Pope's Poems and Prose

By alexander pope, pope's poems and prose summary and analysis of an essay on man: epistle i.

The subtitle of the first epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe,” and this section deals with man’s place in the cosmos. Pope argues that to justify God’s ways to man must necessarily be to justify His ways in relation to all other things. God rules over the whole universe and has no special favorites, not man nor any other creature. By nature, the universe is an order of “strong connexions, nice dependencies, / Gradations just” (30-1). This order is, more specifically, a hierarchy of the “Vast chain of being” in which all of God’s creations have a place (237). Man’s place in the chain is below the angels but above birds and beasts. Any deviation from this order would result in cosmic destruction. Because the universe is so highly ordered, chance, as man understands it, does not exist. Chance is rather “direction, which thou canst not see” (290). Those things that man sees as disparate or unrelated are all “but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body nature is, and God the soul” (267-8). Thus every element of the universe has complete perfection according to God’s purpose. Pope concludes the first epistle with the statement “Whatever is, is right,” meaning that all is for the best and that everything happens according to God’s plan, even though man may not be able to comprehend it (294).

Here is a section-by-section explanation of the first epistle:

Introduction (1-16): The introduction begins with an address to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, a friend of the poet from whose fragmentary philosophical writings Pope likely drew inspiration for An Essay on Man . Pope urges his friend to “leave all meaner things” and rather embark with Pope on his quest to “vindicate the ways of God to man (1, 16).

Section I (17-34): Section I argues that man can only understand the universe with regard to human systems and constructions because he is ignorant of the greater relationships between God’s creations.

Section II (35-76): Section II states that man is imperfect but perfectly suited to his place within the hierarchy of creation according to the general order of things.

Section III (77-112): Section III demonstrates that man's happiness depends on both his ignorance of future events and on his hope for the future.

Section IV (113-30): Section IV claims that man’s sin of pride—the attempt to gain more knowledge and pretend to greater perfection—is the root of man’s error and misery. By putting himself in the place of God, judging perfection and justice, man acts impiously.

Section V (131-72): Section V depicts the absurdity of man’s belief that he is the sole cause of the creation as well as his ridiculous expectation of perfection in the moral world that does not exist in the natural world.

Section VI (173-206): Section VI decries the unreasonableness of man’s complaints against Providence; God is good, giving and taking equally. If man had the omniscience of God, he would be miserable: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).

Section VII (207-32): Section VII shows that throughout the visible world, a universal order and gradation can be observed. This is particularly apparent in the hierarchy of earthly creatures and their subordination to man. Pope refers specifically to the gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, and reason. Reason is superior to all.

Section VIII (233-58): Section VIII indicates that if God’s rules of order and subordination are broken, the whole of creation must be destroyed.

Section IX (259-80): Section IX illustrates the madness of the desire to subvert God’s order.

Section X (281-94): Section X calls on man to submit to God’s power. Absolute submission to God will ensure that man remains “Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow’r” (287). After all, “Whatever is, is right” (294).

Pope’s first epistle seems to endorse a sort of fatalism, in which all things are fated. Everything happens for the best, and man should not presume to question God’s greater design, which he necessarily cannot understand because he is a part of it. He further does not possess the intellectual capability to comprehend God’s order outside of his own experience. These arguments certainly support a fatalistic world view. According to Pope’s thesis, everything that exists plays a role in the divine plan. God thus has a specific intention for every element of His creation, which suggests that all things are fated. Pope, however, was always greatly distressed by charges of fatalism. As a proponent of the doctrine of free will, Pope’s personal opinions seem at odds with his philosophical conclusions in the first epistle. Reconciling Pope’s own views with his fatalistic description of the universe represents an impossible task.

