How Alexander Pope Unanxiously Imitates Horace

Term Paper, 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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1. Introduction

2. The Battle of the Books
2.1. The “Ancient” Position
2.2. The “Modern” Position
2.3. Pope’s Position

3. Imitation, Horace and the “Imitations of Horace”
3.1. On Imitation
3.2. Horace
3.3. The “Imitations of Horace”

4. Imitation, Limitation and Creativity
4.1. Rules and Creativity
4.2. Imitation and Creativity

5. Pope and the Anxiety of Influence
5.1. The Anxiety of Influence
5.2. Anxiety and Imitation
5.3. Pope and the Ancients (and no Anxiety)
5.4. Anxiety in the Battle of the Books

6. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time” (The Bible, Ecclesiastes 1,9f).

That is true for any production of the human mind. And this is just as true: No two things are quite exactly the same.

In this term paper, I will refer this dialectic fact to the poetry of Alexander Pope, scrutinising his and his contemporaries’ relation to classical poetry (especially Horace), and analysing his literary strategy of imitation and borrowing (especially his “Imitations of Horace”). I will then relate this strategy to the issues of creativity and of anxiety of influence.

2. The Battle of the Books

In the eighteenth century there was a fundamental controversy among scholars and artists about the importance of Greek and Roman works for contemporary arts and literature. That is to say, the discourse was not about whether to approve or disapprove of Homer’s or Virgil’s works (for their value was widely accepted), but about to what extent the example and rules of ancient poets should be followed, and whether some more recent pieces of writing were even more valuable than the classics. In this ancients-versus-moderns dispute (or battle of the books, after Jonathan Swift’s satire) there were largely two antagonistic positions, which I will refer to as the “ancient” and the “modern” position.

2.1. The “Ancient” Position

The “ancient” position is based on the idea of a “universal tradition” (Dryden, Heroic): the great ancient poets have delighted readers (and listeners) of all ages, and so what has been great poetry once is great poetry always (or, more generally, “whatever is very good sense must have been common sense in all times” (Pope, Preface)); hence it is assumed that the principles derived from these works must apply generally and remain valid for all times, as also human nature remains basically the same. It follows that to know and observe these principles is a precondition of any good poetry. The issue of postulating such principles has been dealt with by a number of Greek and Roman philosophers, of which Aristotle and Horace are the most important. Without going into their detailed advice concerning form and style, I will mention their basic ideas about poetry here.

To Aristotle (and Horace following him), all creative arts, including all kinds of writing, are “varieties of mimēsis” (51), artificial imitations of real life or nature. Implied in Aristotle’s “Poetics” is the notion that poetry is a special, artful way of expression (hence he calls it a mimetic art), while Horace states a clear aim of literature: “It is not enough for poetry to be beautiful; it must also be pleasing and lead the hearer’s mind wherever it will” (Ars 100), and “poets aim […] to say things which are both pleasing and serviceable for life” (106). Thus, Horace positions the poet as both a teacher and an entertainer. It is also Horace who brings forth the idea that both orientation to great predecessors (“study Greek models night and day”, 105) and innate talent are necessary for a good poet: “I don’t see what study can do without a rich vein of talent, nor what good can come of untrained genius” (108). Moreover, “neither men nor gods nor shop-fronts allow a poet to be mediocre” (107).

This canon of ancient poetic philosophy was more or less taken for granted by most eighteenth century scholars, and certainly by the advocates of the “ancient” position. And since literature is imitation of nature and the great ancient poets “have been faithful imitators and wise observers of […] nature (Dryden, Essay), these ancients are the perfect model of good literature and can at best be equalled, but never surpassed, by even the best of modern poets, combining learning and genius.

2.2. The “Modern” Position

The “modern” position in this battle of the books is in fact less different from the “ancient” one than one might expect. It does not wholly deny the ancients’ authority or question the rules set up by them. William Wotton, for example, concedes that “reverence for the ancient orators and poets is more than prejudice” (23). However, the moderns contend that improvement and development of ancient learning is possible and has been achieved (cf. Wotton 9), and furthermore, that “by some great and happy inventions, wholly unknown to former ages, new and spacious fields of knowledge have been discovered” (Wotton 9f). Moreover, the ancient masters should not be followed blindly, for “the tame imitator of other poets is a copier of portraits, the true genius a noble painter of originals” (Richardson 422).

