar of the mid- to late twentieth century, argued that Pope's moral vision demanded as much respect as his technical excellence. In the years 1953–1967 the definitive Twickenham edition of Pope's poems was published in ten volumes, including an index volume.
Feminist Writer Ellen Pollak argues in The Poetics of Sexual Myth (1985) that Pope followed tradition, that affirmed women as inferior to men both intellectually and physically. Carolyn Williams contends that a certainty in the male role during the 18th century in Britain affected Pope and his writing.
During Pope's friendship with Joseph Addison, he contributed to Addison's play Cato, as well as writing for The Guardian and The Spectator. Around this time he began the work of translating the Iliad, which was a painstaking process – publication began in 1715 and did not end until 1720.