Peter Davidson

Mighty Contests & Trivial Things

Alexander Pope in the Making

By

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This elegant and adroit investigation of the literary and political coteries in which the young Alexander Pope came to maturity offers a radically different version of the poet’s early life from the one propounded in Maynard Mack’s biographical study thirty-five years ago. In that long-accepted version, Pope, born in 1688, passed his early years in sylvan retirement, enjoying the society of the gentry Catholics of the Thames Valley and perfecting himself as a (mostly pastoral) poet while quietly embarking on a public career as a translator of the classics, such as the Iliad.

The degree to which Joseph Hone’s exhilarating narrative differs from this account may be gauged from the brilliantly counterfactual thought experiment with which it concludes. If we imagine for a moment that the Atterbury Plot in the 1720s had succeeded and James Francis Edward Stuart (also known as the ‘Old Pretender’) had been crowned in London as James III and VIII in place of George I, at that moment would Pope not have looked like a consistently Jacobite poet who had been preparing himself, prudently but efficiently, for this very moment? He had edited and published the overtly Jacobite works of John Sheffield, first Duke of Buckingham, and had possibly, under the cover of collecting literary subscriptions, assisted Atterbury’s fundraising for an invasion. Certainly, the names of a remarkable number of English Jacobites were to be found in the printed subscription lists for his classical translations. His writings had been discussed admiringly at the Stuart court in exile, and he was a friend and associate of leading Jacobite activists, a key member of the cultural circle of the widowed Duchess of Buckingham, and a poet who had circulated coded but loyally Jacobite verse in manuscript.

Hone’s excellent book considers the Jacobite Pope, and then investigates, with wit and energy, the prudent steps Pope took to establish plausible deniability, which enabled him to emerge under the Hanoverians as a poet of classic status – a quiet

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