Today (May 30) in London History – the famous poet, he dead

The greatest 18th-century poet of them all died on May 30, 1744. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.


One of the greatest poets in English Literature died today. Let’s find out a little bit about him. Get to know him. It’s a remarkable story.

He was born a Londoner. Died a Londoner. Yes, he died today, May 30th. 1744.

Died young. Alexander Pope – for it is he – was born in 1688, that pivotal year in English history.

The year of the so-called Glorious Revolution. The year that saw the invasion of William of Orange, the expulsion of the Catholic James II, to say nothing of civil war in Scotland and Ireland.

Ok, let’s get the pins into the important places on Pope’s London map. He was born in Plough Court, off Lombard Street, in the City of London. His father was a linen merchant. Later the family moved to Hammersmith. There were some years in Windsor Forest. And of course his last years were in Twickenham.

So we know where. Now we zoom in. To the child and boy and man. It’s not a pretty picture.

Alexander Pope could hardly have been dealt a worse hand. Health-wise, appearance-wise, religious-wise, opportunities-wise.

He had Pott’s Disease. Tuberculosis of the bone, in other words. He’d contracted it from the milk of his nurse. 

It inhibited his growth. It gave him fevers. It gave him inflammation of the eye – he thought he was going blind when he was 17. It gave him severe problems of the lung and heart. It turned him into ‘a dwarf and a cripple.’

“This long disease, my life” was how Pope himself put it. 

That was from the get-go. That little boy – that dwarf and cripple – was, his sister said, “whipped and ill-used” at school.

Religious-wise, Alexander Pope was born into a Catholic family in an era when anti-Catholic feeling abounded. And ruled. That accident of birth closed just about every door to him. It debarred him from university. There were only three or four professions open to him. He could have become a monk on the Continent. Or a merchant like his father. Or a lawyer. Or a portrait painter. Or a poet. And that was about it. 

Even Pope’s surname was a mark against him. 

For good measure, Alexander Pope was hated by many people. He had serious enemies. The personal attacks weren’t just vindictive – the greatest poet of the 18th century feared for his life, he felt physically threatened.

So much so there was a period when he didn’t venture out alone without pistols in his pocket and his Great Dane Bounce riding shotgun.

Just about every handicap under the sun, in other words. And yet, by the time this young man – this dwarf and cripple – was in his earlier twenties he was a famous poet. 

And even that doesn’t do him justice. In the words of his biographer, 

“It is hard to sum up a life of such concentrated diversity. Poet, critic, and religious humanist, Pope was also a good conversationalist and letter writer, an influential garden designer, and a connoisseur of architecture and art.”

Here’s how Pope scholar Howard Erskine-Hill puts it: “What marks Pope out from virtually every other classic writer of verse and prose in the eighteenth century—from Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Johnson; from Addison, Gay, Thomson, Smart, Gray, and Goldsmith (and among the many noted women writers of the eighteenth century it would be equally hard to find an example who could vie with him)—is the extraordinary sequence of different imaginative works which he achieved, almost, as it seems, every five years of his short adult life.”

Howard Erskine-Hill is getting the measure of Alexander Pope in our time. But let’s not stint. Let’s get another assessment. Here’s what Pope’s younger contemporary, the great Dr Samuel Johnson said in his Lives of the English Poets.

“Pope had likewise genius; a mind active, ambitious, and adventurous, always investigating, always aspiring; in its widest searches still longing to go forward; in its highest flights still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows, always endeavouring more than it can do.”

You never go wrong with Dr Johnson. His biographical details are perfection itself: ‘Pope’s dress of ceremony was black, with a tye-wig, and a little sword’ and he ‘once slumbered at his own table while the Prince of Wales was talking of poetry.’  

But so much for the scholars, so much for the biographers and scholars. Let’s end by hearing from the man himself.

This is from the beginning of the third canto of Pope’s early masterpiece The Rape of the Lock. It’s just a few lines about London and Hampton Court and the court and a court of law and the times – but the range of tones is simply astonishing. What Rembrandt could do with pigments on a canvas Alexander Pope could do with words on a page.

Here are those 24 lines.

Close by those meads, for ever crown’d with flow’rs,

Where Thames with pride surveys his rising tow’rs,

There stands a structure of majestic frame,

Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its name.

Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom

Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,

Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.

      Hither the heroes and the nymphs resort,

To taste awhile the pleasures of a court;

In various talk th’ instructive hours they pass’d,

Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;

One speaks the glory of the British queen,

And one describes a charming Indian screen;

A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;

At ev’ry word a reputation dies.

Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,

With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.

       Meanwhile, declining from the noon of day,

The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray;

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,

And wretches hang that jury-men may dine;

The merchant from th’ Exchange returns in peace,

And the long labours of the toilet cease.

Alexander Pope is buried next to his parents in Twickenham church.

And a Today in London recommendation?

Pope’s riverside villa in Twickenham was yet another one of his masterpieces. Famous especially for its grotto. The grotto is all that’s survived. It can be visited. On just a few days of the year.  There are four chances to see it this summer, 2022: On Saturday, June 11th; Saturday, June 26th;  Sunday, June 27th and Saturday, September 17th. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

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And as we put it: Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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