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Pope S Dunciad Analysis Essay

It is a commonplace to say that Alexander Pope recognised and feared what the coming explosion of print would do to our consciousness, and so wrote his epic, The Dunciad, in protest. I am writing this review when that period of domination is coming to an end: when the printed book is being displaced, replaced, by electronic text. I am also conscious, as a bibliographer, that one of the byproducts of the coming age of the book that Pope disliked most was the rise of bibliographical and textual scholarship, which is why he chose as monarch of his hell a textual critic. As an editor himself he understood textual scholarship very well, and so made his principal attack on it not in the content of the poem, but, with cunning appropriateness, in its carefully stage-managed bibliography. It seems to me that the basis of his attack is true, and the fact that we are moving into a position where we can look back on the dominance of the paper book, as he was able to look forward at it, enables us to see this truth. Moreover the period of transition that we are going through has produced its own debates about the nature and value of the book, and book-scholarship, that resonate curiously with the debates enshrined in The Dunciad. Since the argument is essentially about the nature of textual reproduction, it is rather appropriate that the context of this discussion should be a review of a reproduction of the first edition of Pope's Dunciad.

It may be helpful to remind readers of the textual history of this poem. The book under review is a facsimile of a particular copy of the first edition of the first version of The Dunciad of 1728: the copy now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, in which one Jonathan Richardson (1694-1771) recorded in manuscript, apparently at Pope's request, his collations of an early MS of the poem. The book is jointly published for the University Press of Virginia and the New York Public Library by the University Press of Virginia with a long and highly skilled textual introduction by its editor, David L. Vander Meulen. The whole production is very beautiful, and very expensive.

The first edition of The Dunciad which it replicates was published in 1728. It was anonymous, with a deceitful title page that announced it as a reprint of an earlier and non-existent Irish edition. This fist version of the poem is quite lightly annotated by a mock-editor, who was of course Pope himself; the hero of the poem, who is therefore its villain, since everything in this work is inverted, is Lewis Theobald, for reasons not unconnected with Theobald's devastating Shakespeare Restor'd, a scholarly attack on Pope's insufficiently scholarly edition of Shakespeare. Many other individuals are attacked in the poem too. They figure not as names in this edition but as blanks: dashes, usually with appended initials, as in "C--l" or "C--r", that together with the rhyme and metre, hint at but do not completely specify the referent of the blank.

On its publication The Dunciad became part of a pamphlet war, an interpretive polyphony of text and counter-text. Edmund Curll, seeing himself in "C--l", published a twenty-four page Compleat Key to the Dunciad, only ten days after its appearance. Pope issued two more printings of the poem within a month, each giving rise to a new edition of Curll's annotations, and other keys were produced to join in the fray, including a pirated edition with the blanks filled in. All of this was precisely part of the aesthetic project, since it duplicated the proliferation of editions, conjectures, and vitriol that is the stuff of editorial scholarship: it gave Pope the variety that enabled him to produce the Variorum Dunciad, as, apparently, he had planned all along. This came out the following Spring: it collected and commented on the annotations and variants that the textual proliferation had produced, dealing indiscriminately, or rather with mock-discrimination, with those written by Pope and those emanating from his enemies. This publication then elicited further keys, and further editions and revisions, and so on--indefinitely. Pope parodied and pilloried editing not only by producing a mock edition, but by inventing a self-perpetuating machine, a greater Dunciad, that went on creating itself and generating jokes against bibliography long after his death. Textual and bibliographical scholarship of The Dunciad simply continued the project, squabbling over editions and annotations, right up to the present: as Vander Meulen points out, "the standard Twickenham Edition even quotes Curll for identifications that Pope and his commentator Scriblerus fail to make" (p.21).

The concepts of author, authority, editor, and text are thoroughly beset with riddles and paradoxes. This edition, which is the first, announces itself as (at least) the second, a reprint of an earlier Dublin edition. This convinced bibliographers until well into the nineteenth century. The book is anonymous. It claims that it was printed for Anne Dodd (in fact, it was probably printed for Alexander Pope). The Irish reference is to suggest that Swift wrote it, and Swift collaborated with this confusion, calling himself the causa sine qua non of the poem; he may indeed have had some hand in it. The editor of the poem (who is its author) in his preface suggests that the supposed author (who didn't exist) wrote it in a pastiche of the style of Pope, who is the person who actually wrote it, and announced his intention as editor as provoking the author (that is, himself) to produce 'a more perfect edition' (v). And so on.

