This blog is dedicated to A Pope, one of the most brilliant and “in tune” men ever to have graced our planet.
Am I converting to Catholicism? Making a pilgrimage to the Vatican? Planning to kiss the papal ring? Not at all, my friends…. And it’s no accident that I left the A before “Pope” capitalized – because I’m not referring to any pontiff, any inhabitant of the so-called Holy See… not John-Paul or Pius… and certainly not the guy whose name sounds too much like “Been-a-dick” for my liking.
I’m referring instead to this excellent 18th century English poet:
Alexander Pope, circa 1727
Studio of Michael Dahl, oil on canvas,
National Portrait Gallery 4132, Primary Collection
I find Alexander Pope’s life (as well as his writing) fantastically interesting. Here are a just a few tidbits about his life that might pique your interest as well:
- As a child of Catholic parents at a time when Catholics were forbidden by law (and a very real threat of imprisonment) from teaching, Pope received his early education in secret Catholic schools.
- He suffered from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis that affects the spine, which deformed his body and kept him from ever growing taller than four and a half feet.
- Pope was well-versed in many languages, including French, Italian, Latin and Greek.
- He is the third most quoted writer in the English language (after Shakespeare and Tennyson). Famous phrases that Pope originated include “A little learning is a dangerous thing” and “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
- Because of the biting satire that permeates much of his work, he made many enemies in high society and among other writers – so much so that he never went for a walk without his Great Dane and without two loaded revolvers in his pockets.
I’ve had a hard time deciding which piece of his to feature in this blog. His best and wittiest works (An Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Man and The Dunciad come to mind) are too long to reproduce here. I don’t know of any poem by him that would fit on a single page. I guess you could call him the Lord of the Large Poem… lol. (And don’t let the word “Essay” in the titles I mentioned fool you into expecting dry prose. Like Shakepeare’s plays and Milton’s epics, Pope’s “essays” are also remarkably fluid poetic verse.)
So I’m settling on what I consider one of the most profound passages in world literature – written at a time when there was no such thing as psychology – and written by a man who lived most of his life in tremendous physical pain. This is a very short selection from “Epistle 2: Of the Nature and State of Man With Respect to Himself, as an Individual” from Alexander Pope’s famous An Essay on Man:
* * * * * * * *
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 sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
– A Pope
* * * * * * * *
Download a free e-book of Pope’s complete An Essay on Man here: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2428
Read Wikipedia’s biography of Alexander Pope here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pope
And if you’d like to immerse yourself even further in Pope’s fascinating life and work, I suggest these volumes available through my Amazon Bookstore: