Perfection in Pope’s An Essay on Man

Perfection in Pope’s An Essay on Man

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Alexander Pope envisioned a universe perfect by definition. Every facet of this universe is designed solely for its place in the hierarchy of existence, and is in fact perfect for its particular station. This idea of perfection in completeness is encompassed in the famous concluding words of the first epistle of Pope’s An Essay on Man: “Whatever IS, is RIGHT.” This aphorism, however, belies the effort Pope took to solidify his assertion. In order to substantiate his idea of a perfectly structured universe, Pope delineates—in extremely structured and formal heroic verse—an argument positing the failure of human reason, fettered as it is by ignorance and pride, in obtaining a proper idea of man’s station in the universe. This argument flows from point to point, over the course of nine stanzas, eventually culminating in his famous assertion. Although there are descriptions in the poem that seem to contradict Pope’s ultimate notion, a proper reading of the poem as a whole will render all ideas in Pope’s favor.
One truth is clear of Pope’s poetry: It is superbly structured. Each line of An Essay on Man maintains a strict pentameter with iambic feet. Virtually all 294 lines of the first epistle rigidly maintain this formal structure. Although each line is identically formed, no two lines can be said to be identical, and not one line appears out of place or superfluous. Heroic verse, then, and the form it entails, is the perfect parallel to the idea of the universe that Pope attempts to portray. Every line is different just as every creature is different. Some lines are perhaps less important within the poem than others; similarly, Pope sees some creatures as higher along a scale than others: “Far as creation’s ample range extends, / T...

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...o us is in fact “direction,” although we cannot see this. Consequently, hurricanes and tornadoes and famine, calamities that appear to be natural evils for us, not only exist for a purpose we cannot recognize, but are perfect for that purpose. What appears as evil to us is perfection. We simply cannot understand.
Ever the perfectionist, Pope crafts perfect lines supporting perfect arguments for a perfect universe. His poem reflects his vision, and the trait of mankind that he denounces, pride, has a history of derision. Pope, in short, worked hard to make his argument convincing, and his work paid off. For how else could he get away with a vastly sweeping generalization on morality and existence—in four words?

Works Cited
Terry, Joseph, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Volume 1C The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. New York: Longman, 2010.

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