On a bibliographical level too this text is subversive, and self-subverting. Pope, suggests Vander Meulen, planned "to publish a fuller edition in which he could contend that this first one (which would serve him by provoking the dunces to make responses that he could incorporate in the second) was published without his authority" (p.18). Its textual fluidity is remarkable. It underwent three major revisions, "in thirty-three separate editions and about sixty impressions and issues" (p.23). The complexity, and the bibliographical mayhem that ensued, is a wonderful example of how the poem went on creating its own content (that is, attacking bibliographers) in a live and vivid way long after the death of its author:

    Although Pope later denounced the 1728 Dunciad as "Imperfect" and "surreptitious," he took his characteristic care in its production, not only reading proof but also issuing the book in both ordinary- and fine-paper formats. Within three weeks of the first publication on 18 May, so-called second and third editions also appeared. . . . In actuality, each of these was merely a reimpression from standing type, with roughly one gathering in each reset. The same is true of a second "Third Edition" (P768) which must have followed shortly but whose publication date is uncertain.

    Determining which of the first two issues had priority has occasioned some of the nastiest squabbling in Pope studies since the original War of the Dunces . . . (p. 31).

It is pleasant to see that T. J. Wise was part of this train of squabblers, and therefore became a character in the greater Dunciad. Wise, of course, was a satire against bibliography in his own right: had this extraordinarily corrupt individual--bibliographer, forger, book-collector and book-destroyer: the man who ripped pages out of books in the British Museum to create entirely spurious books which he then donated to the British Museum--not existed, then only the black imagination of Alexander Pope could have invented him.

In the greater Dunciad Pope succeeded in creating a book that has no boundaries. Part of the power of the printed book is that it is bounded: it is separate from its readers. As I read I create meaning in collaboration with the inked marks on the page. But there is a myth of the book that tells me (deceivingly) that these marks are a boundary I cannot cross: I am on the outside of their meaning, and they are on the inside. And they are fixed, forever. Transgression of this magic boundary is only allowed to textual editors, who rather thrillingly have in their control the right to alter the fixed text. All of this is deconstructed in The Dunciad. The distinction between author and editor is mocked and subverted; the process of annotation, which attempts to control and specify meaning, is made impossible. The protagonists of this epic are not fixed individuals, but blank signifiers, whose referents were to be, as the (un)editor of the 1728 edition says, 'clapp'd in as they rose, fresh and fresh, and chang'd from day to day' (vii). Since the whole point of annotation resides in the notion that obscurities are in principle resolvable, and words, especially names, have a specific, fixed, and discoverable reference, this makes the business of editorial annotation absurd. And of course Pope's mocking notes, in successive editions, add to the creative chaos, and further cast doubt on the whole business of annotation.(1) And, as this editor intelligently remarks, on the distinction between author and reader. The blanks, which the reader is invited to fill in (as Jonathan Richardson filled them in in the Berg Dunciad) transgress the boundaries of the book by making it collaborative:

    the work became what our age might call "interactive," in that the text became subject to modification by readers' comments, many of which were recorded in the notes (and, when they thus became part of the text, literally affected the shape of the work (p.25).

The destruction of the boundaries of the book go even further:

    what The Dunciad's keys and many of its footnotes--especially those incorporating identifications from the keys--do for their host work [is to] translate fiction into fact; they connect the world in the text with the human world outside of the book. Pope's initials and blanks do not inevitably refer to living people, but the filled blanks and the notes make them do so (p.25).

And every time the book is edited, the mockery continues: the Twickenham editor of the Variorum, with wonderful (I hope conscious) irony, mixes in his own scholarly annotations in with Pope's anti-scholarly ones.

The greater Dunciad, the drama of bibliography that emanates from Pope's poem, is the justification for this book. At first this justification is hard to see: as soon as one opens it one is faced with one of the problems of reproduction. It is not easy to read the text of the 1728 Dunciad in this version, since the original printing was on thin paper, and the show-through is lovingly reproduced in this facsimile; harder still because the MS annotations (which are themselves extremely difficult to read) distract from and occasionally obscure the text. But because the text was designed to take its part in a bibliographical drama of edition and counter-edition, the specificity of its appearance and the texture of its pages can be said to have a meaning that those of other works do not possess.(2) And the annotations show a contemporary reader in the very act of interacting with the poem, and announce its collaborative, boundless, status.

