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.
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.