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from An Essay on Man -- Alexander Pope

(Poem #331) from An Essay on Man
     Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
 All but the page prescrib'd, their present state:
 From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
 Or who could suffer being here below?
 The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
 Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
 Pleas'd to the last, he crops the flow'ry food,
 And licks the hand just rais'd to shed his blood.
 Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv'n,
 That each may fill the circle mark'd by Heav'n:
 Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
 A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
 Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd,
 And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

     Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
 Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
 What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
 But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
 Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
 Man never is, but always to be blest:
 The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
 Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

      Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutor'd mind
 Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
 His soul, proud science never taught to stray
 Far as the solar walk, or milky way;
 Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
 Behind the cloud topp'd hill, an humbler heav'n;
 Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
 Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
 Where slaves once more their native land behold,
 No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold.
 To be, contents his natural desire,
 He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire;
 But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
-- Alexander Pope
Pope is one of those poets I enjoyed a lot more when I was younger - now I
find his poetry a trifle brittle, albeit beautifully polished. However, at
his best he has a highly memorable turn of phrase and an unmistakeable
elegance that set his work apart. If Pope is chiefly a stylist, he is at
least a brilliant one.

An excellent Pope site (from which I have quoted extensively, and which I urge
you to read in its entirely) may be found at

To begin with, here's a nice overview of the Essay on Man...

  Pope intended it as the centerpiece of a proposed system of ethics to be
  put forth in poetic form: it is in fact a fragment of a larger work which
  Pope planned but did not live to complete [a familiar occurrence - m].
  It is an attempt to justify, as Milton had attempted to vindicate, the
  ways of God to Man, and a warning that man himself is not, as, in his
  pride, he seems to believe, the center of all things. Though not
  explicitly Christian, the Essay makes the implicit assumption that man is
  fallen and unregenerate, and that he must seek his own salvation.


  Considered as a whole, the Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith:
  life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it,
  but is in fact a coherent portion of a divinely ordered plan. In Pope's
  world God exists, and he is benificent: his universe is an ordered place.
  The limited intellect of man can perceive only a tiny portion of this
  order, and can experience only partial truths, and hence must rely on
  hope, which leads to faith. Man must be cognizant of his rather
  insignificant position in the grand scheme of things: those things which
  he covets most -- riches, power, fame -- prove to be worthless in the
  greater context of which he is only dimly aware. In his place, it is man's
  duty to strive to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his inherent
  frailty, to fail in his attempt.


Pope was the leading poet of the Augustan Age, that portion of the
Neoclassicist period extending from roughly 1700 to 1750. The above site has
this to say about Neoclassicism...

  To a certain extent Neoclassicism represented a reaction against the
  optimistic, exuberant, and enthusiastic Renaissance view of man as a being
  fundamentally good and possessed of an infinite potential for spiritual
  and intellectual growth. Neoclassical theorists, by contrast, saw man as
  an imperfect being, inherently sinful, whose potential was limited. They
  replaced the Renaissance emphasis on the imagination, on invention and
  experimentation, and on mysticism with an emphasis on order and reason, on
  restraint, on common sense, and on religious, political, economic and
  philosophical conservatism. They maintained that man himself was the most
  appropriate subject of art, and saw art itself as essentially
  pragmatic--as valuable because it was somehow useful--and as something
  which was properly intellectual rather than emotional.

(It is probably this attitude, rather than any inherent flaw in Pope's work,
that I react negatively to.) Illustrative is the look at Augustan poetic

  Poetic diction can also mean the sum of the favorite words used by a
  particular poet. Tillotson points out that various periods have favored
  different sets of words, which then become characteristic of one group or
  age of poets (and also a way that later ones can allude to them).

  Augustan (or neoclassical), 1650-1750:

  sad, pensive, anxious, purple (usually in the snese it has in Latin poetry
  of 'very bright'), various, refulgent, . . . num'rous, glitte'ring,
  beauteous, promiscuous, trembling, plae, British (a glorious word in the
  eighteenth century), harmonious, easy, opening, emulate, yielding,
  conscious (usually with some taint of its Latin sense of guiltily


Pope's brand of Neoclassicism was apparently unpalatable to later poets...

  Pope had few poetical heirs of any consequence. His popularity gradually
  declined after his death in 1744, as his themes and his style went
  gradually out of fashion. In a sense his true heirs were those who reacted
  against him most strongly. Samuel Johnson noted in his Life of Pope that
  it would be useless to attempt to write better couplets than Pope had
  produced, but he suggested, too, that new poets would emphasize new images
  and new sentiments, and by the early nineteenth century the English
  Romantics, reacting against Neoclassicism and exalting Nature, had, with a
  few notable exceptions -- Byron, for example, proclaimed his admiration of
  Pope's accomplishments -- come to look upon him as a decorous and perhaps
  a brilliant artist who was also a Roman Catholic and a crabbed dwarf; as
  an artist whose work, unfortunately, not only reflected but examplified
  the deadening artificiality of his age.


though on the other hand

  He was never without adherents -- Isaac D'Israeli defended The Rape of the
  Lock by insisting that the best
  poetry reflected the spirit of the age that had produced it, and that,
  judged by that standard, the poem was a work
  of genius -- Ibid.

Formwise, Pope's verse consisted mainly of heroic couplets...

  this verse form consists of iambic pentameter lines with rhymed couplets.
  in the eighteenth century, when this verse form was most popular, poets
  tended also to write in closed couplets, which is to say that the end of
  each couplet, and even each line, tended to coincide with the end of a
  sentence or a self-sufficient unit of syntax. the form is in some ways
  reflective of eighteenth-century ideals of order, balance, and closure


a form first introduced by Chaucer (see Minstrels poem #327) and perfected
by Pope.

More on the Augustans...

18th century: the Augustan age

  alexander pope developed the poetic technique of dryden; in prose richard
  steele and joseph addison evolved the polite essay, jonathan swift used
  satire, and daniel defoe exploited his journalistic ability. this century
  saw the development of the novel, through the epistolary style of samuel
  richardson to the robust narrative of henry fielding and tobias smollett,
  the comic genius of laurence sterne, and the gothic 'horror' of horace
  walpole. the neo-classical standards established by the augustans were
  maintained by samuel johnson and his circle - oliver goldsmith, edmund
  burke, joshua reynolds, richard sheridan, and others - but the romantic
  element present in the poetry of james thomson, thomas gray, edward young,
  and william collins was soon to overturn them.

    -- [broken link]

  inaugurating a new poetics, john dryden (1668) derides his predecessors, the
  metaphysical poets, in a telling manner: these "have debauched the true old
  poetry so far, that nature, which is the soul of it, is not in any of your
  writing" --

And for an essay on the 'Purpose and Method of Satire' :

See also the previous poem by Pope run on Minstrels... poem #39

which includes a biography and some nice notes on Pope's use of satire.


19 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Charles Teke said...

To understand the deeper undercurrents of the empiricism and
rationalism in the Agustan Age is to read Pope. This work is still a
source of reference to a vast array of epistemological and ontological
issues pertaining not only to Enlightenment, but also Romaticism, Post-
Romanticism and Modernism. Every careful reading proves it a new text
text, always attracting diverse interpretative interests in literary,
aesthetic, religious and spiritual domains.

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