Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Steven Stryer


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Alexander Pope, Catholisim


The charges leveled by John Dennis against the young author of An Essay on Criticism are characteristically hyperbolic: Alexander Pope is disparaged as a historical partisan whose loyalties (to the Catholics James II and his son the Pretender) and antipathies (to the Protestants Charles II and William III) are determined entirely by his allegiance to the Church of Rome. Dennis claims that in comparing the classical writers to absolute monarchs, Pope had hinted his approval of James's suspension of the operation of the penal laws against Catholics in defiance of Parliament-in contrast with his explicit rejection later in the poem of the libertinism of Charles's reign and of the Whiggish political doctrines and Protestant religious heterodoxies under William's rule. As we shall see, Pope's view of the seventeenth century past is more nuanced than Dennis's remarks would suggest. Yet these comments, however exaggerated, do underscore a series of associations crucial to the poet's work, linking Pope's steadfast loyalty to the persecuted English Catholic minority to which he belonged with his allegedly Jacobite political sympathies and his judgments on English history.