An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope

Reviewed By




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.”

Jonathan Russell Clark is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Read It Forward. His work has also appeared in Tin House, the Atlantic, the San Francisco ChronicleThe MillionsRolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →