An Essay on Man,
Or the FIRST BOOK of
to Mr. W.B. Quantico, Esq.
AWAKE, my Quan, my tiny trusted friend!
Oh, how that Pope annoys me to no end!
No, not the one adorned in funny hats,
The one of verses, poetry and that—
That ‘essay’ from the 18th century
Which Princeton Press has recently released.
Though crafted with succinct and metric ease
(Deliberately, said Pope, as best to please)
And peppered with some insights, or at least
Some eloquently phrased poetic beats,
It is, at last, an argument Pope makes;
Not merely observations, soulful takes.
As such we must its content judge and jure
And not its presentation, its allure.
In this regard the poet’s lines are shown
To act like jewels festooned upon a throne,
Which is to say enhance the ruling class,
Grant its existence with an ethic pass,
For Pope believes that people’s present state—
No matter how unjust or reprobate—
Is just how they should be, no more or less,
That whatsoever life has wrought is best.
His famous claim, declared with bolded might,
Is that Whatever is, is fucking right.
…..I. You’re right, dear Quan! It is a stupid thought
That people are “as perfect as [they] ought,”
And that the only purpose we can find
Is not the betterment of human kind,
But rather that we try as best we can
To “vindicate the ways of God to Man.”
Which, first of all, this last makes little sense,
A view of human life as recompense
To some imagined figure in the sky,
Who mostly seems to turn away its eyes
From poverty, from rape, from those enslaved,
From genocide and wars fought in its name,
Whose only claims of action come from texts
That also want to legislate our sex,
And tell us what to eat and where to live,
And whom to interact with, whom to stiff,
But never does there seem to be a way
For recent history to demonstrate
That any single storm or war or plight
Has its foundations rooted in divine,
Nor has there been some call from up above,
To scold in disappointment or in love,
Nor anything, the normal or the odd
Has ever given proof to any god.
Yet Pope insists, instead of thinking, Gee,
Which of these warring notions seems to be
The more unlikely, more illogic choice?
That God exists but never takes a voice?
That we should heed completely to requests
Without once meeting this ruler in the flesh?
While centuries have offered not a crumb
Of evidence supporting such aplomb?
Or is it much more likely, all in all,
That God is an invention for control?
That those in power use it as a front,
Attribute to this God the world they want?
And doesn’t it seem clear as day to you
The strongest forces aren’t ever clear to view?
That those propped up by strings on wooden stands
Got nothing on the puppets’ unseen hands?
Does not an atheist philosophy
Explain all of these needless mysteries?
For Pope, no, sir, in fact just the reverse:
Humanity, for him, could do no worse
Than spending all their energy on why
A just and loving god would watch us die
Our unjust deaths, and never intervene,
Or, even for our comfort, just be seen.
Confronted by such stunning carelessness,
Should not we all object, demand the best?
Or maybe we could pave a two-way street
On which we humans and this god may meet,
To talk and think and plan a way to live
That actually includes our happiness?
Not only for the wealthy, white and male,
But no distinctions between dog and tail—
A world designed for all, at least in hope,
Is not the one thus seen by Mr. Pope.
Oh, no, his view is much more status quo,
That everything that is, is ours to know,
And how everything is, is how it ought.
And as to future kindness? What a thought!
Each other not our minds should focus on,
When newly every night and every dawn,
We must expend our finite faculties
Performing acrobatics mentally.
And why? Just so a fiction makes more sense?
To quell the terror that we’re accidents?
Or is it so the poor illiterate
Will be distracted in befuddlement,
So those on high can take what they can take
While claiming God is good for goodness’ sake?
Oh, Mr. Pope, oh, far be it for me
To suggest such a grand conspiracy!
But rulers have no need for such vast plans,
They merely exploit anything they can.
Whether it’s religion or a law,
Whatever they can grasp inside their paws,
They’ll turn into a weapon, aimed and sure,
To help them keep their power, nothing more.
So to your plan to “vindicate the ways
Of God to Man,” for the rest of our days,
I call Bullshit! For I know in my gut
That “Whatever Is, Is Merely What.”
…..II. What’s that, dear Quan? What do I mean by what?
A brilliant query for a brilliant mutt!
I only mean that things are how they are—
Mankind, the earth, the galaxy, the stars—
For no inherent purpose, no design,
No master plan bestowed from the divine,
But rather as results of random swerves,
How rigid paths may introduce a curve,
And our development is thusly swayed
By circumstances unasked for, unmade.
Though oft defined as chaos—I object,
For all it means is we can intercept
And not accept the way things are in life,
And certainly not refer to them as “right.”
For such complacent resignation seems
To be a little lazy, even mean.
For what of those borne not with silver spoons,
For whom the threat of vagrancy e’er looms,
For anyone who falls short of demands
Made by the way Pope thus defines a “Man”?
So women, slaves, and vagabonds are not
Included in Pope’s patriarchal thought?
