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Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Poet and the Publisher

The Case of Alexander Pope, Esq., of Twickenham versus Edmund Curll, Bookseller in Grub Street

Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Poet and the Publisher

The Case of Alexander Pope, Esq., of Twickenham versus Edmund Curll, Bookseller in Grub Street

“Drawing on deep familiarity with the period and its personalities, Rogers has given us a witty and richly detailed account of the ongoing war between the greatest poet of the eighteenth century and its most scandalous publisher.”—Leo Damrosch, author of The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
“What sets Rogers’s history apart is his ability to combine fastidious research with lucid, unpretentious prose. History buffs and literary-minded readers alike are in for a punchy, drama-filled treat.”—Publishers Weekly

The quarrel between the poet Alexander Pope and the publisher Edmund Curll has long been a notorious episode in the history of the book, when two remarkable figures with a gift for comedy and an immoderate dislike of each other clashed publicly and without restraint. However, it has never, until now, been chronicled in full. Ripe with the sights and smells of Hanoverian London, The Poet and Publisher details their vitriolic exchanges, drawing on previously unearthed pamphlets, newspaper articles, and advertisements, court and government records, and personal letters. The story of their battles in and out of print includes a poisoning, the pillory, numerous instances of fraud, and a landmark case in the history of copyright. The book is a forensic account of events both momentous and farcical, and it is indecently entertaining.

448 pages | 15 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

History: British and Irish History

Media Studies

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"Rogers’s lively new history, The Poet and the Publisher, presents Pope and Curll’s clashes as a long-running courtroom drama, or 'Pope v. Curll' . . . [giving] us a modern sense of a figure usually portrayed as ultra-traditional, revealing him instead as a writer whose concerns about self-image and the power of presentation might be thought close to our own."

Clare Bucknell | New York Review of Books

"Rapid technological advance, a dark underworld of uncensored publishing, a threatened rupture with Scotland, even fears of a new outbreak of plague. Close scrutiny of the first few decades of the eighteenth century reveals some startling (and oddly reassuring) parallels with our own trying times. In his new book, Rogers, an expert on the writings of Alexander Pope and much else, resurrects what you might think was an obscure battle over copyright between Pope and the Grub Street bookseller and printer Edmund Curll. Their quarrel, though, becomes a prism through which Rogers captures the upheavals, hubbub, and stench, but, above all, the wit of that period, when words could have the explosive impact of hand grenades. . . . His book serves as a monument to them both, a literary delicacy in the spirit of Pope, dashed with more than a little of Curll’s sauce."


"Rogers’s knowledge of Pope, Curll, and their Grub Street world is, literally, encyclopedic. He wrote the Alexander Pope Encyclopedia and several other important, deeply learned books about Pope and his contemporaries. Rogers maneuvers skillfully through the Grub Street network of authors, fake authors, and printers-fronting-for-booksellers-fronting-for-conspirators-fronting-for-political leaders."

Times Literary Supplement

"In the course of an extraordinarily productive career spanning six decades, Rogers has written cogently, perceptively, and memorably about all kinds of literature, as well as about the character and capacities of literary criticism. His powers of scrutiny and summary are often arresting and always dedicated to resisting imprecision. In his latest book, Rogers imparts a fresh, first-hand excitement to historical events with which he has long been not only familiar but intimate. He knows more than anyone about Alexander Pope and Edmund Curll."

Literary Review

"Antipathy between the artist and the money-men is nothing new. As Pat Rogers details in his fascinating and revelatory book, the satirist and poet Alexander Pope spent a considerable part of his life—from around 1716 until his death in 1744—fighting the bookseller and proto-publisher Edmund Curll over the issue of copyright. . . . Rogers is a scrupulously fair-minded biographer. He structures The Poet and the Publisher as a quasi-courtroom drama, marshaling the often bizarre and inexplicable anecdotes and events with clarity and wit. . . . [A] tightly written tale with great learning worn pleasantly lightly."


"Rogers dives deep into eighteenth-century English poet, satirist, and translator Alexander Pope and his fraught relationship with the bookseller and publisher Edmund Curll, in this entertaining history. . . . Rogers’s account is chock-full of original literary and historical research, and is impressive in its scope. . . . What sets Rogers’s history apart is his ability to combine fastidious research with lucid, unpretentious prose. History buffs and literary-minded readers alike are in for a punchy, drama-filled treat."

Publishers Weekly

"Enlightening. . . . A highly detailed, literary tit for tat for fans of publishing and literary history."

Kirkus Reviews

"Lively and extremely informative, this book is written so that nonspecialists can enjoy it as well as profit from it. . . . Recommended."


