Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) is generally considered as the greatest English poet of the eighteenth century. He is chiefly celebrated for his satires and translations of the ancient Greek poet Homer.
Physically he did not have much going for him (Fate had dealt him an unkind hand) having been sickly from childhood – a list of his various ailments makes woeful reading: from the age of twelve he suffered from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis which affects the bone which deformed his body and stunted his growth leaving him with a severe hunchback. His tuberculosis infection caused him other health problems including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain. He never grew beyond 1.37 meters tall.
He was handicapped socially as well for his family were Catholics – there was a good deal of anti-Catholic sentiment in England at that time to the point where there was a statute prohibiting Catholics from living within a radius of 10 miles of London and Westminster.
So Pope was already marginalized from society and his poor health alienated him further. However, like many other short ill-favoured but clever men, he had many female friends with whom he carried on a witty correspondence and at least one lover, his life-long friend Martha Blount.
I have in my possession a book: The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Mr. Pope. Vol III. London 1720.
Like almost all of my old books, this volume came down to me from my father Robert Hugh Milner, who was something of a bibliophile and had attempted to catalogue some of the more interesting of his collection of family books. He was already quite old when he started it in 1998 and sadly it was unfinished when he died. It would have been (and indeed is) a notable document in its own right, being couched in the elegantly erudite style of a man who simply does not know how to write a badly balanced English sentence. Unfortunately a certain level of knowledge is subsumed which subsequent generations of the family will neither have nor want to have. In Some of our Books he writes of this one thus:
28. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Mr. Pope. Vol III. London 1720
For anyone who cares for English poetry this little old volume has a tale to tell, or at least hint at.
In 1720 Pope, still a young man completed the publication of his Iliad. Its success was already so great that a pirated edition, in small format, was already appearing on the continent. To protect his profit Pope’s publisher, Lintott, hastily brought out a rival one, alongside the stately folios. This is the third volume with copious notes by Wm. Broome.
Pope died in 1744, and a young Cambridge man William Mason, who revered his memory, wrote a «monody» on his death, which was published 1747. This volume is inscribed: MASON: St. JOHN’S and bears a nice heraldic bookplate engraved W. MASON with the two-headed lion of the Yorkshire family. I consider the identification as certain.
At Cambridge, Mason formed a close friendship with the second great poet of the age, Thomas Gray. A year two later Gray, who had made Peterhouse too hot to hold him, migrated to Pembroke, where Mason obtained a fellowship in 1749. Mason was Gray’s life-long companion and literary executor. A minor poet himself he was later in life rector of Aston near Sheffield and corresponded with many eminent men. He died in 1797.
So this battered volume is a tiny memorial of three poets, two of them the most illustrious of their time. It has been oddly treated; the thin label on the spine has been removed though the indentations of Pope’s Homer are clearly visible and over them has been printed a large gilded III. The owner clearly wanted no reminder what work it was, only a note of the volume number, although an Arabic 3 is clearly printed just below. This presumably is Mason’s doing.
Two generations of Milners lived at Attercliffe, a few miles from Aston during Mason’s long incumbency, but I have no idea how this book can have come to them. Pope’s amazing achievement has often been denigrated and even derided, but it seems to me that the words come alive off the page, something I do not feel of any other version.
(Those distant generations, these dying generations, we follow them up rivers, back up the misty streams of time, back into the murk of history, back into the darkness of unknowing).