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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Pope’

There’s Always Disco, and Other News

August 8, 2016 | by

From the cover to Patrick Cowley’s Muscle Up.

  • Hey, you! Egghead! Ponce! Academic intellectual hippie freak! Get a real job! You don’t know shit about real people! You wouldn’t know a working man if he put a gun in your mouth! “People who specialize in the life of ideas tend to be extremely atypical of their societies,” Michael Lind reminds us. “They—we—are freaks in a statistical sense. For generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of their fellow citizens. While anti-intellectual populists have often been wrong about the gold standard or the single tax or other issues, by and large they have been right about intellectuals.”
  • In which Amie Barrodale searches for the elusive sources of her fiction: “My work comes from my life. But after my first collection of stories, I made a vow to myself: no more of that. I began to think about writing a novel about a pedophile who undergoes some kind of elective treatment, some kind of brain surgery, some kind of stimulation of his illness that forces him to basically go through the hell of his own mind, his own sickness, to come out cured. I began to read about pedophiles. But on the side, as I worked, another story emerged, about a miscarriage, a miscarriage I had last year. What I mean is that for me, for better or for worse, my life presents itself as a story sometimes … One thing I would like to do, one day, is be able to describe what is happening in my mind. Sometimes I just make strange sounds in my head, I notice. One day I’d like to know what happens in there.”
  • Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century novels Pamela and Clarissa have plenty to say about victimhood and agency—even as they defy contemporary standards of morality. As Amy Gentry writes, Pamela is “a prolonged tale of sexual harassment in which, for several hundred pages, the hired servant Pamela fights off her employer Mr. B.’s unwanted advances … Together, Pamela and Clarissa represent Richardson’s fundamental misunderstanding of rape culture. He mistook women for human beings at a time when it was illegal for them to be. That’s an endearing mistake you won’t catch Austen making — not out loud, anyway — not so the men can hear. But Richardson’s mistake was a fertile one. Out of his strenuous attempts to give us a sense of Clarissa as a human being with agency who nevertheless had no control over her own violation came one of the greatest triumphs of literature in English — Clarissa’s very soul — the agency she exerts from inside the depths of powerlessness and madness simply by continuing to write.”
  • Mary Wellesley takes a trip to Alexander Pope’s grotto, recalling its extensive history: “Over time the grotto’s purpose changed. In 1739, Pope took the waters of Hotwells Spa in Bristol, and was transfixed by the geology of the Avon Gorge. After that, the grotto became a shrine to the majesty of geology. Pope was influenced by his friend William Borlase, an antiquarian, who espoused ‘physico-theological’ ideas about geology as evidence of the work of God. Pope decorated his grotto with crystals, shells, ores and spars, ordering shipments of material from distant parts of the country. After a spat with his friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she described it as ‘a palace beneath the muddy road’, which was ‘Adorn’d within with Shells of small expense/Emblems of tinsel Rhyme and trifling sense.’ ”

Staff Picks: Urine-colored Stains, Tortoiseshell Cats, Grimy Mirrors

July 1, 2016 | by

From John Aubrey: My Own Life.

When John Aubrey died in 1697, he left us with his Brief Lives, a collection of short biographies whose candor and color exploded the genre. As keen as his eye was, Aubrey seldom turned it on himself. Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life, out last year in the UK and soon to cross the Atlantic, is an imaginative corrective: an autobiography assembled with care from remnants of Aubrey’s letters, manuscripts, and books. Against the turmoil of Restoration-era England, his sensitivities and proclivities make him an empathetic, surprisingly modern figure; unique for his time, he was fascinated with preservation, often pausing on horseback to sketch ruins or glasswork. Not infrequently, his writings find him distraught at how few of his countrymen appreciate the mundanities of their world. Scurr’s diary is a generous document of his life, and better still it demonstrates the easy beauty of his prose. “I am so bored, so alone,” he writes early on, yearning to leave rural life for Oxford or London. “My imagination is like a mirror of pure crystal water, which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth.” —Dan Piepenbring

I’ve been meaning to read Jennifer Grotz’s new collection of poems, Window Left Open, for months; when I pulled it from the shelf last weekend I near expected to devour it whole. Instead, I read the first couple poems, then closed the book until the next morning, when I did the same. I’ve been like this all week, dipping in and out of Grotz’s poetry. But my pace is proof of how fond I am of it: Window Left Open is a trove of morose and arresting moments that begs its reader to linger over it, to steep in its quiet gloom—the lonesomeness and despondence of the everyday. Grotz is an impeccable observer, too. (“I myself was / the hungry lens,” she writes.) One narrator watches the “longsuffering” cows in the forest, steam coming from their nostrils; another notices a student’s stomped-out cigarette on the library’s steps, “excreting urine-colored stains into the snow”; another prays for the apples that cling to their branches before the wind takes them to the ground. Grotz laces even the most benign occasions with beautiful devastation. —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade

October 31, 2015 | by

In the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur explores the necrobotany of the yew tree, “the tree of the dead”—found in churchyards across the United Kingdom, France, and Spain.

William Turner, Pope's Villa at Twickenham, 1808.

A churchyard was adjacent to a church; both held the bones of the dead. The three—the building, the ground, the dead—were conjoined by a common history that made them part of what by the eighteenth century was a given; if ever there were an organic landscape, it was the churchyard.