Or if they are they’ve certainly a fight
To accept that their lots in life are right!
That is, of course, if Pope’s to be believed,
But I don’t think he is, so they’re relieved.
In fact I think his next maxim in line—
That God ought not be studied by our minds,
Despite the fact that God controls the land,
The water, forests, air, soil and sand,
All of which would be the very ends
Of study through our scientific lens,
Which means essentially that Pope is saying
A game is only judged by how you’re playing,
And not by its construction, or its rules,
For those, apparently, are not our tools
To meddle with or question or suggest
Amendments that increase the player’s jest
But also makes sure everyone can play,
If even in an incremental way—
“The proper study of Mankind,” he writes,
“Is Man,” and yet how limited our sight!
Not only by our insufficient view
(Our fertile brains don’t always grow the new),
But also by instruction, by design,
That we shan’t study God let alone find
Some insight into our condition whole,
By scrutinizing that which made our soul.
What kind of shit is that, my dear sweet Quan?
We can only turn the light switch off or on?
And never wonder what’s beyond the dial?
Or why it won’t alight when we’re on trial?
For doesn’t its decisions seem capricious?
And thus a moratorium is specious?
In Mankind’s study there’s no greater act
Than figuring the why of every fact,
And if some God has made us from its shelves,
Then God we study first, and then ourselves.
But Pope’s idea is suited best to fit
A faith in status quo, and to submit
To an all-knowing and all-seeing eye,
Whose sole prerogative is to supply
Us humans with our stage and even lines,
The plot and pace according to design,
But for all that, its vital, central role,
We mustn’t do a thing so radical
As to demand a reason for our plight:
In truth, “Whatever is, is never right.”
…..III. So Pope was born in 1688,
A poet whose successes were so great
That food and shelter, everything one owns,
Was paid for not by patrons but by poems,
The first to live by writing without help—
Pope’s notable for this if nothing else.
He wrote a many memorable line,
“To err is human, to forgive divine,”
“A little learning is a dangerous thing,”
(Which sounds a similar suppressive ring)
And one that even stretches to our time:
“Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”
He translated the blind poet, don’t forget,
Into heroic rhymes, paired in couplets.
The Oxford English Dictionary quotes
After Shakespeare, Pope the second most!
Which is to say I don’t fully dismiss
Any or all of Pope’s accomplishments,
Or even claim his work should be recalled,
Or that we shouldn’t study him at all.
Merely context I wish to provide,
An author can’t be cut off from his time,
Though I don’t mean to pardon his beliefs
By placing them in period relief,
And claim, Well, that was how things were back then,
Like Pope had no control over his pen,
Could only voice the feelings of his age,
As if he were some automated sage.
Oh, no, for we know this just isn’t true,
Contradicting notions were in view:
From Swift, a satirist of no compare,
Save for that other polymath, Voltaire.
Dear Poggio from his book hunting brings
Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.
And note: the world was only just ensconced
Inside a comprehensive Renaissance,
Which challenged every tenet ever held
And caused some institutions to be felled;
While others—science, poetry, the stage—
Flourished by the newly printed page.
And yet here’s Pope, outdated to a cost,
Still searching for the Paradise we lost.
To lean on aging Milton like a cane,
But disavow the story, what remains?
Oh, nothing more than finger-wagging verse,
Which, short of helping, seems to make things worse.
By filling God with wisdom, humans ache,
Our only recourse is to leave or take.
And so if you are miserable or sad
Or angry at the lot in life you’ve had,
Well that’s tough luck, accept your fate, says Pope,
Our only consolation is the hope
That we might become better as we age
More civil, more enlightened, and more sage.
But we as individuals mean less
Than humanity’s collective happiness,
And so his view is wanting once you know
The goal of living’s never been to grow,
But to support the garden’s many plants,
And bloom as one—as canopy, advance!
Alas, dear Quan, though I do think it so,
Remain aware do I of what I know,
Or rather what I don’t, for I’m no god,
And thus I find it dubious and odd
That anyone who isn’t would proclaim
To better grasp the rules of every game,
So much so he’d pen an epic poem,
Of volatile maxims in the tone
Of shrewd observer, best of witnesses,
That tired line: I tell it like it is.
Because in truth Pope tells not how things are
But rather how he sees them, from afar.
Now, Mr. Quan, believe me when I say
I’d never mistake my view for the way
All things should be, all people think, agree.
For what? A world of people just like me?
I’d sooner disown everything I know,
Than watch the spread of my opinions grow
Until they cover continents, the world,
And all that’s left is swine and not a pearl.
My ignorance, my privilege, my caprice,
Taken together, piece by clumsy piece,
Would never do this planet any good,
My miniscule perspective never could.
It can only get me through my days,
And hopefully help others do the same.
I don’t know much, my dear friend, Mr. Quan,
Except: “Whatever Pope Says Is, Is Wrong.”