So at the pointed ends of the scale, we find at one end the extreme “ancient” attitude that there has never been (and never will be) any literature as great as that of Homer and his fellow-ancients, and on the other end the assertion that although the classical works are great, some modern pieces of literature are even greater.

2.3. Pope’s Position

To state the obvious first: Alexander Pope was definitely an “ancient”. Yet he has more to say than just that. In Pope’s view (which he elucidates in his “Essay on Criticism”, 1711), there are some clear-cut and imperturbable criteria for good poetry. First of all, “nature” is the very model every poet must strive to imitate in his works: “First follow NATURE, and your Judgement frame / By her just Standard, which is still the same” (l.68f), and “Unerring Nature” (l.70) is “at once the Source, and End, and Test of Art” (l.73). This is of course well in line with the common “ancient” attitude, but also a radicalisation of it, for what was but an observation of Aristotle (that all poetry is imitation of nature) becomes a golden rule and the basis of judgement with Pope.

Also Pope’s idolization of the ancient poets reflects a strong “ancient” attitude: “But when t’examine ev’ry Part he came, / Nature and Homer were, he found, the same” (l.134f), “Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them” (l.139f). Pope also does allow for the possibility of modern poetry at least as great as the classics, for the sun (of inspiration) “which from the first has shone on Ages past, / Enlights the present, and shall warm the last” (l.402f); however, he does not seem to really believe in it: “Short is the Date, alas, of Modern Rhymes” (l.476), and “No longer now that Golden Age appears, / When Patriarch-Wits surviv’d a thousand Years” (l.478f).

The didactic aspect of literature is hardly overt in the “Essay on Criticism”, but it shines through in verses like that of “True Wit” as “Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find, / That gives us back the Image of our Mind” (l.299f). And as the author of a number of essays on moral and philosophical issues (e.g. the “Essay on Man”, 1734 and the “Moral Essays”, 1731-35), Pope can fairly be said to have realised the Horatian doctrine that literature should at once teach and delight the reader.

Horace’s assertion that a mediocre poet cannot be allowed to be a poet at all is elaborated by Pope in two ways: firstly, he condemns mediocrity of learning: “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring” (l.215f); and secondly, he satirically claims that those who are learned, but cannot be poets because they lack the wit consequently end up as critics: “In search of Wit these lose their common Sense, / And then turn Critics in their own Defence” (l.28f).

To sum it up, Pope basically follows the Aristotelian-Horatian line of poetic theory and represents a rather radical “ancient” position in the ancients-versus-moderns dispute, though with some instances of idiosyncrasy (so that “beside the dogmatism, some elements of relativity appear in [the “Essay on Criticism”]” (Legouis 724)). Throughout Pope’s literary oeuvre, this idealisation of the classics is not merely a matter of attitude, but part of his poetic strategy: Alexander Pope is probably the one English poet who most deliberately, and most skilfully, imitated the ancient poets. This strategy of imitation shall be dealt with in the next chapter.

3. Imitation, Horace, and the “Imitations of Horace”

Allusion to themes or styles or phrasings of classical works is so ubiquitous in Alexander Pope’s poetry that it is indeed part of its meaning. That is to say, a reader without any knowledge of the ancient models can understand Pope only to an extent far from complete, because a good deal of its effects relies on the recognition of these models. Therefore in this chapter I want to deal with imitation as a major theme of Pope’s poetry, examining especially his “Imitations of Horace”.

3.1. On Imitation

I will not attempt to give a comprehensive definition of the term “imitation” here, but rather venture to loosely describe what “imitation” means in the context of Alexander Pope’s poetry.

Firstly, we have to state that a kind of imitational mode is present in practically all of Pope’s poems, imitational mode meaning that we find in these poems abundant allusions to the style or themes of classical works. Yet in the case of the “Imitations of Horace”, the poem is itself an allusion and refers to one distinct parent-poem which it imitates, applying the above-mentioned imitational mode in a stricter and more direct way; it operates comparably to a bijective function in mathematics, with one correspondent in the original for each element of the imitation. As for the “Imitations of Horace”, “imitation” is not only a stylistic element, but the literary genre.

