The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written, characteristically, in heroic couplets, and published between 1732 and 1734. 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. 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.
The "Essay" consists of four epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke's own fragmentary philosophical writings, as well as from ideas expressed by the deistic third Earl of Shaftsbury. Pope sets out to demonstrate that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable, and disturbingly full of evil the Universe may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, according to natural laws; and is, in fact, considered as a whole, a perfect work of God. It appears imperfect to us only because our perceptions are limited by our feeble moral and intellectual capacity. His conclusion is that we must learn to accept our position in the Great Chain of Being — a "middle state," below that of the angels but above that of the beasts — in which we can, at least potentially, lead happy and virtuous lives.
Epistle I concerns itself with the nature of man and with his place in the universe; Epistle II, with man as an individual; Epistle III, with man in relation to human society, to the political and social hierarchies; and Epistle IV, with man's pursuit of happiness in this world. An Essay on Man was a controversial work in Pope's day, praised by some and criticized by others, primarily because it appeared to contemporary critics that its emphasis, in spite of its themes, was primarily poetic and not, strictly speaking, philosophical in any really coherent sense: Dr. Johnson, never one to mince words, and possessed, in any case, of views upon the subject which differed materially from those which Pope had set forth, noted dryly (in what is surely one of the most back-handed literary compliments of all time) that "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised." It is a subtler work, however, than perhaps Johnson realized: G. Wilson Knight has made the perceptive comment that the poem is not a "static scheme" but a "living organism," (like Twickenham) and that it must be understood as such.
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. Do you find Pope's argument convincing? In what ways can we relate the Essay on Man to works like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (text), Tennyson's In Memoriam and Eliot's The Wasteland?
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In the Spring of 1688, Alexander Pope was born an only child to Alexander and Edith Pope. The elder Pope, a linen-draper and recent convert to Catholicism, soon moved his family from London to Binfield, Berkshire in the face of repressive, anti-Catholic legislation from Parliament. Described by his biographer, John Spence, as "a child of a particularly sweet temper," and with a voice so melodious as to be nicknamed the "Little Nightingale," the child Pope bears little resemblance to the irascible and outspoken moralist of the later poems. Barred from attending public school or university because of his religion, Pope was largely self-educated. He taught himself French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and read widely, discovering Homer at the age of six.
At twelve, Pope composed his earliest extant work, Ode to Solitude; the same year saw the onset of the debilitating bone deformity that would plague Pope until the end of his life. Originally attributed to the severity of his studies, the illness is now commonly accepted as Pott's disease, a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine that stunted his growth—Pope's height never exceeded four and a half feet—and rendered him hunchbacked, asthmatic, frail, and prone to violent headaches. His physical appearance would make him an easy target for his many literary enemies in later years, who would refer to the poet as a "hump-backed toad."
Pope's Pastorals, which he claimed to have written at sixteen, were published in Jacob Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies of 1710 and brought him swift recognition. Essay on Criticism, published anonymously the year after, established the heroic couplet as Pope's principal measure and attracted the attention of Jonathan Swift and John Gay, who would become Pope's lifelong friends and collaborators. Together they formed the Scriblerus Club, a congregation of writers endeavoring to satirize ignorance and poor taste through the invented figure of Martinus Scriblerus, who would serve as a precursor to the dunces in Pope's late masterpiece, the Dunciad.
1712 saw the first appearance of the The Rape of the Lock, Pope's best-known work and the one that secured his fame. Its mundane subject—the true account of a squabble between two prominent Catholic families over the theft of a lock of hair—is transformed by Pope into a mock-heroic send-up of classical epic poetry.
Turning from satire to scholarship, Pope in 1713 began work on his six-volume translation of Homer's Iliad. He arranged for the work to be available by subscription, with a single volume being released each year for six years, a model that garnered Pope enough money to be able to live off his work alone, one of the few English poets in history to have been able to do so.
In 1719, following the death of his father, Pope moved to an estate at Twickenham, where he would live for the remainder of his life. Here he constructed his famous grotto, and went on to translate the Odyssey—which he brought out under the same subscription model as the Iliad—and to compile a heavily-criticized edition of Shakespeare, in which Pope "corrected" the Bard's meter and made several alterations to the text, while leaving corruptions in earlier editions intact.
Critic and scholar Lewis Theobald's repudiation of Pope's Shakespeare provided the catalyst for his Dunciad, a vicious, four-book satire in which Pope lampoons the witless critics and scholars of his day, presenting their "abuses of learning" as a mock-Aeneid, with the dunces in service to the goddess Dulness; Theobald served as its hero.
Though published anonymously, there was little question as to its authorship. Reaction to the Dunciad from its victims and sympathizers was more hostile than that of any of his previous works; Pope reportedly would not leave his house without two loaded pistols in his pocket. "I wonder he is not thrashed," wrote William Broome, Pope's former collaborator on the Odyssey who found himself lambasted in the Dunciad, "but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren."
Pope published Essay on Man in 1734, and the following year a scandal broke out when an apparently unauthorized and heavily sanitized edition of Pope's letters was released by the notoriously reprobate publisher Edmund Curll (collections of correspondence were rare during the period). Unbeknownst to the public, Pope had edited his letters and delivered them to Curll in secret.
Pope's output slowed after 1738 as his health, never good, began to fail. He revised and completed the Dunciad, this time substituting the famously inept Colley Cibber—at that time, the country's poet laureate—for Theobald in the role of chief dunce. He began work on an epic in blank verse entitled Brutus, which he quickly abandoned; only a handful of lines survive. Alexander Pope died at Twickenham, surrounded by friends, on May 30, 1744.
Since his death, Pope has been in a constant state of reevaluation. His high artifice, strict prosody, and, at times, the sheer cruelty of his satire were an object of derision for the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and it was not until the 1930s that his reputation was revived. Pope is now considered the dominant poetic voice of his century, a model of prosodic elegance, biting wit, and an enduring, demanding moral force.