Alexander Pope’s Essay On Man

“Of the poems of Pope none perhaps is more celebrated in common fame, none has provided more passages for storing in the memory and applying on common occasions.”

John Aiken, 1796 (most of this information comes from his preface to an edition of Essay on Man)

“Who is there that has any taste for polite writings that would be sufficiently satisfied with hearing the beautiful pages of Steele or Addison, the admirable descriptions of Virgil or Milton, or some of the finest poems of Pope, Young, or Dryden, once read over to them, and then lay them by for ever?” ~Isaac Watts

Pope described his Essay on Man as a short system of ethics, and said he could have written in prose as easily as in verse, but he preferred verse because principles and maxims are more impressive in verse than in prose.  He also said that verse adheres to the memory more easily.  It is said that the framework of this system of ethics was originally presented to him by his friend the Earl of Bolingbroke, who had intended to write it out in prose himself with a poem by Pope accompanying the work, but in the end Pope is the one who completed the presentation in full verse.

And so, says Aiken of Essay on Man, we have an ethical treatise transmitted from the mind of a philosopher to that of the poet who gave it new dress and accommodated it to a new set of readers, while also (inadvertently, perhaps, although Pope was a deliberate and meticulous poet) showing us a clear example of the powers and limitations of the art of poetry.

A hundred years later, Mark Pattison edited an edition of the poem and in his introduction he said “It is but a portion of a large poem contemplated,but not completed. Hence the title imperfectly describes its contents. It is less a treatise on Man than on the moral order of the world of which man is a part.”
Pattison notes that Essay on Man was a product of its time, and was composed at a time when the “reading public… were occupied by an eager and intense curiosity by speculation on the first principles of natural religion. Everywhere, in the pulpit, in the coffee-houses, in every
pamphlet, argument on the origin of evil, on the goodness of God, and the constitution of the world, was rife.” So reading Essay on Man should give you some feeling or sense of the times in which Pope wrote.

Aiken suggests it will help when reading Pope’s Essay on Man to look for certain traits and forms, such as:

  1. a ‘maxim, proposition, or sentence’ presented in philosophical language but with poetry so polished it reduces the concept down to its essential essence, a thing of quivering energy.  Just as when the same amount of matter is reduced in size in increases in density, this idea so concentrated by verse ‘sinks into the mind with the same kind of force that’ causes a ‘weighty and polished ball’ (a cannonball? Musket ball?) to penetrate solid matter.  Of course, sometimes the time and distance between ourselves and Pope makes some of us to have brains a bit more resistant to such penetration than others.

As examples he offers this couplet about God:

To him no high, no low, no great, no small—
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.…

And this on Mankind:

The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Born but to die,
And reas’ning but to err

Johnathan Swift, a friend and admirer of Pope, said that Pope could put more sense in one couplet than Swift himself could fit in six.

In explaining Pope’s tremendous popularity Aiken said that “nothing comes more home to the minds of men in general, or is more universally congenial to the taste of readers than a moral sentiment or religious truth forcibly and clearly expressed.”  I’ll leave it to you to determine if this reason for Pope’s popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries might also be the reason he fell out of favour in the 20th and 21st centuries.

2. In addition to his skill with those “sterling clauses of weight and effect, ” the ‘faculty of compressing sense into a small compass and giving it a harmonious setting’, Aiken admires Pope’s ‘splendor of diction’ and his ability to shed light on intellectual truths by associating them in his verse, and thus our minds, with ‘some sensible object of the sublime or beautiful class, giving ‘live and motion to language’ and ‘gratifying the imagination’ with striking figures.  Aiken says Pope mined the literature and thought of the ages and the world to deepen his skill with figurative speech.  Thomas Gray said poetry is ‘thoughts that breathe, words that burn,’ and Aikin thought this was a perfect description of Pope’s skill.

As examples of Pope’s skill with figurative expressions which add such ‘vivid colouring’ to Pope’s poetry, Aikin offers (emphasis is his):

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?
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.


“A third expedient employed by Pope to diversify and enliven his subject, is the introduction of little pictures and incidents by way of illustration, which are generally conceived with great happiness and wrought with peculiar care.”

“Examples of this kind include the sportive lamb unconscious of his approaching state; the Indian indulging his humble expectations of future existence ; the enumeration by pride of the benefits of nature designed for Man ; the progress of superstitlon ; and the historical allusions to the vanity of human grandeur. These form an agreeable relief to the train of precept or argument, and essentially add to the poetical character of the work.”


It is worthwhile to note that as much as Aikin admires Pope, he does admit that the poem Essay on Man falls short of that “high polish and correctness which are supposed peculiarly to characterize the author,” probably, Aikin says, because the subject itself did not lend itself to complete versification as well as Pope hoped. Aikin said that stubborn persistance at rendering what is essentially a philosophical argument entirely and wholly in verse is probably responsible for “the many  prosaic lines, mean expressions, inaccuracies of construction, and deficits in the mechanism of versification”. ” Indeed,” he says, “there are sufficient  tokens that the work was undertaken as a task — that  the writer was occasionally tired or bewildered in  following his argument — and that the poet and  system-builder did not always happily draw together .”

I offer these ideas and tidbits of  information for you to do with as you will.  You may find it helps you to work your way through the Essay on Man, or at least sparks some interest where there was none before.   You might find it adds pleasure to your efforts if you try to spot examples of both the polished diction and the ‘prosaic lines,’ or you may prefer to ignore all of them as you read and just allow the work to speak for itself.

Some students find it helpful to take a work such as Essay on Man and turn the verses into prose, or to make a list of the points in this philosophical system of ethics. Some just enjoy spotting turns of phrase that have become part of our common speech.

Whatever your approach, I suggest you read slowly.  As the critic Samuel Johnson once wrote about the metaphysical  poets who were some of Pope’s contemporaries, “to write on this plan, it was at least necessary to read and think.”  Pope is not usually considered one of the metaphysical poets (or baroque as some now call this group), but he did read widely, deeply, and well, and he certainly did think. It order to get the most out of his work, it is necessary for us to do the same.


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