Introduction: Toward Deconfining Pope

  • G. Douglas Atkins


Despite some magisterial work, particularly on individual poems, critical commentary has not always served Alexander Pope well. Quite recently ignored, he had been a center of attention when the “industry” cranked out articles and books from what Hugh Kenner described as its “Natchez-Augustan manor.” Too often, Pope was “declawed,” made into a polite, civil figure whose ideas were hardly relevant, his bite by no means dangerous. In the heyday of criticism on Pope, his thinking was made to match the latitudinarian and liberal ideas of his commentators. It is time to return to Pope and to deconfine him (he himself stridently opposed all kinds of sectarianism, confinement, and reduction). Comparison of An Essay on Man with Dryden’s Religio Laici and Eliot’s Four Quartets offers valuable new insights into its character as both an essay(-poem) and a contribution to the layman’s faith tradition, the latter of which is strongly anti-sectarian and inclusivist; it sets us on a path toward appreciation of Pope’s concern with wholeness—with, that is, catholicity.


Philosophic Idea Liberal Idea Thematic Constant Personal Essay Modern Poet 
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  1. 1.
    T.S. Eliot, “John Bramhall,” Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 359.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Hugh Kenner, “In the Wake of the Anarch,” Gnomon (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958), 171. Kenner is always provocative, stimulating, insightful.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Maynard Mack, Introduction, the Twickenham Edition of The Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol. 3-1, An Essay on Man, ed. Maynard Mack (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1950), xxiiiGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
  5. 5.
    T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1920), 1.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 144–45.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 145.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 147.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 17.Google Scholar
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    See Geoffrey H. Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1980).Google Scholar
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    See my Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005).Google Scholar
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    For the sake of convenience and accessibility, I have taken quotations from Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope, ed. Aubrey Williams (Boston: Riverside-Houghton Mifflin, 1969).Google Scholar
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    I have treated the essay as site in Tracing the Essay.Google Scholar
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    Eduardo Nicol, quoted in Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1994), xxxvii.Google Scholar
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© G. Douglas Atkins 2013

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  • G. Douglas Atkins

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