Summary of Epistle I from "An Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope

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by Christoph Champ, 1-Apr-1999

I liked the structure of this work. The verse was easy to read (I'm not speaking of the understanding of it). The work clearly brought out some of the different positions the intellectuals of the day supported. For an example: "What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme / The mole's dim curtain, and the lynx's beam." (280) They believed back then that "Sight was . . . an emission of rays from the eye." (280)

Pope’s statement "WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT" (282) has some merit to it. No matter what someone may say, if I hold an apple in my hand and feel it (and it feels as one), then taste it (and it tastes as one), then finally rely on past experience (and it matches the criteria as one), I will come to know that What Is (the apple), Is Right (it is, in fact, an apple). However, Pope’s statement cannot always be right because our senses are not perfect. As Pope himself wrote, "Why formed so weak, so little, and so blind?" (276), we, humans, don't have the greatest strength among creatures, nor the greatest size or sight. What we do have (which no other animal can match) is our mental power and this has been known to be wrong time and time again. Therefore, Whatever Is can only be that "Whatever" with our brain using one (or more) of the five sense to come to understand. If, as seen throughout history, our mental powers are capable of mistakes, then that "Whatever" we hope to understand cannot be relied upon to accurately, every time, reveal what Is Right.

I agree that Pope was the "wasp of Twicknham". I believe this because of what the metaphor "wasp", to me, for this situation is accusing Pope of being. A wasp is similar to a bee but with one main difference. Both a wasp and a bee produce venom. However, a bee produces his venom to protect the load he carries and the queen he serves. The load the bee carries contributes to constructive substances (honey). Unlike the bee, the wasp only attacks its victims to establish itself as one to be left alone or not to enrage. Pope was somewhat like this: He stayed cooped up in his villa of Twicknham and produced great criticisms of Man, Society, and those of a different belief. He wrote great masterpieces yet they remain cynical in my view.

I believe Pope's purpose in writing An Essay on Man began as an ambitious project to outline the "moral precept" of man's purposes in life. In the end his work seemed, to me, more concerned in making his words rhythm than convict the reader to change their wrong ways. If Pope did indeed want to convince his audience to repent of their wicked ways, he should have used essay form.

To conclude, this work was extremely cumbersome to read and forced me, unwillingly, to read it over and over again to grasp even the greater intent of his purpose. A nice read for the poetical value, however.

This article is copyrighted © 1999 by Christoph Champ. All rights reserved.