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Superior beings, when of late they saw A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law,
Ver. 31. Superior beings, &c.] To give this second argument its full force, he illustrates it (from ver. 30 to 43.) by the noblest example that ever was in science, the incomparable Newton; who, although he penetrated so far beyond others into the works of God, yet could go no farther in the knowledge of his own nature than the generality of his fellows. Of which the Poet assigns this very just and adequate reason : In all other sciences the Understanding is unchecked and uncontrolled by any opposite principle; but in the science of Man, the Passions overturn as fast as Reason can build up.
science, and imaginary intimacy with God; go, and run into all the extravagances I have exploded in the first epistle, where thou pretendest to teach Providence how to govern; then drop into the obscurities of thy own nature, and thereby manifest thy ignorance
Warburton. Ver. 31. Superior beings, &c.] In these lines the Poet speaks to this effect: “But to make you fully sensible of the difficulty of this study, I shall instance in the great Newton himself; whom, when superior beings, not long since, saw capable of unfolding the whole law of Nature, they were in doubt whether the owner of such prodigious sagacity should not be reckoned of their order ; just as men, when they see the surprising marks of Reason in an Ape, are almost tempted to rank him with their own kind.” And yet this wondrous man could go no further in the knowledge of himself, than the generality of his species. M. Du Resnel, who understood nothing of all this, translates these four celebrated lines thus :
« Des célestes Esprits la vive intelligence
Regarde avec pitié notre foible Science;
Est peut-être pour eux, ce qu'un Singe est pour nous.” But it is not the pity, but the admiration of those celestial Spirits which is here spoken of. And it was for no slight cause they admired ; it was, to see a mortal man unfold the whole law of Nature.
Admir'd such wisdom in an earthly shape,
By which we see it was not Mr. Pope's intention to bring any of the Ape's qualities, but its sagacity, into the comparison. But why the Ape's, it may be said, rather than the sagacity of some more decent animal, particularly the half-reasoning elephant, as the poet calls it; which, as well on account of this its excellence, as for its having no ridiculous side, like the Ape, on which it could be viewed, seems better to have deserved this honour? I reply, Because, as a shape resembling human (which only the Ape has) must be joined with great sagacity, to raise a suspicion that the animal, thus endowed, is related to man: so the spirituality, which Newton had in common with Angels, joined to a penetration superior to Man, made those Beings suspect he might be one of their order. On this ground of relation, we see the whole beauty of
. the thought depends.—And here let me take notice of a new species of the sublime, of which our poet may be justly said to be the maker; so new, that we have yet no name for it, though of a nature distinct from every other known beauty of poetry. The two great perfections in works of genius, are Wit and SUBLIMITY. Many writers have been witty; some have been sublime; and a few have even possessed both these qualities separately. But none, that I know of, besides our poet, hath had the art to INCORPORATE them; of which he hath given many examples, both in this Essay, and his other poems ; one of the noblest being the passage in question. This seems to be the last effort of the imagination to poetical perfection : and, in this compounded excellence, the wit receives a dignity from the sublime, and the sublime a splendour from the wit; whịch, in their state of separate existence, they neither of them had. Yet a late critic, who writes with the decision of a Lord of Session on Parnassus, thinks otherwise: “ It may be gathered," says he, "from what is said above, “ that wit and ridicule make not an agreeable mixture with “ deur. Dissimilar emotions have a fine effect in a slow succes“sion; but in a rapid succession which approaches to co-existence, they will not be relished."**
What pity is it, that the poet
should * Elements of Criticism, vol. i. p. 377.
Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind, 35 Describe or fix one movement of his mind? Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend, Explain his own beginning, or his end ?
should here confute the critic, by DOING what the critic, with his rules, teaches us cannot be done. Boileau, who was both poet and critic, had a clear view of this excellence in idea ; while the mere critic had no idea of what had been clearly set before his eyes.
" ON PEUT ETRE A LA FOIS ET POMPEUX ET PLAISANT ;
Et je hais un SUBLIME ennuyeux et pesant.” Warburton. Ver. 34. as we shew an Ape.] Evidently borrowed from the following passage in the Zodiac of Palingenius, and not, as hath been suggested by Dr. Hurd, from Plato. Pope was a reader and publisher of the modern poets of Italy who wrote in Latin. The words are,
“ Simia Coelicolum risusq; jocusq; Deorum est
Tunc Homo, cum temerè ingenio confidit, et audet
Warton. This is, however, an entirely different sense from that in which Pope has used the similitude, in the one case the superior beings admire the wisdom, in the other, they laugh at the folly.
