5 Chapter FourLiterary London: Pope’s Iliad and the Eighteenth-Century Book Trade

Margo Weitzman

Alexander Pope was an anomaly—in both body and mind. His bone deformation from Pott’s disease crippled him early in life and stunted his growth, causing him to grow to only four and a half feet tall, and left him an asthmatic hunchback. His literary arbiters labeled him the “hump-backed toad.”[1] Pope transcended his soft voice and crippled figure through self–education, and became a renowned poet whose works were not only innovative masterpieces, but also highly sought after by the social elite. His magnum opus was his translation of Homer’s Iliad, which took nearly six years to complete. The first set of books printed in quarto, which was unusual at the time for a luxury volume, were smaller and cheaper to produce. Pope and his publisher, Bernard Lintot, agreed to sell the quarto copies via subscription. The rest were printed in folio and sold on the trade market at a lower price.[2] Pope’s utilization of engravings was also a new and economic solution for illustration, and enabled Lintot to embellish the pages of the subscription volumes at low cost.

Regardless of Pope’s painstaking translation and innovative publishing solutions, and even though this particular piece of literature was well received in eighteenth-century London, Volume I of the Iliad missed the mark in the book trade and undersold. The lack of success was largely due to a misunderstanding of London’s newfound literacy and appreciation for classical texts, and his low sales also revealed to Lintot how the book fit into the literary culture of London and its provinces.[3] At the time the work was published, and despite wide consideration that it was not only a literary masterpiece but also Pope’s greatest achievement,[4] the market reception was complex and mixed—an important reminder that a long history of success and reverence can conceal the struggles of initial public reception.

The first volume of Pope’s Iliad was published in 1715, only five years after the implementation of the first British Copyright Act of 1710.[5] This act both protected the author from piracy and granted sole publishing power for an initial fourteen years, with an additional fourteen years of protection afterward if the author was still living. Additionally, the Act promoted a partnership between the author, publisher, and printer in the midst of an expanding book trade. Patronage of authors was not as widely popular during Pope’s time. Instead, ownership shifted to authors who were now paid for their copyright.[6] Pope took advantage of the Copyright Act by acting as his own patron, which allowed him the freedom to dictate every aspect of the Iliad’s physical appearance,[7] including aesthetic decisions such as typeface and paper, and the printing of six volumes in quarto for subscribers as opposed to one or two in larger folio.[8]

To stretch the Iliad to six volumes, Pope increased the size of the typeface. What resulted was a smaller page with an unusually large font. He also used two different typefaces to distinguish public volumes from subscription, and only the subscriber copies contained ornaments and copper letters.[9] Printing his subscription books in quarto marked one of the most influential changes to book production.[10] Pope moved away from the traditional folio format that was popular for major works, which made for a more physically manageable book.[11] David Foxon notes that the use of folio for luxury works in England rapidly declined after the publication of the first volume of the Iliad—which was a testament to its influence.[12] Pope’s introduction of engravings as illustrations also resulted in the increased popularity of pictorial headpieces that changed the layout and look of the page.[13] The antiquarian George Vertue (d. 1756) engraved the bust of Homer that adorns the frontispiece in the first volume.

Pope had a partnership with Lintot and his printer, Bowyer, and agreed to print 660 copies of the Iliad, 200 on writing royal paper for subscribers and the rest on cheaper printing royal paper for regular distribution in order to save money.[14] They charged subscribers an exorbitant six guineas—six times the actual printing cost—and required payment in advance.[15] Lintot only needed to front the funds for the first printing, and the subscription fees for each subsequent volume funded the next. This plan seemed to be a promising one given Pope’s long list of subscribers. Pope worked hard to integrate himself into the social scene of London’s wealthy. He joined a men’s social club of authors and lawyers who met to read, converse, and gamble,[16] and befriended influential landowners, rural gentlemen, literary men, clerics, and erudite professionals such as doctors and lawyers.[17] It was through these connections that he began to establish his list,[18] which had no fewer than seventeen dukes, three marquises, forty-nine earls, seven duchesses, eight countesses, as well as members of the army and clergy, writers, artists, actors, and musicians.[19]

Despite the Iliad’s innovative design and long list of wealthy patrons, Lintot did not see the profits he was expecting. Pope’s plan had several flaws. First, it was difficult to rely on subscribers to fulfill all orders as some defaulted, died, or changed their minds.[20] Second, building the list was a harrowing experience for Pope, both because of its demands on his time and the pressures of compiling such a comprehensive directory. He ultimately had to resort to utilizing his friends and mentors to sell subscriptions on his behalf, evidence for which is in his epistles.[21] The result was essentially a collective patronage.[22] However, there were several discrepancies discovered when copies were delivered. For example, some subscribers received too many or too few, or copies were delivered to those who were in default on their payments, or to people who were never on the list.[23] The whole process was a web of crossed communication, and Pope’s advocates, upon whom he so heavily relied to fill the gaps, were inconsistent in recording and confirming who actually subscribed. In the end, Pope was not clear enough with Lintot about the sales.

