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ARGUMENT OF EPISTLE I.
Of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to the
Of Man in the abstract.--1. That we can judge only with regard to
our own system, being ignorant of the relations of systems and things, Ver. 17, &c. II. That Man is not to be deemed imperfect, but a Being suited to his place and rank in the creation, agreeable to the general Order of things, and conformable to Ends and Relations to him unknown, Ver. 35, &c. III. That it is partly upon his ignorance of future events, and partly upon the hope of a future state, that all his happiness in the present depends, Ver. 77, &c. IV. The pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more perfection, the cause of Man's error and misery. The impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and judging of the
fitness or unfitness, perfection or imperfection, justice or injustice, of his dispensations, Ver. 109, &c. V. The absurdity of conceiting himself the final cause of the creation, or. expecting that perfection in the moral world, which is not in the natural, Ver. 131, &c. VI. The unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while on the one hand he demands the Perfections of the Angels, and on the other the bodily qualifications of the Brutes ; though, to possess any of the sensitive faculties in a higher degree, would render him miserable, Ver. 173, &c. VII. That throughout the whole visible world, a universal order and gradation in the sensual and mental faculties is observed, which causes a subordination of creature to creature, and of all creatures to Man. The gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, reason : that Reason alone countervails all the other faculties, Ver. 207. VIII. How much farther this order and subordination of living creatures may extend, above and below us ;, were any part of which broken, not that part only, but the whole connected creation must be destroyed, Ver. 233.
IX. The extravagance, madness, and pride, of such a desire, Ver. 250. X. The consequence of all, the absolute submission due to Providence, both as to our present and future state, Ver. 281, &c. to the end.
If it be a true observation, that for a poet to write happily and well, he must have seen and felt what he describes, and must draw from living models alone; and if modern times, from their luxury and refinement, afford not manners that will bear to be described; it will then follow, that those species of poetry bid fairest to succeed at present, which deliver doctrines, not display events. Of this sort is didactic and descriptive poetry. Accordingly the moderns have produced many excellent pieces of this kind. We may mention the Syphilis of Fracastorius, the Silkworms and Chess of Vida, the Ambra of Politian, the Agriculture of Alamanni, the Art of Poetry of Boileau, the Gardens of Rapin, the Cyder of Philips, the Chase of Somerville, the Pleasures of Imagination, the Art of preserving Health, the Fleece, the Religion of Racine the younger, the elegant Latin poem of Brown on the Immortality of the Soul, the Latin poems of Stay and Boscovick, and the philosophical poem before us; to which, if we may judge from some beautiful fragments, we might have added Gray's didactic poem on Education and Government, had he lived to finish it: and the English Garden of Mr. Mason must not be omitted.
Pope informs us, in his first preface to this Essay," that he chose this epistolary way of writing, notwithstanding his subject was high, and of dignity, because of its being mixed with argument which of its nature approacheth to prose.” He has not wandered into any useless digressions; has employed no fictions, no tale or story, and has relied chiefly on the poetry of his style for the purpose of interesting his readers. His style is concise and figurative, forcible and elegant. He has many metaphors and images, artfully interspersed in the driest passages, which stood most in need of such ornaments. Nevertheless there are too many lines in this performance, plain and prosaic. The meaner the subject is of a preceptive poem, the more striking appears the art of the poet: it is even of use, perhaps, to choose a low subject. In this respect Virgil has the advantage over Lucretius ; the latter, with all his vigour aud sublimity of genius, could hardly satisfy and come up to the grandeur of his theme. Hope labours under the same difficulty. If any beauty in this Essay be uncommonly transcendent and peculiar, it is brevity of diction; which in a few instances, and those perhaps pardonable, has occasioned obscurity. It is hardly to be imagined how much sense, how much thinking, how much observation on human life, is condensed together in a small compass. He was so accustomed to confine his thoughts in rhyme, that he tells us he could express them more shortly this
way than in prose itself. On its first publication Pope did not own it, and it was given by the public to Lord Paget, Dr. Young, Dr. Desaguliers, and others. Even Swift seems to have been deceived. There is a remarkable passage in one of his letters; “I confess I did never imagine you were so deep in morals, or that so many and excellent rules could be produced so advantageously and agreeably in that science, from any one head. I confess in some places I was forced to read twice. I believe I told you
before what the Duke of D said to me on that occasion ; how a judge here, who knows you, told him, that, on the first reading those Essays, he was much pleased, but found some lines a little dark: On the second, most of them cleared up, and his pleasure increased : On the third, he had no doubt remaining, and then he admired the whole.”
The subject of this Essay is a vindication of Providence; in which the poet proposes to prove, That, of all possible systems, Infinite Wisdom has formed the best : That in such a system, coherence, union, subordination, are necessary; and if so, that appearances of evil, both moral and natural, are also necessary and unavoidable: That the seeming defects and blemishes in the universe conspire to its general beauty : That as all parts in an animal are not eyes; and as in a city, comedy, or picture, all ranks, characters, and colours, are not equal or alike; even so excesses and contrary qualities contribute to the proportion and harmony of the universal system : That it is not strange that we should not be able to discover perfection and order in every instance; because, in an infinity of things mutually relative, a mind which sees not infinitely, can see nothing fully. This doctrine was inculcated by Plato and the Stoics, but more amply and particularly by the later Platonists, and by Antoninus and Simplicius.
