The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

III. Pope

§ 18. An Essay on Man

The Epistle now placed first among the Moral Essays, that Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men, came out in the same year (1732). The difficulties in attempting to judge a man’s character are set forth, and the solution is found to lie in the discovery of the ruling passion, to which reference had already been made in the fourth Epistle, and which is dealt with at some length in Epistle II of An Essay on Man. This theory of the predominant passion is used to explain the career of the duke of Wharton, and its presence in the hour of death is shown by two illustrations in Pope’s best style, that of Narcissa (Mrs. Oldfield) and Euclio. One of Pope’s most brilliant similes occurs in Epistle I. Later, at Warburton’s suggestion, extensive alterations were made in the order of parts, to give the poem “all the charm of method and force of connected reasoning”; but it cannot be said to have gained by his interference. Epistle II, Of the Characters of Women, though finished by February, 1733, was kept back till 1735. The “lady” to whom it was addressed was Martha Blount. Her name, as Pope tells Caryll, was suppressed at her own desire. An advertisement to the first edition declares upon the author’s “Honour that no one Character is drawn from the Life.” As Warton pointed out, the imaginary Rufa, Silia, Papilia and others are in the style of the portraits in Young’s fifth Satire (1725). The characters of Philomede, Atossa and Chloe were withheld until Warburton’s edition (1751). Chloe is understood to be Lady Suffolk; Philomede, Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough. In the case of Atossa, scandal and controversy have raged. A report was early spread that Pope had taken £1000 from Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, for a promise to suppress these lines in which her character was drawn, and broke his promise. This story, inherently improbable, has never been proved. The character, as it stands, has details that cannot apply to her, and it seems not unlikely that Pope drew traits from the duchess of Buckinghamshire also. During this same time, he had been busy with his Essay on Man, Epistle I of which appeared in February, 1733, II and III following in the course of the year. These were anonymous, as he was diffident of their reception. IV appeared under his name in January, 1734. He hoped, at one time, to extend the work and to fit into its frame his Moral Epistles, from material on false learning and education which found a place in the fourth Dunciad.

In the account of his design, given in the second volume of his Works (1735), he hopes that, if the Essay has any merit,

  • it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite … and in forming out of all a temperate, yet not inconsistent, and a short, yet not imperfect, system of Ethics.
  • Epistle I treats of the nature and state of man with respect to the universe; II of man with respect to himself; III of man with respect to society; IV of man with respect to happiness. The intention running through the whole is expressed in the couplet:
  • Laugh where we must, be candid where we can,
  • But vindicate the ways of God to man.
  • Pope’s methods of composition, his want of philosophical training and his inability to conduct a sustained argument made it impossible for him to produce a great philosophical poem. It must be granted that he has no harmonious and clearly developed system, and often fails to recognise the logical results of his beliefs. But it does not follow that, because he was a loose thinker, he is not, in the main, expressing his genuine feelings or what he fancies to be such. While recognising that he is no metaphysician, we should not lose sight of the exquisite workmanship of separate passages or of the interest of the whole as an expression of contemporary thought. Bolingbroke, in one sense, was the begetter of the poem. The legend that Pope merely versified a prose sketch by Bolingbroke is absurd; that the poet was deeply indebted to him is certain. There are passages in Bolingbroke’s philosophical fragments that must have been known to Pope when he was composing the Essay, and, as the poet’s own philosophical reading was superficial, it is probable that, in many cases, the thoughts of others had come to him through Bolingbroke’s mind. At the time when Pope wrote, newer and more liberal modes of thought were not yet generally accepted or assimilated, or their relation to orthodoxy clearly defined, nor was Pope the only man whose religious views hovered between unsectarian Christianity and something that could barely be distinguished from deism. It is easy to show that Pope, in one place, is pantheistic, in another a fatalist, in yet another deistical, though he repudiated the charge; that his theory of self-love and reason will not stand examination; that his conception of the historical development of political and religious organisations is vague in the extreme. But the fact that the Essay is still read with pleasure is a proof of the consummate power of the style. It attracted a wider attention than any other of Pope’s works. A Swiss professor, Jean-Pierre de Crousaz, proceeded to demolish its philosophy, and it inspired Voltaire to write La Loi Naturelle (1756). Pope, dismayed at Crousaz’s onslaught, was overjoyed when Warburton came to his aid in a set of letters appearing in The Works of the Learned (1738–9). “You understand me,” he wrote, “as well as I do myself; but you express me better than I can express myself.” During the remainder of Pope’s life, Warburton was one of his chief intimates. He became the authorised commentator on Pope’s poems and was left by will the copyright of all his published works.

    In 1735, a collection of Pope’s letters was published by Curll. Many years before, Cromwell had given a number of letters from Pope to a Mrs. Thomas: she sold them to Curll, who printed them in 1726. Pope, who had long ceased to pride himself on his acquaintance with Cromwell, was genuinely annoyed. Soon, he began to beg various friends to return his letters; and, seeing in how favourable a light they would show his character, to the discomfiture of his enemies, he conceived the idea of getting them published. In 1729, on the plea that his own and Wycherley’s reputation had been injured by Theobald’s edition of Wycherley’s literary remains, he induced Oxford to allow some letters and papers which would clear their reputation to be deposited in his library, and to let the publishers acknowledge his permission to obtain copies. He then published the correspondence between Wycherley and himself as a supplement to Theobald’s volume, but the book did not sell. The curious history of the 1735 collection has been elaborately traced by Charles Wentworth, Dilke and Elwin. Curll received an offer in writing from “P. T.” of a large collection of Pope’s letters. After negotiations, printed copies of Pope’s correspondence from 1704 to 1734 were delivered to him by an unknown person. Apparently at Pope’s instigation, Curll was summoned before the House of Lords, as the advertisement spoke of letters from peers, the publication of which, without their consent, was a breach of privilege. None such being forthcoming, Curll escaped. It seems fairly certain that Pope engineered the whole business, in order to provide an excuse for publishing his own edition in 1737. More remarkable than the device for publication was the way in which he had manipulated the correspondence. Besides numerous alterations, additions and omissions, parts of different letters were combined, dates altered, and letters to one correspondent addressed to another. The fact that Caryll took copies of letters before returning them was a main cause of the laying bare of Pope’s tricky methods. By a strange fate, his attempts to set his moral character right with his contemporaries have seriously damaged his reputation with posterity. For several years, Pope urged Swift to return his letters, on the ground, at first, that he was afraid of their getting into Curll’s hands, later, that he might wish to print some himself. Swift, at last, consented to hand over all he could find. Pope appears to have arranged that they should be printed and a copy sent to Swift, who consented to their being published in Dublin. Pope included them in vol. II of his Works in Prose (1741), where they are stated to be copied from an impression sent from Dublin, and to have been printed “by the Dean’s direction,” and complained to friends that Swift had published them without his consent. The letters to Cromwell are interesting as illustrating Pope’s early tastes and ambitions; but his elaborate way of doctoring the correspondence for whose publication he was himself responsible makes it of very little worth as biographical evidence, unless the originals or genuine copies, as in Caryll’s case, have survived. As a whole, the letters are disappointing; they are wanting in naturalness and charm, and, too often, are a mere string of moral reflections.