Nonetheless, any reproduction of The Dunciad cannot help but take its part in the ironic attack on bibliography that is its theme, and this book is no exception. Precisely for the reason that what it does, it does so well. Consider this: the bibliographical investigation in the introduction to the facsimile is meticulous, its presentation lucid and judicious; but relatively few will find it interesting, and, in the centre of this book, surrounded by this good scholarship, is a poem about the dullness of good scholarship: an attack, by a careless, creative editor on the meticulous tedium of a correct editor. Or consider this: the first edition of Pope's Dunciad, that 'scurrilous, obscene, and impious Satire', first appeared in the form of 'an unprepossessing little pamphlet of fifty-two pages'.(3) It has now appeared again, in the form of a very beautiful book of xvii+174 pages. The main purpose and point of this fine piece of bookmaking is to reproduce, as utterly exactly as possible, one copy of the original unprepossessing pamphlet. And indeed it does: the quality of the photography is quite extraordinary. The battered, torn, folded, and dirty scraps of 18th century paper positively glow from the page: the incompetent variation ininking, the aforementioned show-through, even the dirty and completely blank end papers, are enshrined in the generous margins and thick cream stock of this handsome edition. The eighteenth-century printers clearly had other things on their minds when they impressed the first version; whereas this book is meticulously printed, in two colours, so that the sepia page numbers and headline rules, on a very delicately sepia-tinted paper, could be distinguished (rather subtly) from the black text, and even more subtly allude to the handsome brown binding and the dirty brown of the original book, here carefully reproduced.(4) The comparison is irresistible--even the colours suggest it: it is a bug preserved in amber.

However, there were other motives in the publication of this book than making the physical appearance of the 1728 Dunciad "available to a wider audience" (p.ix) than the presumably extremely small number of people who have called it up from wherever it is kept in the NYPL. This is revealed rather clearly in a Foreword by the Curator of the Berg Collection, Lola L. Szladits. She lists with possessive pride their other Pope holdings: when the 1728 The Dunciad was bought in 1941, she says, it "joined what has now become a group of about one hundred and fifty early editions of Pope--a collection that ranks only about tenth in the number of such items but stands at the forefront in their significance. On the shelves surrounding this book are such volumes as . . . " and a list follows. "Only about tenth . . . " is a revealing phrase: what complex calculations, what carefully maintained league tables it reveals. Tenth in Pope, but fourth in Dryden, perhaps, ninth in Milton, second equal in Swift?

This accounts for a curious feeling about possessing the review copy of this beautiful book. It is not, after all, a text that most people would buy: the academic libraries will have it, and that is where the relatively few people who wish to look at it, or even read it, it will go in order to do so.(5) Owning one's own copy seems somehow unnatural: intruding, perhaps, on some quite different reproductive transaction. The source of this unease, I suggest, may be this. Great academic libraries are faced with an unfortunate paradox. The principal point of libraries, clearly, is to make books available for people to read. But the most expensive acquisitions, the ones that are most precious, the most bestowing of merit and status, will almost inevitably be the least read.(6) And a book that is not being read is not living a very rich or interesting existence, closed, on a shelf, mostly hidden, showing only its not particularly beautiful spine. One cannot hang a book on a wall: one can display it, of course, but that too doesn't feel very satisfactory. Books under glass are sad dead things, prevented because of their value from being valuable: from being read.

One way of getting round this problem is to clone the book: to reproduce the reproduction (all printed books are reproductions) and send copies out, like floating seeds, to other libraries. A primary purpose of that exercise must be to exalt the original, of which the clones are only copies, and therefore to magnify the library that possesses it. This justifies and celebrates not only the possessing library, but also the act of possession itself, and so the business is collaborative, and somehow essentially private between libraries: a kind of mating ritual, conducted between these great institutions, as they help and encourage each other to multiply.

