Reclaiming Pope For Protest

Alexander Pope is one of the lesser-known titans of english poetry. He isn’t Shakespeare, the undisputed master of the sonnet, whom practically the whole world knows by name. He isn’t Wordsworth either, who largely revolutionized English poetry by introducing the idea that high poetry didn’t have to be reserved for the highest classes. He was simply an 18th-century English poet who is remarkably largely for being the best at the kind of poetry everyone was doing in those days. Most people don’t recognize his name at all, and those who do probably only know him as the eminently quotable man behind such lines as “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

Upon closer study, though, his work reveals itself both to be simultaneously more and less laudable that it at first seems. Close reading shows his work to be technically masterful, and well worth a study of how rhyme, meter, and wordplay can be used to their best effect. But diving into his subject matter reveals a poet both concerned with nothing of great importance and, by our own standards, disturbingly misled. His most famous poem “The Rape of The Lock,” trivializes a somewhat profound violation acted upon a woman in British society, and this is far from his only problematic work. All throughout, his poetry reveals a deep sexism that’s hard to stomach, and it seems that he doesn’t even make an effort to grapple with these aspects of himself. 

However, one of the biggest reasons Pope wrote the way he did was because of the time in which he lived. Many of the greatest poets of the English tradition lived and wrote in times of great uncertainty. While Milton crafted his epic, he was simultaneously grappling with the aftermath of an English revolution he himself had supported. Wordsworth transformed English poetry while England itself was transforming due to the industrial revolution. When Pope was writing his poetry, on the other hand, England was floating in a relatively calm patch of its history, and nothing large seemed to be at stake. Because of this, Pope was allowed to both focus on the least important aspects of life in his own poetry and never question his own beliefs and biases

In that vein, I think there’s room for Pope’s irreverent, disrespectful, scathing tone to be revived and used as a tool for protest, however slight it might be, in today’s political environment. After all, leaders like Trump hate more than anything else to be diminished and mocked, as his own fixation on the size of his hands and Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him. Beyond this, Pope was one of the first English poets who could make a living solely based on his writing. His style, with its rhyming couplets, simple construction, and entertaining tone, was just about tailor-made to be widely circulated and enjoyed by a great many people. Mimicry of such a style could possibly reach just as far, bringing a sharp, entertaining criticism of Trump to a great many people. 

This is not to say, of course, that any mocking poetry of a person like Trump is meaningful. Such entertaining critiques must be constructed as Pope’s themselves were, wrapped tightly and technically around a single kernel of thought or criticism. With that in mind, I present to you, my wonderful readers, the following, written for a paper during my final semester of college: a snippet of news, and the poem that arose from it, based on my frustration with praise of a frankly rather terrifying and lackluster speech to Congress. Enjoy!

“The instant reviews of President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night are in, and some of them are raves. Trump had scarcely left the House chamber when Fox News’s Chris Wallace credited him with reinventing the art of giving speeches to joint sessions of Congress. “I feel like, tonight, Donald Trump became the President of the United States,” Wallace opined. His colleague Dana Perino didn’t go quite that far, but she did rate the performance ‘the best speech he’—Trump—‘has ever given.’” 

And now, for the poem:

As Dunce the third from throne did thence retire, 

And t’ward his second, golden, did aspire

To coax from princely cheeks a steaming load

Much like the one on Congress just bestowed 

A horde of duncelets sallied to the fore

Their fingers, arms to fight their mighty war 

On screens and keyboards, radios and shows 

Each sure of what no other person knows 

Declaring truth for all the world to hear 

That let it pass, unblocked, from ear to ear

To claim that dunce is king, and dunce no more!

Or that his crown fits better than before!

Alike to as, when babes begin to speak

Proud parents glean their fluency in Greek 

The chance for this to make a real impact, I understand, is probably very low. But this kind of populist poetry, with its easy reading, broad appeal, and scathing tone, is perhaps my best chance as a writer to make something both meaningful and impactful. And if I see such a chance, should I not take it? 

With Excitement and optimism,

Alex