Alexander Pope 1688-1744
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )
The most epigrammatic, and one of the most elegant, of poets. He was also one of the most precocious. His first production of importance was his Essay on Criticism, written at the age of twenty-one, although not published until two years later. But he had composed, we are assured, several verses of an Epic at the age of twelve; and his Pastorals was given to the world by a youth of sixteen. Its division into the Four Seasons is said to have suggested to Thomson the title of his great poem. The MS. passed through the hands of some distinguished persons, who loudly proclaimed the merits pf the boy-poet.
In the same year with his fine mock-heroic Rape of the Lock (1712) appeared The Messiah, in imitation of Isaiah and of Virgil (in his well-known Eclogeu IV.), both of whom celebrate, in similar strains, the advent of a "golden age" to be. The "Sybilline" prophecy, which Pope supposes the Latin poet to have read, existed, it need scarcely be added, only in the imagination of himself and of the authorities on whom he relied. Windsor Forest (1713) deserves special notice as one of the earliest of that class of poems which derive their inspiration directly from Nature. It was the precursor of The Seasons, although the anti-barbarous feeling is less pronounced in the former. We find however, the germs of that higher feeling which appears more developed in the Essay on Man; and the following verses, descriptive of the usual "sporting" scenes, are significant :-
"See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings :
Short is his joy ; he feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.
Ah, what avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes -
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?
* * * * *
To plains with well-breathed beagles we repair,
And trace the mazes of the circling Hare.
Beasts, urged by us, their fellow-beasts pursue,
And learn of man each other to undo.
With slaughtering guns the unwearyed fowler roves,
When frosts have whitened all the naked groves;
Where Doves in flocks the leafless trees o'ershade,
And lonely woodcocks haunt the wat'ry glade -
He lifts his tube, and levels his eye,
Straight a short thunder breaks the frozen sky.
Oft, as in airy rings they skim the heath,
The clamorous Lapwings feel the leaden death :
Oft, as the
mounting Larks their notes prepare,
They fall, and leave their little lives in the air."
His Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard (a romantic version of a very realistic story), Temple of the Fame, Imitations of Chaucer, translation of the Iliad (1713-1720) - characterised by Gibbon as having "every merit but that of likeness to its original" - an edition of Shakspere, The Dunciad (1728), translation of the Odyssey, are some of the works which attest his genius and industry. But it is with his Moral Essays - and in particular the Essay on Man (1732-1735), the most important of his productions - that we are especially concerned.
As is pretty well known, these Essays owe their conception, in great part, to his intimate friend St. John Bolingbroke. Although the author by birth and, perhaps, still more from a feeling of pride which might make him reluctant to abandon an unfashionable sect (such as it was at that time), belonged nominally to the Old Church, the theology and metaphysics of the work display little of ecclesiastical orthodoxy. The pervading principles of the Essay on Man are natural theology or, as Warburton styles it, "Naturalism" (i.e., the putting aside human assertion for the study of the attributes of Deity through its visible manifestations) and Optimism. (1)
The merits of the Essay, it must be added, consist not so much in the philosophy of the poem as a whole as in the many fine and true thoughts scattered throughout it, which the author's epigrammatic terseness indelibly fixes in the mind. Of the whole poem the most valuable part, undoubtedly, is its ridicule of the common arrogant (pretended) belief that all other species on the earth have been brought into being for the benefit of the human race - an egregious fallacy, by the way, which ably exposes as it has been over and over again, still frequently reappears in our popular theology and morals. To the writers and talkers of this too numerous class may be commended the rebukes of Pope :-
"Nothing is foreign - parts relate to whole :
One all-extending, all-preserving soul
Connects each being, greatest with the least -
Made beast in aid of Man, and Man of beast :
All served, all serving - nothing stands alone.
* * * * *
Has God, thou fool, worked solely for thy good,
Thy joy, thy pastime, thy attire, thy food ?
* * * * *
Is it for thee the lark ascends and sings ?
Joy tunes his voice, joy elevates his wings.
Is it for thee the linnet pours his throat ?
Loves of his own and raptures swell the note.
The bounding Steed you pompously bestride,
Shares with his lord the pleasure and the pride.
