Alexander Pope (1688–1744) is an exemplar of Augustan classicism, writing in a late expression of the Renaissance humanist tradition. He writes in a time of growing secularism in science, philosophy, and politics, and his poetry responds to these changes from a deeply humanistic perspective. Pope is known particularly for satires in the classical tradition, reflecting his poetic, social, political, and religious conservatism. His religious stance is generally described as a liberal Catholicism, and his poetry is seen as political rather than religious in its orientation. Yet Pope’s writing has long been recognized as allusive and complex, resonant with both biblical and classical references, both straightforward and ironic.

Pope, English Catholicism, and the Bible.

Pope’s relationship with the Bible reflects both his commitment to Christian humanism and his lifelong adherence to Roman Catholicism. In his time, the role and importance of scripture had been re-examined in Catholic devotional practice, particularly in England. In recognition of the need for the Catholic community in England to have access to the Bible in the vernacular, the English College at Douai produced translations of the New Testament in 1582 and of the Old Testament in 1609; the seventeenth-century Douai/Rheims Bible was in use in most Catholic households, as evident from the catalog of the library at Mapledurham House, home of Pope’s friends the Blounts. Pope’s letters and poetry show familiarity with both the Douai and Authorized Versions; in Messiah (Pope’s Christian version of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, published in 1712), he invokes the Douai more predominantly in the text, while quoting from the Authorized Version in his notes (Zomberg, 1973).

Allusions to the elements of scripture found in the Catholic breviary and missals—the Psalms, Isaiah, Wisdom books, Job, the Gospels, and the books of Genesis and Revelation—are scattered throughout Pope’s correspondence and inform many of his poems, along with verbal echoes of the prayers.

Pope’s background included not only the devout Catholicism practiced by his family but also the fact that his father was a convert to Catholicism; his paternal grandfather had been a clergyman in the Church of England (Sherburn, 1934). Pope claims to have been familiar with the works of Anglican-Catholic controversy that populated his paternal library (Sherburn, 1956, Vol. 1, pp. 453–454; Spence, 1966, Vol. 1, p. 204). Moreover, many of his close friends were Anglican clergymen (Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, Francis Atterbury, George Berkeley); he owned a copy of the sermons of the Restoration divine and mathematician Isaac Barrow (Sherburn 1956, Vol. 2, p. 81).

Pope owned several Bibles, which seem to be gifts with personal significance. A copy of Erasmus’s Novum Testamentum in Greek and Latin (1543) was given to him by Swift in 1714, with the inscription Intellectum da mihi Avidam (give me the eager mind). Throughout his life, in both his letters and poetry, Pope claimed the humanist biblical scholar Erasmus as his exemplar in Catholicism, harmonizing religious faith and classical learning. Another Greek and Latin New Testament (1632) was given to Pope by his much-admired friend and freethinker Henry St. John Lord Bolingbroke in 1728. An Authorized Version (Cambridge, 1674) was given to Pope by Atterbury in the year of the latter’s exile on a charge of Jacobitism (1723). (For a full list, see Mack, 1977, pp. 237–238.) Pope evidently regarded these Bibles as testaments of friendship as well as symbols of intellectual and spiritual community.

Pope’s interest in other religions and in syncretism can be seen in his owning a 1698 folio Latin translation of the Qur’an and a copy of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) (Mack, 1977, pp. 234, 246). In the formal statements of his Catholicism in his letters, Pope associates himself primarily with Erasmus as well as with the Jansenist François de la Mothe Fénelon and the Christian skeptic Blaise Pascal. These figures link Pope with a proto-reformed Catholicism that preached a return to basics, focusing more closely on the biblical text as a source of inspiration for prayer and meditation and promoting the simplicity of daily devotion rather than controversies and commentaries—a theme evident in Pope’s later satires. His comment late in life is consistent with these views: “The theological writers … have all … platonized and corrupted the truth. That is to be learned only from the Bible, as it appears nakedly there, without the wresting of commentators or the additions of schoolmen.” (Spence, 1966, Vol. 1, p. 135). These contemporary developments in Catholicism accord well with Pope’s humanist values and are part of the matrix for his relationship with the biblical text.