The first epistle of An Essay on Man is its most ambitious. Pope states that his task is to describe man’s place in the “universal system” and to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (16). In the poem’s prefatory address, Pope more specifically describes his intention to consider “man in the abstract, his Nature and his State, since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection of imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.” Pope’s stated purpose of the poem further problematizes any critical reading of the first epistle. According to Pope’s own conclusions, man’s limited intellect can comprehend only a small portion of God’s order and likewise can have knowledge of only half-truths. It therefore seems the height of hubris to presume to justify God’s ways to man. His own philosophical conclusions make this impossible. As a mere component part of God’s design and a member of the hierarchical middle state, Pope exists within God’s design and therefore cannot perceive the greater logic of God’s order. To do so would bring only misery: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).

Though Pope’s philosophical ambitions result in a rather incoherent epistle, the poem demonstrates a masterful use of the heroic couplet. Some of the most quoted lines from Pope’s works actually appear in this poem. For example, the quotation “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never is, but always to be blest” appears in the problematic first epistle (95-6). Pope’s skill with verse thus far outweighs his philosophical aspirations, and it is fortunate that he chose to write in verse rather than prose. Indeed, eighteenth-century critics saw An Essay on Man as a primarily poetic work despite its philosophical themes.

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Pope’s Poems and Prose Questions and Answers

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Discuss Alexander Pope "An ode to solitude" as satire

The poem is a little dark and depressing, especially the last stanza, but I don't see the satire in it.

Who delivers the moralizing speech on the frailty of beauty? A. Chloe B. Clarissa C. Ariel D. Thalestris

What is the significance of Belinda's petticoat?

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Study Guide for Pope’s Poems and Prose

Pope's Poems and Prose study guide contains a biography of Alexander Pope, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

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Essays for Pope’s Poems and Prose

Pope's Poems and Prose essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Alexander Pope's Poems and Prose.

  • Of the Characteristics of Pope
  • Breaking Clod: Hierarchical Transformation in Pope's An Essay on Man
  • Fortasse, Pope, Idcirco Nulla Tibi Umquam Nupsit (The Rape of the Lock)
  • An Exploration of 'Dulness' In Pope's Dunciad
  • Belinda: Wronged On Behalf of All Women

Wikipedia Entries for Pope’s Poems and Prose

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an essay on man poem summary

an essay on man poem summary

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François Voltaire

  • Literature Notes
  • Alexander Pope's Essay on Man
  • Book Summary
  • Character List
  • Summary and Analysis
  • Chapters II-III
  • Chapters IV-VI
  • Chapters VII-X
  • Chapters XI-XII
  • Chapters XIII-XVI
  • Chapters XVII-XVIII
  • Chapter IXX
  • Chapters XX-XXIII
  • Chapters XXIV-XXVI
  • Chapters XXVII-XXX
  • Francois Voltaire Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • The Philosophy of Leibnitz
  • Poème Sur Le Désastre De Lisoonne
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  • Structure and Style
  • Satire and Irony
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Critical Essays Alexander Pope's Essay on Man

The work that more than any other popularized the optimistic philosophy, not only in England but throughout Europe, was Alexander Pope's  Essay on Man  (1733-34), a rationalistic effort to justify the ways of God to man philosophically. As has been stated in the introduction, Voltaire had become well acquainted with the English poet during his stay of more than two years in England, and the two had corresponded with each other with a fair degree of regularity when Voltaire returned to the Continent.

Voltaire could have been called a fervent admirer of Pope. He hailed the Essay of Criticism as superior to Horace, and he described the Rape of the Lock as better than Lutrin. When the Essay on Man was published, Voltaire sent a copy to the Norman abbot Du Resnol and may possibly have helped the abbot prepare the first French translation, which was so well received. The very title of his Discours en vers sur l'homme (1738) indicates the extent Voltaire was influenced by Pope. It has been pointed out that at times, he does little more than echo the same thoughts expressed by the English poet. Even as late as 1756, the year in which he published his poem on the destruction of Lisbon, he lauded the author of Essay on Man. In the edition of Lettres philosophiques published in that year, he wrote: "The Essay on Man appears to me to be the most beautiful didactic poem, the most useful, the most sublime that has ever been composed in any language." Perhaps this is no more than another illustration of how Voltaire could vacillate in his attitude as he struggled with the problems posed by the optimistic philosophy in its relation to actual experience. For in the Lisbon poem and in Candide , he picked up Pope's recurring phrase "Whatever is, is right" and made mockery of it: "Tout est bien" in a world filled with misery!