Of course, it will be said that the other purpose of great libraries is preservation, and this is true. But I would maintain that this preservative purpose is subservient to the main purpose: books should be preserved so that people can read them. If books are seen as valuable possessions only, if they are fetishised and hoarded (in a way that T. J. Wise would not find unfamiliar) and boundaries are set between the book and the reader, then the life of the book, and the life of the library that contains it, is negated. It is, in fact, a question of reproduction. An obvious way to keep rare books safe and, at the same time, make them available, is to reproduce them, not in expensive facsimiles like the one I have in front of me, but as photocopies. But this promiscuous copying is felt in some quarters to be counter-productive: cheap reproductions are somehow illegitimate, and deprive the parent version of status. The Director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas is quite explicit about this:

    Changing technology raises some dramatic questions for HRC. With the advent of Xerox and other cheap copying techniques, the uniqueness of the HRC holdings becomes threatened. The purpose of the 9 million literary manuscripts at HRC has been to gather in one place materials not available elsewhere as a support to full research. We will not purchase materials which have already been Xeroxed and/or microfilmed. Why should we? If copies exist elsewhere, why should we spend the dollars and the talent to purchase and classify them? These technology-instituted issues are immensely critical to HRC.

Critical indeed. "9 million literary manuscripts." Suddenly one begins to perceive the sheer weight of what is at issue in the politics of reproduction.

This quotation is taken from G. T. Tanselle's article "Reproduction and Scholarship".(7) Tanselle engages with this issue with fierce precision, and is (rightly) completely dismissive of this possessiveness. But he too does not believe in photocopying. The question is, he says, exactly what is it that is reproduced, when reproduction takes place?

    Even if the production of copies were always accurately handled and even if the reproductions themselves were never distorted or misleading in their representation of the originals, they would still be unsatisfactory. . . . The essential fact one must come back to is that every reproduction is a new document, with characteristics of its own, and no artifact can be a substitute for another artifact. (pp.33-4)

Well, yes and no: it all depends on what you want the artifact for. For instance, I didn't feel the need to machine-collate a number of copies of volume 42 of Studies in Bibliography in order to read Tanselle's article, and in fact am quite happy to work from a photocopy, since I don't think that the possibility of error, or the variation in reading experience, is sufficient to justify the effort in doing anything else. The same would go for Tom Jones, for most purposes of reading that book. This is a perfectly normal and sensible procedure. If you ask an engineer to machine a metal rod a meter long, he or she will probably ask "For what purpose?" in order to find out what kind of tolerances in measurement would be required. This is because a metal rod exactly one meter long is an impossibility. Similarly, what most readers, like most human beings, do in most circumstances is to measure effort against reward. I suggest that Tanselle's "essential fact" is transcendental, having the same mode of (non-)existence as the one-meter rod. Since the anchor of his position is transcendental, to disagree with it is to be made to feel somehow sinful: to use photocopies is to be, Tanselle says, not a serious reader. I wish to disagree. If, as he explicitly suggests, all serious readers are or should be bibliographers (p.29), then it is difficult to see why so few people are members of the Bibliographical Society. It is also an insult to the vast majority of serious readers.

This concern about reproduction is very much part of the culture of the book, and its attendant bibliographical scholarship; and it is about to pass out of existence. The equation, where utility is weighed against effort, has recently changed rather rdically, in that access to reproduction has become vastly easier. Here is another distinguished librarian:

    Dr Terry Belanger has recently predicted the increasing disinclination of major research libraries in North America to maintain large permanent collections of paper-based books of any kind. Current stock, he foresees, will become gradually depleted and then destroyed. The economic pressures to contract are just too great to be resisted. In place of the books we know, libraries will keep banks of master-texts/master-negatives/master-disks from which temporary off-screen reading copies will be produced--"temporary physical manifestations of a permanent electronic ideal."

This quotation, from D.F. McKenzie's Bibliographical Society Centenary Lecture, delivered in July 1992 but not published until 1993,(8) is already out of date: I can from my desk, and within minutes, summon up the text or the page-images of hundreds of books and manuscripts, including, for instance, the most precious of all English Literary manuscripts, the British Library's Beowulf MS. The temporary paper realisation of these 'banks of master-texts' will not take place in a library, but will issue from my own printer. And this, surely, is the way libraries will go, and in many cases are going. Two weeks ago I read in my daily paper that the British Library is planning to stop taking a copy of every single book published, and so no longer exercise its full rights as a copyright library. Today, I read this:

