Epistle 1.5 – Essay on Man
by ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)
The pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more perfection, the cause of Man’s error and misery. The impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and judging of the fitness or unfitness, perfection or imperfection, justice or injustice, of his dispensations.
Ask for what end the heavenly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use,— Pride answers, “‘Tis for mine:
For me kind Nature wakes her genial power,
Suckles each herb, and spreads out every flower;
Annual for me the grape, the rose renew,
The juice nectareous and the balmy dew;
For me the mine a thousand treasures brings;
For me health gushes from a thousand springs;
Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;
My footstool earth, my canopy the skies.”
But errs not Nature from this gracious end,
From burning suns when livid deaths descend,
When earthquakes swallow, or when tempests sweep
Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep?
“`No,” ’tis replied, “the first Almighty Cause
Acts not by partial but by general laws;
The exceptions few; some change since all began;
And what created perfect?”—Why then Man?
If the great end be human happiness,
Then Nature deviates; and can man do less?
As much that end a constant course requires
Of showers and sunshine, as of Man’s desires;
As much eternal springs and cloudless skies,
As men for ever temp’rate, calm and wise.
If plagues or earthquakes break not Heaven’s design,
Why then a Borgia or a Cataline?
Who knows but He, whose hand the lightning forms,
Who heaves old Ocean, and who wings the storms;
Pours fierce ambition in a Csar’s mind,
Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind?
From pride, from pride, our very reasoning springs;
Account for moral as for natural things:
Why charge we Heaven in those, in these acquit?
In both, to reason right is to submit.
Better for us, perhaps, it might appear,
Were there all harmony, all virtue here;
That never air or ocean felt the wind,
That never passion discomposed the mind:
But All subsists by elemental strife;
And passions are the elements of life.
The general Order, since the whole began,
Is kept in Nature, and is kept in Man.
Essay on Man: Index to first lines
Reading by Martin Geeson for Librivox.org. Download entire audiobook here.
“There are two crucial facts in Pope’s development: his early sense of privilege and potential achievement, and his physical disabilities. He was the much-loved child of elderly parents, born when his mother was forty-six and his father forty-two (there was a considerably older half-sister) … In later childhood … Pope contracted tuberculosis of the spine, which halted his growth at four feet six inches and condemned him to hunchbacked deformity and illness….”
“Nature, whose goodness Pope always celebrated, was somehow careless of his person, and made it necessary to regard him almost as a disembodied mind or soul.”
From The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope by Leopold Damrosch (1987)