Although his literary reputation declined somewhat during the 19th century, he is now recognized as the greatest poet of the 18th century and the greatest verse satirist in English.
Pope was born in London of Roman Catholic parents and moved to Binfield in 1700. During his later childhood he was afflicted by a tubercular condition known as Pott's disease that ruined his health and produced a pronounced spinal curvature. He never grew taller than 4 ft 6 in. (1.4 m). His religion debarred him from a Protestant education and from the age of 12 he was almost entirely self-taught.
Although he is known for his literary quarrels, Pope never lacked close friends. In his early years he won the attention of William Wycherley and the poet-critic William Walsh, among others. Before he was 17 Pope was admitted to London society and encouraged as a prodigy. The shortest lived of his friendships was with Joseph Addison and his coterie, who eventually insidiously attacked Pope's Tory leanings. His attachment to the Tory party was strengthened by his warm friendship with Swift and his involvement with the Scriblerus Club.
Pope's poetry basically falls into three periods. The first includes the early descriptive poetry; the Pastorals (1709); Windsor Forest (1713); the Essay on Criticism (1711), a poem written in heroic couplets outlining critical tastes and standards; The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock-heroic poem ridiculing the fashionable world of his day; contributions to the Guardian; and “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” and “Eloise to Abelard,” the only pieces he ever wrote dealing with love. In about 1717 Pope formed attachments to Martha Blount, a relationship that lasted his entire life, and to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, with whom he later quarreled bitterly.
Pope's second period includes his magnificent, if somewhat inaccurate, translations of Homer, written in heroic couplets; the completed edition of the Iliad (1720); and the Odyssey (1725–26), written with William Broome and Elijah Fenton. These translations, along with Pope's unsatisfactory edition of Shakespeare (1725), amassed him a large fortune. In 1719 he bought a lease on a house in Twickenham where he and his mother lived for the rest of their lives.
In the last period of his career Pope turned to writing satires and moral poems. These include The Dunciad (1728–43), a scathing satire on dunces and literary hacks in which Pope viciously attacked his enemies, including Lewis Theobald, the critic who had ridiculed Pope's edition of Shakespeare, and the playwright Colley Cibber; Imitations of Horace (1733–38), satirizing social follies and political corruption; An Essay on Man (1734), a poetic summary of current philosophical speculation, his most ambitious work; Moral Essays (1731–35); and the “Epistle to Arbuthnot” (1735), a defense in poetry of his life and his work.
See the Twickenham edition of his poems (7 vol., 1951–61); his prose works ed. by Norman Ault (1936, repr. 1968); his letters ed. by George Sherburn (5 vol., 1956); biographies by George Sherburn (1934, repr. 1963), Norman Ault (1949, repr. 1967), Peter Quennell (1968), and Mack Maynard (1988); studies by Geoffrey Tillotson (1946; 2d ed. 1950; and 1958), F. W. Bateson and N. A. Joukovsky, ed. (1972), J. P. Russo (1972), Peter Dixon, ed. (1973), F. M. Keener (1974), David B. Morris (1984), Leopold Damrosch, Jr. (1987), and Reuben A. Brower (1986).