* * * * *
Know, Nature's children all divide her care,
The fur that warms a monarch warmed a Bear.
While Man exclaims, 'See all things for my use!'
'See Man for mine!' replies a pampered Goose :
And just as short of reason he must fall,
Who thinks all made for one, not one for all."
He then paints the picture of the "Times of Innocence" of the Past, or rather (as we must take it) of the Future :-
"No murder cloathed him, and no murder fed.
In the same temple - the resounding wood -
All vocal beings hymned their equal God.
The shrine with gore unstained, with gold undrest,
Unbribed, unbloody, flood the blameless priest.
Heaven's attribute was universal care,
And Man's prerogative to rule, but spare,
Ah, how unlike the Man of times to come -
Of half that live the butcher and the tomb !
Who, foe to Nature, hears the general groan,
Murders their species, and betrays his own.
But just disease to luxury succeeds,
And every death its own avenger breeds:
The Fury'-passions from that blood began,
And turned on Man a fiercer savage, Man."
Again, depicting the growth of despotism and superstition, and speculating as to -
"Who first taught souls enslaved, and realms undone,
The enormous faith of Many made for one?"
he traces the gradual horrors of sacrifice beginning with other, and culminating in that of the human, species :-
"She [superstition] from the rending earth and bursting skies,
Saw gods descend, and fiends infernal rise :
Here fixed the dreadful, there the blest abodes -
Fear made her devils and weak hope her gods -
Gods partial, changeful, passionate, unjust,
Whose attributes were rage, revenge, or lust -
Such as the souls of cowards might conceive,
And, formed like tyrants, tyrants would believe.
* * * * *
Altars grew marble then, and reeked with gore ;
Then first the Flamen tasted living food,
Next his grim idol smeared with human blood.
With Heaven's own thunders shook the world below,
And played the God an engine on his foe."
Whenever occasion arises, Pope fails not to stigmatise the barbarity of slaughtering for food; and the sœva indignatio urges him to upbraid his fellows with the slaughter of -
"The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed,
* * * * *
Who licks the hand just raised to shed his blood."
And, again, he expresses his detestations of the selfishness of our species who -
"Destroy all creatures for their sport of gust."
That all this was no mere affectation of feeling appears from his correspondence and contributions to the periodical of the time :-
""I cannot think it extravagant" he writes, "to imagine that mankind are no less, in proportion, accountable for the ill use of their dominion over the lower ranks of beings, than for the exercise of tyranny over their own species. The more entirely the inferior creation is submitted to our power, the more answerable we must be for our mismanagement of them; and the rather, as the very condition of Nature renders them incapable of receiving any recompence in another life for their ill-treatment in this." (2)
Consistently with the expression of this true philosophy, he declares elsewhere that -
"Nothing can be more shocking and horrid than one of our kitchens sprinkled with blood, and abounding with the cries of expiring victims, or with the limbs of dead animals scattered or hung up here and there. It gives one the image of a giant's den in a romance, bestrewed with scattered heads and mangled limbs." (3)
The personal character of Pope, we may add, has of late been subjected to minute and searching criticism. Some meannesses, springing from an extreme anxiety for fame with after ages, have undoubtedly tarnished his reputation for candour. His excessive animosity towards his public or private enemies may be palliated in part, if not excused, by his well-known feebleness of health and consequent mental irritability. For the rest, he was capable of the most sincere and disinterested attachments; and not his least merit, in literature, is that in an age of servile authorship he cultivated literature not for place or pay, but for its own sake.
[below - from the Appendix of the first edition - an more complete version of the two quotes immediately above]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Primaque e code ferarum
Incaluisse putem maculatum sanguine ferrum.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Ovid Metam. XV. 106)
"I cannot think it extravagant to imagine, that mankind are no less in proportion, accountable for the ill use of their dominion over creatures of the lower rank of beings, than for the exercise of tyranny over their own species. The more entirely the inferior creation is submitted to our power, the more answerable we should seem for our mismanagement of it; and the rather, as the very condition of nature renders these creatures incapable of receiving any recompence in another life for their ill-treatment in this.
