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  • Letters of Mr. Alexander Pope and the Curious Case of Modern Scholarship and the Vanishing Text
  • Raymond Stephanson

Almost no one studies Pope's correspondence as it was intended to be read in the 1730s when it was first published. Howard Erskine-Hill is one of the few specialists to comment on this odd state of affairs, remarking that "attention has been diverted from the collections of Pope's correspondence printed in his lifetime. . . . It is clear that Pope's correspondence as reconstituted, selected and arranged by the poet himself . . . is Pope's only major work not to have been edited in the twentieth century."1 Pope's poetry and life have received enormous attention. Why, then, has one of the great self-promotional texts of the eighteenth century all but vanished from our scholarly horizon?2

In examining this deficiency, my essay will explore three things: 1. the complex history of responses to Pope's letters from Charles Wentworth Dilke and the Victorians to the present; 2. the unintentional limitations of George Sherburn's magnificent 1956 standard edition of the correspondence; and 3. the precious little critical work that has been done on the 1730s editions. This essay does not engage in close analysis of specific letters, although the lack of scholarship certainly invites such explication, and I will use several practical examples in my conclusion to suggest the kinds [End Page 1] of analysis that might profitably renew appreciation of the 1730s editions. This essay also does not take up the important implications of Pope's correspondence for recent debates in textual criticism.3 My primary focus is on how Pope's 1730s versions of his own letters have been used, fought over, and finally neglected.

Most readers already know the story of Pope's tricking Edmund Curll into pirating a carefully selected version of his letters—published in 1735 as Mr. Pope's Literary Correspondence for Thirty Years; from 1704 to 1734—followed by Pope hypocritically huffing and puffing, indignantly accusing his enemy Curll of professional perfidy, while actually engineering the events so as to allow him to issue is own authorized edition of 1737—Letters of Mr. Alexander Pope, and Several of His Friends—without facing charges of an indecorous vanity.4 But printed editions of his correspondence prior to the 1730s are less familiar, especially the first printed collection of Pope's letters, which issued from Curll's press in 1726 (postdated 1727): Miscellanea. In Two Volumes. Never before Published. Viz. I. Familiar Letters written to Henry Cromwell Esq; by Mr. Pope. II. Occasional Poems by Mr. Pope, Mr. Cromwell, Dean Swift, &c. III. Letters from Mr. Dryden, to a Lady, in the Year 1699. At a time when consumer appetites for intimate glimpses into the lives of public figures were beginning to surge, the opportunistic Curll, realizing that almost any sort of personal relic or dirty laundry in this burgeoning star culture was certain to make him money, launched a new tabloid journalism. Along came Elizabeth Thomas, formerly mistress of Pope's early friend Henry Cromwell, now down on her luck and in possession of two dozen letters from Pope to Cromwell (written 1707–11). She happily sold them to an eager Curll who published them, with some padding, as the 1726 Miscellanea. The collection sold well for nearly five years. Now in his late thirties, Pope had little choice but to suffer in silence this publication of youthful letters, some of them containing indiscreet locker-room braggadocio. He would get his revenge in the 1730s, as we will see below.

The year 1729 is important, for it marks the first collection of his letters that Pope himself prepared and had printed (some 600 copies), although they would not appear publicly until 1735, when they would be included as part of the supposedly clandestine collection that "trickster Pope" covertly fed to Curll. The occasion for the 1729 collection involved another of Pope's antagonists, Lewis Theobald, who in 1728 was selling his unauthorized edition of The Posthumous Works of William Wycherley Esq; In Prose and Verse. [End Page 2] Faithfully publish'd from His Original Manuscripts, by Mr. Theobald. In Two Parts. Old Wycherley...