Epistle 2.6 – Essay on Man

by ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)

The unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while, on the one hand, he demands the perfections of the angels, and, on the other, the bodily qualifications of the brutes; though to possess any of the sensitive faculties in a higher degree would render him miserable.

Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree:
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
And, e’en the best, by fits. what they despise.
‘Tis but by parts we follow good or ill;
For, vice or virtue, self directs it still;
Each individual seeks a several goal;
But Heaven’s great view is one, and that the whole.
That counterworks each folly and caprice;
That disappoints the effect of every vice;
That, happy frailties to all ranks applied;
Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,
Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,
To kings presumption, and to crowds belief:
That virtue’s ends from vanity can raise,
Which seeks no interest, no reward but praise;
And builds on wants, and on defects of mind,
The joy, the peace, the glory of mankind.

Heaven forming each on other to depend,
A master, or a servant, or a friend,
Bids each on other for assistance call,
Till one man’s weakness grows the strength of all.
Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally
The common interest, or endear the tie.
To these we owe true friendship, love sincere,
Each home-felt joy that life inherits here;
Yet from the same we learn, in its decline,
Those joys, those love, those interests to resign;
Taught half by Reason, half by mere decay,
To welcome Death, and calmly pass away.

Whate’er the passion, knowledge, fame, or pelf,
Not one will change his neighbour with himself.
The learn’d is happy nature to explore,
The fool is happy that he knows no more;
The rich is happy in the plenty given,
The poor contents him with the care of Heaven.
See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,
The sot a hero, lunatic a king,
The starving chemist in his golden views
Supremely bless’d, the poet in his Muse.

See some strange comfort every state attend,
And Pride bestow’d on all, a common friend:
See some fit passion every age supply;
Hope travels through, nor quits us when we die.

Behold the child, by Nature’s kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw:
Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,
A little louder, but as empty quite:
Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper state,
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.

Meanwhile opinion gilds with varying rays
Those painted clouds that beautify our days;
Each want of happiness by hope supplied,
And each vacuity of sense by pride:
These build as fast as knowledge can destroy;
In folly’s cup still laughs the bubble, joy;
One prospect lost, another still we gain,
And not a vanity is given in vain:
E’en mean self-love becomes, by force divine,
The scale to measure other’s wants by thine.
See! and confess one comfort still must rise;
‘Tis this, Though Man’s a fool, yet God is wise.

Essay on Man: Index to first lines

Reading by Martin Geeson for Librivox.org. Download entire audiobook here.

Alexander Pope

In The Essay on Man, “Pope constructs a defence of God for the scientific age”….
The hypothesis (known from classical times, and especially through a poem that Pope deliberately draws on,
(the De Rerum Natura of Lucretis) that random collisions of atoms produced everything in the universe,
including human nature, was opposed by this poetic analysis of an authored, ordered system.” Alexander Pope by Paul Baines
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