"It is observable of those noxious animals, which have qualities most powerful to injure us, that they naturally avoid mankind, and never hurt us unless provoked or necessitated by hunger. Man, on the other hand, seeks out and pursues even the most inoffensive animals on purpose to persecute and destroy them. Montaigne thinks it some reflection upon human nature itself, that few people take delight in seeing beasts caress or play together, but almost every one is pleased to see them lacerate and worry one another.
"I am sorry this temper is become almost a distinguishing character of our own nation, from the observation which is made by foreigners of our beloved pastimes, Bear-baiting, Cock-fighting, and the like. We should find it hard to vindicate the destroying of any thing that has life, merely out of wantonness ; yet in this principle our children are bred up, and one of the first pleasures we allow them, is the license of inflicting pain upon poor animals : almost as soon as we are sensible what life is ourselves, we make it our sport to take it from other creatures. I cannot but believe a very good use might be made of the fancy which children have for birds and insects. Mr. Locke takes notice of a mother who permitted them to her children, but rewarded or punished them as they treated them well or ill. This was no other than entering them betimes into a daily exercise of humanity, and improving their very diversion to a Virtue.
"I fancy, too, some advantage might be taken of the common notion, that 'tis ominous or unlucky to destroy some sorts of Birds, as Swallows or Martins. This opinion might possibly arise from the confidence these Birds seem to put in us by building under our roofs, so that it is a kind of violation of the laws of Hospitality to murder them. As for Robin-red-breasts in particular, 'tis not improbable they owe their security to the old ballad of the Children in the Wood. However it be, I don't know, I say, why this prejudice, well-improved and carried as far as it would go, might not be made to conduce to the preservation of many innocent creatures, who are now exposed to all the wantonness of an ignorant barbarity. . . . .
"When we grow up to men, we have another succession of sanguinary Sports - in particular, Hunting. I dare not attack a diversion which has such Authority and Custom to support it ; but must have leave to be of opinion, that the agitation of that exercise, with the example and number of the chasers, not a little contribute to resist those checks, which Compassion would naturally suggest in behalf of the Animal pursued. Nor shall I say with M. Fleury, that this sport is a remain of the Gothic Barbarity; but I must animadvert upon a certain custom yet in use with us, barbarous enough to be derived from the Goths, or even the Scythians - I mean that savage compliment our Huntsmen pass upon ladies of quality, who are present at the death of a Stag, when they put the knife in their hands to cut the throat of a helpless, trembling, and weeping creature.
. . . . . . . . . ."Quesluque cruentus,
. . . . . . Atque imploranti similis (4)
But if our 'sports' are destructive, our Gluttony is more so, and in a more inhuman manner. Lobsters roasted alive, pigs whipt to death, fowls sewed up, (5) are testimonies of our outrageous luxury. Those who (as Seneca expresses it) divide their lives betwixt an anxious conscience and a nauseated stomach, have a just reward of their gluttony in the diseases it brings with it ; for human savages, like other wild beasts, find snares and poison in the provisions of life, and are allured by their appetite to their destruction. I know nothing more shocking or horrid than the prospect of one of their kitchens covered with blood, and filled with the cries of creatures expiring in tortures. It gives one an image of a giant's den in a romance, bestrow'd with the scattered heads and mangled limbs of those who were slain by his cruelty.
"The excellent Plutarch (who has more strokes of good nature in his writings than I remember in any author) cites a laying of Cato to this effect :- That 'tis no easy task to preach to the Belly which has no ears. Yet if (says he) we are ashamed to be so out of fashion as not to offend, let us at least offend with some discretion and measure. If we kill an animal for our provision, let us do it with the meltings of compassion, and without tormenting it. Let us consider, that it is in its own nature cruelty to put a living creature to death - we at least destroy a soul that has sense and perception. (6)
History tells us of a wise and polite nation that rejected a person of the first quality, who stood for a judiciary office, only because he had been observed in his youth, to take pleasure in tearing and murdering of Birds. And of another that expelled a man out of the Senate for dashing a bird against the ground who had taken refuge in his bosom. Every one knows how remarkable the Turks are for their Humanity in this kind : I remember an Arabian author, who has written a Treatise to show, how far a man supposed to have subsisted in a desert island, without any instruction, or so much as the sight of any other man, may, by the pure light of Nature, attain the knowledge of Philosophy and Virtue. One of the first things he makes him observe is the benevolence of Nature in the protection and preservation of its creatures. (7) In imitation of which, the first act of virtue he thinks his self-taught philosopher would, of course fall into is, to relieve and assist all the animals about him in their wants and distresses. . . .