    The Library of Congress is planning to convert into digital form its most important items, and those in the collections of all public and research libraries in the US. The project would create a vast "virtual library" of digitised images of books, drawings, manuscripts and photographs. They would be sent through networks to computer screens and high-definition television sets, accessible to millions of students and researchers.(9)

McKenzie argues against this flight from the paper book in somewhat similar terms to Tanselle's, but with a warmth and eloquence that I find moving and persuasive:

    Any simulation (including re-presentation in a database--a copy of a copy) is an impoverishment, a theft of evidence, a denial of more exact and immediate visual and tactile ways of knowing, a destruction of their quiddity as collaborative products under the varying historical conditions of their successive realisations. [We should] pay respect to the richness of evidence all textual forms themselves contain, and to the skilled labour that went into the choice of their materials, design, and execution. The signs we read in the artifacts we keep tell us of the lives lived by men and women who had identities just as distinct and valuable as our own (pp. 24-5)

I find this powerful and convincing, but then, I would: I am a bibliographer, and have spent a good part of my working life paying, and teaching, exactly that respect, ever since I first learned it, from reading McKenzie's "Printers of the Mind",(10) 25 years ago. But I also know this: that libraries are not for bibliographers, they are for readers, and so are books. It is much more important that books should be read than that they should be examined by bibliographers, by an enormous order of magnitude. And this, certainly, was the view expressed by Alexander Pope.

Which brings me back to The Dunciad. What I wish to suggest about this text is that the values that it embodies and defends are those of a pre-book culture; and the post-book culture, into which we are moving, is in interesting ways similar to the milieu of Pope, and different from the book-culture espoused by McKenzie, by Tanselle, by all of my work as a bibliographer, and by the hero of The Dunciad. The best way to see this is to try to look backwards, as Pope looked forwards, at the paper book. One of the consequences of living, as we do, at the end of its dominance as the most authoritative, the most culturally valued means of communication of information, is that we can begin to guess at the nature of the spell that it has had over us: the illusions that it has fostered; the myth that we have lived because of it.

The text that is coming, electric text, is like speech: fluid, impermanent, profuse, diffuse. It is also boundless, as meaning is boundless: there is no end to the referentiality of language, just as there is no end to the hypertext links in the WorldWide Web. The medium that electronic text has replaced, book text, is the opposite of that: solid, apparently permanent, exact, precise, confined. Consider the ease of creating and disseminating electric text, where I can write what I like at the speed almost of speech, and distribute it to a thousand people in a moment, with a keystroke; and each of those people can keep it for ever, or, more likely, dismiss it with a keystroke. Or change it: as it flows into their computer, they can not only restyle it--set it, for instance, in 12 point Palatino leaded 6 points--but they can find and replace anything in it, or completely rewrite it: they can make it theirs. Or they can come back to me and criticise it, or add to it, or engage in any kind of dialogue about it, with dazzling brush-fire speed, heat, and immediacy. Just like the audience that interacted with Pope's poem. Contrast this with the sheer effort and investment of money required to create and disseminate book text, the work of copyists and compositors and copy-editors and printers and binders and agents and distributors and booksellers--and many others. For this reason the book appears to have intrinsic value: it is solid, labour made it, it has, it seems, a worth of its own. It is immensely refereed. This conveys the illusion that fixed meaning resides in it: the weight of the book in my hand seems to be the weight and solidity and permanence of knowledge in it. Whereas the fugitive dance of electrons on the computer monitor, that I can wipe, or change, or endlessly duplicate, in a moment, is not like that. The text, however, might be identical. And it is the electric text that is a truer representation of how meaning is actually conveyed in written text. Meaning, unlike the book and like the electrons, has no weight and very little permanence: it dances in and out of existence, it is fugitive and temporary. Tom Jones is not, as we think it is, hundreds of pages, or thousands of words, solid, a monument, enduring; it is every reader's imperfect and shifting recollection of the moment-by-moment experience of reading most of those words; or the shifting mixture of recollection and anticipation that surround the moment of reading itself. It is a lot more like the Internet than it is like the book that we erroneously think it is. Tom Jones is not a book.