The soil on which the literary strategy of imitation flourished in the eighteenth century was, as Weinbrot points out, “the concept of general nature”: the assumption that the “sins and sinners of Augustan Rome are similar to the sins and sinners of ‘Augustan’ London” (2), or, more generally, as stated by R. Hurd in 1751, that all humans are “furnished with the same original “properties and affections, as with the same stock of perceptions and ideas” (qtd in Weinbrot 3). So the universality that the pro-ancient position in the battle of the books claims to be valid in the domain of arts and aesthetics, is also a general assumption of the English Augustan Age. Therefore, Weinbrot adds, “borrowing from past writers is […] not only legitimate, but necessary” (3), again for the reason that to imitate the ancients is to imitate nature.

Nevertheless, the genre of imitation faced some scepticism among eighteenth century scholars. Doctor Johnson calls it “a kind of middle composition between translation and original design” (qtd in Weinbrot 82) and grumbles that it is all too easily produced, with the plan ready at hand and nothing to be done but “to accommodate […] the sentiments of an old author to recent facts or familiar images” (83); he magnanimously assumes that Pope has written his imitations “as relaxation of his genius” (83). Moreover, Johnson criticises that imitations “appeal not to reason or passion, but to memory” (84) and cannot give pleasure to common readers” (83), because the required recognition of the original can only be expected from learned readers.

This latter point against the genre of imitation must certainly be conceded, but it is at the same time its greatest merit. Pope speaks of a “kind of double delight” that the imitation evokes in the learned reader, who “will find a new beauty superadded in a happy imitation of some famous ancient, as it revives in his mind the pleasure he took in his first reading of such an author” (qtd in Weinbrot 5). The imitational poem thus, by obvious allusion, links itself to the intertextual network of classical literature, and the parent-poem’s meaning becomes a part of the meaning of the new poem.

3.2. Horace

As Pope’s “Imitations of Horace” are what this term paper is chiefly concerned with, I have found it useful to make some remarks about Horace’s image and influence in the educated society of the eighteenth century, and especially about Alexander Pope’s relation to him.

That Horace’s ideas about poetry (i.e. his “Ars Poetica”) were of great significance in the literary world of Augustan England has been stated before. Also that editions of his poetry could be found in almost every educated gentleman’s library should not be much of a surprise. However, his presence (or rather, the presence of his idealised image) was not restricted to his literary works. D. Daiches notes that “Horace was for the early eighteenth century […] the type of the civilized poet” (638), and that was not primarily due to his undoubted literary qualities but to his image of a man of sense, taste and good manners, a wise advisor of the powerful and observer of society. R.A. Brower even calls Horace “a kind of cultural hero” of “what we call eighteenth-century civilisation” (163).

Horace was so readily exalted because “for the eighteenth-century gentleman […] the world of Horace’s Satires and Epistles offered striking parallels to his own” (Brower 164), and certainly because consciousness of these parallels was vogue (as the term “Augustan Age” suggests). Brower mentions the historical similarities between two rising empires “and between cultures enriched by increased leisure and easier contacts with ‘earth’s distant ends’” (164).

So Horace was common property, and yet Alexander Pope was especially indebted to him in terms of both literary and life-style. He was wont to see his “own world through Horace’s eyes” (Brower 164) and strived to follow the Horatian ideal of balance between city and country life, so that Brower regards his Twickenham estate as “the charming if amusing symbol of a life and a literary career that became progressively an Imitatio Horati” (164f).

Horace’s literary significance Pope (at least publicly) values higher than his own in the preface to his first “Imitation”: “An Answer from Horace was both more full, and of more Dignity, than any I could have made in my own person” (Imitations 613). And if, as Brower states, “nearly everything that Pope wrote shows (more or less distinctly) the influence of Horatian poetic modes and themes” (165), then this means not only that Pope greatly admired Horace, but that these Horatian modes and themes were also those in which Pope excelled: the moral posture, the didactic tone, the witty style. It is therefore hardly exaggerated when Daiches asserts (quite contrary to Dr Johnson) that “Pope’s genius was never more happily employed” (638) than in the “Imitations of Horace”.

3.3. The “Imitations of Horace”

As far as Pope’s “Imitations of Horace” are concerned, the above observations surely arouse the question whether Dr Johnson is right in scoffing the “Imitations” as relaxation of Pope’s genius, or if rather D. Daiches’ statement that “Pope’s genius was never more happily employed” is true. It will therefore be useful to take a closer look at Pope’s “The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated” (1733) to see how close Pope’s and Horace’s poem are to each other and how the imitation makes use of the original. I will mostly refer to Reuben A. Brower’s observations in the following.

