The Distrest Poet - Picture - Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

The scene shown in The Distrest Poet was probably inspired by Alexander Pope's satirical poem The Dunciad, most likely by the prefatory matter of the second version, the Dunciad Variorum which had been published in 1735, and in which Pope confirmed his authorship of the original. The painting and early states of the print included a quotation from Pope's work:

Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound:
Plunged for his sense, but found no bottom there;
Then wrote and flounder'd on, in mere despair.

The bill stuck to the wall above the poet's head originally featured a reference to Pope in which he was punningly mocked as "His Holiness Pope Alexander", depicted as an ape wearing a papal tiara with an ass as his Prime Minister. The initial states of the print kept the quotation but replaced the genuine bill with a representation (which appears to have been entirely invented by Hogarth rather than copied from a real bill) of Pope clashing with Edmund Curll over the unauthorised publication of the poet's correspondence. Although Hogarth and Pope had never met, this literary inspiration led to speculation as to the identity of Hogarth's poet as one of the targets of Pope's satire. Ned Ward, the author of The London Spy was a strong contender, as was Lewis Theobald, to whom the lines quoted from Pope in Hogarth's original print referred.

How far Hogarth sympathised with Pope is questionable. The original bill mocked him, but it featured in an image that, at the least, poked fun at the poor poet who was the subject. Hogarth may have been suggesting either that poet was showing contempt for Pope or that he placed Pope's image above his head as a model to which to aspire. In the second image, which shows Pope and Curll locked in battle, it is not clear who has the upper hand, and by the time the print was issued the direct reference to Pope had been removed completely. Ronald Paulson, the preeminent modern authority on Hogarth, suggests that Hogarth would have viewed Pope, through his Roman Catholicism, as having been implicitly tied to the continental influences that Hogarth despised, and would have seen Pope's refusal to accept the patronage of the great men of the time, while still cultivating them as friends and still reaping the rewards they had to offer, as hypocritical . Pope was part of the circle that included William Kent and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington who had displaced Hogarth's father-in-law James Thornhill from commissions, and Hogarth also had ties to Lewis Theobald, a possible target of the satire, through illustrations he had produced for Theobald's Perseus and Andromeda, and through his subscription to Theobald's edition of the works of Shakespeare. Paulson suggests that the real "villain" of The Distrest Poet may be Pope, unseen but representing the successful "Great Poet" whom the deluded aspiring artist hopes to emulate, rather than the distressed poet himself. Hogarth had featured Pope picking John Gay's pocket in the foreground of Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme, an early print he had produced on the theme of the South Sea Bubble (both Pope and Gay had invested money in the scheme). At the same time, within the satire of the painting, the poet who is distressed is going to be one of Pope's dunces.

The lines by Pope, though referring to Theobald, the hero of The Dunciad, are a characterisation of a Grub Street hack, a stereotype popular in the 1730s denoting a man of limited writing ability who lived in poverty but nevertheless determinedly pursued a career in literature;, Therefore the particular scribbler depicted in the painting would be one of this fraternity of "witlings" who banded together to protest Pope's poem. In this context it would make sense, therefore, for the poet to have the scabrous anti-Pope print, or an emblem of Pope's fight with the hack writers' patron, above him. Just as Moll Hackabout has a picture of Macheath on her wall in A Harlot's Progress, this aspiring and witless poet would have a picture of his hero, Edmund Curll, and an anti-Pope print. The emblem, in other words, identifies the poet's "side" in the battle between dunces and men of wit.

Hogarth was well acquainted with the struggles of the Grub Street hack though, through the travails of his own father, Richard, who had been unable to make a living as writer and had eventually ended up at the Fleet Prison as a bankrupt. Hogarth may have been more than sympathetic to the dunce struggling with his rhymes. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Hogarth, posits that the gradual alteration of the prints above the poet's head could suggest a slow softening of attitudes towards Pope and his attack on the class of writer to which Hogarth's had father belonged, and perhaps evidence of Hogarth making his own compromises in his endeavours to become successful.

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    In Pride, in reas’ning Pride, our error lies;
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