Textual criticism belongs to the age of the book. Writing a poem on a word processor is a joy: the poem shapes itself on the illusory page on the screen, in a beautiful typeface that automatically lays itself out as one works on it. It is like shaping clay with the hands: one can carve and pare and pad and substitute until the thing crystallises into its own shape. And all of the discarded parings and false starts vanish completely, like previous shapes of the clay, now remoulded and forgotten: the false starts and preliminary versions vanish for ever. Those textual critics who, like Theobald, "lost blunders nicely seek" are obsolete. And, once shaped, the text can flow from my computer from one to another temporary realisation with perfect fidelity of reproduction.

Part of the power of the myth of print, and part of the motivating force of textual criticism, is that since print freezes meaning, and appears to last, it can draw on the energy of strong myths of permanence, of life after death as a reward for greatess, or goodness: authors, like Beowulf, are lofgeornost, desirous of immortal praise. A piece of their mind will last for ever, they think. Textual critics wish to fix the book, to help create this immortality by restricting the natural tendency of text to create meanings and resonances (the information wants to be free). The solidity of the physical object that they create, the new edited text, suggests--almost enforces--the illusion that the text that they should aim to embody in it should be the real, only one. The definitive edition. This is why they naturally turn to intentionalism, in asserting the possibility of a real essence that can be captured, fixed, made permanent: made into a book. In order to anchor the flow of meaning a transcendent, as usual, is needed, and this is conveniently provided by the intentions of the (immortal) author, who is so like a god of the book she creates as to make very little difference. The illusion of intentionalist editing was pilloried for all time by Borges (that famous bibliographer), who wrote the other great satire on textual editing, the story of Pierre Menard, the 'author' of Quixote. He, it will be remembered, achieved a scholarship so impeccable, an identification with the author so complete, that he wholly and completely captured the real intended text of Quixote, and wrote the entirety of Don Quixote out from scratch without ever consulting the original.

The fact that textual criticism always runs up against the mess and evanescence of real intentions and real human beings and their products, so that the end-product is invariably a hotchpotch of compromises (most textual cruces, remember, are not soluble: it is as simple as that) seems for the most part to be simply an unrecognised contradiction. At least, that is, to a majority of editors who work with printed books. Those who work on manuscripts are very familiar with the kind of fluid situation that I have described as characteristic of the post-book period. The most famous example is the editorial work of George Kane and Talbot Donaldson on Piers Plowman; the situation is very familiar too to anyone who has spent much time tracing the main medium of publication of the majority of sixteenth and seventeenth century lyric poems: the manuscript commonplace books of the university and court wits. Editorial attempts to freeze these texts into print intrude on the collaborative flow of meaning between a group of equals who knew each other, and who, as George Kane remarked, cared deeply about the text they interacted with. One becomes Pope's vision of the editor: the pedant who gets in the way of the poetry and makes it dull.

Of course, there is a down-side to the post-book text. In Johnson's famous phrase, in the age of the electronic text it is literally raining knowledge, and all one needs to do is to hold out a hand. But to extract useful information from this immense promiscuity is not easy, without the filtering effect of the book. Pope's other enemy, nonsense, is also immensely liberated by the vast democracy of the internet, where anyone, it seems, can publish anything to everyone. Pope, who was not a democrat, would have been horrified. And no-one knows where this will take us. It is worth pointing out, however, that although there are arguments against democracy, this century has taught us that it is unwise to listen to them.

Where does that leave us? At a cusp, I suggest, like Pope. Anticipating--perhaps, like him, with dread, or perhaps with a certain amount of trembling hope--a new way of being. Computers double their processing power every thirteen months. This simple fact will change all our lives, unforeseeably. No-one can predict what the technology of ten years time can bring. I suppose we can say this: one problem predicted by Pope for the age of the book is unlikely to be true for the age that succeeds it, since it is unlikely to be dull.

Tom Davis
The University of Birmingham


The subtitle of the first epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe,” and this section deals with man’s place in the cosmos. Pope argues that to justify God’s ways to man must necessarily be to justify His ways in relation to all other things. God rules over the whole universe and has no special favorites, not man nor any other creature. By nature, the universe is an order of “strong connexions, nice dependencies, / Gradations just” (30-1). This order is, more specifically, a hierarchy of the “Vast chain of being” in which all of God’s creations have a place (237). Man’s place in the chain is below the angels but above birds and beasts. Any deviation from this order would result in cosmic destruction. Because the universe is so highly ordered, chance, as man understands it, does not exist. Chance is rather “direction, which thou canst not see” (290). Those things that man sees as disparate or unrelated are all “but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body nature is, and God the soul” (267-8). Thus every element of the universe has complete perfection according to God’s purpose. Pope concludes the first epistle with the statement “Whatever is, is right,” meaning that all is for the best and that everything happens according to God’s plan, even though man may not be able to comprehend it (294).

