Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope is one of those poets that most of us have heard of but few of us have read… which is surprising considering that after Shakespeare and Tennyson he is the third most quoted writer in the English language. Pope was the man behind “A little learning is a dang’rous thing” “To err is human, to forgive, divine”, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”.

In 1719, having made a lot of money from his translation of Homer’s Illiad Pope moved to Twickenham with his elderly mother, his old nurse and a dog called ‘Bounce’. (In his lifetime Pope had many dogs and they were all called ‘Bounce’ which demonstrates that he may have been a real hotshot with ‘iambic pentameters’ but complete pants when it came to dogs’ names!)

He built a stylish villa on Cross Deep with a tunnel under the road to his garden and a Grotto that he continued to improve for the rest of his life. Amongst its delights were rare minerals, marbles, alabasters, stalactites, mirrors and a ‘camera obscura’. Pope was said to have remarked that: “Were it to have nymphs as well - it would be complete in everything.”

Alexander Pope had never been a healthy person and at the age of 12 he caught Pott’s Disease, a form of spinal tuberculosis, which stunted his growth and gave him a hunch back. He never grew beyond 1.37 metres (4’6”) tall. He summed up his sad condition as, “This long disease, my life”. Maybe it was ill health and discomfort that made Alexander Pope so crabby. He certainly had many enemies amongst his literary contemporaries who he described as “hacks, scribblers and dunces”. They in turn called him the ‘Wasp of Twickenham’.

Pope was only 56 years old when he died on 30th May 1744. Instead of being interred in Westminster Abbey, he asked to be buried next to his mother in St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham . Later his friend William Warburton erected a monument in the church commenting on his preference for Twickenham over Westminster Abbey.

FOR ONE WHO WOULD NOT BE BURIED IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY. Heroes and kings your distance keep In peace let one poor poet sleep He never flatter’d folks like you. Let Horace blush and Virgil too.

Unfortunately poor poet Pope was not left to sleep in peace. In 1830 his grave was opened and his skull removed. It eventually came into the hands of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), a physicist and proponent of phrenology -the pseudo science linking personality with the size and shape of the head. Apparently Spurzheim was quite brazen about his new acquisition and often showed the skull to his friends. Pope may have been dead and buried but The Wasp of Twickenham was not going to take this intolerable desecration lying down. Years after his ghost was often seen limping down the aisle of St. Mary’s Church raving about the loss of his skull. These days the ghost has…well, given up the ghost, but his limping footsteps have been heard in the church fairly recently along with the faint sound of his voice demanding the return of his head. Poor poet Pope. For all his wit and success, he had to endure physical discomfort and deformity. Then, after a lifetime of using his head he ended up losing it!

– from Martyn Day