Alexander Pope was the great poet and satirist of the Augustan period of literature, which roughly covers the first half of the 18th century during the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and King George II. He was a member of the Scriblerus Club along with the prose writer and other great satirist of the age, Johnathan Swift. He made his fortune and fame through his celebrated translations of Homeric epic into English.
One of his first major poems was “The Essay on Criticism.” This poem is a poetic essay poking fun at the pretensions of the literary critics of his day who developed all sorts of erroneous rules about art. In the poem, Pope suggests the best art finds inspiration in nature and looks to the great works of the classical age as its model.
“The Rape of Lock” was a poem influenced by a real event. Robert Petyre, a lord, belonging to a Catholic family cut off the lock of a famed beauty, Miss Arabella Fermor, who came from another prominent Catholic family. Pope wrote the poem as a humorous take in order to diffuse the situation. In the poem a baron who is enamored with a young fashionable lady attempts to steal a beautiful lock of hair from her head. The girl is protected by invisible fairy-like spirits called slyphs. At the opening of the poem, they even give her a premonition of the impending disaster. Towards the end of the poem, the baron’s action precipitates a verbal battle between lords and ladies who accuse each other of all sorts of vices, which ends when the young woman shoots snuff up the baron’s nose.
“The Dunciad” is a mock epic in which the goddess dullness claims her dominion over Britain, especially its contemporary literary scene. It is complete with a history of dullness and a competition between the worshippers of dullness who are various literati (publishers, literary critics, booksellers, and writers) of the age whom Pope disliked. The work seems like an excuse to get revenge on those Pope felt wronged him. Many of the figures Pope lampoons are obscure in our own day. So to truly appreciate the work one should probably get a footnoted edition that explains who each person is.