The occasion that led Pope to compose this poem was that he found himself in a situation strikingly similar to the one Horace was in when he wrote his self-defensive satire: “Like Horace, Pope had been criticized by people who had been satirized (or imagined they had been) in earlier poems” (Brower 284). Certainly, this parallelism of case and cause enables and justifies a parallel poem, especially since Pope in this way invokes Horace’s weighty authority. But the parallelism is not only of situation, but of position, as “both poets disclaimed interest or influence in affairs of state, although their friendship with ‘the great’ made their roles and their poetry seem potentially significant” (284).

This, in turn, leads to a larger issue subtly present in the “Imitations of Horace”: that Alexander Pope always tried to fashion himself as a poet of Horatian stance. Brower mentions, among others, “the pleasant joking […], the ironic lyrics in heroic and pastoral styles, the praise of rural retreat […], the grand exclamations of the satirist and moralist, and the sharp personal thrusts” (290) as features of the “Imitation” that are essentially Horatian and states that “the poem is a ‘realization’ of the poet’s life as Pope sees it through the image of Horace” (285).

In the overall mood and style of the poem, Pope clings to the model quite closely by adopting its mode of casual and friendly conversation and by professing the “Horatian movement from role to role and from attitude to attitude” (Brower 291); Claude Rawson also remarks that the “debate between the righteous satirist and some kind of moderating adversary was particularly standard in satiric self-apologies” (241), and it has been coined chiefly by Horace. Some slight differences in tone and effect can certainly be detected when comparing the two poems (Brower mentions several), but since we are dealing with two poems of two different authors, we could impossibly find them quite the same.

Pope’s compositional approach to the “Imitation” at times seems almost mechanical. Brower speaks of a “Process of reciprocal transformation” (284) and observes that “at each stage in the satire, we see Pope starting from a theme or a turn of style in the original” (285). For instance, the satirist’s request to his advisor is basically the same (“Some think in satire I’m too keen, and press / The spirit of invective to excess: / Some call my verses nerveless: once begin, / A thousand such per day a man might spin” (l.1-4) in Horace, and with Pope: “There are (I scarce can think it, but am told) / There are to whom my Satire seems too bold, / […] / The lines are weak, another’s pleas’d to say, / Lord Fanny spins a thousand such a Day” (l.1f; 5f)), and so is the answer: “Wipe your en” (Horace, l.6); “I’d write no more” (Pope, l.11). Horace’s “Lucanian or Apulian, who shall say?” (l.53) is transformed to Pope’s “Papist or Protestant, or both between” (l.15). Moreover, Pope applies the pattern of replacing Horace’s Roman characters for English: The poet Lucilius in Horace (cf. l.43;92) becomes Dryden in the imitation (l.113), and, according to Brower, Scipio and Laelius (Horace, l.104) turn into “St. John, philosopher and friend, and Peterborough, the conqueror of Barcelona” in a mutual “scene of sociable rural retreat” (Brower 288).

But in his more brilliant moments, Pope goes beyond just transposing Horace, and the effect is really rendered by the imitation’s playful awareness of the original. Brower mentions the example of the name of “Lord Fanny”, which not only refers to Lord Hervey, but is at the same time “a metamorphosed Horatian character, the self-satisfied poet, Fannius” (286). That Pope in this poem positions his own image as close to Horace’s as possible (as has been stated above), can be seen as such an instance, too, for thus we hear Horace speak through Pope, making the case for Pope, who is Horace. (This is really the “double delight” Pope speaks of, which is the actual effect of the poem.)

All in all, despite the fact that Pope’s proceeding in this poem is in part rather methodical, it is never quite predictable. In other words, although the reader can distinctly trace the model in the imitation, the exact way of imitating is very diverse and generally difficult to grasp, it anchors at some points in Horace, but moves freely in between. So the statement that “Pope’s genius was never more happily employed” (Daiches 638) is true inasmuch the effect of recognition and surprise is achieved (and it must be added that the similarity of situations is a necessary part of that effect). And we also find the doctrine of imitating the ancients to have its value here, as the “Imitation” only really works qua imitation.

