A ‘literary life’ of Pope might almost be thought a tautology — for Pope had little life that was not literary, and few lives have been so completely fulfilled in terms of literature. It is not often given to a poet both to know what he can do, and then to do it. Pope was one of the few; and in a small way, that has been his misfortune, for there is something very irritating to the human spirit in such a spectacle. The Romantic poets, said Byron, ostracised Pope for the same reason the Athenians gave for their ostracism of Aristides — they were ‘tired of hearing him always called “The Just”’. Pope has been disliked for his comprehensiveness, his formal perfection and simply for seeming to embody the eighteenth century. In a minor key, many students have a version of the Romantic response, when they recognise the polish of the style and suspect how many decisions have gone into its brilliance — but resent it nonetheless, for it seems to have no need of them: it leaves them without anything to add.
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