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In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
For more perfection than this state can bear
Ver. 11. Alike in ignorance, &c.] 1. e. The proper sphere of his reason is so narrow, and the exercise of it so nice, that the too immoderate use of it is attended with the same ignorance that proceeds from the not using it at all. Yet though, in both these cases, he is abused by himself, he has it still in his own power to disabuse himself, in making his passions subservient to the means, and regulating his Reason by the end of life. W.
Ver. 12. Whether he thinks too little,] It was observed by Bayle above a hundred years ago," that philosophy might be compared to certain powders, so very corrosive, thąt, having consumed the proud and spongy flesh of a wound, they would corrode even the quick and sound flesh, rot the bones, and penetrate to the very marrow. Philosophy is proper at first to confute errors, but if she be not stopped there, she attacks truth itself; and, when she has her full scope, she generally goes so far that she loses herself, and knows not where to stop." What would Bayle have said if he had seen the uses to which philosophy has been applied in the present times?
Go, wondrous creature ! mount where Science
guides, Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides ; 20 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run, Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun; Go, soar with Plato, to th’ empyreal sphere, To the first good, first perfect, and first fair ; Or tread the mazy round his follow'rs trod, 25 And quitting sense call imitating God;
Ver. 20. Go, measure earth, &c.] Alluding to the noble and useful labours of the modern Mathematicians, in measuring a degree at the equator and the polar circle, in order to determine the true figure of the earth ; of great importance to astronomy and navigation; and which proved of equal honour to the wonderful sagacity of Newton. W.
Ver. 22. Correct old Time, &c.] This alludes to Newton's Grecian Chronology, which he reformed on those two sublime conceptions, the difference between the reigns of kings, and the generations of men ; and the position of the colours of the equinoxes and solstices at the time of the Argonautic expedition. W. 30
As eastern priests in giddy circles run,
Superior Beings, when of late they saw
Ver. 29, 30. Go, teach Eternal Wisdom, &c.] These two lines are a conclusion from all that had been said from Ver. 18 to this effect: Go now, vain Man, elated with thy acquirements in real science, and imaginary intimacy with God; go, and run into all the extravagances I have exploded in the first epistle, where thou pretendest to teach Providence how to govern; then drop into the obscurities of thy own nature, and thereby manifest thy ignorance and folly. W.
Ver. 31. Superior Beings, &c.] In these lines the Poet speaks to this effect : “ But to make you fully sensible of the difficulty of this study, I shall instance in the great Newton himself; whom, when superior beings, not long since, saw capable of unfolding the whole law of Nature, they were in doubt whether the owner of such prodigious sagacity should not be reckoned of their order; just as men, when they see the surprising marks of Reason in an Ape, are almost tempted to rank him with their own kind.” And yet this wondrous Man could go no farther in the knowledge of himself than the generality of his species. M. Du Resnel, who understood nothing of all this, translates these four celebrated lines thus,
“ Des celestes Esprits la vive intelligence
Est peut-être pour eux, ce qu’un Singe est pour nous.” But it is not the pity, but the admiration, of those celestial Spirits which is here spoken of. And it was for no slight cause they admired; it was to see a mortal man unfold the whole law of Nature. By which we see it was not Mr. Pope's intention to bring any of the Ape's qualities, but its sagacity, into the comparison. W..
Could he, whose rules the rapid Comet bind, 35 Describe or fix one movement of his Mind ? Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend, Explain his own beginning, or his end? Alas, what wonder! Man's superior part Uncheck'd may rise, and climb from art to art; 40 But when his own great work is but begun, What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.
Trace Science then, with Modesty thy guide: First strip off all her equipage of Pride;
Ver. 35. Ed. 1st.
Could he, who taught each Planet where to roll,
Ver. 34. as we-shew an Ape.] Evidently borrowed from the following passage in the Zodiac of Palingenius, and not, as hath been suggested by Dr. Hurd, from Plato. Pope was a reader and publisher of the modern Poets of Italy who wrote in Latin. The
“ Simia Coelicolâm risusque jocusque Deorum est
Abdita Naturæ scrutari, arcanaque Divům.” Ver. 37. Who saw its fires here rise, &c.] Şir Isaac Newton, in calculating the velocity of a Comet's motion, and the course it describes, when it becomes visible in its descent to and ascent from the Sun, conjectured, with the highest appearance of truth, that Comets revolve perpetually round the Sun, in ellipses vastly eccentrical, and very nearly approaching to parabolas. In which he was greatly confirmed, in observing between two Comets a coincidence in their perihelions, and a perfect agreement in their velocities. W.
Ver. 44. First strip of] The abuses of learning are enumerated with brevity and elegance in these few lines. It was a favourite subject with our author; and it is said he intended to have 45
Deduct what is but Vanity, or Dress,
written four epistles on it, wherein he wonld have treated of the extent and limits of human reason; of arts and sciences useful and attainable; of the different capacities of different men; of the knowledge of the world; and of wit. Such censures, even of the most unimportant parts of literature, should not, however, be carried too far; and a sensible writer observes, that there is not indeed any part of knowledge which can be called entirely useless. “ The most abstracted parts of mathematics, and the knowledge of mythological history, or ancient allegories, have their own pleasures, not inferior to the more gay entertainments of painting, music, or architecture; and it is for the advantage of mankind that some are found who have a taste for these studies. The only fault lies in letting any of those inferior tastes engross the whole man to the exclusion of the nobler pursuits of virtue and humanity*.” We may here apply an elegant observation of Tully, who says, in his Brutus, “ Credo, sed Atheniensium quoque plus interfuit firma tecta in domiciliis habere, quam Minervæ signum ex ebore pulcherriinum: tamen ego me Phidiam esse mallem quam vel optimum fabrum lignarium; quare non quantum quisque prosit, sed quanti quisque sit, ponderandum est: præsertim cum pauci pingere egregie possint aut fingere, operarii autem aut bajuli deesse non possint.”
Ver. 47. Or tricks to shew the stretch of human brain,] Such as the mathematical demonstrations concerning the small quantity of matter; the endless divisibility of it, &c. W.
Ver. 48. Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain ;] i. e. when Admiration has set the mind on the rack. W. Ver. 49. Erpunge the whole, or lop th' excrescent parts
Of all our Vices have created Arts ;] i. e. Those parts of Natural Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric, Poetry, &c. which administer to luxury, deceit, ambition, effeminacy, &c.
* Hatcheson's Nature and Conduct of the Passions, p. 179.