So what about Dr Johnson’s opinion that this kind of imitation is a “relaxation of [Pope’s] genius” (qtd in Weinbrot 83)? Brower makes two points in Dr Johnson’s favour, reporting that the “Imitation” “was written in a comparatively short time” and observing “a rush and liveliness rare in Pope’s longer satirical pieces” (285) – both statements suggest a certain easiness of composition, which, although not necessarily a disadvantage, can well be associated with “relaxation”. And of course it is true that the idea and structure of the poem are stipulated by its model. This kind of limitation certainly makes composing a poem a less adventurous undertaking, but it can also foster creativity. This issue of limitation and creativity shall be dealt with in the next chapter.

4. Imitation, Limitation and Creativity

Recalling the eighteenth-century attitude towards literature as an imitational art (mimēsis) and the pro-ancient conviction that to imitate the ancients is to imitate nature, along with Alexander Pope’s insistence on a “Judgment” based on the criterion of faithfulness to nature (which is equal in meaning to faithfulness to the classics), recalling all this, one may well ask: Is not the imitation of past genius at once a limitation of an author’s own creativity? And do not the ancient poetic standards as well impose such a limitation of creativity which might be quite unnecessary?

4.1. Rules and Creativity

As for the poetic rules, one should bear in mind that they were regarded as having been “distilled from poems and not invented for them (‘ discover’d, not devis’d ’), that they had a creative and ordering rather than a restricting relation to ‘Nature’” (Rawson 237). They are an attempt to capture what experience has shown to be useful in producing poetry, rather than recipes for making verses. And since literature is both a creative and a cultural activity, these rules require belief in the aesthetic standards they are based on. The belief in the aesthetic standards of the classical age was common sense in the eighteenth century, and Pope was certainly among the keenest of believers. Moreover, it was generally the spirit of the age to believe in conventions and ordering principles (be they social or philosophical or aesthetic), and so “the atmosphere of the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) was congenial to the genius of such a poet as Pope” (Daiches 591). For, Daiches continues, “limitations and conventions are a challenge to art, and art thrives on such challenges” (591); this seems to be especially true for the artist Alexander Pope. The restrictions the genre of imitation brings about, his permanent use of the heroic couplet, or generally the abundance of allusions and references in his works are examples that indicate that Pope could best unfold his genius with some model or given pattern to work with.

At this point I must make the general remark that the common prejudice that when imagination flows most freely, the result will be most creative, is a fallacy. It is a commonplace that it is impossible (except maybe for God) to create something out of nothing; in order to be creative, one needs a material to work on, and the material will always to some extent determine the result, that is, it imposes restrictions. Even when the material can be chosen freely, still the choice has to be made. Hence, creating without any borders or restrictions is not feasible.

Furthermore, every work of human creation, including every piece of literature, necessarily has a certain form. The form may of course just be the (more or less) arbitrary result of the content, but then, if the content is all unrestricted and undirected, the form, too, will grow rampant in all directions. If there is such a thing as well-formedness in literature (as most will agree there is), then it is a restriction to content as well as to form – but not to creativity. (However, in Alexander Pope’s case it seems fair to say that he was not extraordinarily creative, as far as form is concerned.)

Requiring a material and a form, creativity also requires the restrictions these bring about. Necessity, not freedom, is the mother of invention. Indeed, what seem to be limitations of creativity should rather be considered limitations for creativity. For as creativity itself cannot be restricted, the limits only concern the space within which it moves. And even within a very narrow space, the possibilities of movement are infinite.

4.2. Imitation and Creativity

The question whether imitation means limitation of creativity was aroused already in Pope’s time. Those few of his critics who had the civility to attack him on literary, and not personal grounds used to blame him of being a mere imitator, of not producing anything original that would be distinctly his own. Dr Edward Young, in his “Conjectures on Original Composition” (1759), found that “though we stand much obliged for his giving us a Homer, yet he had doubled our obligation, by giving us a Pope” (429).

Young’s idea was that of emulation instead of imitation. Emulation here means to equal the ancients in quality rather than to copy the form, style and themes of their works (note, however, that even in Young’s view, the classics are somehow the gauge for good poetry). So to emulate Homer would be to imitate nature in a way that consciously differs from Homer’s, but is equally contrived. Young writes: “As far as a regard to Nature, and sound Sense, will permit a Departure from your great Predecessors; so far, ambitiously, depart from them” (427).