"A fascinating account of one of literary London’s most famous feuds. . . . Both the triggers for the conflict and the course the quarrel takes offer deep insights into the world of letters in Hanoverian England. . . . From a legal point of view as well, there is much in the book which is gripping. The narration refers to the laws of copyright, obscenity, seditious libel, blasphemous libel, fraud, etc., with all of which Curll had more than a passing familiarity. . . . The book is a cracking good read, and Reaktion Books deserves credit for publishing it."

Commonwealth Lawyer

"Drawing on deep familiarity with the period and its personalities, Rogers has given us a witty and richly detailed account of the ongoing war between the greatest poet of the eighteenth century and its most scandalous publisher. Cleverly presented as the trial of Pope v. Curll, with scores of documents as 'exhibits' and with posterity as jury, the narrative fully justifies the author’s comment that 'Pope and Curll are both inherently funny.'"

Leo Damrosch, author "The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age"

"Everybody who has struggled to establish the facts, let alone the truth, in the fiendishly complicated maneuvers in the feud between Pope and Curll owes Rogers a debt of gratitude. His detective work is exhilarating. Decades of research into this 'improbable relationship' give him an authority beyond all others. Rogers lays out the case for and against as if in a court of law and the reader must decide. Was Curll a villain? Was Pope a double dealer? Were they well-matched ‘kissing cousins?’ Together the pair turned literature into news, using books as weapons in a war of words that has echoed down the ages. Rogers brings clarity, scholarship, and insight to the muddiest of stories and tells it with a verve and wit that even the combatants would surely admire."

Norma Clarke, Professor Emeritus, Kingston University, and author of “Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington”

"Pope versus Curll––a thirty-year war of words (and much else) between the cleverest satirist and the sleaziest publisher of the eighteenth century––was among the most vitriolic feuds in literary history. In this definitive, richly documented account, Rogers tells the story with his trademark blend of scholarly heft and analytic flair. Each chapter sheds new light on the ferocious yet oddly symbiotic relationship between the two antagonists, and on the larger implications––cultural,  political, religious, social––of their endlessly surprising duel."

Thomas Keymer, Chancellor Jackman Professor, University of Toronto, and editor of “The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol. 1”


A great deal has been written about Alexander Pope, and rather a lot in disparate places about his quarrel with Edmund Curll. However, no one has ever compiled an account devoted solely to this battle, covering every phase of their lengthy engagements. They were perhaps natural enemies, doomed to clash sooner or later: a poet renowned for his supreme skill in the most highly esteemed branches of writing, and a rogue bookseller known for his dirty tricks and indecorous publications. Their confrontation dramatizes a number of struggles surrounding English literary life as the Hanoverian era began, when social tendencies visible today first became apparent. These include the dependence of authors on the marketplace, rather than private patrons, a process in which the emergence of modern copyright played its part. Just as relevant is the rise of the periodical press, supported by the new dark skills of advertising, which would produce in its turn a previously unimagined celebrity culture. Many of the things Pope and Curll fought over are still issues that divide us as consumers of the printed word.

To explain the rationale for the chapters that follow, it may be helpful to set out an answer to three simple questions about this book. First, why the formula Pope v. Curll? Second, which materials are used? Third, what are the overall aims and method of this work?

Pope v. Curll

No other form of words makes such good sense. There was an actual Chancery suit described in this very way, which helped to define copyright in personal letters for a quarter of a millennium. Some years earlier a case had gone before the House of Lords in which the two men were effectively the principals whose arguments were under review by the members. On another occasion, Curll was hauled up before the Lords by Black Rod, after which he was forced to kneel at the feet of the Lord Chancellor and apologize for issuing the writings of deceased peers without permission from their family and heirs. The outcome was a standing order of the House, and it did not fall into desuetude for more than a century. As we shall see, Pope almost got into hot water for a similar publication a year later.

The jousts brought with them other judicial manoeuvres, either carried out or threatened, sometimes involving proxy figures such as Pope’s own tame booksellers. More than once, Curll’s name made it into the standard sources used by lawyers and legal historians, such as State Trials. He has been described as the progenitor of obscenity acts; this is not altogether accurate, but his arrest by the authorities on a charge of issuing pornographic works, styled in the arraignment ‘Lewd & Infamous Books’, certainly made headlines at the time. Contrary to what is often stated, it was not the publisher’s dirty books that landed him in the pillory, but another conviction for seditious libel, a topic of equal (if not more) interest to advocates of free speech. No wonder that Jonathan Swift, a victim of fraud even before it happened to Pope, told his friend, ‘I had a long design upon the ears of that Curl.’ We might expect that the traditional punishment for libel and other crimes of cropping one or both ears would have gone for good by this date. But no; in 1731 a forger with the apt name of Crook was placed in the pillory at Charing Cross to have his ears slashed off before his nostrils were sliced and seared with a red-hot iron. Augustan satire often re-enacts the savagery of Hanoverian penal methods.