Here is a section-by-section explanation of the first epistle:

Introduction (1-16): The introduction begins with an address to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, a friend of the poet from whose fragmentary philosophical writings Pope likely drew inspiration for An Essay on Man. Pope urges his friend to “leave all meaner things” and rather embark with Pope on his quest to “vindicate the ways of God to man (1, 16).

Section I (17-34): Section I argues that man can only understand the universe with regard to human systems and constructions because he is ignorant of the greater relationships between God’s creations.

Section II (35-76): Section II states that man is imperfect but perfectly suited to his place within the hierarchy of creation according to the general order of things.

Section III (77-112): Section III demonstrates that man's happiness depends on both his ignorance of future events and on his hope for the future.

Section IV (113-30): Section IV claims that man’s sin of pride—the attempt to gain more knowledge and pretend to greater perfection—is the root of man’s error and misery. By putting himself in the place of God, judging perfection and justice, man acts impiously.

Section V (131-72): Section V depicts the absurdity of man’s belief that he is the sole cause of the creation as well as his ridiculous expectation of perfection in the moral world that does not exist in the natural world.

Section VI (173-206): Section VI decries the unreasonableness of man’s complaints against Providence; God is good, giving and taking equally. If man had the omniscience of God, he would be miserable: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).

Section VII (207-32): Section VII shows that throughout the visible world, a universal order and gradation can be observed. This is particularly apparent in the hierarchy of earthly creatures and their subordination to man. Pope refers specifically to the gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, and reason. Reason is superior to all.

Section VIII (233-58): Section VIII indicates that if God’s rules of order and subordination are broken, the whole of creation must be destroyed.

Section IX (259-80): Section IX illustrates the madness of the desire to subvert God’s order.

Section X (281-94): Section X calls on man to submit to God’s power. Absolute submission to God will ensure that man remains “Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow’r” (287). After all, “Whatever is, is right” (294).


Pope’s first epistle seems to endorse a sort of fatalism, in which all things are fated. Everything happens for the best, and man should not presume to question God’s greater design, which he necessarily cannot understand because he is a part of it. He further does not possess the intellectual capability to comprehend God’s order outside of his own experience. These arguments certainly support a fatalistic world view. According to Pope’s thesis, everything that exists plays a role in the divine plan. God thus has a specific intention for every element of His creation, which suggests that all things are fated. Pope, however, was always greatly distressed by charges of fatalism. As a proponent of the doctrine of free will, Pope’s personal opinions seem at odds with his philosophical conclusions in the first epistle. Reconciling Pope’s own views with his fatalistic description of the universe represents an impossible task.

The first epistle of An Essay on Man is its most ambitious. Pope states that his task is to describe man’s place in the “universal system” and to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (16). In the poem’s prefatory address, Pope more specifically describes his intention to consider “man in the abstract, his Nature and his State, since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection of imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.” Pope’s stated purpose of the poem further problematizes any critical reading of the first epistle. According to Pope’s own conclusions, man’s limited intellect can comprehend only a small portion of God’s order and likewise can have knowledge of only half-truths. It therefore seems the height of hubris to presume to justify God’s ways to man. His own philosophical conclusions make this impossible. As a mere component part of God’s design and a member of the hierarchical middle state, Pope exists within God’s design and therefore cannot perceive the greater logic of God’s order. To do so would bring only misery: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).

Though Pope’s philosophical ambitions result in a rather incoherent epistle, the poem demonstrates a masterful use of the heroic couplet. Some of the most quoted lines from Pope’s works actually appear in this poem. For example, the quotation “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never is, but always to be blest” appears in the problematic first epistle (95-6). Pope’s skill with verse thus far outweighs his philosophical aspirations, and it is fortunate that he chose to write in verse rather than prose. Indeed, eighteenth-century critics saw An Essay on Man as a primarily poetic work despite its philosophical themes.

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