According to Young, Pope of course did not meet this criterion of emulation. However, the example of Pope’s “The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated” shows that even this quite strict form of imitation does not necessarily lack genius; and it goes without saying that a good imitation is always better, and more original, than a failed emulation. It rather seems that imitation and emulation are two different approaches to literature, and each should be judged on its own accord. While imitation sets a narrower limit to the form of a poem, emulation restricts the possibility of conscious and allusive reference to the parent-work. At any rate, it is true for both imitation and emulation that dealing with the literary precursors is inevitable; I shall further elaborate this point in the next chapter.

5. Pope and the Anxiety of Influence

In terms of literature, the Biblical truth that there is nothing new under the sun means that whenever an author produces a piece of writing, it is at least comparable, if not similar, to something that has been written before. And to compare also means to assess. If we assume that it is always the greatest literature of one age that lives on through the following ages, then every writer will have to face comparison with the greatest poets of all former times. (And considering the Horatian assertion that a mediocre poet is not a poet, this comparison is really something to fear.) On the other hand, there is also the possibility to learn and draw inspiration from the greatest literature of all former times. But, being aware of his position as successor of great writers, an author will inevitably, in some way or other, have to relate himself and his works to what has been there before. In this chapter, I shall deal with Alexander Pope’s poetry (and again especially the “Imitations of Horace”) from a point of view focussed on this problem of influence.

5.1. The Anxiety of Influence

A work of criticism that has been literally influential on this issue is Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence”. Although Bloom’s book is chiefly concerned with romantic and modern poetry, its basic idea is nonetheless interesting with respect to Alexander Pope, and some the details of Bloom’s theory will prove useful for the reflections of this term paper.

To begin with, Bloom’s theory, in its greater part, refers to poets rather than poems, that is, to the poet’s “imaginative identity” (71), the poet qua poet. The concept of anxiety of influence has been summarized by M.H. Abrams as follows[1]: “a poet (especially since the time of Milton) is motivated to compose when his imagination is seized upon by a poem or poems of a ‘precursor’. The ‘belated’ poet’s attitudes to his precursor […] are ambivalent; that is, they are compounded not only of admiration but also (since a strong poet feels a compelling need to be autonomous and original) of hate, envy, and fear of the precursor’s pre-emption of the descendant’s imaginative space” (125).

Bloom then introduces six “revisionary movements” (10), by which the “belated” poet seeks to distinguish himself from his precursors. The first revisionary movement, “Clinamen or Poetic Misprision” (19) is triggered by a deliberate, egocentric misreading of the precursor, and is “an act of creative connection that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation” (30). The later poet follows the precursor’s direction to a certain point, but then he swerves to find his own, superior way (cf. 44f). In clinamen, Bloom views the poet as “exactly on the border of solipsism” (22), and remarks that any generosity between precursor and successor is a sign of the later poet’s weakness (cf. 30).

Tessera is a revisionary movement that is also an instance of misprision, nut going further than clinamen in that it seeks to “complete the otherwise ‘truncated’ precursor poem and poet” (66).

Kenosis and daemonization are concerned with repressing or getting rid of the precursors’ influence, while askesis is described as a contest with them (cf. 122).

Of more importance here is the last revisionary movement, “Apophrades or The Return of the Dead” (139). In apophrades, the great poets of the past return in the works of later poets (that is, their influence can be recognised), and “if they return intact, then the return impoverishes the later poets” (141); only the strongest of poets contrive to make a “grand and final revisionary movement” and achieve an effect that “one can believe, for startled moments, that they are being imitated by their ancestors” (141).

In what Bloom calls “antithetical criticism”, the meaning of a poem is “another poem – a poem not itself” (70). The poem that is the meaning of a poem is one of these: “The precursor poem or poems. / The poem we write as our reading. / A rival poem, son or grandson of the same precursor. / A poem that never got written –that is- the poem that should have been written by the poet in question. / A composite poem, made up of these in some combination.” (96).

The fundamental theme of “The Anxiety of Influence” is the strong poet’s ambition to rise above his literary ancestors. In the following, I will relate this theme and the corresponding assertions to Alexander Pope and his literary oeuvre.

5.2. Anxiety and Imitation

Going back to the question of a poet’s relation to his predecessors, we must ask what Alexander Pope’s special relation to the ancient masters was (for it is these ancients that chiefly influenced him), and what it means for his poetry. As has been shown, Pope’s relation to his greatest literary idol, Horace, was one of imitation in terms of both literary production and literary image. But in this imitation, there seems to be nothing like hate, envy or fear (as anxiety of influence would bring about), nor even any ambition to become greater than Horace. In dealing with this question, I first want to examine Pope’s “First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated” from this perspective.

