My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A good collection of most of Pope’s works, including original work, critical pieces, translations and imitations. One has to love Pope if only for his sense of humor and biting satire. I found a great Pope quote in the preface: “For what I have published, I can only hope to be pardoned; but for what I have burned, I deserve to be praised” (p. xviii). I laughed out loud and smiled inside.
While he is mostly known for his satire and his Homer translation, he also can speak plain truths. One I found touching was in his Ode for music on St. Cecilia’s Day: “Music the fiercest grief can charm, / And fate’s severest rage disarm: / Music can soften pain to ease, / And make despair and madness please” (Stanza VII: 118-121; p. 101, vol. i).
This collection includes some of the phrases he coined, primarily from his Essay on Criticism. These include “A little learning is a dangerous thing: / Drink Deep; or taste not the Pierian spring: / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain / And drinking largely sobers us again” (lines 215-218; p. 129). A little more complex and complete than what we usually here of that phrase today. Later, in the same essay, we find “to err is human, to forgive divine” (line 525, p. 131) and “for fools rush in where angels fear to tread” (line 625, p. 135).
Overall, his work is so intertwined with the classical world: translating, imitating, analyzing and critiquing so many of the ancient authors including Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Statius, etc. I was taken by his translation of the first book of Statius’s Thebaid. I didn’t like his translations of selections from Ovid: the Fable of Dryope (Metamorphoses, Book 9) and Vertumnus and Pomona (Metamorphoses, Book 14). They were too verbose for me and seemed to embellish more than necessary. Part of it relates to keeping his meter and rhyming scheme going. [For Ovid, I really enjoyed Charles Martin’s very recent translation.] No doubt, Pope would have been a hip-hop star today for his cutting analysis and unbelievable rhymes. But for some of the classics he’s translated, there are better authors (past and present) to choose from. For satire and critiques, Pope’s a good source. For knowledge about who’s who in the times, he is invaluable, especially with his great Dunciad.
I wondered if we lack today what Pope had, i.e. a concentrated classical education that “everyone” pulls from and binds us together. Pop culture provides us with that somewhat, but it’s a shallow and ephemeral form of knowledge. Then again, this shared cultural base I saw in Pope, and indeed something I’ve been educated in myself, is not really universal or widespread. It’s a rarified form of culture, generated, consumed, and often valued by a very small portion of the population: primarily white, educated, upper class men. While I value this core of knowledge and indeed immerse myself in it, one thing I know is that it isn’t the only knowledge and it isn’t a preferred knowledge, just one base of many to explore.
I am very happy to have worked through his works and am sure I will return to portions of it in the future.