After Pope did not deliver on a full and reliable list, records and correspondence show that Volume I of the Iliad also undersold in the trade market.[24] Thomas Johnson postulated that Pope undersold because cheaper, pirated duodecimo copies emerged from Holland shortly after his publication. However, Foxon refutes Johnson’s theory, arguing that the London book trade was so centralized that a Dutch book would have been of little importance, and ultimately attributes the low sales to Lintot’s own overestimation in his agreement with Pope. Evidence for his claim lies in the reduction of copies for later volumes, and in the change in printing methods of Pope’s translation of the Odyssey six years later. Lintot promptly printed a series of cheaper, duodecimo copies of the Odyssey for the general public immediately after its release despite having no competition from the piracy market.[25] Even more significant is the apparent indication that Lintot was responding to the needs of the book trade dictated by his losses from the Iliad. What the non-subscribing public wanted was a financially accessible book, and Lintot later found a bigger market in the middle class who could afford the cheaper copies. The reasons for this shift lie in the social and economic fabric of London, and both the Iliad’s success and failure is as much “an example of collective patronage as a sign of the rise of the man of letters.”[26]

Pope’s eighteenth century London was a bustling commingling of classes. By 1716, it was the largest city in Europe, and eleven percent of England’s population resided there.[27] Aristocrats in the street “rubbed shoulders with the fops, gamblers, whores, mendicants, pickpockets, vendors, and spectators.”[28] The cultural and vocational topography was changing, and London’s industry stimulated a market that required more skilled and educated workers. Growth of the middle class stemmed from the availability of wider varieties of professions that allowed for scholars of all kinds to emerge—as school teachers, tutors, authors, poets. Growing demand for trades required the education of more workers, and thus the middle class began to expand, illiteracy slowly declined, and the demand for print grew. London’s middle class became increasingly learned. By 1700, the national literacy rate in England was forty–five percent, and it became common to find a working class citizen who was knowledgeable in classical literature, including Homer.[29] Publications such as Pope’s Iliad that were translated into the vernacular and circulated among the public were making classical literature available to citizens who did not read Latin or Greek. Even the poor were reading poetry, and for this reason some publications were dispersed in the street to cater to the demand.[30] However, despite job growth, average Londoners were concerned with their financial security.[31] Lower paid workers would not be buying books to fill their library—not even duodecimos—when they were struggling to put food on the table.[32] Pope was left with the erudite elite and the middle class who were hungry for literature and the classics, and who also had the means to buy books.

Pope’s Iliad inserted itself into the literary fabric of London and its provinces in multiple ways: through Pope’s connections with the wealthy, who had an imprint on the text through their scholarly feedback and participation in the subscription; through his less wealthy readers who later purchased cheaper, unembellished quarto editions; and also through women and their increased literacy.[33] Women were an important part of Pope’s network of patrons. Eight percent of his 575 subscribers were women, and marketing to that demographic was something that Pope and Lintot navigated correctly.[34] To attract female readers, Lintot placed an advertisement for the Iliad in the 1714 publication of Pope’s Rape of the Lock—a book of poetry aimed toward female readers—which suggests an understanding of the market potential.[35] While most eighteenth-century English translations catered to male readers, Pope went out of his way to please his women. For example, Claudia Thomas notes an important inclusion in Pope’s preface: “If my author had the wits of After Ages for his Defenders, his Translation has had the Beauties of the Present for his Advocates.”[36]

Acknowledging his female readers openly, as compared to Dryden who made no mention of women and instead focused entirely on the male reader in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, is significant. The eight percent of Iliad sales comprised of women increased to fifteen percent for the Odyssey. Thomas argues that Pope’s success in pleasing his female Iliad readers may have led to a widening of his client base through word of mouth.[37] Translations of classical literature and poetry were of interest to eighteenth-century English women because reading provided a means to “both pass the time and to enjoy vicariously the experience denied to [them] by seclusion.”[38] It is possible that if Pope had understood the middle class in the same way he understood his women patrons as readers, he might have been much more successful in selling his volumes. These potential customers had more leisure time and also had the desire to read—and read classics.[39]