In illustrating his subject, Pope has been much more deeply indebted to the Theodicée of Leibnitz, to Archbishop King's Origin of Evil, and to the Moralists of Lord Shaftesbury (particularly to the last), than to the philosophers above mentioned. The late Lord Bathurst repeatedly assured me, that he had read the whole scheme of the Essay on Man, in the hand-writing of Bolingbroke, and drawn up in a series of propositions, which Pope was to amplify, versify, and illustrate. In doing which, our poet, it must be confessed, left several passages so expressed, as to be favourable to fatalism and necessity, notwithstanding all the pains that
can be taken, and the artful turns that can be given to those passages, to place them out on the side of religion, and make them coincide with the fundamental doctrines of revelation. How
could Pope, in the letter which he wrote to Racine, the son, 1742, venture to say, that his opinions were exactly conformable to those of Pascal, who, throughout all his Thoughts, is incessantly inculcating the absolute necessity of believing that man is in a fallen and degraded state ; an opinion which is strongly denied in every line of the Essay on Man? And which opinion of Pope, Racine has justly stated in the following lines; La Religion, Chant. 2.
Quelque abstrait Raisonneur, qui ne se plaint de rien,
Nous place à notre rang pour orner son tableau !" Pope has indeed inadvertantly borrowed some passages from Pascal, but they have only served to make this system more inconsistent. For how can man be a - chaos of thought and passion all confus'd, and yet be as perfect a being as he ought to be?” The doctrine obviously intended to be inculcated in this Essay is, “ That the dispensations of Providence in the distribution of good and evil, in this life, stand in no need of any hypothesis to justify them; all is adjusted in the most perfect order; whatever is, is right; and we have no occasion to call in the notion of a future life to vindicate the ways of God to man, because they are fully and sufficiently benevolent and just in the present.” If we cannot subscribe, on one hand, to Dr. Warburton's opinion, “ that these epistles have a precision, force, and closeness of connexion, rarely to be met with, even in the most formal treatises of philosophy;" yet neither can we assent to the severe sentence that Dr. Johnson has passed on the other hand; namely, “ that penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment, were never so happily disguised as in this Essay; the reader feels his mind full, though he learns nothing; and, when he meets it in his new array, no longer knows the talk of his mother and his nurse.”
It has been alleged, that Pope did not fully comprehend the drift of the system communicated to him by Bolingbroke; but the following remarkable words of his intimate friend, Mr. Jonathan Richardson, a man of known integrity and honour, clearly evince that he did : “ As for this Essay on Man, as I was witness to the whole conduct of it in writing, and actually have his original manuscripts for it, from the first scratches of the four books, to the several finished copies (of his own neat and elegant writing these last); all which, with the manuscript of his Essay on Criti cism, and several of his other works, he gave me himself, for the pains I took in collating the whole with the printed editions, at his request, on my having proposed to him the making an edition of his works in the manner of Boileau's. As to this noblest of his works, I know that he never dreamed of the scheme he afterward adopted; perhaps for good reasons ; for he had taken terror about the clergy, and Warburton himself, at the general alarm of its fatalism and deistical tendency; of which, however, we talked with him (my father and I) frequently at Twickenham, without his appearing to understand it otherwise, or even thinking to alter those passages, which he suggested as what might seem the most exceptionable."
To this testimony of Richardson, which is decisive, I will now dd that Lord Lyttleton, with his usual frankness and ingenuity, assured me, that he had frequently talked with Pope on the subject, whose opinions were at that time conformable to his own; before he had written his Observations on the Conversion of St. Paul, when he and his friends (not excepting Mr. Gilbert West) were, as he most candidly confessed, too much inclined to deism, but had fortunately become a most serious and earnest believer of Christianity. Is it not more probable and reasonable to suppose, that Pope might also change his opinion, though, at the time of writing the Essay on Man, he was tinctured with principles of another kind; and that he was equally in earnest when he was a disciple of Bolingbroke, as he afterward was when he became a disciple of Warburton ? It is incredible that he should not be acquainted with the objections that Bolingbroke held against revealed religion; which objections are perpetually repeated, and pervade all his works. But Pope might not indeed know the real opinions of his guide concerning a particular important topic—the moral attributes of the Deity. These two cases are widely different: and there lies a vast space betwixt these two species of infidelity. A man may be unhappily and unjustly prejudiced against the Christian religion, and yet be fully and firmly persuaded of the belief of a God, and his moral attributes. Mr. Harte more than once assured me, that he had seen the pressing letter Dr. Young wrote to Pope, urging him to write something on the side of revelation ; to which he alluded in the first Night-thought :
“ O had he press’d his theme, pursu'd the track
immortal man !”