Ver. 37. Who saw its fires here rise, &c.] Sir Isaac Newton, in calculating the velocity of a comet's motion, and the course it describes, when it becomes visible in its descent to, and ascent from, the sun, conjectured, with the highest appearance of truth, that comets revolve perpetually round the sun, in ellipses vastly eccentrical, and very nearly approaching to parabolas. In which he was greatly confirmed, in observing between two comets a coincidence in their perihelions, and a perfect agreement in their velocities.
Ver. 35.] Ed. 1st.
Could he, who taught each Planet where to roll,
Alas, what wonder! Man's superior part
Trace Science then, with Modesty thy guide: First strip off all her equipage of pride;
Ver. 43. Trace Science then, &c.] The conclusion, therefore, from the whole is (from ver. 42 to 53.), that as, on the one hand, we should persist in the study of Nature; so, on the other, in order to arrive at Science, we should proceed in the simplicity of truth; and then the produce, though small, will yet be real.
Ver. 44. First strip of] The abuses of learning are enumerated with brevity and elegance in these few lines. It was a favourite subject with our author ; and it is said he intended to have written four Epistles on it, wherein he would have treated of the extent and limits of human reason; of arts and sciences useful and attainable; of the different capacities of different men; of the knowledge of the world; and of wit. Such censures, even of the most unimportant parts of literature, should not, however, be carried too far; and a sensible writer observes, that there is not indeed any part of knowledge which can be called entirely useless. most abstracted parts of mathematics, and the knowledge of mythological history, or ancient allegories, have their own pleasures, not inferior to the more gay entertainments of painting, music, or architecture; and it is for the advantage of mankind that some are found who have a taste for these studies. The only fault lies in letting any of those inferior tastes engross the whole man, to the exclusion of the nobler pursuits of virtue and humanity.” Hutcheson's Nature and Conduct of the Passions, p. 179. We may here apply an elegant observation of Tully, who says, in his Brutus, “Credo, sed Atheniensium quoque plus interfuit firma tecta in domiciliis habere, quam Minervæ signum ex ebore pulcherrimum : tamen ego me Phidiam esse mallem quam vel optimum fabrum lignarium; quare non quantum quisque profit, sed quanti quisque sit, ponderandum est : præsertim cum pauci pingere egregiè possint aut fingere, operarii autem aut bajuli deesse non possint.”
Deduct what is but vanity, or dress,
45 Or Learning's luxury, or idleness ; Or tricks to shew the stretch of human brain, Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain; Expunge the whole, or lop th’excrescent parts : Of all our Vices have created Arts;
50 Then see how little the remaining sum, Which serv'd the past, and must the times to come!
Ver. 45. vanity, or dress,] These are the first parts of what the Poet, in the preceding line, calls the scholar's equipage of pride. By vanity is meant that luxuriancy of thought and expression in which a writer indulges himself, to shew the fruitfulness of his fancy or invention. By dress, is to be understood a lower degree of that practice, in amplification of thought and ornamental expression, to give force to what the writer would convey: but even this, the Poet, in a severe search after truth, condemns; and with great judgment; conciseness of thought, and simplicity of expression, being as well the best instruments, as the best vehicles of truth. Shakespear touches upon this latter advantage with great force and humour. The flatterer says to Timon in distress, “I cannot cover the monstrous bulk of their ingratitude with any
size of words." The other replies, “ Let it go naked; men may see't the better."
Warburton. Ver. 46. Or Learning's luxury, or idleness ;] The luxury of Learning consists in dressing up and disguising old notions in a new way, so as to make them more fashionable and palatable; instead of examining and scrutinizing their truth. As this is often done for pomp and shew, it is called luxury; as it is often done too to save pains and labour, it is called idleness. Warburton.
Ver. 47. Or tricks to shew the stretch of human brain,] Such as the mathematical demonstrations concerning the small quantity of matter; the endless divisibility of it, &c.
Warburton. Ver. 48. Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain;] i.e. when Admiration has set the mind on the rack.
Warburton. Ver. 49. Expunge the whole, or lop th' excrescent parts
Of all our Vices have created Arts ;] i.e. Those parts of natural Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric, Poetry, &c. which administer to luxury, deceit, ambition, effeminacy, &c.