Pope And The Problem Of Pleasure For Sale

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Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft repeatedly quotes from Alexander Pope's "Of the Characters of Women," agreeing with the poet that women's love of pleasure and sexual power determines the course of their lives: forbidden by men to direct their energies toward an important social purpose, women of the middle and upper classes immerse themselves in gallantry, ornamentation, and other pursuits that extensive leisure makes possible. Wollstonecraft goes on to declare that "people of rank and fortune" resemble leisured women not only in being preoccupied with self-display and amusements, but also in being exempt from the need to exert themselves in productive, character-building employments. A third category of effeminate, useless citizens, however, includes male writers like Pope himself: "A king is always a king, and a woman always a woman. His authority and her sex ever stand between them and rational converse. . . . And a wit [is] always a wit, might be added, for the vain fooleries of wits and beauties to obtain attention, and make conquests, are much upon a par."1 To Wollstonecraft, wits have much in common with women: lacking any better function, they exist to amuse the idle hours of an audience whose judgment determines their worth.

Writing a decade earlier in 1782, Vicesimus Knox also compares men of wit (specifically poets) to beauties:

I think it is not difficult to perceive, that the admirers of English poetry are divided into two parties. The objects of their love are, perhaps, of equal beauty, though they greatly differ in their air, their dress, the turn of their features, and their complexion. On one side, are the lovers and imitators of

Spenser and Milton; and on the other, those of Dryden, Boileau, and Pope.2

Knox's trope in this passage relegates poets to the subordinate status of women whose attractive charms are observed and evaluated by male readers; the characteristics of the poets' verse—what earlier critics might have referred to as genius, fancy, and style—have become the products of female invention ("air," "dress," "complexion") that are manufactured at the toilette. Although Knox's metaphor of wits as love objects lacks the satiric tone of Wollstonecraft's remarks, the representations of both writers have their roots in a single source: controversies in the early eighteenth century regarding the social usefulness and cultural importance of men composing verse for a living. Pope's writings reveal his centrality to debates over the nature of literary labor and the class and gender status that it conferred upon professional writers; his own financial and social success aroused anxiety in those who feared the influence and prestige that a man engaged in the supposedly trivial business of amusement could claim, while Pope responded to his critics by redefining the basis for literary authority in a commercial culture. Reconstructing the dispute over Pope's sexual and economic position as a purveyor of pleasure for sale displays the extent to which a change in idealizations of manhood accompanied the shift toward the market in literature.

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