Pope denied that he was indebted to Leibnitz for the ideas that inform his poem, and his word may be accepted. Those ideas were first set forth in England by Anthony Ashley Cowper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1731). They pervade all his works but especially the Moralist. Indeed, several lines in the Essay on Man, particularly in the first Epistle, are simply statements from the Moralist done in verse. Although the question is unsettled and probably will remain so, it is generally believed that Pope was indoctrinated by having read the letters that were prepared for him by Bolingbroke and that provided an exegesis of Shaftesbury's philosophy. The main tenet of this system of natural theology was that one God, all-wise and all-merciful, governed the world providentially for the best. Most important for Shaftesbury was the principle of Harmony and Balance, which he based not on reason but on the general ground of good taste. Believing that God's most characteristic attribute was benevolence, Shaftesbury provided an emphatic endorsement of providentialism.

Following are the major ideas in Essay on Man: (1) a God of infinite wisdom exists; (2) He created a world that is the best of all possible ones; (3) the plenum, or all-embracing whole of the universe, is real and hierarchical; (4) authentic good is that of the whole, not of isolated parts; (5) self-love and social love both motivate humans' conduct; (6) virtue is attainable; (7) "One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT." Partial evil, according to Pope, contributes to the universal good. "God sends not ill, if rightly understood." According to this principle, vices, themselves to be deplored, may lead to virtues. For example, motivated by envy, a person may develop courage and wish to emulate the accomplishments of another; and the avaricious person may attain the virtue of prudence. One can easily understand why, from the beginning, many felt that Pope had depended on Leibnitz.

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An Essay on Man

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Summary and Study Guide

Alexander Pope is the author of “An Essay on Man,” published in 1734. Pope was an English poet of the Augustan Age, the literary era in the first half of the 18th century in England (1700-1740s). Neoclassicism, a literary movement in which writers and poets sought inspiration from the works of Virgil, Ovid, and Horace, influenced the poem. Writing in heroic couplets, Pope explores the connection between God, human nature , and society. The poem is philosophical and discusses order, reason, and balance, themes that dominated the era. Pope dedicated the poem to Henry St. John, one of his close friends and a famous Tory politician.

This is Pope’s final long poem. It was intended to be the first part of a book-length poem on his philosophy of the world, but Pope did not live to complete the book. Pope initially published “An Essay on Man” anonymously, as he had a fractious relationship with critics and wanted to see how people would respond to the work if unaware that he had written it. The work was praised highly when it was published, and is still esteemed as one of the most elegant didactic poems ever composed.

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Poet Biography

Alexander Pope was born in 1688 in London, England. His father was a wealthy merchant, but because he was Catholic and the Church of England was extremely anti-Catholic, his family could not live within ten miles of London, and Pope could not receive a formal education. As a result, Pope grew up near Windsor Forest and was self-taught. At the age of 12, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which resulted in lifelong debilitating pain. He grew to be four and a half feet tall and was dependent on others.

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Despite these early challenges, Pope’s poetic talent enabled him to attain a higher social status. He began publishing poetry at the age of 16. He translated Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey , as well as the works of Shakespeare, and sold the translations for a subscription fee. From the profits of these translations, Pope purchased a grand mansion and large plot of land in Twickenham in 1719. Pope is famous for being the first poet able to support himself entirely on his writing. He valued his friendships, which were with some of the greatest minds of his time, including Jonathan Swift, the famous satirist and author of A Modest Proposal .  Pope also had many enemies due to his biting wit and talent for mocking the conventions of his era. For this, he was called “The Wasp of Twickenham.” His Essay on Criticism (1711) expressed his views on criticism and poetry. His mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock (1714), was one of his most famous satirical poems. His satire , The Dunciad (1728) lambasted the culture and literature of his day.

He died in 1744 at the age of 56 from edema and asthma. He never married and had no children. Pope is considered one of the greatest English poets of the 18th century and his style defined the Augustan age of poetry. After Shakespeare, he is the second most quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations .

