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Alexander Pope: A Life by Maynard Mack (Yale Univeristy/Norton: $22.50; 975 pp.)

November 24, 1985|John Hummel | Hummel, a textbook editor, has taught at the University of Texas and UC Santa Cruz. and

Maynard Mack's biography of Alexander Pope is one of those works of modern scholarship of which it is customary to say: "We have long been waiting for a biography of this sort," "It will be indispensable to future generations of scholars," and "Mack's work is likely to remain the definitive biography."

All this is true, in a way: For 20 years, it has been known, in university circles at least, that Mack, the doyen of American Pope scholars, has been at work on this biography. Well, now those circles have their book. Will it be indispensable? It will certainly be convenient: Mack knows a great deal about Pope and the 18th Century, and has excerpted and discussed countless documents which, while not unknown, are hard to come by without the leisure and the scholarly clout that makes it possible to consult a dozen or so of the world's greatest libraries. He has also turned up some previously unpublished plums, most noticeably the letters and poems of an unknown young woman who was moved by her admiration for the ailing poet to both pester and please him in the last seven or eight years of his life.

Their correspondence, which is at times vaguely erotic (at least for those who can read through the smoke screen of literary allusions), and their occasional meetings provide a touching reminder that poets and writers were once society's culture heroes. And clearly, Mack regrets the passing of that age. He pictures Pope as one of the last poets who tried to conceive of themselves as integral to the workings of their society, poets who shared the concerns and the cultural preconceptions of the ruling class, who were consulted and whose opinions counted, and who translated a fundamentally social vision into a poetic language read and understood by those whose business was running the state.

Mack casts Sir Robert Walpole, England's prime minister throughout most of Pope's working life, a politically brilliant, brutally anti-intellectual leader, as the villain of the piece, the man who forever drove a wedge between poets and politicians. Mack gives us a Pope who emerges as a humanistic, courageous poet, fearlessly opposed to the likes of Walpole, overcoming crippling disabilities and battling religious and political prejudices to make himself "his country's poet."

This takes some doing. True, Pope's closest friends were politically out during the Walpole years, and he himself was always ready to train the guns of his satiric skills on the Establishment's army. But his targets were almost always foot-soldiers; most of the casualties in "The Dunciad," for example, were minor figures at the time.

While Mack's understanding of these bygone power struggles is impressive, his insistence on making Pope a hero for our times is overstated. There are still readers who are prepared to take an additional dip into what the 18th Century called "antiquarian studies" and enjoy the experience for its own sake. Too many scholars--pilloried once too often, perhaps, on the rack of "relevance" during the '60s and '70s--are hell-bent to convince us how pertinent their work really is.

So we find 18th-Century poetic theories likened to the "genetic double helix"; the poems are ransacked for evidence of Pope's putative feminism; Belinda, the heroine of "The Rape of the Lock," is compared to a rock star and a pro athlete; and we are treated to a series of donnish asides on, among other things, TV evangelists, the art market of the '70s, modern dress and manners, and what are called "some pioneering 18th-Century versions of today's cost-effective, tax-deductible, corporate gratuities to the arts." These along with coy humor about the scatological aspects of medicine and Ovid's effect on pubescent schoolboys may serve to enliven a classroom. Elsewhere, they fall a little flat.

Will this remain, then, the definitive biography of Pope? In all likelihood, it will, for a couple of reasons. Mack's interpretation of Pope may be too generous, but he certainly controls the facts. One can quibble here and there, but one knows one is quibbling.

Then too, it must be admitted that wherever Pope is studied seriously and taught enthusiastically, it is often one of Mack's former students doing the teaching. Insofar as anyone under 50 reads Pope at all, their Pope is already likely to be Mack's Pope. This is Maynard Mack's real legacy.

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