Curll has his own distinctive niche in legal history. At one stage he was the subject of leading suits that entrenched case law in both sedition and obscenity, and while in custody he even got himself arraigned for the uncommon offence of blasphemous libel, an ancient crime that survived on the statute book in England and Wales until 2007. As we shall see, Pope was well aware of these legal troubles, and left damaging reminders in the notes to The Dunciad.

Another circumstance links Curll to our concerns here. He had carved out a specialism in reprinting notorious trials. In this category of his list, we encounter collections of proceedings relating to divorce, impotence, seduction, polygamy, rape, virginity, murder and sodomy – Pope referred scathingly to the last of these in his Full and True Account of Curll’s misfortunes. These titles come from Curll’s own advertisements; he also had room for a work about ‘debauching young virgins’. This connection adds one more layer of humour when we see the bookseller cast by Pope as Curll agonistes, since the gloss for the Greek term in the standard Liddell and Scott dictionary is ‘a combatant, a rival, esp. at the games’. Secondary senses are ‘a pleader, debater’ and ‘a champion’. In the section of The Dunciad that parodies Homeric games, the most competitive among all the contestants in this degraded ἀγών is Curll, instantly ready to ‘accept the glorious strife’. He emerges as an easy winner of the pissing contest, confident of victory since ‘happy Impudence obtains the prize’.

Among the occasions when Curll found himself shrouded in the mists of Chancery, the most noteworthy involved turf wars over literary property between bookseller and bookseller, with no author directly implicated. A good example is found in the proceedings lodged in 1721 by Robert Knaplock and Jacob Tonson junior (nephew and heir of the great publisher who issued major editions of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope). They claimed that Curll had breached their rights under the Copyright Act. Curll defended himself vigorously in his rejoinder, contriving to blur the issues raised by the provisions of the new act. The court’s decision has not been traced, but Curll quietly dropped the offending item from his list. At another time, he was the hunter in Chancery, while the prey was a certain Charles Davis, who ran a business in Paternoster Row, close to the site of Curll’s shop for a brief period. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant had reneged on a deal by which he would sell Curll’s antiquarian stock. Neither the rejoinder nor the adjudication has come to light. That was often the way, since most such disputes did not go to trial. We might wonder whether the judges could keep a straight face when they saw that Curll was making accusations of cheating against another member of the trade.

As for Pope, he was no stranger to the courtroom, mounting various suits to safeguard his literary property. He took care to assign the copyright of his nakedly provocative Dunciad Variorum in 1729 to three of the most conspicuously great and good aristocrats in the land. One of his most trusted advisers was the Catholic barrister Nathaniel Pigott, who lived in the next village to Twickenham, and had looked after some legal affairs for the poet’s father. Pigott gave the son help in connection with a case in the ecclesiastical courts. Among other lawyers who moved into the orbit of Pope, an especially noteworthy figure was the future Lord Mansfield.

However, the most significant in this group was William Fortescue, one of Pope’s closest friends in the 1730s. Fortescue, a barrister with excellent political connections, held a number of important offices on the bench before he became Master of the Rolls. It is not just that Pope turned to Fortescue for help with ticklish issues regarding his publications, especially when he heard that a new affront from Curll was scheduled to hit the bookstands. Pope even used the first of his brilliant imitations of Horace (modernizing a late satiric dialogue of the poet, addressed to a great jurist in Rome) to dramatize a consultation with Fortescue, in which the interlocutor spouts back to his client some amusing law-school jargon. The title follows a familiar pattern, referring to ‘a Dialogue between Alex. Pope of Twickenham in the County of Middlesex, esq; and his Learned Council’. Like its original, the English version debates what is permissible for a contemporary satirist under a repressive regime. It starts with the idea that people think the poet’s work may have gone beyond acceptable limits (ultra legem in Horace, modified by Pope as ‘my Satire seems too bold’). Naturally Curll got in on the act. In one of the cleverest ripostes in his raggle-taggle edition of Pope’s letters, he imitated his enemy’s imitation – that is, produced a version that plays around Pope as the poet had played around Horace. Word has now got around, the opening couplet tells us, that there may be ‘Wretches as bad as me, and full as bold’ – a shrewd transposition from the satires to their author.

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