If Shakespeare is the English poet of whom we wish we knew more, Alexander Pope is the poet of whom we already know more than enough. Pope, perhaps more than any other poet before or since, was a master of self-promotion, commissioning images of himself, striking literal and social poses and plying the art of ceaseless reinvention.
Ample evidence of this is on display in the Yale Center for British Art’s new exhibition: “Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and The Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” The exhibition presents a number of famous portraits of Pope, as well as some manuscripts culled from the Beinecke and Lewis Walpole Libraries, which provide generous historical context for understanding Pope as a self-fashioned man. Afflicted with tubercular infection at a young age, the poet’s otherwise handsome features were forever marred by a hunchback and unusually short stature. Much like Franklin Roosevelt, Pope had himself portrayed either sitting down or as a bust, thus concealing his physical deformities.
The exhibition presents us with the many faces Pope put on, slowly building up and revising our conception of him as we pass through. Throughout the first part of the exhibition we see iterations of the indolent aristocrat. Jonathan Richardson the Elder paints Pope with tired luminous eyes, a frilly silk chemise and the most dandyish of velvet ensembles. In Jean-Baptiste van Loo’s portrait of Pope, we see the aspirant artist lost in thought. He rests his delicate, sleeved elbow on a leather-bound copy of Homer (in the original Greek, of course); in a niche in the background we see a hazy bronze sculpture of Isaac Newton. Through allusions such as these, Pope associates himself with all the finest minds past and present.
Slowly, subtly, the curators of the exhibition complicate this aristocratic impression. In the eight busts, all done by Roubiliac, at the center of the exhibition, Pope slips into many guises. We first see Pope as he most wishes us to see him — a classicized, marble man, cold and canonical. Then, in terracotta, we see some of his defects — his eyes sink into their sockets; his forehead is creased with consternation and social anxiety. A plaster bust softens these wrinkles, lending Pope smoothness and humanness, while retaining some of the emotional intensity of the terracotta bust. Perhaps the most powerful of the busts is one of the smallest. It shows Pope without grandeur, bare-shouldered and frail, a pitiful innocent body on a pitiful innocent scale.
Pope crafts an at once artificial and extremely seductive literary identity. The seductiveness lies in the malleability and elusiveness of Pope’s identity — just when we think we have reached a fragile, all-too-human and vain man, we are confronted with a classicized laureate, a man of enormous stature and fame. This exhibition captures this range and invites the viewer to layer these various postures, and discard none of them.
Fruitful contrasts in the exhibition allow these competing impressions to sink in. A bust of Pope is placed next to one of another celebrated English author, Laurence Sterne. Sterne’s face is virile, strong and sure; it betrays a heartier humor. Pope by contrast is socially anxious (“he hardly drank tea without a stratagem” once quipped Dr. Johnson). His languorous eyes show a soul that has ground itself finer and finer into delicacy, a sensibility that favors the sparkle of wit, the shimmering couplet and the twinge of love, to the epic grandeur he fakes in Romanized portraits.
The curators of the exhibition have done a remarkable job in tracking the many faces of Pope, both through the presentation and its accoutrements. The explanatory placards are informative but not irritating. This conscientious scholarship gives one the same sense of comfort and pleasure as English scholarship at Yale does. Indeed, the two are not unrelated. The exhibition affords us the pleasure of reading through not only the history of Pope but of Pope criticism at Yale. In a corner, we view notes from seminal scholars like W.K. Wimsatt, whose “The Portraits of Alexander Pope” is the driving force behind the creation of this exhibition. “Fame and Friendship” doesn’t just give us works of art out of context, as so many exhibitions do, but links issues of biography, canonization and artistic patronage to the pieces on display. We see several editions of Pope’s poetry as well as books he owned and annotated, a compendious offering of primary and secondary sources that grounds the exhibition without drowning it in biographical minutiae.
Although, according to my English professor, “Yale was once a tower of eighteenth-century criticism: no more,” we can still take pleasure in perusing the scrupulous Pope scholarship once done here.
Perhaps that is because Pope gives us no easy answers, makes no straight faces or undisguised looks; but to the patient viewer, guided by ingenious curation, the poet might start to reveal himself.