Epistle 4.4 – Essay on Man

by ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)

That external goods are not the proper rewards, but often inconsistent with, or destructive of Virtue.

“But sometimes virtue starves, while vice is fed.”
What then? Is the reward of virtue bread?
That, vice may merit, ’tis the price of toil;
The knave deserves it, when he tills the soil,
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.
But grant him riches, your demand is o’er?
“No–shall the good want health, the good want power?”
Add health, and power, and every earthly thing,
“Why bounded power? why private? why no king?”
Nay, why external for internal given?
Why is not man a god, and earth a heaven?
Who ask and reason thus, will scarce conceive
God gives enough, while He has more to give:
Immense the power, immense were the demand;
Say, at what part of nature will they stand?

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?
Then give humility a coach and six,
Justice a conqueror’s sword, or truth a gown,
Or public spirit its great cure, a crown.
Weak, foolish man! will heaven reward us there
With the same trash mad mortals wish for here?
The boy and man an individual makes,
Yet sighest thou now for apples and for cakes?
Go, like the Indian, in another life
Expect thy dog, thy bottle, and thy wife:
As well as dream such trifles are assigned,
As toys and empires, for a God-like mind.
Rewards, that either would to virtue bring
No joy, or be destructive of the thing:
How oft by these at sixty are undone
The virtues of a saint at twenty-one!
To whom can riches give repute or trust,
Content, or pleasure, but the good and just?
Judges and senates have been bought for gold,
Esteem and love were never to be sold.
Oh, fool! to think God hates the worthy mind,
The lover and the love of human kind,
Whose life is healthful, and whose conscience clear,
Because he wants a thousand pounds a year.

Honour and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part, there all the honour lies.
Fortune in men has some small difference made,
One flaunts in rags, one flutters in brocade;
The cobbler aproned, and the parson gowned,
The friar hooded, and the monarch crowned,
“What differ more (you cry) than crown and cowl?”
I’ll tell you, friend! a wise man and a fool.
You’ll find, if once the monarch acts the monk,
Or, cobbler-like, the parson will be drunk,
Worth makes the man, and want of it, the fellow;
The rest is all but leather or prunella.

Stuck o’er with titles and hung round with strings,
That thou mayest be by kings, or whores of kings.
Boast the pure blood of an illustrious race,
In quiet flow from Lucrece to Lucrece;
But by your fathers’ worth if yours you rate,
Count me those only who were good and great.
Go! if your ancient, but ignoble blood
Has crept through scoundrels ever since the flood,
Go! and pretend your family is young;
Nor own, your fathers have been fools so long.
What can ennoble sots, or slaves, or cowards?
Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.

Essay on Man: Index to first lines