There is an interesting article by Brian Young on ‘Pope and ideology’ in The Cambridge Companion to Alexander Pope. “This essay,” he says in the opening sentence, “will unpack the simple statement that Alexander Pope was born to Catholic parents in 1688, and that he died in 1744, still a Catholic.”
Young reminds us that, in Pope’s day, Catholics were legally unable to inherit or purchase land, were forbidden from sending their children abroad to be educated as Catholics, and, bizarrely, were not allowed to keep a horse worth more than ten pounds. Alexander Pope was, therefore, very profoundly shaped by the discrimination his family faced because of their religion.
The result was, according to Young, that he became “very profoundly a poet of opposition … Far from being the laureate of Augustan England, Pope was a firm witness to the perceived shortcomings of the Whig alliance between Church and State.” This doesn’t mean that he was an orthodox Catholic: in fact he had “a problematic relationship with religion” and distanced himself “from much of the religious debate that engulfed a lifetime deeply marked and shadowed by the politics of religion”.
It is perhaps no surprise then that An Essay on Man, which is the poem most likely still to be studied in schools, “contains both Catholic theology and elements of freethinking”. We might argue about the balance of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the poem but what is clear is that the poem certainly doesn’t contain “anything like a consistently or straightforwardly Christian exercise in apologetics.”
So what do we get in Pope’s poetry? Young quotes two particularly significant passages. The first is from one of his Imitations of Horace:
My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill,
Verse-man or Prose-man, term me what you will,
Papist or Protestant, or both between,
Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean,
In Moderation placing all my Glory,
While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory.
To a certain extent, in other words, Pope was a mere Christian, but a typically moderate Augustan one. However, there is another passage which suggests that Pope wasn’t simply a moderate:
Hopes after Hopes of pious Papists fail’d,
While mighty WILLIAM’s thundering Arm prevail’d.
For Right Hereditary tax’d and fin’d,
He [Pope’s father] stuck to Poverty with Peace of Mind;
And me, the Muses help’d to undergo it;
Convict a Papist He, and I a Poet.
However, we can perhaps overdo this emphasis on Pope's secularizing drift. Young also recognises that “Pope’s use of satire in disguising his own commitments … makes it occasionally difficult to disentangle the religious elements of his thinking”. Indeed, he professes himself unable to explain why Pope remained a Catholic: “Why Pope, whose religious character remains obscure, chose to remain a Roman Catholic when conversion to Anglicanism would have procured him an altogether easier and more comfortable political identity,” he writes, “is a genuine enigma.”
There is one obvious answer, though it’s not an answer one normally finds in academic textbooks. Just possibly, as G.K. Chesterton once suggested in another context, the great fisherman “caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”