Monday, August 27, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“ESSAY ON MAN” by Alexander Pope (written 1729-33; first published 1734)
            This is one of those odd habits I have, which is esteemed eccentricity. Sometimes, for the pure pleasure of it, I go back and read works that are classified as classics, but that on the whole are now read only by academics and unwilling students. Something in the solidity and durability of them appeals to me, though I always find that reading a classic also provokes a couple of questions – Why was this work regarded as a classic? And does it deserve the regard?

            A couple of Saturdays ago, I set aside two or three hours and a bottle of good red wine, and read my way through Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. I hadn’t visited it since I was an undergraduate.

            To dispose of the historical details which you probably already know – this is a set of four “epistles” which Pope at first had published anonymously before he admitted to his authorship in 1735. They were intended to be part of a much longer work surveying the whole field of ethics    a sort of metrical moral encyclopaedia – but the four completed epistles were as far as Pope got. Pope’s essential mission was theodicy. He was explaining and justifying the ways of God to Man. Although Pope vigorously denied it, most people noted how much the poem’s philosophy followed Leibniz. (Pope said he was more influenced by English wits like Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury).

            The Essay on Man was a huge hit, as much on continental Europe as in Britain. Kant knew sections of it by heart. Rousseau was fond of it. Voltaire read it in English, admired it and arranged a French translation although (famously) he later rejected its whole underlying “optimistic” philosophy and penned both Candide and his poem on the Lisbon earthquake to express his new quietist pessimism. He did not think God’s ways could be justified and retreated into a much harder Deism than Pope’s, which saw God as little more than a “first cause”.

            And here I must remark something that has bugged me in a few recent commentaries. Alexander Pope was formally a Catholic, but you would be hard put to prove that the Essay on Man is specifically Christian. The God it presents is very much a philosopher’s God, with no mention of any special redemption for humanity. God is a kind of king directing natural forces and never identifying with his creation. Yet I now find commentaries, written by the theologically illiterate, which assume that simply because God is seen as ultimately benign, then the assumptions of the poem must be Christian ones.

            That is, quite simply, wrong.

            I can’t forebear to add that while he admired other works by Pope, Dr Sam Johnson intensely disliked the Essay on Man  – perhaps in part because of his own solid Christianity. He scored a palpable hit when he said of Pope that “the poet was not sufficiently master of his subject; metaphysical morality was to him a new study, he was proud of his acquisitions, and, supposing himself master of great secrets, was in haste to teach what he had not learned….”

            Which sounds like a more elegant way of saying that Pope conducted his education in public and over-reached himself.

            And that, really, is as much as I want to say about the poem’s background and philosophy. After all, as an Augustan work, it is very much the poetry of direct statement. To follow its “argument” it is sufficient to read it, so I’ll leave it to compilers of books for undergraduates to say what it means.

            My purpose in reading the Essay on Man was to see how good it was as poetry. And here a big barrier presents itself. Like Hamlet, the poem is “full of quotations”. I am reminded that Alexander Pope is the third-most-quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson.  Sometimes, Pope’s phrases have passed into popular use while their source has been forgotten, to the point where some of his choicest items are now routinely misquoted. (“A little learning is a dangerous thing”, from his Essay on Criticism, is now almost universally misquoted as “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”).

            So in reading the Essay on Man, you keep stumbling over lines that make you say “So that’s where that came from!”. Lines such as:

Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
All but the page prescribed, 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 to-day,
Had he thy reason would he skip and play? (Epistle I, Il.77-82)

            Or the wise saws:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be, blest. (Epistle I, Il.95-96)

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind (Epistle I, Il.99-100)

Two principles in Human Nature reign,
Self-love to urge and Reason to restrain (Epistle II, ll.53-54)

            Then there is the one I remember having preached to me by one teacher at secondary school (and which, by the way, still strikes me as good observation and warning): 

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace. (Epistle II, ll. 217-220)

            And there is the section that Voltaire eventually came to scorn and mock:

All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All chance direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right. (Epistle I, ll.289-294)

            The most famous longer quotable bit of the Essay on Man is the opening of the second epistle, which I have been known to perform as a party piece if I’ve imbibed too much. Its second line in particular  - “The proper study of mankind is Man” - is so often taken as the motto of the Age of Enlightenment that it has turned up in endless textbooks and history books to illustrate the thinking of an early scientific age:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (Epistle II, ll.1-18)

            I recall the last twelve of these eighteen lines being quoted by F.L.Lucas in his venerable study Tragedy (1927) when he wished to expound on the tragic nature of man, caught between strength and weakness, will and subjection.

            So I’ve set the scene of the poem’s historical context and I’ve noted the bits  that are as familiar as household words. But I’m still left with the problem, how good is it as poetry?

