Pope, Alexander

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was one of OED1’s two most-quoted sources for the 18th century, with around 5,800 quotations altogether – the other was also a poet, William Cowper (1731-1800). This is clearly interesting given the general under-supply of 18th-century quotations, a deficiency partly but not fully made good in OED3 (as of 2019); see our pages on 1700-1799 in Period Coverage and 18th-century OED Leverhulme study.1

Today, Pope is remembered principally as a poet-satirist, author of such works as Essay on Criticism (1711), The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714, 1717) and The Dunciad (1728-1743).2 During his lifetime, however, he was just as famous for his translation of Homer, which not only established his reputation as a great poet but made him a great deal of money, securing his future independence.3

Pope’s Iliad, which Johnson famously called ‘the noblest version’ – i.e. translation – ‘of poetry the world has ever seen’, was published between 1715 and 1720, and the Odyssey in 1726.4 Strikingly, it is these two poems which received by far the largest number of quotations in the first edition of OED, as shown in the table below.

Pope’s quotations in OED1/2
Total quotations from Pope’s work 5,804 100%
Quotations from Homer translation 2,340 40%
Quotations from Iliad 866 15%
Quotations from Odyssey 1,478 25%

This is certainly worth investigating further, for three separate reasons.

On the face of it, is unlikely that a translation into verse of a high literary style from a great classical source would justly represent the standard language of the day, not least given Homer’s own use of archaic vocabulary. One of Pope’s modern editors, Maynard Mack, has described the style of his translation as having ‘affinities’ with Homer’s work itself: ‘both are culled from a literary tradition, both are unvernacular and “artificial”’. Pope’s own postscript to his Odyssey says something similar. Although, he says, ‘To preserve the true character of Homer’s style in the present translation, great pains have been taken to be easy and natural’, he also declares that ‘a faithful translator’ should make the original less literary aspects of Homer’s text ‘as poetical as the subject will bear…in order to dignify and solemnize these plainer parts’. He continues, ‘Some use has been made to this end of the style of Milton. A just and moderate mixture of old words may have an effect like the working old abbey stones into a building…’ (Mack 1967: 391).

Pope, attributed to Jonathan Richardson. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Public Domain

What were these ‘old words’, were they quoted in OED1, and was their archaic status recognized? And if it seems unlikely that Pope’s Homer exemplified standard or everyday (i.e. non-poetic) usage of its period, does OED’s record suggest that Pope’s vocabulary in the Odyssey was part of an existing native literary tradition or was it more innovative – and was it influential on subsequent usage, whether literary or more general?

Some evidence pointing to answers to these questions is now appearing in the OED3 revision discussed below.

Secondly, the attribution of Pope’s authorship to the whole of the Odyssey is not entirely secure. Pope shared his translation of the Odyssey with two collaborators, Elijah Fenton and William Broome, who between them were responsible for half the books (Fenton taking I, IV, XIX and XX, and Broome II, VI, VIII, XI, XII, XVI, XVIII and XXIII). Pope translated the remaining twelve books and revised the whole: Johnson commented, ‘How the two associates performed their parts is well known to the readers of poetry, who have never been able to distinguish their books from those of Pope’.5

As reviser, Pope took responsibility for the publication as a whole, and certainly improved his collaborators’ drafts when revising.6 But were there any differences between the lexical characteristics of Pope’s portions and those of his two collaborators? Could we use OED to find out?

Thirdly, OED’s quotations from the Odyssey are taken from Books 1-V only, with none at all from Books VI-XXIII. Was this because the reader responsible simply stopped at Book V – because (s)he could not, or would not, go further? Or that the vocabulary found beyond this point was not deemed to be of value to the lexicographers? Do these later books – the bulk of the work – contain valuable lexical evidence that deserves inclusion in OED? This cries out for further study.