Critical Tradition.

As the single most famous poet of his own time, Pope inspired a wealth of critical writing; as a talented satirist and Catholic, he inspired rather more. The attacks on Pope throughout his career, which targeted his life, religion, morals, and physique, have long been recognized and anthologized (initially, according to tradition, by Pope himself). Pope was frequently attacked for his Catholicism, sometimes with play on the Protestant belief in Catholic contempt for the Bible; this was complicated in Pope’s case by his pervasive parodic adaptation of scripture in his poetry. A youthful jeux d’esprit, the “Roman Catholick Version of the First Psalm,” a bawdy adaptation of the Tate and Brady metrical version of Psalm 1, was published piratically by Edmund Curll in 1715 and formed the basis of claims for Pope’s irreligion and contempt for the Bible for the next 30 years.

The years following Pope’s death through the Romantic period and the nineteenth century saw numerous critical editions, biographies, and studies. While these writers were uncomfortable with Pope’s use of biblical parody, they claimed for Pope fundamental religious seriousness and orthodoxy: Samuel Johnson, for example, saw Pope as “not scrupulously pious” on the evidence of his “many idle and indecent applications of sentences taken from the Scriptures,” but states that there is no evidence Pope ever lost fundamental principles or disbelieved Revelation (1779, Vol. 2, p. 398). As Victorian seriousness continued to separate wit from religion, and satire from poetry, Pope’s reputation declined in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; he was often portrayed as morally weak and hypocritical, and his poetry as lacking any spiritual element.

The mid-twentieth-century restoration of Augustan literature, informed by New Criticism, new bibliography, and mythopoeic criticism, opened the way for an intensive exploration of classical and Judeo-Christian resonance in Pope’s poetry. Maynard Mack’s seminal essay in 1946 (“On Reading Pope”) prepared the critical landscape, showing how Pope’s precise and pervasive use of biblical allusion and nuance was used to expand meaning in his poetry. Aubrey Williams’s landmark study of The Dunciad (1955) established the artistic importance and philosophical depth of the poem by exploring its mythological complexity through classical and biblical allusion, suggesting the extent of Pope’s parody of Christian theology. Later studies, such as those of Earl R. Wasserman (1959, 1960), Reuben Brower (1959), Thomas Maresca (1966), and Mack (1969), explored in detail the complexity and depth of biblical reference in Pope’s language in the full range of his poetry and thoroughly established Pope in the humanist tradition of harmonizing classical and scriptural language under the authority of Christian values.

Subsequent scholarship enhanced the historical focus, considering particularly Pope’s position as a member of the recusant Catholic community; studies by Howard Erskine-Hill (1976), Pat Rogers (2004), and others show the extent to which Pope’s ironic and nuanced use of classical and biblical reference is rooted in contemporary politics and speaks to a readership well versed in both. Recent work explores, for example, biblical echoes and imagination in the Essay on Man (Brückmann, 1988), iconography and prophecy in Pope’s early work (Rogers, 2004), the precision and scope of Pope’s use of biblical parody (Jemielity, 2000; Weinbrot, 1992), and the pervasiveness and complexity of Pope’s religious sensibility as expressed in his poetry (Jones, 2008).

The Bible in Pope’s Writing.

It is difficult to overstate the variety and pervasiveness of biblical reference in Pope’s writing. It appears with casual familiarity throughout his correspondence, and in various forms through the full range of his poetry, from direct translations and adaptations (Messiah; Ps 91) through a wide array of classical forms such as pastoral, Georgic, mock-epic, elegy, epistle, Homeric translation, and Horatian epistle, from his earliest scriptural translations through to his culminating “anti-apocalypse” in the New Dunciad. There are also scattered through Pope’s writing a number of direct references to the Bible as a text in itself and to how it was read in his time.

Pope’s correspondence.