Pope, Alexander. “ An Essay on Man .” 2007. Project Gutenberg .

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An Essay on Man: Epistle I

by Alexander Pope

To Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things To low ambition, and the pride of kings. Let us (since life can little more supply Than just to look about us and to die) Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man; A mighty maze! but not without a plan; A wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot; Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit. Together let us beat this ample field, Try what the open, what the covert yield; The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar; Eye Nature’s walks, shoot folly as it flies, And catch the manners living as they rise; Laugh where we must, be candid where we can; But vindicate the ways of God to man. I. Say first, of God above, or man below, What can we reason, but from what we know? Of man what see we, but his station here, From which to reason, or to which refer? Through worlds unnumber’d though the God be known, ‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own. He, who through vast immensity can pierce, See worlds on worlds compose one universe, Observe how system into system runs, What other planets circle other suns, What varied being peoples ev’ry star, May tell why Heav’n has made us as we are. But of this frame the bearings, and the ties, The strong connections, nice dependencies, Gradations just, has thy pervading soul Look’d through? or can a part contain the whole? Is the great chain, that draws all to agree, And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee? II. Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find, Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind? First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess, Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less! Ask of thy mother earth , why oaks are made Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade? Or ask of yonder argent fields above, Why Jove’s satellites are less than Jove? Of systems possible, if ’tis confest That Wisdom infinite must form the best, Where all must full or not coherent be, And all that rises, rise in due degree; Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain There must be somewhere, such a rank as man: And all the question (wrangle e’er so long) Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong? Respecting man, whatever wrong we call, May, must be right, as relative to all. In human works, though labour’d on with pain, A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain; In God’s, one single can its end produce; Yet serves to second too some other use. So man, who here seems principal alone , Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown, Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal; ‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole. When the proud steed shall know why man restrains His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains: When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod, Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s God: Then shall man’s pride and dulness comprehend His actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end; Why doing, suff’ring, check’d, impell’d; and why This hour a slave, the next a deity. Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault; Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought: His knowledge measur’d to his state and place, His time a moment, and a point his space. If to be perfect in a certain sphere, What matter, soon or late, or here or there? The blest today is as completely so, As who began a thousand years ago. III. Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of fate, All but the page prescrib’d, their present state: From brutes what men, from men what spirits know: Or who could suffer being here below? The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today, Had he thy reason, would he skip and play ? Pleas’d to the last, he crops the flow’ry food, And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood. Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n, That each may fill the circle mark’d by Heav’n: Who sees with equal eye, as God of all, A hero perish, or a sparrow fall, Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d, And now a bubble burst, and now a world. Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar; Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore! What future bliss, he gives not thee to know, But gives that hope to be thy blessing now. Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come. Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutor’d mind Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind; His soul, proud science never taught to stray Far as the solar walk, or milky way; Yet simple nature to his hope has giv’n, Behind the cloud -topt hill, an humbler heav’n; Some safer world in depth of woods embrac’d, Some happier island in the wat’ry waste, Where slaves once more their native land behold, No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold. To be, contents his natural desire, He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire; But thinks, admitted to that equal sky, His faithful dog shall bear him company. IV. Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense Weigh thy opinion against Providence; Call imperfection what thou fanciest such, Say, here he gives too little, there too much: Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust, Yet cry, if man’s unhappy, God’s unjust; If man alone engross not Heav’n’s high care, Alone made perfect here, immortal there: Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod, Rejudge his justice , be the God of God. In pride, in reas’ning pride, our error lies; All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies. Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes, Men would be angels, angels would be gods. Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell, Aspiring to be angels, men rebel: And who but wishes to invert the laws Of order, sins against th’ Eternal Cause. V. ask for what end the heav’nly bodies shine, Earth for whose use? Pride answers, ” ‘Tis for mine: For me kind Nature wakes her genial pow’r, Suckles each herb, and spreads out ev’ry flow’r; 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 foot -stool 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 gen’ral laws; Th’ 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 show’rs 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 Heav’n’s design , Why then a Borgia, or a Catiline? Who knows but he, whose hand the lightning forms, Who heaves old ocean, and who wings the storms, Pours fierce ambition in a Cæsar’s mind, Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind? From pride, from pride, our very reas’ning springs; Account for moral , as for nat’ral things: Why charge we Heav’n 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 discompos’d the mind. But ALL subsists by elemental strife; And passions are the elements of life. The gen’ral order, since the whole began, Is kept in nature, and is kept in man. VI. What would this man? Now upward will he soar, And little less than angel, would be more; Now looking downwards, just as griev’d appears To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears. Made for his use all creatures if he call, Say what their use, had he the pow’rs of all? Nature to these, without profusion, kind, The proper organs, proper pow’rs assign’d; Each seeming want compensated of course, Here with degrees of swiftness, there of force; All in exact proportion to the state; Nothing to add, and nothing to abate. Each beast, each insect, happy in its own: Is Heav’n unkind to man, and man alone? Shall he alone, whom rational we call, Be pleas’d with nothing, if not bless’d with all? The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find) Is not to act or think beyond mankind; No pow’rs of body or of soul to share, But what his nature and his state can bear. Why has not man a microscopic eye? For this plain reason, man is not a fly. Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n, T’ inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n? Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o’er, To smart and agonize at ev’ry pore? Or quick effluvia darting through the brain, Die of a rose in aromatic pain? If nature thunder’d in his op’ning ears, And stunn’d him with the music of the spheres, How would he wish that Heav’n had left him still The whisp’ring zephyr, and the purling rill? Who finds not Providence all good and wise, Alike in what it gives, and what denies? VII. Far as creation’s ample range extends, The scale of sensual, mental pow’rs ascends: Mark how it mounts, to man’s imperial race, From the green myriads in the peopled grass : What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme, The mole’s dim curtain, and the lynx’s beam: Of smell, the headlong lioness between, And hound sagacious on the tainted green: Of hearing, from the life that fills the flood, To that which warbles through the vernal wood: The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine! Feels at each thread, and lives along the line: In the nice bee, what sense so subtly true From pois’nous herbs extracts the healing dew: How instinct varies in the grov’lling swine, Compar’d, half-reas’ning elephant, with thine: ‘Twixt that, and reason, what a nice barrier; For ever sep’rate, yet for ever near! Remembrance and reflection how allied; What thin partitions sense from thought divide: And middle natures, how they long to join, Yet never pass th’ insuperable line! Without this just gradation, could they be Subjected, these to those, or all to thee? The pow’rs of all subdu’d by thee alone, Is not thy reason all these pow’rs in one? VIII. See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth, All matter quick, and bursting into birth. Above, how high, progressive life may go! Around, how wide! how deep extend below! Vast chain of being, which from God began, Natures ethereal, human, angel, man, Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see, No glass can reach! from infinite to thee, From thee to nothing!—On superior pow’rs Were we to press, inferior might on ours: Or in the full creation leave a void, Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroy’d: From nature’s chain whatever link you strike, Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike. And, if each system in gradation roll Alike essential to th’ amazing whole, The least confusion but in one, not all That system only, but the whole must fall. Let earth unbalanc’d from her orbit fly, Planets and suns run lawless through the sky; Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurl’d, Being on being wreck’d, and world on world; Heav’n’s whole foundations to their centre nod, And nature tremble to the throne of God. All this dread order break—for whom? for thee? Vile worm!—Oh madness, pride, impiety! IX. What if the foot ordain’d the dust to tread, Or hand to toil, aspir’d to be the head? What if the head, the eye, or ear repin’d To serve mere engines to the ruling mind? Just as absurd for any part to claim To be another, in this gen’ral frame: Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains, The great directing Mind of All ordains. All are but parts of one stupendous whole, Whose body Nature is, and God the soul; That, chang’d through all, and yet in all the same, Great in the earth, as in th’ ethereal frame, Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze, Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees , Lives through all life, extends through all extent, Spreads undivided, operates unspent, Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part, As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart; As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns, As the rapt seraph that adores and burns; To him no high, no low, no great, no small; He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all. X. Cease then, nor order imperfection name: Our proper bliss depends on what we blame. Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee. Submit.—In this, or any other sphere, Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear: Safe in the hand of one disposing pow’r, Or in the natal, or the mortal hour. All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony, not understood; All partial evil, universal good: And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Summary of An Essay on Man: Epistle I

