Pope began to write poetry at a very early age, but even then he steeped himself in various poetic traditions. He learned Latin and Greek in childhood, and all his life wrote "imitations" and translations of classical authors such as Homer, Virgil, Horace, Quintilian and Ovid, who also provided him with the poetic genres — the epic, the georgic, the elegy and the heroic epistle — which he would employ, imitate and parody. He was also thoroughly familiar with the work of his important contemporaries: Steele and Addison, for example, demonstrated, in their Spectator papers, to which Pope himself contributed, the effect which elegant and witty remonstrance (in poetry or in prose) could have upon the morals of their society.
Later he would collaborate with Swift, who became a close friend: many of Pope's attitudes grew closer to those of Swift as they both grew older. It is interesting, however, to compare Pope's approach to Belinda's toilette in The Rape of the Lock with Swift's very different preoccupations in "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed" — or with T. S. Eliot's treatment of a similar theme in the opening of "A Game of Chess" in The Waste Land. Other contemporaries whom Pope disliked were satirized, sometimes scathingly, in his work, and he was familiar as well with the work of Neoclassical predecessors like Boileau, and with the work of the great English poets — Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Donne, and Shakespeare, for example — who had preceded him, and whom he revered. Echoes of Milton and Shakespeare, in particular, appear frequently in his work; although, like the Augustan he was, he described Shakespeare's Plays as "an ancient majestic piece of Gothick Architecture having dark, odd, and uncouth passages."
Pope had few poetical heirs of any consequence. His popularity gradually declined after his death in 1744, as his themes and his style went gradually out of fashion. In a sense his true heirs were those who reacted against him most strongly. Samuel Johnson noted in his Life of Pope that it would be useless to attempt to write better couplets than Pope had produced, but he suggested, too, that new poets would emphasize new images and new sentiments, and by the early nineteenth century the English Romantics, reacting against Neoclassicism and exalting Nature, had, with a few notable exceptions — Byron, for example, proclaimed his admiration of Pope's accomplishments — come to look upon him as a decorous and perhaps a brilliant artist who was also a Roman Catholic and a crabbed dwarf; as an artist whose work, unfortunately, not only reflected but examplified the deadening artificiality of his age.
He was never without adherents — Isaac D'Israeli defended The Rape of the Lock by insisting that the best poetry reflected the spirit of the age that had produced it, and that, judged by that standard, the poem was a work of genius — but his work read less and less. It was not until he had been maligned, and his work misunderstood, by increasingly vituperative Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian critics, however (Matthew Arnold wrote that Pope's poetry lacked seriousness; Lytton Strachey called him a "fiendishly clever and spiteful monkey"; and Oscar Wilde gave it as his opinion that "There are two ways of disliking poetry. One is not to like it, and the other is to read Pope") — not, in fact, until the mid-twentieth century — that his work began to be properly appreciated once more.
In contrast, T. S. Eliot revered Pope, and paid him homage in an opening passage (written in heroic couplets) in "The Fire Sermon": Ezra Pound paid him a greater tribute still, however, when he persuaded Eliot to delete the passage from the published poem. "Pope has done this so well," Pound wrote, "that you cannot do it better; and if you mean this as a burlesque, you has better suppress it, for you cannot parody Pope unless you can write better verse than Pope — and you can't."
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000