If imitation is the sincerest flattery, then more than 250 years after his passing Alexander Pope deserves a spot in the ranks as one of the most flattered writers of all time. His works have been dissected of every phrase of possible significance and spilled onto page-a-day calendars and books of wit across the world. The beauty of his catchy maxims is that they are not only memorable, but attempt to convey his philosophy with perfect poetic ingenuity. Unfortunately, his well-achieved goals of striking the reader more strongly (Man 2527), easy retainability of his words, and most decidedly, conciseness, also yield an undesired effect. Utilizing this dicey method of epigrammatic couplets for such serious issues, Pope sacrifices pieces of his intended message, for the sake of rhyme, leading to easily misleading and generalizing messages that are open to scathing criticisms, misunderstandings and the possible loss of his some of his compositions integrity as well as a confusion of his own convictions.
The keys to great aphorisms are their ability to be applied to more common situations, thereby making them even more memorable by their availability for frequent usage, their ear-catching prominence and their paradoxical nature. That final element is what makes aphorisms so engaging. The most witty and intelligent examples are those that expose two supposed opposites for their ironic closeness and display the fine line between contradiction and a surprisingly parallel relationship between both.
A good example of such a saying is found in line 213 of An Essay on Criticism. Trust not yourself; but your defects to know, / Make use of every friend – and every foe. Here Pope is in the advising stage of his Essay and uses the surprise ending and every foe as a display of irony, in that its not only the counsel of friends one needs to depend on, but the unabashed critique of ones rivals that can prove useful, as well. It is these types of witticisms that are a notorious characteristic of essays in general, but the most enjoyable and artistic part of Popes works.
Popes true genius is displayed in his one-line masterpieces that do not rely on rhyme to stay memorable. An Essay on Criticism is full of these. For fool rush in where angels fear to tread (line 625). Be silent always when you doubt your sense (line 566). To err is human; to forgive, divine (line 525). But it seems that in an effort to create such tenets poetically, he foregoes real philosophical arguments that one might find in Locke or Hume. He does little to create or heavily build upon previous thought, rather drawing on many centuries of philosophical wisdom on formal critique. An Essay on Criticism progresses and heavily depends on aphorisms that summarize quite logical processes. His point that, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed (line 298) needs only to be clarified and becomes, What seems so true may never have been felt. Suddenly it becomes clear, there is no way of assuring the truthfulness of such a statement. The point is, what might have been genius upon initial impression can just as easily be cast off as nearly nonsensical Seuss-like rhymes that are only memorable for their rhythm rather than their wisdom. Therefore, one might as well opt for the pleasure of concise and witty, yet meaningless writing he promotes for its ease and enjoyment instead of a definitive ideological stance.
It is also in this essay that he begins to confuse his most identifiable position as a humanist by axioms like, One science only will genius fit; / So vast is Art, so narrow human wit (line 60-1). If humanists believe in the possibility of ultimate progression of mankind unto perfection then why is a statement of such heavy limitations made? It sounds like something that would more likely come out of Swifts Gullivers mouth than a humanist like Pope. Moreover, its fairly clear that he uses so many negative connotations of man to help contrast between the fool and the learned, but to be a person with truly consistent beliefs that man is in a continual state of growth and evolution towards greatness, Popes essay points out time after time mans weaknesses. Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move, / For fools admire, but men of sense approve (line 390-1). Here he pokes fun at the easily entertained fools of society and does so again in lines 572 through 576, Tis not enough your counsel still be true; / Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do. / Men must be taught as if you taught them not; / And things unknown proposed as things forgot. Again he uses this for contrast and points out the necessity to be honest and forthright in ones critique, but also points out the necessity for over-simplicity to be used, not something a person who considers man to have perfection within their grasp would easily think.
An Essay on Man is where Pope puts together a free-standing and exceptional argument for the case of All are parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body, Nature is, and God the soul (lines 267-8). What claims his argument is the final line of his essay. Not only does he make the statement, Whatever Is, is Right, but boldly prefaces it with One truth is clear (line 294) to remove any doubt as to his convictions in his statement. It seems that it is this final line that claims his entire argument for the sake of a punctualizing epigram. His message could and should be read in reference to the beginning of his tenth point, that we need only to submit to the one disposing Powr (line 287) and in respect of this, whatever is, is right. Yet, his trouble lies in the fact that although submitting to that greater power is a magnanimous thought, believing that whatever occurs is the way it was meant to be, may be overstepping the bounds of ones own innate reasoning.
He does, though, use this essay to reinforce his humanist stance. By reproving mankind to imitate nature as a guide for living, Pope finds several places wherein he is able to promote the advancement of man, while still advising man to follow nature and remain in his Order. Hope springs eternal in the human breast:/ Man never is, but always to be blest (line 95-6) is a definitive line for the endorsement of the possibility for man to grow as long as man does not aspire for more than his natural order allows.
In pride, in reasoning 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. (lines 123-130)
Not only is this an explanation of his theories on mans place according to Nature and Order, but also more context with which Whatever Is, is right is meant to refer. Yet, it is such a blanket statement, he is doomed to backlash.
The ultimate significance of Popes use of epigrammatic couplets as his rhetorical device of choice in these two essays is that many faults are found in such a method, for the sake of didacticism. True scholars would be able to take his message, had it instead been explicated in prose, and thoroughly, and without uncertainty, been able to learn and build upon his salient arguments. Were his goal merely to advise and entertain, then he did so exceptionally well while building a legendary volume of aphorisms in the process, but if Pope was truly trying to develop and compose an argument for critique and the state of man to follow and imitate Nature, then essayistic prose following the models of Locke and Hobbes would have been more appropriate and less ambiguous.
Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. The Longman Anthology of British
Literature. Volume 1C. Ed. David Damrosch, et al. New York: Longman,
Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. The Longman Anthology of British
Literature. Volume 1C. Ed. David Damrosch, et al. New York: Longman,
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