  • Popularity of “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”: Alexander Pope, one of the greatest English poets, wrote ‘An Essay on Man’ It is a superb literary piece about God and creation, and was first published in 1733. The poem speaks about the mastery of God’s art that everything happens according to His plan, even though we fail to comprehend His work. It also illustrates man’s place in the cosmos. The poet explains God’s grandeur and His rule over the universe.
  • “An Essay on Man: Epistle I” As a Representative of God’s Art: This poem explains God’s ways to men. This is a letter to the poet’s friend, St. John, Lord Bolingbroke. He urges him to quit all his mundane tasks and join the speaker to vindicate the ways of God to men. The speaker argues that God may have other worlds to observe but man perceives the world with his own limited system. A man’s happiness depends on two basic things; his hopes for the future and unknown future events. While talking about the sinful and impious nature of mankind, the speaker argues that man’s attempt to gain more knowledge and to put himself at God’s place becomes the reason of his discontent and constant misery. In section 1, the poet argues that man knows about the universe with his/her limited knowledge and cannot understand the systems and constructions of God. Humans are unaware of the grander relationships between God and His creations. In section 2, he states that humans are not perfect. However, God designed humans perfectly to suit his plan, in the order of the creation of things. Humans are after angelic beings but above every creature on the planet. In section 3 the poet tells that human happiness depends on both his lack of knowledge as they don’t know the future and also on his hope for the future. In section 4 the poet talks about the pride of humans, which is a sin. Because of pride, humans try to gain more knowledge and pretend that is a perfect creation. This pride is the root of man’s mistakes and sorrow. If humans put themselves in God’s place, then humans are sinners. In section 5, the poet explains the meaninglessness of human beliefs. He thinks that it is extremely ridiculous to believe that humans are the sole cause of creation. God expecting perfection and morality from people on this earth does not happen in the natural world. In section 6, the poet criticizes human nature because of the unreasonable demands and complaints against God and His providence. He argues that God is always good; He loves giving and taking. We also learn that if man possesses the knowledge of God, he would be miserable. In section 7, he shows that the natural world we see, including the universal order and degree, is observable by humans as per their perspective . The hierarchy of humans over earthly creatures and their subordination to man is one of the examples. The poet also mentions sensory issues like physical sense, instinct, thought, reflection, and reason. There’s also a reason which is above everything. In section 8, the poet reclaims that if humans break God’s rules of order and fail to obey are broken, then the entire God’s creation must also be destroyed. In section 9, he talks about human craziness and the desire to overthrow God’s order and break all the rules. In the last section the speaker requests and invites humans to submit to God and His power to follow his order. When humans submit to God’s absolute submission, His will, and ensure to do what’s right, then human remains safe in God’s hand.
  • Major Themes in “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”: Acceptance, God’s superiority, and man’s nature are the major themes of this poem Throughout the poem, the speaker tries to justify the working of God, believing there is a reason behind all things. According to the speaker, a man should not try to examine the perfection and imperfection of any creature. Rather, he should understand the purpose of his own existence in the world. He should acknowledge that God has created everything according to his plan and that man’s narrow intellectual ability can never be able to comprehend the greater logic of God’s order.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”

literary devices are modes that represent writers’ ideas, feelings, and emotions. It is through these devices the writers make their few words appealing to the readers. Alexander Pope has also used some literary devices in this poem to make it appealing. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem has been listed below.