It has to be remembered, firstly, that the analogy of situations suggested at least a strong reference to Horace’s satire, and secondly, that Pope’s “Imitation” was meant to be defensive. When on the defensive, modesty is certainly a virtue. So Pope’s humility towards Horace (“An Answer from Horace was both more full, and of more Dignity, than any I cou’d have made” (613), and the linking of Pope’s situation to Horace’s) can in this case be seen as a move of rhetorical strategy, yet one that requires unrestricted acceptance of Horace’s authority.

Concerning the composition of Imitations, George Converse Fiske has noted that the poet works “in the spirit of generous rivalry” and is obliged “to follow in the steps of his master” (qtd in Weinbrot 6). And Bloom tells us that “where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker” (30). This would mean that the “Imitations of Horace” are a weak poet’s weak poems. However, an analysis of the meaning of Pope’s “First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated” will show that if the imitation is weak, it compensates this weakness by cleverness.

Applying Bloom’s assertion that a poem’s meaning is another poem and considering that the imitational poem has exactly one parent-poem to which it refers throughout, we inevitably find that the parent-poem must be the meaning of the imitation. This is apparently a contradiction to what has been stated in chapter 3.1. of this paper, that the parent-poem’s meaning becomes part of the meaning of the imitation. But this seeming contradiction is based on the different use of the word “meaning”. Bloom uses “meaning” in the sense of what the poem means to the poet (at least from the point of view of antithetical criticism), whereas I have referred to the poem’s effect on the reader as “meaning”.

Let us now, following Bloom, assume that the meaning of Pope’s imitation is really Horace’s satire. Then we must consider that the satire has a meaning, too, which is then the meaning of the meaning of the imitation; and the parent-poem’s meaning for the imitation is really its effect, that is, the meaning Pope as imitator made of it. This may be called the meta-meaning of the imitation, and the meta-meaning is indeed a part of the whole meaning.

In terms of anxiety, the imitation then has a great advantage. It is indeed a contrived way of evading anxiety of influence. For the imitational poem (and, by the same token, the imitating poet) is ostentatiously aware of its relation to the precursor. By not attempting to conceal its precursor-defined meaning, the imitation includes its meta-meaning into its effect. It makes use of its parent-poem without annexing it. And since, according to Bloom, every poem to some degree boils down to its relation to its precursors (or the poet’s relation to his precursors), the imitation here does on purpose what would otherwise have happened accidentally.

5.3. Pope and the Ancients (and no Anxiety)

With “the Anxiety of Influence” in mind, Pope’s relation to his ancient precursors is generally problematic. As has been shown in chapter 2.3. of this paper, Pope’s position in the ancients-versus-moderns debate was strongly “ancient”, including the attitude that the ancient masters were the truest imitators of nature, hence the greatest poets, and could never be surpassed. Any aspiration to rise above one’s poetic ancestors is blocked by this principle. On the other hand, Pope was not modest in what he demanded of good poetry (note especially his famous lines: “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest” (Essay, l.297f)).

This dilemma arouses the question whether it is any use to write at all, especially since Pope did not seem to put much trust in the lastingness or quality of contemporary literature: “Short is the Date, alas, of Modern Rhymes, / And ‘tis but just to let them live betimes. / […] / Our Sons their Fathers’ failing language see, / And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be” (Essay, l.476f; 482f). In this respect, his critic Dr Edward Young is certainly right to accuse Pope of a relation to the ancients marked by “too great admiration” (427); but then Young proceeds claiming that “Admiration has, generally, a degree of two very bad ingredients in it; of Ignorance, and of Fear” (427) – yet neither ignorance nor fear is a feature of Pope’s literary relation to the ancients. In fact, education and self-confidence (quite the opposite of ignorance and fear) are essential to the description of Alexander Pope as a poet.

Furthermore, Pope’s admiration for the classical poets was of an idealising kind. The greatness of their poetry, it seems, was to him a goal that was impossible to reach, but that could still be approached. Getting as close to this goal as possible then is a perpetual challenge, and the perpetual challenge renders perpetual motivation. Thus, although Pope’s poetry is based on ancient models, his pride was rather focussed on his contemporaries; he could willingly submit to Homer and Horace, because they were to him Olympic deities, symbols of the highest genius possible – but he would always make sure that in his time, he was the one that came closest to these Olympians.

