NOW THAT literary criticism has taken to the wilder shores of discourse, biography is one of the few modes of literary scholarship which continue to speak to the common reader. A writer's life is apparently more hospitable, or more accommodating, than the works which justify reciting it, or the forms which criticism prescribes for their reception. Alexander Pope's The Dunciad is read only upon obligation, but the bizarre little man who wrote it is evidently of far wider consideration. There are writers, like Walter Pater, who coincide with their works and hardly exceed them: we feel that little or nothing is left over, after reading the works, to arouse our curiosity or provoke common speculation. But Pope, many people feel, didn't begin or end with his poems.
Maynard Mack has been engaged with Pope's life and work for many years. He has edited much of the poetry, including the Essay on Man and the translations of Homer. He has also written The Garden and the City (1969), a study of the mutual tension between pastoral retirement and political conflict in Pope's later poetry. In the preface to that book Mack promised "a rounded biography" of the poet, but he knew that the work would take many years of a scholar's life.
There was a place for such a biography. George Sherburn's The Early Career of Alexander Pope (1934) told the story from Pope's birth in 1688 to 1727, but left to other hands the later years and much of the poet's greatest work, including The Dunciad in its several assaulting forms. R. W. Rogers' The Major Satires of Alexander Pope (1955) studied the later poetry in the context of Pope's domestic and public life. But neither of these books provided the satisfaction of a complete account of Pope's life and times and work, or the authority of a comprehensive sense of its subject. Every consideration of logic and propriety suggested that a biographer should start afresh and write the entire life. The work has now been splendidly done.
I deduce from the new biography that Professor Mack hasn't been much intimidated by current arguments about the allegedly questionable status of political, social, and literary history. He evidently believes that a biographer, given sufficient powers of knowledge, imagination and tact, can arrive at a genuine sense of early 18th-century English life, and establish a poet's presence in that setting. Mack doesn't run to the cynicism of maintaining that Pope was merely a function of his time; or to the sentimentality of supposing that he transcended it, floating free of circumstance and occasion. He doesn't fidget with doubts: if something in Pope's poetry seems to be well enough explained by antecedent considerations, he produces them and offers them as cause. Not necessarily as sufficient cause: there is always the poet's genius, which Mack doesn't propose to explain.
Mack starts with Pope's Catholic background, and the particular impediments it imposed. Penal laws against Catholics prohibited them from holding the normal offices or pursuing standard careers open to Protestants of similar talent. It is clear that in later years Pope took his Catholicism pretty lightly: it was not a matter on which he was willing to be ardent. But he didn't disavow it, or seek advancement by giving it up. He was more troubled by the far worse disability of his poor body. A dwarf and a cripple, he suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, which would now be known as Pott's disease. The symptoms included "high fever, severe inflammation of the eyes, a harsh cough, abdominal pain, and a persistent chill and numbness in the legs that frequently brought on in later years a considerable or total loss of use." Further, the disease sually caused respiratory problems, "owing to the cramping of the contents of the thorax as the weakening spine and vertebrae collapsed -- in Pope's case, evidently, both sidewise and backwards into what is clinically called a kyphoscoliosis." No wonder Pope referred to "this long disease, my life" and to "that little Alexander the women laugh at."
But women smiled upon him, too. Professor Mack makes much, but not too much, of Pope's friendships with women: Anne Cope, Teresa and Martha Blount, Mrs. Howard, and at least for some years Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Mary came to hate Pope, and taunted him for his ugly body:
But how should'st thou by Beauty's Force be mov'd,
No more for loving made, than to be lov'd?
It was the Equity of righteous Heav'n,
That such a Soul to such a Form was giv'n.
But in the early years, when Pope was enchanted by Lady Mary -- and nurtured his infatuation -- she had not found his attentions ridiculous. Even if we set aside that episode, it remains clear that Pope had a remarkable gift for friendship. In his last years a married woman known only as "Amica" fell in love with his poems and, in some consequential sense, with him. There was correspondence between them, till Martha Blount stepped in and put an end to it in 1742. As for men: Pope's friends included many of the most formidable and some of the most vivid personalities of a vivid time. Mack enters with notable zest into the record of these relations: Wycherley, Samuel Garth, Sir William Trumbull, William Walsh, Henry Cromwell, John Gay, Arbuthnot, Swift, Steele, Addison -- but this friendship didn't survive -- Charles Jervas, the Earl of Burlington, Oxford, Bathurst. The list is happily incomplete. Bolingbroke must be regarded as a special case. Mack has always been hard on him. He has never taken seriously the claim that Bolingbroke was a major influence on the argument or the poetry of the Essay on Man. He concedes that Bolingbroke encouraged Pope, and nudged him in the right direction, but even so much is a concession wrung from him. After Pope's death in 1744, Bolingbroke acted contemptibly, and betrayed his friend. Mack doesn't allow any mitigation of the crime.
THE BIOGRAPHY is, as one would expect, warmly sympathetic to its subject. There are a few episodes in which Pope's behavior is hard to forgive. In 1735 he assembled and, in some cases, fabricated letters to Addison, Congreve, and other men. Mack's attitude is that Pope indeed fabricated the letters but not the friendships they claimed. Besides, the publisher Curll deserved to be conned, and Addison deserved to be punished for his own duplicity. In 1737 Pope practised a more elaborate piece of chicanery: he tried to maneuver Swift into arranging for the publication of their mutual correspondence. The effort was devious and rather sordid. Mack agrees with standard opinion that the whole affair was discreditable. But it pains the biographer to speak ill of his subject. When he comes to describe Pope's death, he almost implies that every instance of chicanery and self-seeking in him is to be absolved, given the appalling conditions of his life. When his friend Lyttelton came to visit him, Pope said: "Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms!" In the event, one symptom, dropsy of the heart, had the privilege of killing him.
It is my impression that Mack has devoted so much of his time, energy, and care to Pope's life that the works themselves have come to seem illustrations of the life they accompany. In several books and essays Mack has indeed made his critical mark with the poetry. Some of his essays on Pope's wit have been reprinted so often that they virtually adhere to the poems they describe. But the life, he implies, is even greater than the poetry; or at least it more completely answers the range of interests it arouses. I can't rebuke him for such exorbitance. T.S. Eliot once argued that "the more perfect the aist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material." But there is a level of interest upon which such a distinction is artificial, and there the biographer holds court.
The new biography is handsomely written and fully imagined: it is the kind of book in which a note on the introduction of artichokes into English cuisine is as locally relevant as the detail of a friendship or the fall of a government. But Mack has his priorities right. Only in one respect has he been self-indulgent. Occasionally, his style is too lordly to be quite convincing. Rehearsing two or three possible reasons for the breach between Pope and Lady Mary, Mack says of one of them that it can't be ruled out: "In affairs of the heart, as we all know, one sudden impulse can shrivel up all the wariness in the world like a moth in a candle flame."
What we all know may coincide with that remark, but I doubt it. I doubt, too, whether Mack has been wise to address the common reader so overtly, making comparisons between Pope's then and the common reader's now which depend upon current stereotypes -- angry young men, fractious children, bewildered parents, and kids on drugs in the South Bronx. But these are foibles. Maynard Mack's achievement remains magisterial.