  • Assonance : Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /o/ in “To him no high, no low, no great, no small” and the sound of /i/ in “The whisp’ring zephyr, and the purling rill?”
  • Anaphora : It refers to the repetition of a word or expression in the first part of some verses. For example, “As full, as perfect,” in the second last stanza of the poem to emphasize the point of perfection.
  • Alliteration : Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sound of /m/ in “A mighty maze! but not without a plan”, the sound of /b/ “And now a bubble burst, and now a world” and the sound of /th/ in “Subjected, these to those, or all to thee.”
  • Enjambment : It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break ; instead, it rolls over to the next line. For example.
“Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutor’d mind Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind.”
  • Imagery : Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “All chance, direction, which thou canst not see”, “Planets and suns run lawless through the sky” and “Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroy’d”
  • Rhetorical Question : Rhetorical question is a question that is not asked in order to receive an answer; it is just posed to make the point clear and to put emphasis on the speaker’s point. For example, “Why has not man a microscopic eye?”, “And what created perfect?”—Why then man?” and “What matter, soon or late, or here or there?”

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  • Heroic Couplet : There are two constructive lines in heroic couplet joined by end rhyme in iambic pentameter . For example,
“And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.”
  • Rhyme Scheme : The poem follows the ABAB rhyme scheme and this pattern continues till the end.
  • Stanza : A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. This is a long poem divided into ten sections and each section contains different numbers of stanzas in it.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below are useful to put in a speech delivered on the topic of God’s grandeur. These are also useful for children to make them understand that we constitute just a part of the whole.

“ All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony, not understood; All partial evil, universal good.”

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an essay on man poem summary

Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: An Introduction

David cody , associate professor of english, hartwick college.

Victorian Web Home —> Some Pre-Victorian Authors —> Neoclassicism —> Alexander Pope ]

The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written, characteristically, in heroic couplets , and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended it as the centerpiece of a proposed system of ethics to be put forth in poetic form: it is in fact a fragment of a larger work which Pope planned but did not live to complete. It is an attempt to justify, as Milton had attempted to vindicate, the ways of God to Man, and a warning that man himself is not, as, in his pride, he seems to believe, the center of all things. Though not explicitly Christian, the Essay makes the implicit assumption that man is fallen and unregenerate, and that he must seek his own salvation.

The "Essay" consists of four epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke's own fragmentary philosophical writings, as well as from ideas expressed by the deistic third Earl of Shaftesbury. Pope sets out to demonstrate that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable, and disturbingly full of evil the Universe may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, according to natural laws; and is, in fact, considered as a whole, a perfect work of God. It appears imperfect to us only because our perceptions are limited by our feeble moral and intellectual capacity. His conclusion is that we must learn to accept our position in the Great Chain of Being — a "middle state," below that of the angels but above that of the beasts — in which we can, at least potentially, lead happy and virtuous lives.

Epistle I concerns itself with the nature of man and with his place in the universe; Epistle II, with man as an individual; Epistle III, with man in relation to human society, to the political and social hierarchies; and Epistle IV, with man's pursuit of happiness in this world. An Essay on Man was a controversial work in Pope's day, praised by some and criticized by others, primarily because it appeared to contemporary critics that its emphasis, in spite of its themes, was primarily poetic and not, strictly speaking, philosophical in any really coherent sense: Dr. Johnson , never one to mince words, and possessed, in any case, of views upon the subject which differed materially from those which Pope had set forth, noted dryly (in what is surely one of the most back-handed literary compliments of all time) that "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised." It is a subtler work, however, than perhaps Johnson realized: G. Wilson Knight has made the perceptive comment that the poem is not a "static scheme" but a "living organism," (like Twickenham ) and that it must be understood as such.

Considered as a whole, the Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it, but is in fact a coherent portion of a divinely ordered plan. In Pope's world God exists, and he is benificent: his universe is an ordered place. The limited intellect of man can perceive only a tiny portion of this order, and can experience only partial truths, and hence must rely on hope, which leads to faith. Man must be cognizant of his rather insignificant position in the grand scheme of things: those things which he covets most — riches, power, fame — prove to be worthless in the greater context of which he is only dimly aware. In his place, it is man's duty to strive to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his inherent frailty, to fail in his attempt. Do you find Pope's argument convincing? In what ways can we relate the Essay on Man to works like Swift's Gulliver's Travels , Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" ( text ), Tennyson's In Memoriam and Eliot's The Wasteland ?

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