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Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
THE opening of this Poem (in fifteen lines] is taken up in giving an account of the subject; which, agreeably to the title, is an Essay on Man, or a Philosophical Inquiry into his Nature and End, his Passions and Pursuits.
The exordium relates to the whole work, of which the Ejay Man was only the first book. The sixth, seventh, and eighth lines allude to the subjects of this Elay, viz. the general Order and Design of Providence; the Constitution of the Human Mind; the Origin, Use, and End of the Passions and Affections, both selfish and social ; and the wrong Pursuits of Happiness in Power, Pleasure, &c. The tenth, eleventh, twelfth, &c. have relation to the subjects of the books intended to follow, viz. the Characters and Capacities of Men, and the Limits of Science, which once transgressed, ignorance begins, and errors without end succeed. The thirteenth and fourteenth, to the Knowledge of Mankind, and the various Manners of the Age.
Ver. 1. Awake, my St. John!] Henry St. John, son of Sir Henry St. John, Baronet, of Lydiard Tregose in Wiltshire, by Mary, second daughter and heiress of Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, was born in 1678. He was educated first at Eton School, from thence he went to Christ Church, Oxford, where, as through life, he was distinguished both by talents and exceffes.
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of Man;
5 A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, 'COMMENTARY. The Poet tells us next (line 16th] with what design he wrote, viz.
“ To vindicate the ways of God to Man.” The men he writes against, he frequently informs us, are such as weigh their opinion against Providence (ver. 114.), such as cry, If Man's unhappy, God's unjust (ver. 118.), or such as fall into the notion, that Vice and Virtue there is none at all (Ep. ii. ver. 212.). This occasions the Poet to divide his vindication of the
of God into two parts. In the first of which he gives direct answers to those objections which libertine men, on a view of the disorders arising from the perversity of the human will, have intended against Providence : and in the second, he obviates all those objections, by a true delineation of human nature; or a general, but exact, map of Man. The first epistle is employed in the management of the first part of this dispute; and the three following in the discusfion of the second. So that this whole book constitutes a complete Esay on Man, written for the best purpose, to vindicate the
ways of God.
Of his political career more will be said in another place. His talents were shewy and brilliant, if not solid; though he certainly wished to be considered in the light of a great genius, born for great conjunclures ! His predominant ambition, or, as Pope would say, “ his ruling passion,” was to unite the characters of a man of business and of pleasure. By the favour of Mr. Coxe, I have seen a collection of his letters, belonging to the Egremont family.
His letters to Sir William Wyndham, from Paris, are sensible, unaffected, and eloquent, with some plausible accounts of his virtues and philosophy in his exile ; at the same time he corresponds with Charles Wyndham, his son, a youth (afterwards Earl of Egremont), encouraging him in his earliest schemes - of pleasure, and promoting an intrigue with a favourite actress ; on which subject, though fixty years old at the time, he evidently writes con amore. He married the niece of Madame de Maintenon, after the death of his first wife.
A Wild, where weeds and flow'rs promiscuous shoot,
Of his Philosophy, in which he was the preceptor of Pope, we may say with Burke, “ Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through ?" But this Poem will continue to charm, from the mufic of its verse, the fplendour of its diction, and the beauty of its illustrations, when the Philosophy that gave rise to it, like the coarse manure that fed the flowers, is perceived and remembered no more.
Ver. 6. A mighty maze! but not without a plan ;] In the first edition, it was a mighty maze, without a plan.” It is fingular that Mr. Gray fell into something like the same contradiction. In the first edition of his Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, it was printed, “ What cat's a foe to fish ?” when the strongest proof of it was this very ode. It was altered to “ What cat's averse to fish ?" but it is bad enough still. I mention this to shew that the most correct writers are subject to these inadvertencies,
quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavet natura.”
Ver. 12. Of all who blindly creep, &c.] i.e. Those who only follow the blind guidance of their passions; or those who leave behind them common sense and sober reason, in their high fights through the regions of Metaphysics. Both which follies are exposed in the fourth epistle, where the popular and philosophical crrors concerning Happiness are detected. The figure is taken from animal life.
WARBURTON. VER. 13. Eye Nature's walks,] These metaphors, drawn from the field sports of setting and shooting, seem much below the dignity of the subject, and an unnatural mixture of the ludicrous and ferious.
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
1. Say first, of God above, or Man below, What can we reason, but from what we know?
Ver. 17. Say first, of God above, or Man below, &c.] The Poet having declared his subject; his end of writing ; and the quality of his adversaries ; proceeds (from ver. 16 to 23.) to instruct us, from whence he intends to draw his arguments ; namely, from the visible things of God in this system, to demonstrate the invisible things of God, his eternal Power and Godhead.
And why? Because we can reason only from what we know; and as we know no more of Man than what we fee of his ftation here, so we know no more of God than what we fee of his dispensations in this station; being able to trace him no further than to the limits of our own system. This naturally leads the Poet to exprobate the miserable
They are the more so, as Pope is not content with barely touching the metaphor of shooting en passant, but pursues it with so much minuteness. Let us “ beat this ample field”_"try what the covert yields,”—“èye” Nature's walks,—" shoot"' Folly. I need not mention the want of exa&ness, into which this illustration has betrayed him, when he talks of “ eying a walk,” &c.
Ver. 15. Laugh where we must, &c.] Intimating, that human follies are so strangely absurd, that it is not in the power of the most compassionate, on fome occafions, to restrain their mirth : and that its crimes are so flagitious, that the most candid have feldom an opportunity, on this subject, to exercise their virtue.
WARBURTON. Ver. 15. Laugh where we must,] “La sottise (fays old Mohtaigne) est une mauvaise qualité; mais ne la pouvoir supporter, & s'en dépiter & rouger, comme il m'advient, c'est une autre forte de maladie, qui ne doit gueres à la fottise en importunité."
WARTON. Ver. 16. But vindicate the ways of God to Man] « And juftify the ways of God to Man."
Of Man, what see we but his station here,
25 What other planets circle other suns,
What COMMENTARY. folly and impiety of pretending to pry into, and call in question, the profound dispensations of Providence: which reproof contains (from ver. 22 to 43.) a sublime description of the Omniscience of God, and the miserable blindness and presumption of Man.
VER. 19, 20. Of Man, what see we but his station here,
From which to reafon, or to which refer?] The sense is, “ we see nothing of Man but as he stands at present in his station here: From which station, all our reasonings on his nature and end must be drawn; and to this station they must all be referred." The consequence is, that our reasonings on his nature and end must needs be very imperfect.
WARBURTON. VER. 23. He, who through vast immenfity, &c.] If the imagery in the preceding page gave a moment’s depression to the Poet's song, how amply does he here make amends! Let me not, however, be thought to imply, that a poem of this kind should be always (to say so) “ on the stretch ; but that an illustration, if not at all dignified, or in correspondence with the theme, should not be pursued so minutely, that the mind must perforce observe its meanness.
Ver. 26. What other planets] What muft the great Sage have felt, when the idea of “ other planets circling other funs," and the magnificent conceptions of the UNIVERSE, as wonderful in detail as awful and sublime in its general view, first opened on his conviction !