Sunday, March 16, 2008

Essay on Man

My edition of Pope begins with "An Essay on Criticism," then things got kind of slow for me for a while; even "The Rape of the Lock" (the title poem of the edition) did not really thrill me. "Windsor Forest" is a charming poem that reminded me of Ausonius's fourth-century poem to the Mosel (the earliest piece of literature known to have been written in what is now Germany), but of course Ausonius himself was working in a long-existing genre, celebrating a particular place in verse. Pope's "Eloïsa to Abelard" did not add much to my understanding of those celebrated lovers, but I was surprised to discover the line "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind." I've never seen the movie, but it does make me wonder whether it contains a Pope reference or not!

"An Essay on Man," though is a fabulous work. I've always had the lines about "Know then thyself" in my head, without ever having read the poem itself, and I was pleased to discover lots of quotable passages:

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.

Behold the child, by nature's kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw:
Some livelier play-thing gives his youth delight,
A little louder, but as empty quite:
Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper stage,
And beads and prayer books are the toys of age:
Pleased with this bauble still, as that before;
Till tired he sleeps, and Life's poor play is o'er.

One passage reminded me of Nietzsche's essay on the use and abuse of history:

To each unthinking being, Heaven is a friend,
Gives not the useless knowledge of its end

Pope rejects (as I do) Hobbes's idea of a violent "state of nature" ("her" here refers to "Nature"):

Self-love and Social at her birth began.

I have different reasons for assuming that early humans were social beings, and not isolated enemies à la Hobbes: the gregariousness of the other great apes. Yes, chimps can be pretty violent, but mostly outside their own social group.

It's amusing to come across an idea promulgated by contemporary supporters of free trade:

What War could ravish, Commerce could bestow,
And he returned a friend, who came a foe

How does the line go? Something about how no two countries that both have McDonalds franchises have ever fought a war against each other. :-)

My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Howard (I think it's her birthday today; she's ... 93, I think. I better call her!), so I was amused by this couplet:

What can ennoble sots, or slaves, or cowards?
Alas! Not all the blood of all the Howards!

And for those of us who have ever felt the itch to be famous (which is all of us, isn't it?), Pope has an antidote:

What's Fame? a fancied life in others' breath,
A thing beyond us, even before our death

"A fancied life in others' breath" so beautifully captures one of the main features of fame!

Now, let's see if I really know the "Know then thyself" couplet:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

I did not get the capitalization of "Man" right, but otherwise, I have always been quoting it correctly. The memorability of the heroic couplet—one reason, apparently, that Pope chose to write even his "essays" in his favorite (only?) poetic form.


Anonymous said...


one reason, apparently, that Pope chose to wrote ...

-- Love, Mom

PS: So what was it with the blood of the Howards?? Does it refer to bloodLINES or bloodLETTING (or both, perchance)?

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the correction.

It does refer to the bloodLINES of the Howards (at least according to the footnotes in my edition).

DaveG said...


I think the Howards line refers to he aristocratic (catholic) family who were persecuted . eg under Elizabeth I.

Some info here

They were associated with Mapledurham house ( )near where I used to live in Caversham. Pope visited the house frequently, he possible even wrote the rape of the lock there if my memory serves me well.

The church has an amazing double aisle with the Blount tomb straddling it. One side C of E and the other Catholic.

so I thjnk it mght be bloodlines - but tha did invlove also bloodletting. :-(