Perhaps that voice or cry, so nearly resembling the human, with which Nature has endowed so many different animals, might purposely be given them to move our Pity, and prevent those cruelties we are too apt to inflict on our Fellow-Creatures.
Pope quotes, in part, the admirable verses of Ovid, Metam. XV., with Dryden's translation - and an apposite fable of the Persian Pilpai, which illustrates the base ingratitude of men who torture and slaughter their fellow labourers. - "I know it" (this common ingratitude) said the Cow, "by woful experience ; for I have served a man this long time with milk, butter, and cheese, and brought him, besides, a Calf every year - but now I am old, he turns me into this pasture with design to sell me to a butcher, who, shortly, will make an end of me." The Guardian, LXI, May 21, 1713.
With Pilpai or Bidpai's fable, compare that of La Fontaine on the same subject - L'Homme et la Couleuvre.
- Bayle, the author of the great Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1690) to whom belongs the lasting honour of having inaugurated the critical method in history and philosophy, which has since led to such extensive and important results, seems also to have been the first explicitly to state the difficulties of that greatest crux of Theology - the problem of the existence, or rather dominance, of evil. His rival Le Clerc, in his Bibliothéque, took up the orthodox cudgels. Lord Shaftesbury, the celebrated theologian and moralist, wrote his dialogue - The Moralists (1709) - in direct answer to Bayle, followed the next year by the Theodike or Vindication of the Deity of Leibnitz. Two of the most able and distinguished of the Anti-Optimists are Voltaire and Schopenhauer, the former of whom never wearies of using his unrivalled powers of irony and sarcasm on the Tout est Bien theory. As for the latter philosopher, he has carried his Anti-Optimism to the extremes of Pessimism.
- Pope here is scarcely logical upon his own premises. It seems impossible, upon any grounds of reason or analogy, to deny the lower animals a posthumous existence while vindicating it for ourselves, inasmuch as the essential conditions of existence are identical for many other beings. To the serious thinker the question of a post-terrestrial state of existence must stand or fall for both upon the same grounds. Yet what can well be more weak, or more of a subterfuge, than the pretence of many well-meaning persons, who seek to excuse their indifferentism to the cruel sufferings of their humble fellow-beings by the expression of a belief or a hope that there is a future retributive state for them? It must be added that the idle speculation - whether the non-human races are capable of post-terrestrial life or no - might, to any serious apprehension, seem to be wholly beside the mark. But what can be more monstrously ridiculous (Greek, in Lucian's language) than the inconsistency of those who would maintain the affirmative, and yet persist in devouring their clients? Risum teneatis, amici!
- Spence's Anecdote and The Guardian, May 21, 1713. His indignation was equally aroused by the torture of the vivsectors of the day. And he demands how do men know that they have "a right to kill beings whom they [at least, the vast majority] are so little above, for their own curiosity, or even for some use to them."
- . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ."That lies beneath the knife,
. . . . . Looks up, and from her butcher begs her life.'
. . . . . . . . . . Æn. VII. (Pope's translation.) Quoted by Montaigne. Essais
- And, Pope might have added, a more diabolical torture still - calves bled to death by a slow and lingering process - hung up (as they often are) head downwards. Although not universal as it was some ten years ago, this among other Christian practises, yet flourishes in many parts of the country, unchecked by legal intervention.
- See Article, Plutarch, above.
- So far, at least, as the natural and necessary wants of each species are concerned. - That "Nature" is regardless of suffering, is but too apparent in all parts of our globe. It is the opprobrium and shame of the human species that, placed at the head of the various races of beings, it has hitherto been the Tyrant, and not the Pacificator.
- An Essay on Man (PDF 4mb) by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), first pub. 1732-5, this edition London 1796. Humane commentary
Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index