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653 Horace: the famous Latin poet whose Ars Poetica was one of Pope's models for the Essay on Criticism.
662 fle’me : phlegm, according to old ideas of physiology, one of the four“ humours" or fluids which composed the body. Where it abounded it made men dull and heavy, or as we still say “phlegmatic.”
663-664 A rather confused couplet. It means, “ Horace suffers as much by the misquotations critics make from his work as by the bad translations that wits make of them.”
665 Dionysius: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a famous Greek critic. Pope's manner of reference to him seems to show that he had never read his works.
667 Petronius: a courtier and man of letters of the time of Nero. Only a few lines of his remaining work contain any criticism.
669 Quintilian's work : the Institutiones Oratoria of Quintilianus, a famous Latin critic of the first century A.D.
675 Longinus: a Greek critic of the third century A.D., who composed a famous work called A Treatise on the Sublime. It is a work showing high imagination as well as careful reasoning, and hence Pope speaks of the author as inspired by the Nine, i.e. the Muses.
692 The willful hatred of the monks for the works of classical antiquity tended to complete that destruction of old books which the Goths began when they sacked the Roman cities. Many ancient writings were erased, for example, in order to get parchment for monkish chronicles and commentaries.
693 Erasmus: perhaps the greatest scholar of the Renaissance. Pope calls him the “glory of the priesthood” on account of his being a monk of such extraordinary learning, and “the shame" of his order, because he was so abused by monks in his lifetime. Is this a good antithesis ?
697 Leo's golden days: the pontificate of Leo X (1513-1521). Leo himself was a generous patron of art and learning. He paid particular attention to sacred music (1. 703), and engaged Raphael to decorate the Vatican with frescoes. Vida (1. 704) was an Italian poet of his time, who became famous by the excellence of his Latin verse. One of his poems was on the art of poetry, and it is to this that Pope refers in l. 706.
707–708 Cremona was the birthplace of Vida; Mantua, of Virgil.
709 The allusion is to the sack of Rome by the Constable Bourbon's army in 1527. This marked the end of the golden age of arts in Italy.
714 Boileau: a French poet and critic (1636–1711). His L'Art Poétique is founded on Horace's Ars Poetica.
723 the Muse: i.e. the genius, of John Sheffield (1649-1720), Duke of Buckingham (not to be confounded with Dryden's enemy). Line 724 is quoted from his Essay on Poetry.
725 Roscommon: Wentworth Dillon (1633-1684), Earl of Roscommon, author of a translation of the Ars Poetica and of An Essay on Translated Verse.
729 Walsh: a commonplace poet (1663-1708), but apparently a good critic. Dryden, in fact, called him the best critic in the nation. He was an early friend and judicious adviser of Pope himself, who showed him much of his early work, including the first draft of this very poem. Pope was sincerely attached to him, and this tribute to his dead friend is marked by deep and genuine feeling.
738 short excursions: such as this Essay on Criticism instead of longer and more ambitious poems which Pope planned and in part executed in his boyhood. There is no reason to believe with Mr. Elwin that this passage proves that Pope formed the design of the poem after the death of Walsh.
AN ESSAY ON MAN
The Essay on Man is the longest and in some ways the most important work of the third period of Pope's career. It corresponds closely to his early work, the Essay on Criticism. Like the earlier work, the Essay on Man is a didactic poem, written primarily to diffuse and popularize certain ideas of the poet. As in the earlier work these ideas are by no means original with Pope, but were the common property of a school of thinkers in his day. As in the Essay on Criticism, Pope here attempts to show that these ideas have their origin in nature and are consistent with the common sense of man. And finally the merit of the later work, even more than of the earlier, is due to the force and brilliancy of detached passages rather than to any coherent, consistent, and well-balanced system which it presents.
The close of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth was marked by a change of ground in the sphere of religious controversy. The old debates between the Catholic and Protestant churches gradually
died out as these two branches of Western Christianity settled down in quiet possession of the territory they still occupy. In their place arose a vigorous controversy on the first principles of religion in general, on the nature of God, the origin of evil, the place of man in the universe, and the respective merits of optimism and pessimism as philosophic theories. The controversialists as a rule either rejected or neglected the dogmas of revealed religion and based their arguments upon real or supposed facts of history, physical nature, and the mental processes and moral characteristics of man. In this controversy the two parties at times were curiously mingled. Orthodox clergymen used arguments which justified a strong suspicion of their orthodoxy; and avowed freethinkers bitterly disclaimed the imputation of atheism and wrote in terms that might be easily adopted by a devout believer.
