Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alexander Pope--Essay on Man (1733-4)

Time has softened much of the edge of Pope's misanthropy. We are no more happy among our fellow men than Pope was, but his talent, the beauty of his literary age with its strong, precise sentiments, and the targets of his contempt belong to a remote and particular enough milieu that I usually take a good deal of pleasure in his poetry. The world, as doubtless Pope himself knew, is not even in its delusions so neatly defined and comprehended as it is presented in this poetry. This however is its primary appeal, and the appeal of much classical art of high technical accomplishment, however short of the highest rank among human productions it falls on intellectual grounds. When I read it it takes me back to various of my own previous and now rather fondly remembered mental states, when things like existence, art, history and the like seemed real and comprehensible, which is not a confidence or attitude I have had towards anything in probably 7 or 8 years.

Like most of Pope's work this is good in parts. I found a lot of the metaphysical conceits difficult to decode and follow to their logical conclusion. This is may be because I am too distracted at this point to do so, though it may also be because Pope is not as great of a metaphysician as he is a poet. This is the poem in which he set out to "vindicate the ways of God to man", by the way, for the benefit of anyone who had forgotten. My notes are unfortunately once again very sloppily written, and don't look as if they will be much help to me. There are a lot of great rhymes though that I want to commisserate over with my worldwide network of unknown but sympathetic spirits. Before diving right into the humorous lines, I feel I ought to establish some philosophical context against which to set them. Here then to start are some highly pleasing images of early rationalistic and mathematical-inspired Deism (ll 57-60):

"So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
Tis but a part we see, and not a whole."

From this relative seriousness we go right into an examination of man's confusion regarding the potential purposes of various beasts and how that where his own purpose is concerned must be so many times greater (63-66):

"When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt's god:
Then shall man's pride and dulness comprehend
His actions', passions', being's use and end..."

I do find these verses and images genuinely clean and pleasing.

ll. 81-2, on the wisdom of God's grand plan:

"The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?"

l. 95 is one of the dusty immortals in English poetry's Hall of Fame, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" (its rhyme is "Man never Is, but always To be blest"), which I must confess I had thought was from Shakespeare and did not recognize as Pope's.

ll. 193-4. This is veering on absurdist territory:

"Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly."

This is in section VI of Epistle I which attempts to explain why it would not befit man to have a higher sensitivity to nature. I would have assumed that an improvement in perception would result in a proportionate adjustment of all of the other faculties in league with it, though I suppose experience suggests that increases in intellectual capacity in man actually result in decreases in that of physical attunedness.

ll. 225-8. Epigram for me:

"Remembrance and reflection, how allied;
What thin partitions sense from thought divide;
And middle natures, how they long to join,
Yet never pass the insuperable line!"

ll. 291-2. Not a modern sentiment, though probably essential for a sentient person's achieving any kind of religious acceptance:

"All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good."

Epistle II. My unintelligible note: Time (of history) generally bullish on (ceperites?)/feats(?) of man.

II. 31-34. Pope loves to make Newton references--Remember 'All Nature's secrets lay hidden in night/God said 'let Newton be!' and all was light'?--This one is even more outrageous.

"Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all Nature's law,
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And show'd a Newton as we show an ape."

ll. 61-64. On self-love (61) and reason (62):

"Man, but for that, no action could attend,
And, but for this, were active to no end;
Fix'd like a plant on his peculiar spot,
To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot..."

Much like Crabbe's "The Village", Epistle II is not as strong as Epistle I, and indeed Epistle I is the only part of the poem reprinted in most anthologies. The ideas are not as clear and generally weaker throughout the rest of the poem.

221-224: "But where the extreme of vice, was ne'er agreed:
Ask where's the north? at York, 'tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland at the Orcades; and there,
at Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where."

261-262. I don't know that everyone finds his bliss:

"Whate'er the passion, knowledge, fame, or pelf,
Not one will change his neighbor with himself."

Epistle III now, ll. 27-30. More comedy:

"Has 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 spread the flowery lawn..."

43-44. More absurdity:

"Know, Nature's children shall divide her care;
The fur that warms a monarch warm'd a bear."

65-70. The animal rights advocates would take issue with Pope's argument that even though many animals end up as men's dinner, they are in fact treated little less beneficently than men by God:

"Nay, feasts the animal he dooms his feast,
And, till he ends the being, makes it bless'd;
Which sees no more the stroke, or feels the pain.
Than favour'd man by touch ethereal slain.
The creature had his feast of life before;
Thou too must perish when thy feast is o'er!"

He is straining to make this case, methinks, even before you factor in the necessity of shaping it into heroic couplets.

Maybe I'll do one more short post on this. I only have a few more quotations, but I want to try some kind of essay vaguely related to the various subjects suggested by this particular book.

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