Increased exposure to classical texts within the elite and middle classes not only created a market for Pope’s Iliad, but also one that was specifically open to his choice of heroic couplets. In addition to the demand for classical texts, Pope’s linguistic choices contributed to how his translation fit into London’s culture. The beautifully crafted volumes were met with mixed reviews by the public; Pope’s heroic couplet translation was frowned upon for its difficulty and for straying from Homer’s original prose, and lauded for its beauty and homage to the classical text. Pope did not believe that the “recognizable voice of an individual poet could be used to translate an epic,”[40] and what resulted was a synthesis of his own prose and common phrases and language popular to English translations of classical literature. Felicity Rosslyn notes that Pope emulated some of these more common turns of phrase that can be found in works such as Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid.[41] She argues that elements of Pope’s language “had been used with increasing sophistication through the seventeenth century to translate the Greek and Roman classics,”[42] and points to examples of Pope’s reference to big and little Ajax as “thunderbolts of war,” which references Dryden’s Aeneid, and the phrase “mountains of the slain” which can be traced through French and English poetry to the Latin epic.[43] Importantly, Pope’s eighteenth-century erudite reader may have picked up on this, even as subtly as to find something familiar about his words.[44] Familiar phrases and vocabulary from popular classical translations allowed for decipherability regardless of the difficulties posed by Pope’s couplets. Rosslyn also argues that the learned would have noted any misrepresentation, impolite phrases, or incongruous references that strayed from the classical standards influenced by works such as the Aeneid. Readers would have “laughed the translation into oblivion,” hence Pope’s care in his word and phrase choices and strategic uses of subtlety.[45] Thus, Pope’s translation fit within a specific expectation of his more learned readers in its imitation of current poetic classical masterpieces.[46]

London’s literate population consumed massive quantities of texts during Pope’s time, from his poetry to newspapers and scandal sheets.[47] Had Pope better understood London’s readership and literary climate, he could have established a more confident and efficient plan that fulfilled the expectations of his initial contract with Lintot. Subscriptions were popular during the time of Pope’s Iliad, but Pope and Lintot relied too heavily on their upper-class and elite subscribers to provide the bulk of the sales in a time of increased readership among the less wealthy. They failed to recognize that a cross-section of the middle class could have easily filled the gap, as could libraries in London and surrounding provinces that provided free books to those who could not afford the cheaper trade copies. Instead, Pope spent countless hours of his own labor canvassing and finding readers among his friends. He relied on their connections to expand the list as well as his voluminous correspondence to manage the process, and wound up underselling. Pope was able to use the response to his Iliad subscriptions to gauge his career, and to place himself somewhere within the social stratum of London and its provinces. In essence, it was “an effort to define his audience.”[48] Although Pope attained financial stability and an entirely new social status from subscription and market sales, his process for doing so lacked foresight and his publisher did not fare as well.

In honing his ability to translate a classical epic using his own style, and in assuming control over the aesthetics of his volumes, Pope entered the book trade with a completely new product. His design brought to the public a new way of visually constructing a page, a new style of illustrations, and a new size of both font and page. The failure of the business model allowed Pope and Lintot to understand their market and gain a greater understanding of the book trade and literary climate of London, resulting in a more profitable sale of the later Odyssey translation.[49] Ultimately, at the beginning of his journey with the first volume of the Iliad, Pope’s lack of knowledge of London’s literary world hampered his success. However, his approach to the translation brought to market an intensely personal interpretation. Pope’s thoughtful and original achievement infiltrated private and academic libraries and is still lauded today as an important moment in literary history for its influence on book aesthetics and its place in the history of poetry and classical translations. Rousseau notes that “Pope’s translations, especially the Iliad, are ‘original poems’—in fact his Iliad has been called the most distinguished long poem of the Augustan Age.”[50] In finding his voice, Pope also found his way into the book trade of London. However, history can become clouded by praise, and it is important not to forget Pope’s struggle for buyers. The Iliad’s difficulty in the initial market is as important to its history as the reputation and admiration that followed; an understanding of its reception, and of Pope and Lintot’s missteps in its dissemination, point toward a more complete historical picture of Pope and his Iliad.


Keywords: William Bowyer, book trade, subscription, University of Chicago, copyright, Copyright Act of 1710, John Dryden, England, London, engravings, David Foxon, French, epic genre, Greek, illustration, imitation, interpretation, Thomas Johnson, Latin, Licensing Act of 1661, Barnaby Bernard Lintot, literacy, commentary, epistle, frontispiece, prefatory material, patron, patronage, piracy, Alexander Pope, Pat Rogers, Felicity Rosslyn, Stationers’ company, vernacular, George Vertue, Virgil, Aeneid, women



Academy of American Poets. “Alexander Pope.”