5.4. Anxiety in the Battle of the Books

Finally, “The Anxiety of Influence” can also be related to the ancients-versus-moderns dispute of the eighteenth century. Bloom’s revisionary movements of clinamen and tessera, corrective and completive deviation from the precursors, are found here again – in the arguments of the pro-moderns. Dr Edward Young proves an eager advocate of clinamen when he advises the modern poet with respect to the ancients: “the farther from them in Similitude, the nearer you are to them in Excellence” (426). The opposite opinion, that to imitate Homer is equal to imitating nature, almost entirely excludes the possibility of deliberate swerving. Consequently, according to the theory of anxiety of influence, the pro-ancients could hardly be great poets as long as they practised what they preached. It is however widely accepted that pro-ancients such as Pope, Dryden and Swift rank among the greatest authors of their time (as opposed to the pro-modern, but largely forgotten Richardson or Cibber).

As for Pope, it has been shown that his indebtedness to the classics was too great to allow for the claim that he –consciously or not- swerved from their path. His revisionary movement, thus, is not one of correction or completion, but of recycling – even though this recycling is not a revisionary movement in Bloom’s sense, as it does not aspire to go beyond the precursors (instead of just re-using their material).

Perhaps, Pope’s strategy of borrowing can also be captured in terms of Bloom’s revisionary movement of apophrades, the return of the dead: the mighty dead return, but instead of struggling with them, Pope invites them. Thus, contrary to the first impression, the theory of anxiety of influence does not stigmatise Pope as a failed poet; he could not lose, because he dodged the contest. This may be weakness, but it is not failure. It must therefore be asserted that anxiety is not the only possible reaction to the awareness of the precursors’ shadow. But then it is also true that the avoidance of anxiety by a strategy of recycling and imitation makes literature run in circles, repeatedly returning to the same points, instead of exploring new possibilities.

6. Conclusion

Alexander Pope lived in his time, and in his time, a certain reverence for, and knowledge of, classical poetry was common. The references and allusions of Pope’s poetry, and his strategy of imitation, spring from that source. As an “ancient”, Pope was especially indebted to ancient authors and tried to shape his own poetic image after the model of Horace. But the wit and resourcefulness that are tangible in his works are very much his own and even fostered or amplified by the restrictions of imitation and poetic rules. The non-anxiety of influence that shows in his mode of making use of the precursor’s models instead of trying to supersede them is in itself also a kind of restriction.

All that does not quite make Alexander Pope a literary revolutionary. But it makes him unique.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H.. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 1998.

Aristotle. Poetics. Classical Literary Criticism. Eds. D.A. Russell & M. Winterbottom.

Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 51-90.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. New York,

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Brower, Reuben A.. Alexander Pope – The Poetry of Allusion. London: Oxford

University Press, 1968.

Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature. 2nd ed, Vol. 3 of 4. London:

Secker & Warburg, 1960.

Dryden, John. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. 1668.

Quoted from the Seminar Reader.

---. Heroic Poetry and Poetic Licence. 1677.

Quoted from the Seminar Reader.

Horace. Book II, Satire I. Translated by John Conington.,


---. The Art of Poetry. Classical Literary Criticism. Eds. D.A. Russell & M.

Winterbottom. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 98-110.

Legouis, Emile & Cazamian, Louis. A History of English Literature. London: J.M. Dent

& Sons, 1964.

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. The Poems of Alexander Pope. A One Volume

Edition of the Twickenham Pope. Ed. John Butt. London, New York: Routledge,

1963. 143-168.

---. The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated. The Poems of Alexander

Pope. A One Volume Edition of the Twickenham Pope. Ed. John Butt. London,

New York: Routledge, 1963. 613-618.

Rawson, Claude. Order from Confusion Sprung. Studies in Eighteenth-Century

Literature from Swift to Cowper. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Richardson, Samuel. Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson. Ed. J. Carroll, 1964.

Quoted from the Seminar Reader.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1999.

Weinbrot, Howard D.. The Formal Strain: Studies in Augustan Imitation and Satire.

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Young, Dr Edward. Conjectures on Original Composition. 1759.

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[1] I quote Abrams, because in attempting a summary of my own, I could not hope to escape the anxiety of his influence.

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