Pope’s personal correspondence employs recurring biblical allusions or quotations to express ideas of urgent personal significance, as well as witty adaptations of scripture to comment on a personal situation. Writing to his Catholic friend John Caryll in August 1714 on the subject of anti-Catholic legislation, he says ironically, “The greatest fear I have under the circumstances of a poor papist is the loss of my poor horse; yet if they take it away, I may say with the resignation of Job, tho’ not in his very words, Deus dedit, diabolus abstulit [God has given, the devil has taken away], I thank God I can walk” (Sherburn, 1956, Vol. 1, pp. 241–242). The ironic twist neatly conflates the Protestant government with the role of the devil in the book of Job, in contrast to the virtuous suffering and piety of Catholics. Many scriptural tags in Pope’s letters are used in lighter contexts, such as his playful admission to Gay that his paintings are so bad he is no danger of breaking the commandment, for they “are not the likeness of any thing in heaven above, or in earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Sherburn, 1956, Vol. 1, p. 188). Still lighter uses of scriptural tags, occasionally with salacious overtones, occur in his early “gallant” letters to ladies, such as the Blount sisters and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; in general, however, Pope favors references to the book of Job, the Apocalypse and Daniel, Wisdom books, the Epistles, and Psalms, for a wide array of contexts, with varying degrees of seriousness. It is notable that he addresses such allusions not only to his coreligionists but more broadly as well, to a variety of his friends including Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Ralph Allen, Bolingbroke, and the Earl of Bathurst.

Pope’s poetry: Adaptation, allusion, application.

Pope’s biblical expressions vary from direct allusions and adaptations, to subtle verbal echoes, to comprehensive structural parodies; biblically influenced poems vary from direct quotation and adaptation, to Christianized adaptation of classical originals, to the excoriating public vision voiced through a parodic sweep of biblical history in the Dunciad. Often these references echo English poetic tradition as well, Milton in particular; and always, Pope’s biblical allusions are informed by a dynamic interaction with the classical forms and originals with which he works.

Biblical and classical tradition.

Given the substantial body of scholarship devoted to this topic, the examples to follow are highly selective. In Pope’s first manifesto of literary classicism, the Essay on Criticism (1711), the ancient genius Homer is given the authority both of God and the Bible, as Pope echoes the popular Tate and Brady version of Psalm 1: “Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight, / Read them by Day, and meditate by Night” (pp. 124–125); Homer’s authority is compared to that of the Bible, an ineffable text not to be compared with any human production, and, like the Bible, Homer’s work is imbued with the divine authority of its maker—“And trace the Muses upward to their Spring; / Still with It self compar’d, his Text peruse” (pp. 127–128). The much-discussed line from The Rape of the Lock (1712–1717)— “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-Doux” (1.138)—portrays the Bible as a piece of clutter on Belinda’s dressing table, suggesting the spiritual vacuity of a world where both human and divine love have been reduced to the status of meaningless objects.

Pope’s Ethic Epistles, while modeled on the Horatian genre, are interwoven with biblical allusions both in aphoristic and extended forms. The Epistle to Bathurst, first of a pair of epistles on the “Use of Riches,” sardonically places the avarice of Pope’s society in the light of the Gospel teaching on love: “Yet, to be just to these poor men of pelf, / Each does but hate his Neighbour as himself” (pp. 109–110). The point is deepened with the ironic “poor” for the spiritual and moral poverty of these wealthy men, who are described as “slaves” elsewhere in the poem (with the overtone of “slaves to sin”). In contrast, Pope’s portrayal of the truly charitable Man of Ross imbues him with both the qualities of the Old Testament God bringing forth water from the rock—“From the dry rock who bade the waters flow?” (p. 254)—and those of Christ in the Gospels: “The MAN of ROSS, each lisping babe replies … The MAN of ROSS divides the weekly bread” (pp. 262, 264). Thus in the Man of Ross the Old and New Testaments are typologically fulfilled in each other.

