Sunday, 25 April 2010

Eighteenth-century thoughts on writing

by Anthony Gillam

In 1979, when I was an 18 year old English and French student, I was required to study 18th century literature. While I loved the satire of Voltaire, the humour of Henry Fielding and the lyricism of Keats and Burns, I'm afraid the cleverness of Alexander Pope's poetry left me cold. I was very taken, though, with some prose he wrote on the nature of writing and I copied it into a little red notebook. The other day, I found the notebook (that I have had for a mere 30 years) and thought it was time to share these words of wisdom that have survived a rather more impressive 240 years:

From The Works of Alexander Pope (1770)*
“I am inclined to think that both the writers of books, and the readers of them, are generally not a little unreasonable in their expectations. The first seem to fancy the world must approve whatever they produce, and the latter to imagine that authors are obliged to please them at any rate. Methinks, as on the one hand, no single man is born with a right of controuling the opinions of all the rest; so on the other, the world has no title to demand, that the whole care and time of any particular person should be sacrificed to its entertainment. Therefore I cannot but believe that writers and readers are under equal obligations, for as much fame, or pleasure, as each affords the other …

… I confess it was want of consideration that made me an author; I writ because it amused me; I corrected because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write; and I published because I was told, I might please such as it was a credit to please. To what degree I have done this, I am really ignorant; I had too much fondness for my productions to judge of them at first, and too much judgment to be pleased with them at last …”

*Full Title: The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. In Nine Volumes, Complete. With His Last Corrections, Additions, And Improvements: together With the Commentary and Notes of his Editor. London: Printed for C. Bathhurst, W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, R. Baldwin, W. Johnston, T. Caslon, T. Longman, B. Law, Johnson and Davenport, T. Davies, T. Cadell, and W. and J. Richardson. MDCCLXX.


  1. Honestly Tone.
    Voltaire, Henry Fielding, Keats, Burns, Alexander Pope!
    What a namedropper you are!
    Meanwhile, on the subject of writing, I rather like this from Canadian novelist Kate Pullinger:
    “Many writers write because they feel compelled to do so; because if they don't they aren't happy. In some ways, this is the best place to start: have a good idea and then feel guilty about it every day you waste not working on it.”
    That's me. I feel guilty every day I waste not working on it — and that's most days, sadly.
    PS: Did you find your little notebook amongst the Target magazines?

  2. Name-dropping aside, Tony. I think somewhere in there Pope said that there is an implied contract between the writer and the reader - one to transmit and one to receive. Both ends of the transaction require commitment and thus deserve recognition. If Pope meant this, in what to me is quite an elusive piece of writing, he was saying it behoves all writers to facilitate the process of reading. Something which (IMHO) some hugely respected contemporary writers in English fail to do.