ABSTRACT

In November 1882, the Secretary to The Leeds Library recorded in his Stock Book the purchase of the fourth volume of The Works of Alexander Pope, published that year in a projected ten-volume series edited by Whitwell Elwin and, in due course, John Courthope, based in part on the collection of John Wilson Croker. 1 As that of a subscription organization, the acquisition policy of The Leeds Library, founded in 1768 and now England’s oldest subscription library, was responsive to its readers’ current interests, more so than those organizations publicly or institutionally funded. It was neither building up a research archive, nor supporting a hospital or theological college, but directly serving the needs of its diverse membership of fee-paying customers. The habitual model of the relationship between the Victorians and Alexander Pope is one of disapproval: Victorians, admiring lyric poetry over other forms, could supposedly find little room for the satirist and bravura exponent of the heroic couplet. So why did The Leeds Library buy that volume? What might be additionally deduced from the fact that this was no one-off purchase? The Library had been collecting its Pope edition dutifully as it was published from 1871, and would continue to do so until it was complete in 1889. 2 These were not its only Pope investments. Amid the various Pope biographies and letter collections it acquired, the committee also purchased Edwin Abbott’s Concordance to the Works of Alexander Pope new in 1875, 3 a volume not for casual admirers. Pope’s poetry has never been remembered as a favourite of the age of Arnold, Swinburne, and Tennyson. Matthew Arnold, indeed, is best recalled as declaring in 1880 in the General Introduction to Ward’s The English Poets, that Pope was not to be classed as a poet at all, but was rather the ‘high priest of an age of prose and reason’, and, with Dryden, a classic not of poetry but ‘of our prose’. 4 Pat Rogers exemplifies the persistence into the late twentieth century of the assumption that Arnold’s disgruntlement was 77a measure of the period’s. Where Donald Greene in 1988 thought that Pope was still not fully recovered ‘from Victorian detraction’, 5 Rogers plainly noted in his Oxford edition in 1994 that the ‘Victorians disliked Pope’, 6 chiefly on account of his malice. The ‘official manuals’, Rogers went on, choosing terms to suggest the dullness of the period such as Pope might have zestily denounced in the Dunciad (1728–43), ‘portrayed him as less lofty in his aims and less delightful in his effects than any number of nineteenth-century versifiers’. 7