Although he was clearly not a religious poet in the sense that the Herbert or Hopkins — or even poets like Donne or Tennyson or T. S. Eliot, in the latter parts of their careers — were, and though his poetry is only rarely explicitly Catholic or even overtly Christian, Pope's religion was an important factor in his life, and religious themes and imagery — sometimes employed in an ironic or satirical or disguised fashion — appear frequently in his work. Can you detect his use of religious imagery, for example, in The Rape of the Lock? Religion played an important role in Pope's personal life from its very outset: he came of a Roman Catholic family, and he remained a Catholic, though not a particularly fervent one, when it was still decidedly disadvantageous and even dangerous to be so.
During his youth — he was born in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution — the Protestant hold on the throne of England was still perceived as a tenuous one, and Catholics — as Tories, as Jacobites, in league with the French, and working for the restoration of the Stuarts — were perceived as being actively or potentially treacherous. As late as 1723, in fact, Pope's edition of the Duke of Buckingham's Works was confiscated by the government upon its publication because Pope was suspected of sympathizing with the Jacobites. Many of his friends attempted to persuade him to renounce Catholicism and become a member of the Church of England, but he refused, in a particularly polite, gentle and undogmatic fashion, to do so. In his reply, in 1717, to a letter from the Anglican Bishop Atterbury, who had written to him offering his condolences upon the death of his father, and suggesting that he might now wish to convert, Pope commented on the extent to which his religious and political beliefs were predicated upon the same principle:
I'll tell you my politick and religious sentiments in a few words. In my politics, I think no further than how to preserve the peace of my life, in any government under which I live; nor in my religion, than to preserve the peace of my conscience in any Church with which I comunicate. I hope all churches and all governments are so far of God, as they are rightly understood, and rightly administered: and where they are, or may be wrong, I leave it to God alone to mend or reform them; which, whenever he does, it must be by greater instruments than I am.
Do these sentiments, in which Pope implicitly accepts traditional Christian explanations of the way the world is ordered and assumes that man must submit to God's will and trust in his benevolence, accord with the generally accepted concept of the purpose and function of the sort of Neoclassical poetry which Pope himself wrote?
How would a proto-Romantic like Blake react to the attitudes Pope expresses here and in a work like "An Essay on Man"?
What would James Thomson, the author of The City of Dreadful Night, have to say about the matter?
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000