Into this controversy Pope was led by his deepening intimacy with Bolingbroke, who had returned from France in 1725 and settled at his country place within a few miles of Twickenham. During his long exile Bolingbroke had amused himself with the study of moral philosophy and natural religion, and in his frequent intercourse with Pope he poured out his new-found opinions with all the fluency, vigor, and polish which made him so famous among the orators and talkers of the day. Bolingbroke's views were for that time distinctly heterodox, and, if logically developed, led to complete agnosticism. But he seems to have avoided a complete statement of his ideas to Pope, possibly for fear of shocking or frightening the sensitive little poet who still remained a professed Catholic. Pope, however, was very far from being a strict Catholic, and indeed prided himself on the breadth and liberality of his opinions. He was, therefore, at once fascinated and stimulated by the eloquent conversation of Bolingbroke, and resolved to write a philosophical poem in which to embody the ideas they held in common. Bolingbroke approved of the idea, and went so far as to furnish the poet with seven or eight sheets of notes to direct the plan in general and to supply matter for particular epistles.” Lord Bathurst, who knew both Pope and Bolingbroke, went so far as to say in later years that the Essay was originally composed by Bolingbroke in prose and that Pope only put it into verse. But this is undoubtedly an exaggeration of what Pope himself frankly acknowledged, that the poem was composed under the influence of Bolingbroke, that in the main it reflected his opinions, and that Bolingbroke had assisted him in the general plan and in numerous details. Very properly, therefore, the poem is addressed to Bolingbroke
and begins and closes with a direct address to the poet's “guide, philosopher, and friend.”
In substance the Essay on Man is a discussion of the moral order of the world. Its purpose is “ to vindicate the ways of God to man,” and it may therefore be regarded as an attempt to confute the skeptics who argued from the existence of evil in the world and the wretchedness of man's existence to the impossibility of belief in an all-good and all-wise God. It attempts to do this, not by an appeal to revelation or the doctrines of Christianity, but simply on the basis of a common-sense interpretation of the facts of existence.
A brief outline of the poem will show the general tenor of Pope's argument.
The first epistle deals with the nature and state of man with respect to the universe. It insists on the limitations of man's knowledge, and the consequent absurdity of his presuming to murmur against God. It teaches that the universe was not made for man, but that man with all his apparent imperfections is exactly fitted to the place which he occupies in the universe. In the physical universe all things work together for good, although certain aspects of nature seem evil to man, and likewise in the moral universe all things, even man's passions and crimes conduce to the general good of the whole. Finally it urges calm submission and acquiescence in what is hard to understand, since “one truth is clear, - whatever is, is right.”
The second epistle deals with the nature of man as an individual. It begins by urging men to abandon vain questionings of God's providence and to take up the consideration of their own natures, for study of mankind is man.” Pope points out that the two cardinal principles of man's nature are self-love and reason, the first an impelling, the second a regulating power. The aim of both these principles is pleasure, by which Pope means happiness, which he takes for the highest good. Each man is dominated by a master passion, and it is the proper function of reason to control this passion for good and to make it bear fruit in virtue. No man is wholly virtuous or vicious, and Heaven uses the mingled qualities of men to bind them together in mutual interdependence, and makes the various passions and imperfections of mankind serve the general good. And the final conclusion is that “though man's a fool, yet God is wise."
The third epistle treats of the nature of man with respect to society. All creatures, Pope asserts, are bound together and live not for them
selves alone, but man is preëminently a social being. The first state of man was the state of nature when he lived in innocent ignorance with his fellow-creatures. Obeying the voice of nature, man learned to copy and improve upon the instincts of the animals, to build, to plow, to spin, to unite in societies like those of ants and bees. The first form of government was patriarchal; then monarchies arose in which virtue,
in arms or arts,” made one man ruler over many. In either case the origin of true government as of true religion was love. Gradually force crept in and uniting with superstition gave rise to tyranny and false religions. Poets and patriots, however, restored the ancient faith and taught power's due use by showing the necessity of harmony in the state. Pope concludes by asserting the folly of contention for forms of government or modes of faith. The common end of government as of religion is the general good. It may be noticed in passing that Pope's account of the evolution of society bears even less relation to historical facts than does his account of the development of literature in the Essay on Criticism.
The last epistle discusses the nature of happiness,“ our being's end and aim.” Happiness is attainable by all men who think right and mean well. It consists not in individual, but in mutual pleasure. It does not consist in external things, mere gifts of fortune, but in health, peace, and competence. Virtuous men are, indeed, subject to calamities of nature; but God cannot be expected to suspend the operation of general laws to spare the virtuous. Objectors who would construct a system in which all virtuous men are blest, are challenged to define the virtuous and to specify what is meant by blessings. Honors, nobility, fame, superior talents, often merely serve to make their possessors unhappy. Virtue alone is happiness, and virtue consists in a recognition of the laws of Providence, and in love for one's fellow-man.
Even this brief outline will show, I think, some of the inconsistencies and omissions of Pope's train of thought. A careful examination of his arguments in detail would be wholly out of place here. The reader who wishes to pursue the subject further may consult Warburton's elaborate vindication of Pope's argument, and Elwin's equally prosy refutation, or better still the admirable summary by Leslie Stephen in the chapter on this poem in his life of Pope (English Men of Letters). No one is now likely to turn to the writer of the early eighteenth century for a system of the universe, least of all to a writer so incapable of exact or systematic thinking as Alexander Pope. If the Essay on Man has any claim to be