Throughout the poem biblical references are used to add theological weight to Pope’s critique of Calvinism and anti-Catholicism, a typically double-edged strategy in the light of the Reformation sola scriptura critique. The miser’s heir is a fanatical supporter of the Protestant succession (“’Tis GEORGE and LIBERTY that crowns the cup, / And Zeal for that great House which eats him up” [pp. 207–208]), in an echo of Christ’s purification of the Temple (John 2:17; Ps 69:9). The poem concludes with the parable of Balaam, the Calvinist businessman who is easily drawn to worship Mammon instead of God; his story is based on the book of Job, but the name also alludes to the unwilling prophet of the Moabites (Num 22–23). Pope begins with a direct allusion to Job (“The Dev’l was picqu’d such Saintship to behold, / And long’d to tempt him like good Job of old” (pp. 349–350), though now Satan tempts by making rich, not making poor (p. 352), and ends with another one, as Sir Balaam, unlike the righteous Job, follows the path of despair recommended by Job’s wife, as he “curses God and dies” (p. 402; Job 2:9).

Dominant scriptural themes.

The most powerful biblical themes that pervade Pope’s poetry are those of Creation and Judgment: the Genesis moment, God’s fiat or creating Word, in particular the separation of land from sea (Gen 1:9–10), and the Apocalypse (Second Coming, judgment, millennium), in images from Isaiah, the Gospel of John, and Revelation. The Essay on Criticism provides an early instance of the Creation theme, as “Nature” (described in God-like terms as “unerring,” “unchang’d,” “divinely bright,” “the Source, and End, and Test of Art”) “to all things fix’d the Limits fit, / And wisely curb’d proud Man’s pretending Wit: / As on the Land while here the Ocean gains, / In other Parts it leaves wide sandy Plains …” (pp. 70–73, 52–55). Creation images are linked with the original sin of pride: “Pride, where Wit fails, steps in to our Defence, / And fills up all the mighty void of Sense! / If once Right Reason drives that Cloud away, / Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day” (pp. 209–212).

Echoes of God’s fiat in Genesis 1 have long been noted in Pope, in lighter mode in The Rape of the Lock (“Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were” [3:46]), and with deeper political and religious overtones in Windsor-Forest: “At length great ANNA said—Let Discord cease! / She said, the World obey’d, and all was Peace!” (pp. 327–328; Wasserman, 1959, p. 139). Both these Genesis references come together in the conclusion of the Epistle to Burlington as, inspired by the creative genius of the inspired architect, “Kings” are given the power of fiat: “Bid Harbors open, public ways extend, / Bid Temples, worthier of the God, ascend, / Bid the broad Arch the dang’rous Flood contain … Back to his bounds their subject Sea command, / And roll obedient Rivers thro’ the Land” (pp. 193–202).

While millennial imagery was common in the political language of Pope’s time, Pope goes further in his precise evocation of scriptural passages. The millennial language of Isaiah 60, for example, which appears both in Messiah and in the concluding passages of Windsor-Forest, where it celebrates Britain’s new global role, is put to powerful satiric use throughout Pope’s later poetry. In the Epilogues to the Satires (1738), images of Revelation are used parodically to show the radical inversion of Christian values: in the heaven of the Court, for example, corrupt politicians are delivered not from earthly suffering but from the sense of their own shame and from all human connectedness—“past the Sense of human Miseries, / All Tears are wip’d for ever from all Eyes” (Dialogue 1, pp. 101–102; Rev 7:17; 21:4). The culminating vision of the Triumph of Vice at the end of this poem draws on the Whore of Babylon image in Reformation polemic, rooted in the book of Revelation (17 and 18), anticipating the larger vision of the New Dunciad (1742).

The creation-apocalypse theme culminates in the “uncreating Word” of The Dunciad, which is on many levels almost a perfect inversion of the creating word of God in Genesis. Within the classical mock-epic form, the poem layers Greco-Roman creation myths with biblical language and theologically pointed parody. From the opening passage where Pope calls on the Muse to say “How the Goddess bid Britannia sleep, / And pour’d her Spirit over Land and Deep” (1:7–8; Gen 1:2; Joel 2:28), to the final book, in which “Light dies before thy uncreating word” (4:654), the poem gives full play to biblical prophetic and apocalyptic images to expand the vision to one of cosmic entropic emptiness (Edwards, 1963, pp. 124, 126). In the phrase “uncreating word”—which in the poem refers literally to the yawn of Dulness that sucks all things into her nonbeing, including the poet and his Muse (“yawn” is in fact the Greek word and symbol for Chaos)—Pope invokes the full range of reference in the creating word of God, particularly the opening passage of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word”), traditionally read at the end of the Catholic Mass (Duffy, 1992, p. 124).

