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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

III. Pope

§ 2. His early Life and Studies

Alexander Pope was born in London on 21 May, 1688, of parents past middle age. They were devout Roman catholics; their son’s adherence to this creed seems to have been prompted by filial affection. The accident of belonging to a proscribed church decided the course of his education. It is curious to reflect that, displaying such affinity for polish and precision, he should have missed a classical training. After brief schooling, he was taken home to Binfield, in Windsor forest, where his father had settled on retiring from his linendraper’s business, and from about the age of twelve was largely self-taught. He grew up undersized, delicate and deformed, though we have testimony to the beauty of his voice and the brilliance of his eye. The presence of a fiery soul within this frail tenement was proved when, in an unliterary home, amid the languor of sickness and the lack of mental discipline, he developed a poetic genius, not fitful and uneven but inspired by a continual endeavour after the highest attainable in the form and music of his verse. Pope’s own account of these early studies was:

  • When I had done with my priests, I took to reading by myself, for which I had a very great eagerness and enthusiasm, especially for poetry: and in a few years I had dipped into a great number of the English, French, Italian, Latin and Greek poets. This I did without any design but that of pleasing myself: and got the languages by hunting after the stories in the several poets I read.
  • Of his knowledge of Italian, there is little trace. His Greek was, certainly, not strong. In spite of some acquaintance with French literature, he never seems to have had any real familiarity with the language. With regard to scholarship, he was doubtless “shady in Latin”; but he was profoundly affected by the Roman poets, with whose style and ways of thought he showed a remarkable affinity. We everywhere feel the influence of the finish, dignity and sonorousness of Latin poetry.