Brant, Clare, and Susan E. Whyman. Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London: John Gay’s Trivia (1716). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Feather, John. “The British Book Market, 1600–1800.” In A Companion to the History of the Book, edited by Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, 232–46. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Foxon, David F., and J. McLaverty. Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

Griffith, Reginald Harvey. Alexander Pope: A Bibliography. London: Holland Press, 1962.

Pope, Alexander, trans. The Iliad of Homer. 6 vols. London: Printed by W. Bowyer, for Bernard Lintott between the Temple-Gates, 1715–20.

Olsen, Kirsten. Daily Life in 18th-Century London. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Rogers, Pat. Essays on Pope. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Rosslyn, Felicity, ed. Pope’s Iliad: A Selection with Commentary. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1985.

Rousseau, George Sebastian. “On Reading Pope.” In Alexander Pope, edited by Peter Dixon, 1–59. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1972.

Thomas, Claudia N. Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

  1. Academy of American Poets, “Alexander Pope,”http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/alexander-pope.
  2. David F. Foxon and J. McLaverty, Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 52–57.
  3. Felicity Rosslyn, introduction to Pope’s Iliad: A Selection with Commentary, ed. Felicity Rosslyn (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1985), x.
  4. Pat Rogers, Essays on Pope (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 190.
  5. John Feather, “The British Book Market 1600–1800,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 235; the Copyright Act entered at the heels of the Licensing Act of 1662 and the ordinance of the Stationers’ Company of 1681 dictating that each printed item had to bear the name and address of the printer or bookseller, which held publishers accountable for their printed materials.
  6. Kirsten Olsen, Daily Life in 18th Century London (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999), 138.
  7. Feather, “British Book Market,” 235.
  8. Foxon and McLaverty, Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade, 51.
  9. Ibid., 52.
  10. Ibid., 63.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 64.
  13. Ibid., 63–71. See Foxon for a detailed account of the different types of headpieces used in Pope’s translations, as well as others such as Theobald’s Aeneid. The use of engraving and its variety of pictorial schemas are too complicated to delve into here. The University of Chicago’s Volume One quarto edition does not have any embellishments, only engravings in the frontispiece, a map, and Greek busts, architecture, statuary and coins preceding Pope’s essay on Homer.
  14. Ibid., 53; Foxon believes Bower’s ledger is the most reliable.
  15. Ibid., 99.
  16. Olsen, Daily Life, 159.
  17. Rogers, Essays on Pope, 137, 166.
  18. Ibid., 142.
  19. Reginald Harvey Griffith, Alexander Pope, a Bibliography (London: Holland Press, 1962), 41.
  20. Foxon and and McLaverty, Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade, 61–63.
  21. Ibid., 193–95
  22. Ibid., 190.
  23. Ibid., 200.
  24. Ibid., 53–57.
  25. Ibid., 57–58.
  26. Ibid., 39.
  27. Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman, Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London: John Gay's Trivia (1716) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 3.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Olsen, Daily Life, 161.
  30. Brant and Whyman, Walking the Streets, 5.
  31. Ibid., 6.
  32. Olsen, Daily Life, 138.
  33. Ibid., 142. For a more detailed analysis of Pope’s social relationships, see Rogers’ chapter “Pope and the Social Scene.” For details on the importance of female relationships and patronage, see Claudia N. Thomas, Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).
  34. Thomas, Alexander Pope and His Eighteenth-Century Women Readers, 17–26.
  35. Ibid., 26.
  36. Ibid., 22.
  37. Ibid., 26.
  38. Ibid., 41.
  39. Feather, “British Book Market,” 239.
  40. Rosslyn, Pope's Iliad, xi.
  41. Ibid., xii. Virgil also took phrases from Lucretius, which is an indication that imitating turns of phrase was a common practice even among the ancients.
  42. Ibid., xi.
  43. Ibid., xi-xii.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid., xiv.
  46. Ibid., xv–xvi.
  47. Ibid., 160–61.
  48. Rogers, Essays on Pope, 197–98.
  49. Foxon and and McLaverty, Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade, 92–101.
  50. George Sebastian Rousseau, “On Reading Pope,” in Alexander Pope, ed. Peter Dixon (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1972), 12–14.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by Margo Weitzman. All Rights Reserved.

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