Prophecy and Parody: The Bible in an Age of Satire.

Pope’s imagination was fundamentally shaped by biblical influences, and in his writing he responded to the political, economic, philosophical, and religious changes of his time by investing his artistic and social principles with biblical authority. Yet in a world he saw as given over to materialism and fragmentation, Pope found that religious authority was best expressed through satiric irony and parody, by which the Bible became a signpost to a moral universe by which that world could be judged.


Primary Works

  • Butt, John, ed. The Poems of Alexander Pope: A OneVolume Edition of The Twickenham Pope. London: Methuen, 1963.
  • Catalog of the Library at Mapledurham House. New York: Grolier Club, n.d.
  • The Holy Bible. Authorized King James Version. 1611, 1796. London: Collins, 1957.
  • The Holy Bible. Douay Version. 1582, 1609. London: Catholic Truth Society, 1955.
  • Sherburn, George, ed. The Correspondence of Alexander Pope. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.
  • Spence, Joseph. Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men. 2 vols. Edited by J. M. Osborn. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Secondary Works

  • Brower, Reuben Arthur. Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.
  • Brückmann, Patricia. “‘The Care of Heav’n’: Biblical Echo in An Essay on Man.” Yearbook of English Studies 18 (1988): 171–180.
  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Edwards, Thomas R. This Dark Estate: A Reading of Pope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.
  • Erskine-Hill, Howard. The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.
  • Jemielity, Thomas. “ ‘Consummatum Est’: Alexander Pope’s 1743 Dunciad and Mock-Apocalypse.” In “More Solid Learning”: New Perspectives on Alexander Pope’s Dunciad, edited by Catherine Ingrassia and Claudia N. Thomas, pp. 166–188. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2000.
  • Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the English Poets; and a Criticism on Their Works. 3 vols. Dublin, Ireland: Whitestone, Williams, Colles, Wilson, et al., 1779.
  • Jones, Hester. “ ‘Religion blushing veils her sacred fires’: Pope and the Veil of Faith.” In Literary Milieux: Essays in Text and Context Presented to Howard Erskine-Hill, edited by David Womersley and Richard McCabe, pp. 205–229. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008.
  • Mack, Maynard. “On Reading Pope.” College English 7, no. 5 (1946): 263–273.
  • Mack, Maynard. The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.
  • Mack, Maynard. “Pope’s Books: A Biographical Survey with a Finding List.” In English Literature in the Age of Disguise, edited by Maximilian E. Novak, pp. 209–305. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Maresca, Thomas E. Pope’s Horatian Poems. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966.
  • Rogers, Pat. The Symbolic Design of Windsor-Forest: Iconography, Pageant, and Prophecy in Pope’s Early Work. Newark: University of Delaware, 2004.
  • Sherburn, George. The Early Career of Alexander Pope. Oxford: Clarendon, 1934.
  • Wasserman, Earl R. The Subtler Language: Critical Readings of Neoclassical and Romantic Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1959.
  • Wasserman, Earl R. Pope’s Epistle to Bathurst: A Critical Reading with an Edition of the Manuscripts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960.
  • Wasserman, Earl R. “The Limits of Allusion in The Rape of the Lock.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 65 (1966): 425–444.
  • Weinbrot, Howard. “The Dunciad, Nursing Mothers, and Isaiah.” Philological Quarterly 71, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 479–494.
  • Williams, Aubrey. Pope’s Dunciad: A Study of Its Meaning. London: Methuen, 1955.
  • Zomberg, P. G. “The Biblical Source for Pope’s ‘Messiah.’ ” Notes and Queries 20, no. 1 (January 1973): 4–7.

Katherine M. Quinsey