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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 349-355
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Recent Publications on Pope
In the dedication to Edward Young that opens Volume 1 of his Essay on the Writings and Genius of Alexander Pope (1757), Joseph Warton famously attempted to unseat Pope from the highest level of the English literary firmament: "I revere the memory of Pope, I respect and honour his abilities; but I do not think him at the head of his profession. In other words, in that species of poetry wherein Pope excelled, he is superior to all mankind: and I only say, that this species of poetry is not the most excellent one of the art" (iii-iv). For Warton, Pope's was a poetry of morals and manners, reason and sense; ethical, polished, impeccably correct, but lacking in true poetic imagination and enthusiasm. After a lengthy, detailed review of Pope's poems, Warton concludes: "the largest portion of them is of the didactic, moral, and satyric kind; and consequently, not of the most poetic species of poetry; whence it is manifest, that goodsense and judgment were his characteristical excellencies, rather than fancy and invention" (408-409). Warton's relegation of Pope's poetry to the realm of ethics and morality, falling short of "true" poetry, set out the criteria by which debates over the imaginative value of Pope's work would be determined for the next two hundred years, from Johnson's rejoinder in The Life of Pope (1783)—"If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?"—to Matthew Arnold's categorization of Pope's compositions as "not classics of our poetry" but "classics of our prose." Pope's consistent combination of poetic craft and the quotidian cultural and political concerns of his day would seem to guarantee no exit from this querelle of Pope studies: to value his work for sound or sense, language or ideas? The debate continues well into the twenty-first century, recast and given fresh impetus by scholarship of the mid-1980s that emphasized the task of uncovering the ideological contradictions beneath Pope's polished couplets. This focus on reading as resistance to the slick surfaces of Pope's poems, revealing the flawed and fissured systems of belief that they attempt to naturalize and disseminate, was met by its [End Page 349] detractors with redoubled efforts to shore up the opposite image of Pope as embattled humanist, employing as precept and example his considerable poetic talents to turn the tide of cultural mediocrity that he saw as threatening to overtake his society. Much of the scholarly work produced on Pope over the following two decades has positioned itself, implicitly or explicitly, somewhere along the spectrum of the opposing sides of this debate. Five of the six books under review in this essay are no exception. While each contributes much of value to Pope studies, with one exception they do little to alter or recast contemporary scholarly perspectives on the poet and his work.
Catherine Ingrassia and Claudia Thomas's collection of essays, "More Solid Learning": New Perspectives on Alexander Pope's Dunciad, seeks to redress what the editors identify in their introduction as a dearth of sustained considerations of The Dunciad within Pope scholarship. Ingrassia and Thomas identify this critical resistance to the poem as largely due to its potent shelf...