Alexander Pope

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Alexander Pope, who lived from 1688-1744, was an English poet who modeled himself after great poets of the classical past. Verse translations, moral and critical essays, satires, and the development of the heroic couplet, made him the leading poet of his age.

Pope, born in London, was the son of a cloth merchant. His parents were Roman Catholics, which automatically barred him from England's Protestant universities. Until he was 12 years old, he was educated mainly by priests; afterward, he primarily taught himself. A devastating illness, most likely tuberculosis of the spine, struck him in childhood, leaving him deformed. He never grew taller than 4 ft 6 in and was subject to suffering horrible headaches. Possibly as a result of this condition, he was hypersensitive and exceptionally irritable the rest of his life. He was a very quarrelsome man and attacked his literary contemporaries. To few, he was warm and affectionate; he had a long and close friendship with Irish writer Jonathan Swift.

The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets and published between 1732 and 1734. It is an attempt to rationalize the ways of God to Man, and a warning that man himself is not the center of all things. The two main concerns of Pope were, (1) “What is, in fact, man’s nature” and (2) “can that nature be justified by observation?“ (White p.43)

The "Essay" consists of four epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and were thought to have derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke's writings. The question was often “raised regarding the relation between the argument of the “Essay on Man” and that of certain prose manuscripts of Pope’s ‘guide’ Bolingbroke.” (MacDonald p.132) Many agreed that the poet and his friend in some way combined their intellect to produce the essay. “Pope felt and thought by shocks and electric flashes. He could only obtain a continuous effect when working clearly upon lines already provided for him.“ (Stephen p.163)

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Bolingbroke, once said of Pope that he was "a very great wit, but a very indifferent philosopher"; and in the "Essay on Man", he was attempting to explain a system of philosophy which he but faultily understood. 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.

Pope attempts to demonstrate that no matter how flawed, complex, and full of evil the world may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, and is considered a perfect work of God. An “Essay on Man” created much controversy in Pope's day, praised by some and shunned by others. Some might argue that "An Essay on Man" presents the viewpoint of a deist. Others claim that the poem fails to show Christian concepts of good and evil, mainly because the poet finishes his first epistle with the obvious unchristian claim that "whatever IS, is Right" (I. 294). In his attempt to justify God in the face of suffering, he does not rule out the existence of evil. Pope does not only acknowledge the existence of evil, he describes it in vivid detail. He argues that although nothing is evil in itself, vice and virtue still exist. For instance, neither self-love nor reason are evil, but each has its place in the order.

“Much of what Pope says about man is no different from the highly negative observations of the most cynical observers of the human condition” White p. 42). The most ideal world may include friction and pain, and man may be weak. Man will function best in the setting for which he is intended, and is by no means a special creature. The world was not constructed for his benefit. “He is merely a part of the whole and occupies a place and plays a role just as other creatures do”(White p.42).

Pope’s most extreme claim is that man is predominantly a creature of passion, not reason. He defends this assertion with an explanation that passion, or self-love must be the larger motivating element in a creature such as man. He displays this in saying “Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul; reason’s comparing balance rules the world. Man, but not for that, no action could attend, and, but for this, were active to no end” (II, 59-62).

Pope’s assertion of reason derive from his intention to show that man is a functioning part of a massive system, and should remain part of his “state and place”(White p.76).

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