Literary Daybook, May 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 21, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 21, 1931, the lost father is born.
-- "The Lost Father" (1991)
by Mona Simpson

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1688, Alexander Pope was born in London, the only child of middle-aged, Catholic parents. This was the year of the Glorious Revolution, and the broom that swept out Catholic James II and swept in constitutional reform also brought new restrictions and suspicions upon English Catholics. Barred from politics, and from attending university in pursuit of such careers as law and medicine -- barred even from living within 10 miles of London -- Pope began as an outsider and seemed destined to remain so. In his early teens he contracted a tubercular bone disease that caused him to be hunchbacked, no more than 4-foot-6 and plagued by various secondary ailments.

Many biographers attribute Pope's legendary sourness and satire to such a convergence of circumstances, agreeing with Samuel Johnson that "The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood." One of Pope's targets, William Broome, was less diplomatic:

"I often resemble him to a hedge hog; he ... lies snug and warm, and sets his bristles out against all mankind. Sure he is fond of being hated. I wonder he is not thrashed: but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren."


Pope's bristling most often came couched in couplets, many of them now famous:

"While perverse poets painful vigils keep,
Sleepless themselves to give their readers sleep." (Dunciad)

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." (Essay on Criticism)


"Nay fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread." (Essay on Criticism)

It is often said that no other writer enjoyed so many enemies, or held so many grudges, or could give his own limits such a nice turn:


"Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine." (Essay on Criticism)

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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