            I admit to being seduced by the bits where Pope takes the grand cosmic view – and even ventures to imagine a universal chaos as the antithesis to universal order, in such resounding lines as:

He who thro' vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What varied being peoples every star,
May tell why Heav'n has made us as we are:
But of this frame, the bearings and the ties,
The strong connexions, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Look'd thro'; or can a part contain the whole? (Epistle I, ll.22-32)


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. (Epistle I, Il.87-90)

            I might question Pope’s zoology (or at any rate an informed modern zoologist might). But I still admire the attempt to fix humanity into a context, and account for a wide variety of creatures, in the following lines:

Had God, thou fool! work'd solely for thy good,
Thy joy, thy pastime, thy attire, thy food?
Who for thy table feeds the wanton fawn,
For him as kindly spreads the flowery lawn.
Is it for thee the lark ascends and sings?
Joy tunes his voice, joy elevates his wings.
Is it for thee the linnet pours his throat?
Loves of his own and raptures swell the note.
The bounding steed you pompously bestride
Shares with his lord the pleasure and the pride.
Is thine alone the seed that strews the plain?
The birds of Heav'n shall vindicate their grain.
Thine the full harvest of the golden year?
Part pays, and justly, the deserving steer.
The hog that ploughs not, nor obeys thy call,
Lives on the labours of this lord of all. (Epistle III, ll.27-42)

            I see and admire the skill with which Pope extends a botanical simile to make a moral point:

As fruits ungrateful to the planter's care,
On savage stocks inserted, learn to bear,
The surest Virtues thus from Passions shoot,
Wild Nature's vigour working at the root.
What crops of wit and honesty appear
From spleen, from obstinacy, hate, or fear!
See anger, zeal, and fortitude supply;
Ev'n av'rice prudence, sloth philosophy;
Lust, thro' some certain strainers well refin'd,
Is gentle love, and charms all womankind;
Envy, to which th'ignoble mind's a slave,
Is emulation in the learn'd or brave;
Nor virtue male or female can we name,
But what will grow on pride or grow on shame. (Epstle II,  ll.181-194)

            I also find passages that are acute observation, such as the following reflection on fame and its worth in the final epistle:
What's fame? a fancied life in others' breath;
A thing beyond us, ev'n before our death.
Just what you hear you have; and what's unknown
The same, my lord, if Tully's or your own.
All that we feel of it begins and ends
In the small circle of our foes or friends;
To all beside as much an empty shade,
An Eugene living as a C├Žsar dead;
Alike or when or where, they shone or shine,
Or on the Rubicon or on the Rhine.
A Wit's a feather, and a Chief a rod;
An Honest Man's the noblest work of God. (Epistle IV, ll.237-248)

            Yet too often as I read, I found the comfortable, end-stopped, balanced and poised style strangled any particular sense of awe or wonder that might have been implicit in a poem on such a cosmic theme. The last line of the above passage – hitting us with its neat moral assertion like a teacher’s rod, and precluding further moral reflection  – is an example of what I mean. And consider the following four lines:

In lazy apathy let Stoics boast
Their virtue fix'd; 'tis fix'd as in a frost;
Contracted all, retiring to the breast;
But strength of mind is Exercise, not Rest (Epistle II, ll.101-104)

            The comparison with frost is excellent in conveying the unproductive, cold and unfeeling nature of Stoicism; but then Pope can’t resist spelling out his moral in that fourth line, in case we missed his point. Similarly, the overt moralising that follows the image of “life’s vast ocean” in the following couplet:

On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but Passion is the gale (Epistle II, ll.107-108)

            In the end, then, when I have noted the felicities of Pope, the nature of his philosophy, his poise and the skill of his  balanced statements, I find the Essay on Man killed stone-dead by its didacticism. There is little resonance, because we are told overtly what to think, with little wriggle-room for the imagination. Only when Pope’s figurative language runs ahead of his didacticism, as in some of the passages quoted above, does the poetry take flight.

            Then, so far unaddressed by me, there is the maddening jog-trot of the heroic (iambic pentameter) rhyming couplet. I am aware that different literary cultures react differently to rhyme. The great French tragedies (Corneille, Racine) are written in rhyming couplets, which are totally alien to the English-language sense of tragic solemnity but which seem to work handsomely for the French. Doubtless rhyming couplets struck Pope and his contemporaries differently from the way they strike us.

            I have long been aware of the later sharp criticisms of this Augustan style. There was Keats in Sleep and Poetry (itself written in a different sort of rhyming couplet) telling us of poets like Pope that “with a puling infant’s force/ They sway’d about upon a rocking horse/ and thought it Pegasus”. As famously there was Matthew Arnold in his  A Study of Poetry in 1880 saying that  Though they may write in verse, though they may in a certain sense be masters of the art of versification, Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.” This is a way of telling us that Pope’s poetry isn’t poetry at all. I don’t go along with this entirely – it is the reaction of  Romantics and Victorians against a form of poetry different from their own.

            But after reading the Essay on Man in one reflective three-hour afternoon sitting, I found the jog-trot of rhyming couplets had invaded my brain and for hours afterwards I was infected with nonsense couplets, sometimes with meaningless real rhymes attached to them.


            Yes, Pope does move his caesura around and he’s not as mechanical as all that. He is a great wit and sometimes a master of pithy wisdom. But the very form comes to seem complacent, end-stopping reality, drawing a firm line around it and insisting that these precepts are the only possible way of interpreting truth.

            One is ultimately hammered and stunned by the Essay on Man rather than enlightened. At his worst Alexander Pope becomes the Martin Tupper of intellectuals.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and great essay by talented Alexander Pope. i think it's one of the best essays of all time