Pope in OED3

As of June 2019, Pope’s quotations have risen to nearly 6,300 in total, an increase of just under 500 – though this increase is masked by the decision to re-attribute the portions of the Odyssey originally written by Broome and Fenton to those two authors respectively, an unconventional choice which has had the effect of reducing Pope’s quotation total on the OED website’s list of the 1,000 top quotation sources. As of June 2019 Pope is 43rd on this list, and without this change of authorship attribution would be 34th, just above Cowper whose total is c 5,900. The Odyssey quotations concerned remain in the OED: see our chart and discussion of major 18th-century sources in OED3 in EOED’s section on Period Coverage. Although the OED Online website does not permit us to identify the 500-odd new quotations, it is possible to see that (sadly) no new quotations have been added to OED from Odyssey Books VI – XXIII as of June 2019.7  

OED Online’s search tools also allow us to see that Pope is currently recorded as first user of a word in around 2% of the entries which cite him, and first user of a sense in around 10%. These ratios apply to the Homer quotations considered separately as well as for quotations from Pope’s work as a whole. It is obviously tempting to infer that Pope’s lexical choices in translating Homer were consistent with his lexical choices more generally – although the table below, extracted from OED Online’s website, does not differentiate between unrevised and revised entries, so that we cannot see whether OED3’s new research is changing the record in any significant respect. And we must also remember that OED data tells one about the quotations it has chosen to excerpt from an author or work, which may not be representative of their vocabulary as a whole.

Lexical innovation in Pope’s Homer, using evidence from OED Online searches (June 2019)
  All quotations First evidence of word First evidence of sense
Total 6,285 130 (2% of all quotations) 693 (11% of all quotations)
Homer 2,614 41 (1.5% of all Homer) 275 (10.5% of all Homer)
Odyssey 1,614 25 (1.5% of all Odyssey) 168 (10.5% of all Odyssey)
Iliad 1,000 16 (1.5% of all Iliad) 107 (10.5% of all Iliad)

(Note that Pope’s rate of innovation – 2% of the Pope quotations in OED attest first use of a word, 11% attest first use of a sense – is low in comparison with the other top sources quoted in OED, though Cowper’s was lower still: we hope to cover this issue in a new page going up on the EOED website in 2020).

Johnson certainly thought that Pope’s language was influential. His ‘Life’ of the poet declares that Pope

cultivated our language with so much diligence and art, that he has left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version may be said to have tuned the English tongue; for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody. Such a series of lines so elaborately corrected, and so sweetly modulated, took possession of the publick ear; the vulgar was enamoured of the poem, and the learned wondered at the translation’.

Lonsdale 2006, vol iv: 73

Johnson also noted Pope’s debt to the ‘happy combinations of heroic diction’ in Dryden’s earlier translation of Homer (Dryden completed just the first book of the Iliad, published with his Fables in 1700). In these various characterizations of Pope’s style, Johnson may have been thinking of phrasing and prosody as much as lexis – but if the latter, would it be possible to use OED to trace these influences, either back to Dryden, or forward to later poets, so that we can see how Pope’s intensive quotation in OED has earned its place by virtue of its demonstrable influence on the history of (poetic) vocabulary in English? All these issues and questions deserve further research.

Last updated on 27 February 2020


  1. This page develops some of the issues raised in a page on the first version of the EOED website: see Archived pages: Home/Initial result/18th-century/18c sources.
  2. Wikipedia notes Pope ‘is the second-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pope#Works, accessed 5 June 2019).
  3. Pope’s ODNB entry (by Howard Erskine-Hill, published 2004) notes the estimate made by Johnson’s bibliographer David Foxon ‘that the value of Pope’s Homer to the poet, translated into the financial values of that year [1976], was about £200,000’, quoting Pope’s own later remark that ‘(thanks to Homer)…I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive’ alive’ (Epistle 2, ii. 68–9, Poems, 4.169).
  4. Lives of the Poets, ‘Pope’, in Lonsdale 2006, vol iv: 17.
  5. ‘Fenton’, in Lives of the Poets, Lonsdale 2006 vol III: 90; cf. ‘Broome’, in ibid., p. 215. Pope’s books were III, V, VII, IX, X, XIII, XIV, XV, XVII, XXI, XXII, and XXIV. Mack calls Pope’s attempts to suppress public knowledge of the joint authorship of the Odyssey ‘the most disreputable episode in a career not free of disreputable episodes, and though it may be explained, it cannot be excused’ (Mack 1967, Introd: xliii); the episode is described in detail in Sherburn 1934: 248-69.
  6. See Mack 1967, Introd, e.g. cci.
  7. Various inconsistencies in authorship attribution of the Odyssey and in electronic searches for Pope more generally, noted in June 2019, have been reported to OED.