The long-lived European yew tree—Taxus baccata, the tree of the dead, the tree of poisonous seeds—bears witness to the antiquity of the churchyard and shades its “rugged elms,” and the mounds and furrows of its graves: The yew of legend is old and lays claim to immemorial presence. We are speaking here of two or three dozen exemplary giants, some with a circumference of ten meters, that have stood for between 1,300 and 3,000 years but also of many more modest and historically documented trees that have lived, and been memorialized, for centuries. At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand. Some were there when the first Saxon and indeed the first British Christian wattle churches were built; a seventh-century charter from Peronne in Picardy speaks of preserving the yew on the site of a new church. Read More »

The Inquisitive Fallacy

May 23, 2014 | by

A professor’s unlikely quest for busts of Alexander Pope.

Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteen-Century Britain,” recently on view at the Yale Center for British Art, tells a curious tale of Alexander Pope’s legacy, focusing on the strange fervor that continues to surround busts and portraits of him. Pope, whose birthday was earlier this week, was a household name, at least in one sector of British society. He was the first English poet to publish two volumes of his own collected works while living—and with the publication of the first volume, he also became the first English author to sustain himself entirely on the proceeds of his work. And he didn’t lead a meager existence. Pope was able to lease a sizable villa near Richmond, a painting of which was on view in Yale’s exhibition.

For any writer, these achievements would’ve been no small feat, but they’re especially impressive in light of Pope’s many obstacles. He was a Catholic at a time when Catholics weren’t allowed to live within ten miles of London or Westminster or to attend university; and he was beset with health problems that led to a visible hunchback and permanently stunted his height. Even so, Pope became a celebrated member of the British literary canon—someone whose very image evoked intellectual achievement.

Paintings and busts of Pope were commissioned for wealthy families and artistic friends—they conferred status among men of letters. According to Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale, when Voltaire visited England in 1727, he marveled that he saw Pope’s portrait in “twenty noblemen’s houses.” The placement of these busts was telling of the poet’s reputation; he was displayed with such notable British intellectuals as Laurence Sterne and Isaac Newton.

“Fame and Friendship” assembled an intriguing array of these busts, made of stately marble or—in the case of a petite, mass-produced work—porcelain. At the center of the collection are eight busts of Pope by French émigré sculptor Louis François Roubiliac, created between 1738 and 1760. Though they were made over the course of twenty-two years, they carry certain hallmarks: a telltale droop beneath Pope’s eyes, a marked thinness in his cheeks, an inquisitive gaze, and a slender nose. In Roubiliac’s skillful hands, the signs of Pope’s infirmity are presented instead as characteristics befitting a poetic countenance, with all the sensitivity that poetry implies. Read More »



May 21, 2014 | by


A sketch of Pope’s grotto.

Today marks the day of Alexander Pope’s birth, in 1688. We remember Pope as a poet, essayist, satirist, translator, and one of the most quotable men in English. He’s responsible for, among many other aphoristic gems: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” And, yes, the phrase “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”

In his time, he was also known for his amazing home, a Palladian villa at Twickenham surrounded by elaborate gardens and grottoes. Pope’s wealthy family was ostracized for its Catholicism, and his numerous health problems—he suffered from Pott’s disease, which stunted his growth to only four foot six—somewhat limited his social life. His home seems to have been a refuge, as well as a definitive indicator of his success.

The house, a Classical mansion surrounded by vast grounds, was grand enough, but it was the Homeric grotto that really got Pope’s heart racing. As he wrote at the time of its construction,

I have put the last hand to my works … happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture … And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

Later, he added, “Were it to have nymphs as well—it would be complete in everything.” Read More »

Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”

January 26, 2012 | by

I have a weakness for the heroic couplet, and anything comical. Here, for example, is Alexander Pope on coffee, in that part of “The Rape of the Lock” where the Baron gets a new idea about how to gain access to Belinda’s follicles.

For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoaking Tyde.

On those somewhat rare occasions nowadays, when coffee is poured with any modicum of ceremony, usually (but not always) in an expensive restaurant, that last couplet invariably bounces out of some quiet backwater of the brain and makes me chuckle. Following on the “silver lamp” and “fiery spirits,” those “silver Spouts” are already pompous, but especially so when rendered in the plural. Pope is careful, though, to admit of plain cups and spoons, and a straightforward grinder that “turns round.” Mock heroism requires a plain background. Those gliding “liquors,” meanwhile, are perversely “grateful” and, in the next line, amplify in fragrance and volume into a “smoaking Tyde,” with that olfactory hint of seductive acceleration. The previously inanimate cups he deftly turns into a sort of allegorical entity, China’s “Earth,” perhaps lounging there, goddesslike, in receptive mode, or in acknowledgment of the absurd rite performed upon the silly “shining altars of” Japan. All five senses are amply stimulated here, with apparently total lack of effort. But look at the perfect symmetry of the conceit: two lines, each of ten syllables only, five meticulous iambs. By all accounts Pope could rattle off these perfect, cantilevered couplets in their hundreds. No fraught half-hours spent chewing the end of his pencil, or screwed up false starts overflowing from his wastepaper basket. I wonder if he even owned one. Effortlessness, however, was not enough: Pope also exhibited degrees of stylistic polish, cruel wit, and condescension that invariably nailed his intended victim, the better to hold him up to ridicule. The master.

At Starbucks, then, you might as well be dead,
If lattes only came in gingerbread.

Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.