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of Somerville, the Pleasures of Imagination, the Art of preserving Health, the Fleece, the Religion of Racine the younger, the elegant Latin poem of Browne on the Immortality of the Soul, the Latin poems of Stay and Boscovick, and the philosophical poem before us; to which, if we may judge from some beautiful fragments, we might have added Gray's didactic poem on Education and Government, had he lived to finish it. And the English Garden of Mr. Mason must not be omitted.
The Essay On Man is as close a piece of argument, admitting its principles, as, perhaps, can be found in verse. Pope informs us, in his FIRST preface, “ that he chose this epistolary way of writing, notwithstanding his subject was high, and of dignity, because of its being mixed with argument which of its nature approacheth to prose.” He has not wandered into any useless digressions, has employed no fictions, no tale or story; and has relied chiefly on the poetry of his style for the purpose of interesting his readers. His style is concise and figurative, forcible and elegant. He has many metaphors and images,
artfully interspersed in the driest passages, which stood most in need of such ornaments. Nevertheless, there are too many lines, in this performance, plain and prosaic. The meaner the subject is of a preceptive poem, the more striking appears the art of the poet : It is even of use, perhaps, to chuse a low subject. In this respect Virgil had the advantage over Lucretius: the latter, with all his vigour and sublimity of genius, could hardly satisfy and come up to the grandeur of his theme. Pope labours under the same difficuity. If any beauty in this Essay be uncommonly transcendent and peculiar, it is, BREVITY OF DICTION; which, in a few instances, and those pardonable, has occasioned obscurity. It is hardly to be imagined, how much sense, how much thinking, how much observation on human life, is condensed together in a small compass.
He was so accustomed to confine his thoughts in rhyme, that he tells us, he could express them more shortly this way, than in prose itself. On its first publication, Pope did not own it; and it was given, by the public, to Lord Paget, Dr. Young, Dr. Desaguliers, and others. Even Swift seems to have been deceived ; There
is a remakable passage in one of his letters : “I confess, I did never imagine you were so deep in morals; or that so many new and excellent rules could be produced so advantageously and agreeably in that science, from any one head. I confess in some places I was forced to read twice ; I believe I told you before what the Duke of D
said to me on that occasion ; how a judge here, who knows you, told him, that, on the first reading those essays, he was much pleased, but found some lines a little dark : On the second, most of them cleared up, and his pleasure increased : On the third, he had no doubt remaining, and then he admired the whole."*
The subject of this Essay is a vindication of Providence; in which the poet proposes to prove, that of all possible systems, infinite wisdom has formed the best : That in such a system, coherence, union, subordination, are necessary; and if so, that appearances of evil, both moral and natural, are also necessary and unavoidable: that the seeming defects and blemishes in the uni
* Letters, vol. IX. pag. 140,
verse, conspire to its general beauty: that as all parts in an animal are not eyes; and as in a city, comedy, or picture, all ranks, characters, and colours, are not equal or alike; even so, excesses and contrary qualities, contribute to the proportion and harmony of the universal system : that it is not strange, that we should not be able to discover perfection and order in every instance; because, in an infinity of things mutually relative, a mind which sees not infinitely, can see nothing fully. This doctrine was inculcated by Plato and the Stoics, but more amply and particularly by the later Platonists, and by Antoninus and Simplicius. In illustrating his subject, POPE has been much more deeply indebted to the Theodiceé of Leibnitz, to Archbishop King's Origin of Evil, and to the Moralists of Lord Shaftesbury, than to the philosophers above-mentioned. The late Lord Bathurst repeatedly assured me, that he had read the whole scheme of the Essay on Man, in the hand-writing of Bolingbroke, and drawn up in a series of propositions, which POPE was to versify and illustrate : in doing which, our poet, it must be confessed, left several passages so expressed, as to be fa
vourable to fatalism and necessity, notwithstanding all the pains that can be taken, and the turns that can be given to those passages, to place them on the side of religion, and make them coincide with the fundamental doctrines of revelation,
1. Awake,* my St. John ! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings;
Epist. I. V. 1.
This opening is awful, and commands the attention of the reader. The word awake has
peculiar force, and obliquely alludes to his noble friend's leaving his political for philosophical pursuits. May I venture to observe, that the metaphors in the succeeding lines, drawn from the field sports of setting and shooting, seem below the dignity of the subject; especially,
Eve nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies,
* Ben Jonson begins a poem thus :
Wake! friend, from forth thy lethargy