Epistle 2.3 – Essay on Man
by ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)
The Passions, and their use. The predominant passion, and its force. Its necessity, in directing men to different purposes. Its providential use, in fixing our principle, and ascertaining our virtue.
Modes of self-love the passions we may call;
‘Tis real good, or seeming, moves them all:
But since not every good we can divide,
And reason bids us for our own provide,
Passions, though selfish, if their means be fair,
List under reason, and deserve her care;
Those, that imparted, court a nobler aim,
Exalt their kind, and take some virtue’s name.
In lazy apathy let stoics boast
Their virtue fix’d; ’tis fix’d as in a frost;
Contracted all, retiring to the breast;
But strength of mind is exercise, not rest:
The rising tempest puts in act the soul,
Parts it may ravage, but preserves the whole.
On life’s vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but Passion is the gale;
Nor God alone in the still calm we find,
He mounts the storm, and walks upon the wind.
Passions, like elements, though born to fight,
Yet, mix’d and soften’d, in his work unite:
These ’tis enough to temper and employ;
But what composes man can man destroy?
Suffice that Reason keep to Nature’s road;
Subject, compound them, follow her and God.
Love, hope, and joy, fair pleasure’s smiling train,
Hate, fear, and grief, the family of pain,
These mix’d with art, and to due bounds confined,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind;
The lights and shades, whose well-accorded strife
Gives all the strength and colour of our life.
Pleasures are ever in our hands or eyes,
And when in act they cease, in prospect rise:
Present to grasp, and future still to find,
The whole employ of body and of mind.
All spread their charms, but charm not alike;
On different senses different objects strike;
Hence different passions more or less inflame,
As strong or weak the organs of the frame;
And hence one MASTER PASSION in the breast,
Like Aaron’s serpent, swallows up the rest.
As man, perhaps, the moment of his breath,
Receives the lurking principle of death,
The young disease, that must subdue at length,
Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength:
So, cast and mingled with his very frame,
The mind’s disease, its RULING PASSION, came;
Each vital humour, which should feed the whole,
Soon flows to this in body and in soul;
Whatever warms the heart or fills the head,
As the mind opens and its functions spread,
Imagination plies her dangerous art,
And pours it all upon the peccant part.
Nature its mother, habit is its nurse;
Wit, spirit, faculties, but make it worse;
Reason itself but gives it edge and power,
As Heaven’s bless’d beam turns vinegar more sour.
We, wretched subjects, though to lawful sway,
In this weak queen some favourite still obey:
Ah! if she lend not arms as well as rules,
What can she more than tell us we are fools?
Teach us to mourn our nature, not to mend,
A sharp accuser, but a helpless friend!
Or from a judge turn pleader, to persuade
The choice we make, or justify it made;
Proud of an easy conquest all along,
She but removes weak passions for the strong:
So when small humours gather to a gout,
The doctor fancies he has driven them out.
Yes, nature’s road must ever be preferr’d;
Reason is here no guide, but still a guard;
‘Tis hers to rectify, not overthrow,
And treat this passion more as friend than foe:
A mightier Power the strong direction sends,
And several men impels to several ends:
Like varying winds, by other passions toss’d,
This drives them constant to a certain coast.
Let power or knowledge, gold or glory, please,
Or (oft more strong than all) the love of ease;
Through life ’tis follow’d, ev’n at life’s expense;
The merchant’s toil, the sage’s indolence,
The monk’s humility, the hero’s pride;–
All, all alike, find Reason on their side.
The Eternal Art educing good from ill,
Grafts on this passion our best principle:
‘Tis thus the mercury of man is fix’d,
Strong grows the virtue with his nature mix’d;
The dross cements what else were too refin’d,
And in one interest body acts with mind.
As fruits, ungrateful to the planter’s care,
On savage stocks inserted, learn to bear,
The surest virtues thus from passions shoot,
Wild nature’s vigour working at the root.
What crops of wit and honesty appear
From spleen, from obstinacy, hate, or fear!
See anger, zeal, and fortitude supply;
Ev’n avarice, prudence; sloth, philosophy;
Lust, through some certain strainers well refined,
Is gentle love, and charms all womankind;
Envy, to which the ignoble mind’s a slave,
Is emulation in the learn’d or brave;
Nor virtue, male or female, can we name,
But what will grow on pride, or grow on shame.
Thus Nature gives us (let it check our pride)
The virtue nearest to our vice allied:
Reason the bias turns to good from ill,
And Nero reigns a Titus if he will.
The fiery soul abhorr’d in Catiline,
In Decius charms, in Curtius is divine:
The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.
Essay on Man: Index to first lines
Reading by Martin Geeson for Librivox.org. Download entire audiobook here.
Alexander Pope had several dogs named Bounce. The last one, entrusted to the care of the Fifth Earl of Orrery, died after being bitten by a rabid dog. Pope did not know about the cause of Bounce’s demise. He borrowed from Chaucer for this couplet, believed to be the last he ever wrote, and sent it in a letter to Orrery: “Ah Bounce! ah gentle beast, why wouldst thou die,/ When thou hadst meat enough, and Orrery?”