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The Riddle of the World -- Alexander Pope

Guest poem sent in by Salil Murthy :

[We are running short of guest poems - please do send some in. You needn't
do the biography and criticism - just send in the poem and your personal
comments on it - m.]
(Poem #39) The Riddle of the World
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
-- Alexander Pope
Pope's satire showcased his sometimes devastating wit but was often used
to good effect in a more sombre vein, as in this poem. You can almost
see his lip curling in line 10. A deep cynicism seems to have permeated
his works and there were many of them, seeing as he started at the age
of 12 (a gentle satire on Ovid, I think). There is also some amount of
melodrama: witness his last few lines from 'Dunciad'

  Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restor'd;
  Light dies before thy uncreating word:
  Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
  And Universal Darkness buries All.

(Why is the third line so evocative? Have I missed an allusion?)

Satire tending to tragedy was the particular province of Juvenal, of
whom I have heard much and read nothing. His hand apparently trembled
with rage as he penned his literary invective. This was in direct
contrast to Horace, for whom satire was pure comedy. He jested and japed
with society but made his points just as clearly. These two are
considered the 'Fathers of Satire', which has lead to much confusion in
literary circles, since they seem to inhabit opposite ends of the
satirical spectrum.

The nature of Satire was summed up very neatly by Joseph Hall :

  The Satyre should be like the Porcupine,
  That shoots sharpe quils out in each angry line,
  And wounds the blushing cheeke, and fiery eye,
  Of him that heares, and readeth guiltily.

For the etymology buffs, the derivation of 'satire' is from the Latin
'satura' (which meant originally something like"medley" or "miscellany")
but all subsequent verb extensions were taken from the Greek word for
satyr (saturos) and so 'satirize', 'satiric' et al are of Greek origin.
As the man said, 'English is a very phunny language.'

Just a few lines on that most famous of literary clubs, 'The
Scriblerus'. This is what the trusty EB has to say:

18th-century British literary club whose founding members were the
brilliant Tory wits Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay,
Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot. Its purpose was to ridicule
pretentious erudition and scholarly jargon through the person of a
fictitious literary hack, Martinus Scriblerus (Martin suggesting Swift,
Scriblerus meaning a writer). The collaboration of the five writers on
the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus began as early as 1713 and
led to frequent, spirited meetings when they were all in London.
When they were separated, they pursued their project through
correspondence. The zest, energy, and time that these five highly
individualistic talents put into their joint enterprise may be gauged by
Pope's statement in a letter to Swift, "The top of my own ambition is
to contribute to that great work [the Memoirs], and I shall translate
Homer by the by."

Of the five, only Pope and Swift lived to see the publication of the
Memoirs (1741), although miscellaneous minor pieces written in
collaboration or individually had appeared earlier under the
Scriblerus name. Although Pope is credited with originating the
character of Scriblerus, most of the ideas were Arbuthnot's, and he
was the most industrious of the collaborators. The stimulation the
members derived from each other had far-reaching effects. Gay's
The Beggar's Opera grew out of a suggestion made by Swift to the
Scriblerus Club, and the imprint of Scriblerus on Swift's Gulliver's
Travels, especially Book III, describing the voyage to Laputa, is
unmistakable. Other prominent Tories--such as Robert Harley, 1st
Earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, 1st Viscount
Bolingbroke--were members of the club, but there is no evidence
that they contributed to the writing.

...salil.

[salil has asked me to add some biographical notes etc. so... -m]

Biographical Note:

  Pope, Alexander

   b. May 21, 1688, London, Eng. d. May 30, 1744, Twickenham, near London

  poet and satirist of the English Augustan period, best known for his poems
  An Essay on Criticism (1711), The Rape of the Lock (1712-14), The Dunciad
  (1728), and An Essay on Man (1733-34). He is one of the most quotable of all
  English authors.

  Pope's religion [Roman Catholic] procured him some lifelong friends,
  notably the wealthy squire John Caryll (who persuaded him to write The
  Rape of the Lock, on an incident involving Caryll's relatives) and Martha
  Blount, to whom Pope addressed some of the most memorable of his poems and
  to whom he bequeathed most of his property. But his religion also
  precluded him from a formal course of education; he was trained at home by
  Catholic priests for a short time and attended Catholic schools at
  Twyford, near Winchester, and at Hyde Park Corner, London, but he was
  mainly self-educated. He was a precocious boy, eagerly reading Latin,
  Greek, French, and Italian, which he managed to teach himself, and an
  incessant scribbler, turning out verse upon verse in imitation of the
  poets he read. The best of these early writings are the "Ode on Solitude"
  and a paraphrase of St. Thomas `Kempis, both of which he claimed to have
  written at the age of 12.

        -- EB

Criticism:

  Pope's favourite metre was the 10-syllable, iambic pentameter rhyming
  (heroic) couplet. He handled it with increasing skill and adapted it to such
  varied purposes as the epigrammatic summary of the Essay on Criticism, the
  pathos of "Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady," the mock-heroic of
  The Rape of the Lock, the discursive tones of the Essay on Man, the rapid
  narrative of the Homer translation, and the Miltonic sublimity of the
  conclusion of The Dunciad. But his greatest triumphs of versification are
  found in the "Epilogue to the Satires," where he moves easily from witty,
  spirited dialogue to noble and elevated declamation, and in the "Epistle to
  Dr. Arbuthnot," which opens with a scene of domestic irritation suitably
  conveyed in broken rhythm:

        Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said:
        Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.
        The Dog-star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt,
        All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
        Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
        They rave, recite, and madden round the land;

  and closes with a deliberately chosen contrast of domestic calm, which the
  poet may be said to have deserved and won during the course of the poem:

        Me, let the tender office long engage
        To rock the cradle of reposing age,
        With lenient arts extend a mother's breath,
        Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death,
        Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
        And keep a while one parent from the sky!

  Pope's command of diction is no less happily adapted to his theme and to the
  type of poem, and the range of his imagery is remarkably wide. He has been
  thought defective in imaginative power, but this opinion cannot be sustained
  in view of the invention and organizing ability shown notably in The Rape of
  the Lock and The Dunciad. He was the first English poet to enjoy
  contemporary fame in France and Italy and throughout the European continent
  and to see translations of his poems into modern as well as ancient
  languages.

       -- EB again

m.

15 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

RYLEWES said...

re: Pope, An Essay on Man, "Riddle of the World," Line 9 should read:

"In doubt his mind or body to prefer....."

Gary Balius said...

What fond memories to read again this incredible poetry. For a sophomore
English class in 1953-54 I memorized the last four lines of the poem. Often
of late, I have reason to recall these etched words in my growing-old brain
and ponder the truth of them as I survey the utter pride, ambition, and
hopelessness expounded by the falsely learned "experts" in science and
politics. "Professing themselves to be wise they became fools." A quote from
the apostle Paul in the New Testament.

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