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Alexander Pope attempted to explain what it means to be human and how he should behave. His writing was done in a grand scale, similar in extent to the works of great writers who came before him. In order to correctly interpret and appreciate his masterpiece it would be helpful to know more about the author and the historical context of this particular work of literature.
However, another way to interpret and appreciate this masterwork is through a formalistic approach. In this type of literary criticism, the critique is limited by the text itself and must only focus on the intrinsic meaning.
This technique does not concern with social theories that could have influenced the author like Marxism, liberalism, and feminism. Thus, the formalist criticism of Pope’s work can be accomplished through the close reading of the text with an eye towards the use of rhetorical devices.
Form and Style
In the beginning, the author clarified the purpose of his work. He wanted to understand God, the world, and man. Thus, he said “through worlds not numbered though the God be known, it is ours to trace him only in our own” (Pope, p.7). Thus, it must also be pointed out that the author’s main tool is the power of observation.
It is important to highlight the fact that the author did not use prose to convey his thoughts. It can be argued that he can write a treatise using prose because of his skill as a writer, piece, however, he chose poetry. One can argue that the author finds this method more effective and can provide a better platform for the expression of his ideas.
The theme that immediately jumps out of the pages is one of confusion but not of despair. The author is hopeful that there is a solution to his dilemma. But before going any further it is important to look at how the author uses words to prove his claim.
The first thing that has to be recognized is the mastery of the heroic couplet. There can be a more technical explanation of how a heroic couplet should be used and its intended effect. But in the case of Pope’s work, its main attribute is the capability to deliver a message that is pleasant to the ear but at the same time helps the reader to retain the essence of the message.
The other laudable feature of his poetry is the presence of rhyming words that were placed there not only for the sake of creating a rhyme. These words were carefully chosen not only to provide a beautiful external form for readers to enjoy, but also as a way to enforce the message. It can be comparable to an architect who values both form and function. One of the best examples can be seen in the second epistle where Pope writes:
- Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
- The proper study of mankind is man.
- Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
- A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
- With too much knowledge for the septic side,
- With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride (Pope, p.12).
Ever couplet is an idea that can stand alone. Each couplet is like a cell that can sustain itself. It was designed to impart certain knowledge and at the same time a particular assertion regarding man, God or the world.
In this case the author succeeded in not only expressing what he believes are God’s attributes and man’s behavior tendencies, but also in illustrating man’s mistaken notion about God.
But aside from the power of the verse that speaks about human nature, Pope’s went to a step further. He connected both ideas and combined it into one coherent message that understanding man is dependent on man alone.
Another interesting feature of the use of the heroic couplet is that the author was able to use it without sacrificing unity. It is easier to use prose but he took the more difficult path. Thus, the critique should appreciate how these couplets are woven together into a single tapestry.
For instance, in the second epistle, he began by saying that it is not the responsibility of God to teach man how to understand himself. It is the sole responsibility of man to study mankind and then he ended it by providing the evidence.
He asserted that in an unconscious or conscious manner, human beings had tried for ages to amass knowledge in order to gain understanding about life. The only problem is that man has no way of organizing his thoughts. Although he has increased his stockpile of knowledge he does not know how to use it effectively to provide a solution to some of the most important problems in life.
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It is interesting to note that although he used poetry and demonstrated his master of the use of the heroic couplet, the power of the stanzas cannot be explained only through these techniques. Pope also displayed his mastery of words, especially when it comes to word associations. Consider the following example from the first epistle:
- When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
- His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
- When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
- Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s god (Pope, p.6)
The word associations were as sharp and accurate as the rhyming of the words. The beauty in the composition is not only in the external form but the content. The ideas are packed so closely because there is not a single word that was wasted or out of place.
The use of metaphors are purposely ordered to create a specific effect and not simply for the sake of decoration. When he wanted to express man’s wisdom and man’s folly side-by-side he used word associations to force the mind to consider something that is so obvious but escapes his notice.
He brought the reader’s attention to a fiery stallion. There is no better way to express a fiery attitude, an explosive character that cannot be bent so easily. Nevertheless, man was able to bend the will of a wild horse. His abilities and wisdom has given him the power to tame a wild thing. Thus, he is able to force an animal many times his strength to do his bidding.
However, the author immediately switches to another related aspect of man’s nature. Although, there are numerous examples to his amazing capabilities there are also examples to his folly.
In this regard Pope could never have used a better imagery in the same way that he depicted the foolishness of worshipping worthless idols. He made his point much clearer because he simply did not say that it is foolish to worship something that cannot speak and move. He went even further by pointing to a dim-witted cow.
A cow was placed side-by-side with a fiery horse. The cow is easily controlled by man. The cow cannot outrun man and therefore easily managed. After that Pope brought in another image, that of a cow breaking clod. There is no better way to picture slavery.
The cow is a slave and not only that, the cow is made to do something that is dirty. No human being would like to be caught breaking the hardened earth or forced into servitude to do the works reserved for beasts of burden. But here the cow willingly obeyed the master.
Pope changed gears once again to say that although this is the truth, there are people who worship cows, turn them into deities and sacrifice other animals or even fellow human beings to honor them.
The genius of Pope is seen not only in the expert use of poetry but also in connecting meanings to the clever use of word associations. For example he did not only talk about the foolishness of turning cows to deities but he also chose the term Egypt or Egyptians to show that sophisticated cultures fell victim to an erroneous method of thinking.
Therefore, the goal of the author is to correct the way people think about themselves. At first the poem started in confusion and despair. The folly of man is evident. The excesses of his pride and lust have led him to dark places.
There seem to be no hope but at the end, the author made a clear argument that there is a light at the end of the darkened tunnel. His solution is to use reason and to understand how the world behaves to provide insight that can be used to illuminate the mind.
The author’s use of poetry and heroic couplets provided him the means to deliver a significant amount of information while at the same time demonstrate the efficient use of limited space. However, his rhyming words are only part of the profound power and beauty of his work. It is the clever use of word associations that enabled him to make his mark as a powerful writer.
Pope, Alexander. Essay on Man. PA: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1999.