Portrait of Alexander Pope, studio of Michael Dahl, oil on canvas, circa 1727Alexander Pope.
Portrait of Alexander Pope, studio of Michael Dahl, oil on canvas, circa 1727

When we find him [Pope] translating fifty lines [of Homer’s Iliad] a day, it is natural to sup­pose that he would have brought his work to a more speedy conclu­sion. The Iliad, containing less than 16,000 verses, might have been dispatched in less than 320 days by 50 verses in a day. [That is, in less than a year. Pope took five years, from age 25 to age 30. — J.T.] The notes, compiled with the assistance of his mercenaries, could not be sup­posed to require more time than the text. According to this calcula­tion, the progress of Pope may seem to have been slow; but the distance is commonly very great between actual performances and speculative possibility. It is natural to suppose that as much as has been done today may be done tomorrow, but on the morrow some difficulty emerges or some external impediment obstructs. Indolence, interruption, business and pleasure all take their turns of retardation, and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot, be recounted. Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance was ever effected within the term originally fixed in the undertaker’s mind. He that runs against Time has an antagonist not subject to casualties. (Dr. Johnson, Lives of the Poets, Pope.)

Confession: in the late sixties, in Geoffrey Little’s English Lit III class at the University of Sydney, I handed in (and read out, as seminar top-dog-of-the-week) a paper on the topic of the week: the poetry of Alexander Pope. I had written it in heroic couplets. I remember I was given a good mark. Good boy! Who was to know how irrelevant heroic couplets would become? Moi?