Monday, January 5, 2015

He's No Vestal

Selected WorksSelected Works by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Pope's Essay On Man is in my opinion one of the best (and most criticized) treatises on the Sovereignty of God and man's role in relation to Him that I've ever read, and it's written by a morally degenerate lapsed Catholic hunchback.

I well remember how I was first introduced to The Little Monster, and through him, to poetry in general.  I was sixteen and walking home at one in the morning from a dishwashing job.  A bookstore had a rack of dollar books outside.  I picked up what I thought to be a biography of a Pope named Alexander (I have always had strange compulsions when it comes to books), and found when I got home that it was just poetry.  I didn't crack the spine again for two weeks.  From the day I did I don't think I put it down for two months.

Pope is terrible.  He is savage, ruthless, cynical and hilarious: the kind of man you don't want to like but can't risk offending.  His wit is unparalleled, his life tragic, and his tremendous legacy is now rotting into the leaf mulch of other author's minds.  Yet he's one of the greatest poets of the English language, and we can't escape him:

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,"
"To err is human, to forgive, divine,"
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never Is, but always To be blest,"
"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man,"
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!  The world forgetting, by the world forgot.  Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!  Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d,”
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As, to be hated, needs but to be seen; Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace,"
"A little learning is a dang'rous thing,"
and many, many more.

And these are just the more well known, too.  My favorites aren't necessarily in the list:

"Oh sons of earth! attempt ye still to rise
By mountains pil'd on mountains, to the skies?
Heav'n still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
And buries madmen in the heaps they raise."

"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 to-day,
Had he thy Reason, would he skip and play?...
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."

"From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, break 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 thro' 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!"

"(on writing)'T is not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an Echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar:
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow..."

Yet lacking from all of this is what he is most famed for: the savage, cruel, rifle-shot couplets that damn those he dislikes to eternal fame:

"Virtue she finds too painful an endeavor,
Content to dwell in decencies forever...
She, while her lover pants upon her breast,
Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
And when she sees a friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a Chintz exceeds Mohair...
Of all her Dears she never slander'd one,
But cares not if a thousand are undone.
Would Chloe know if you're alive or dead?
She bids her Footman put it in her head.
Chloe is prudent—Would you too be wise?
Then never break your heart when Chloe dies."

I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.  Granted, I don't necessarily find that Homer is improved by translation into epic couplets, but that error in judgment aside, Pope is one of the most worthwhile authors ever to write.

Yet there is one more thing I have to say.  I've heard Pope simplistically slandered by Dickens and Dalrymple for a line of his, and I've started to get touchy about it.  He has a fantastic passage in Essay On Man:

"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."

The "whatever is, is right" is what seems so commonly to be opposed, but here I find myself in very strange agreement with a person whose life horribly belied the words he penned.

But to understand, we have to look at Hume's "problem of evil for the existence of God."  If evil exists (and it does), then either God is not all good (and is fine with evil), or He is not omnipotent (and can't stop evil), or there is no God.  Leaving aside Hume's lack of a definition for evil (apparently, protoplasm that offends him at these temperatures), there is one enormous assumption that is entirely glossed over.  This makes no sense unless you operate from the presupposition of "God and Creation exist for my comfort and pleasure."

This is what Pope so profoundly disembowels in his fantastic Essay On Man.

IV  "Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense,
Weigh thy Opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fancy'st 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,
Re-judge 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 heavn'ly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use?  Pride answers, ' 'T is 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.' "

He is correct: the world and all in it are made for the Glory of God, not our comfort and pleasure, and whatever is, is right; Dickensian humanism be damned.

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