Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pope/Essay on Man--Part 2

This was a picture of a Bourgeois Surrender-type pretty girl (mousy black hair, black long sleeve blouse, scowling expression) drinking from a bottle of Miller High Life at a dingy bar. But I guess I am not going to be allowed to steal it. Pope takes great pains to press his argument for a supernatural power's having organized the animal kingdom in a manner designed to produce the highest good. There is another long excursion into this line of thought in Epistle III:

"Who bade the stork, Columbus-like, explore
Heavens not his own, and worlds unknown before?
Who calls the council, states the certain day,
Who forms the phalanx, and who points the way?" (ll. 105-8)

Here at least we have the questions prettily put, if angling for answers in a direction that later rigor would find unsatisfactory.

ll. 263-6. On the age of superstition which preceded the Christian era:

"Then sacred seem'd the ethereal vault no more;
Altars grew marble then, and reek'd with gore:
Then first the flamen tasted living food;
Next his grim idol smear'd with human blood..."

A flamen usually refers to a priest of an ancient, presumably false deity, especially Roman. I had to look the word up myself, which is why I note it here.

Epistle IV, ll 127-8. On the immutability of the natural laws recently enunciated by Pope's man Newton:

"When the loose mountain trembles from on high,
Shall gravitation cease if you go by?"

ll. 137-40, on the difference of human opinion:

"One thinks on Calvin Heaven's own spirit fell;
Another deems him instrument of hell;
If Calvin feel Heaven's blessing, or its rod,
This cries, There is, and that, There is no God."

ll. 149-50. It made me laugh:

"'But sometimes virtue starves, while vice is fed.'
What then? is the reward of virtue bread?"

ll. 153-6. An often-forgotten point following up the last one. Note the alpha/beta male comparison used in framing the argument:

"The knave deserves it, when he tempts the main,
Where folly fights for kings, or dives for gain.
The good man may be weak, be indolent;
Nor is his claim to plenty, but content."

ll. 167-9, 173-4. If only I could still believe it:

"What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy,
The soul's calm sunshine, and the heartfelt joy,
Is virtue's prize: a better would you fix?...
Weak foolish man! will Heaven reward us there
With the same trash mad mortals wish for here?"

ll. 219-22:

"Heroes are much the same, the point's agreed,
From Macedonia's madman to the Swede (ed.--Charles XII);
The whole strange purpose of their lives to find
Or make an enemy of all mankind!"

ll 237-8:

"What's fame? A fancied life in others' breath,
A thing beyond us, even before our death."

As I stated in the other posting, I look forward, in a mechanical sort of way, to Pope and other authors of his time even though I don't really study or think about them very earnestly anymore. The early 18th century has become almost a comfort genre for me, like teenager movies of the 1930s and 40s. I still vaguely believe that Pope is good by some standard of goodness--as well as of the significance of that goodness--that was impressed on me years ago and which I cannot yet wholly disavow, though it seems to mean ever less and less in that large part of life that exists outside of my memory. Nonetheless I continue to carry out, mainly now from habit, a form of a persona I once aspired to much and pursued fairly diligently, that of a person knowledgeable about books and European history and culture especially; all of the other models desirable to me seeming at this point even more inaccessible of attainment.

Pope is not one of your universal writers I suppose, though to me he represents an atmosphere through which the English language had the good fortune at one age to pass, especially as my sense of the course of history indicates to me that there was nothing necessitating its taking this particular passage. He has an excellent style, and one that is really not like anyone else's before or since his time, which is a rather remarkable achievement in any language, to say nothing of one with the voluminous literary history that English has. Nonetheless his stature has seemed to be continually in decline, or at least perceived to be in decline, ever since the outbreak of the Romantic era. The internet age, with its love of hard data, and seeming lack of feeling or appreciation for poetic expression, seems especially unlikely to revive the idea of him as any kind of giant. I am beginning to feel more comfortable lately regarding my suspicion (hope?) of the internet's not having a more salutary or improving effect on the intellect compared to reading good books, but the general drift of events does not seem to be towards my position. Pope still endures, albeit in a minor way, such that one isn't sure how many people feel that his poetry has contributed to a meaningful enhancement of their experience of life. I suspect not many, even in comparison to 50 years ago, and this is the main value that literature ancient or modern has to offer. So while I still look forward to Pope, and still can imagine my pleasure in contemplating and sensorially experiencing life enhanced by reading him, I also cannot help but to often suspect that these perceptions of the worlds of life and thought that I have long nourished in this naive and quaintly old-fashioned way are in fact devoid of all living substance and utility, as I have understood them anyway.

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