This lesson will look at Alexander Pope's 'An Essay on Man.' We will consider its context, form, meaning, and the ways in which it reflects the mindset of the thinkers of the 18th century.
The Poem in Context
'Hope springs eternal in the human breast' (I.95) writes Alexander Pope in his famous poem An Essay on Man. There's a good chance you've heard this quote before, which illustrates just how influential this work is. In addition to its impressive breadth and innovative use of poetic forms, An Essay on Man is known for its insightful wisdom. In fact, Pope has become one of the most quoted English poets, not only because of the beauty of his work, but also because of the wise insight that pervades much of his poetry.
To understand the poem and the impulse behind it, it's important to look at the ideas that were popular when Pope was writing. Pope lived from 1688 to 1744 and was considered one of the most definitive and influential voices of the first half of the 18th century. His work was part of the Neoclassical movement that reflected the ideals of the Enlightenment era. The Enlightenment began in the middle of the 17th century and lasted until the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment emphasized the glory of reason and science and reflected the ideal that man could understand the world around him. This hope for understanding and outlining the human condition is at the heart of An Essay on Man.
In the poem, Pope attempts to 'vindicate' God's ways to man, a task that clearly echoes John Milton's famous claim in the epic poem Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1667 and told the story of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. However, unlike Milton's Paradise Lost, An Essay on Man is not specifically Christian and instead attempts to identify an ethical system that applies to humanity in a general sense. When Pope began the poem, he originally intended to make it much longer than the final version became, which further demonstrates just how idealistic he was. The poem was dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke, a political figure with whom Pope had many philosophical conversations and who likely helped Pope come to believe in many of the ideas he presents in An Essay on Man.
Overview of the Poem
An Essay on Man consists of four epistles, which is a term that is historically used to describe formal letters directed to a specific person. The first epistle looks at man's relation to the universe in order to present the concept of harmony that is referred to throughout the rest of the poem. Pope explains that human beings cannot come to fully understand their purpose in life by using only their mental faculties. Although humanity is at the top of the fixed hierarchy of the natural world, there are many things we cannot know, and so we must not attempt to become godlike. Rather, human beings must accept that their existence is the result of a perfect creator who created everything as perfectly as it can possibly be.
The second epistle uses the harmony described between humanity and the cosmos in the previous epistle to illustrate how humans can achieve harmony within themselves. Whereas the first epistle explores the inherently complex relationship man has with his material existence, the second describes the relationship that man has with his own desires, mental faculties, and spiritual aspirations. Pope again reinforces the idea that humans cannot fully understand God, but he also claims that self-love and reason can help man understand himself.
The third epistle deals with how the individual interacts with society. Pope argues that, in addition to the insight that it can offer regarding a person's relationship with himself, the cosmos offers insight into how individuals can find harmony with society and the natural world. At the core of this argument is the idea that humans must understand themselves as pieces in a great puzzle; the value of each person and animal comes from their relationship with each other.
The fourth epistle is concerned with happiness and our ability to apply our love for ourselves to the world around us. Happiness, Pope argues, can be achieved by all people through the process of living a virtuous and balanced life. If a person understands that he or she cannot understand God, then he or she will not attempt judge other people. Rather, people must strive to embrace the universal truths of humanity's existence. One of the main terms that Pope returns to throughout this epistle is the importance of virtue as a way to temper human imperfections and help people be content in their God-given position.
Analysis of the Poem
An Essay on Man is written in heroic couplets, which consist of rhyming lines made up of five iambs. Iambs are metrical feet that have two syllables, with one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, as in 'belong' or 'along' or 'away.' Heroic couplets had been used for hundreds of years before An Essay on Man was written and were associated with lofty and epic poetry. The fact that Pope used this form for the poem reflects his desire to produce a respectable and idealistic work. Although the poem uses this traditional form, its beauty and power comes from Pope's ability to produce lines that are both unique and packed with a tremendous amount of meaning.
In addition to referencing the aesthetic ideals that Pope helped introduce, An Essay on Man also reflects some of the central attitudes held by writers of the 18th century. Most importantly, Pope's attempt to define a system that man should accept reflects the fact that he was living in a time in which thinkers hoped to understand the natural rules that governed society. Indeed, the entire poem is based on the idea that order and knowledge can benefit all aspects of human existence.
However, Pope's use of the cosmos as a model to teach humanity how to live also reflects the Enlightenment's emphasis on combining rationality with virtue and humility. Although Enlightenment thinkers helped to produce the modern forms of science and reason that greatly changed the natural world, they were also eager to understand the limits of man's knowledge. This characteristic of Enlightenment thinking is particularly clear through An Essay on Man in Pope's frequent emphasis on the importance of living virtuously. Moreover, the fact that he breaks the poem into epistles demonstrates that Pope wrote the poem with the hope that people would approach it personally as if it is a loving piece of writing rather than a strict, didactic poem.
Alexander Pope published An Essay on Man in 1734. The poem is divided into four epistles and consists of heroic couplets, which are rhyming lines made up of five iambs. The poem, which was written in the Neoclassical era of literature, reflects Pope's idealistic attempt to understand and teach the order inherent in the physical world.
To do this, Pope explains man's relationship to the natural world, illustrating that the order that is inherent to the cosmos can provide insight into man's relationship with himself and others in society. In addition to introducing Pope's own philosophy and the poetic aesthetics of his time, the poem offers insight into the Neoclassical desire to understand the order that should inform man's life, and the hope that this understanding will make the world a better place through virtuous living.
Harmony, humanity, God and the cosmos
- An Essay on Man - a poem by Alexander Pope that was published in 1734
- The Enlightenment - emphasized reason and science and reflected the belief that man could understand his world
- Epistles - historically described formal letters directed to a specific person
- Heroic Couplets - rhyming lines of five iambs (ten syllables)
When you've studied the lesson sufficiently, take the opportunity to realize the following goals:
- Summarize An Essay on Man
- Dissect the poem's four epistles
- Identify the main points Pope was making concerning reason and man's understanding of his world