“An Essay on Man” was published in 1734 and contained very deep and well thought out philosophical ideas. It is said that these ideas were partially influenced by his friend, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, who Pope addresses in the first line of Epistle I when he says, “Awake, my St. John!”(Pope 1)(World Biography 1) The purpose of the poem is to address the role of humans as part of the "Great Chain of Being." In other words, it speaks of man as just one small part of an unfathomably complex universe. Pope urges us to learn from what is around us, what we can observe ourselves in nature, and to not pry into God's business or question his ways; For everything that happens, both good and bad, happens for a reason. This idea is summed up in the very last lines of the poem when he says, "And, Spite of pride in erring reason's spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever IS, is RIGHT."(Pope 293-294) The poem is broken up into four epistles each of which is labeled as its own subcategory of the overall work. They are as follows:
Epistle I concerns itself with the nature of man and with his place in the universe; Epistle II, with man as an individual; Epistle III, with man in relation to human society, to the political and social hierarchies; and Epistle IV, with man's pursuit of happiness in this world. An Essay on Man was a controversial work in Pope's day, praised by some and criticized by others, primarily because it appeared to contemporary critics that its emphasis, in spite of its themes, was primarily poetic and not, strictly speaking, philosophical in any really coherent sense: , never one to mince words, and possessed, in any case, of views upon the subject which differed materially from those which Pope had set forth, noted dryly (in what is surely one of the most back-handed literary compliments of all time) that "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised." It is a subtler work, however, than perhaps Johnson realized: G. Wilson Knight has made the perceptive comment that the poem is not a "static scheme" but a "living organism," (like ) and that it must be understood as such.
- Alexander Pope (From "An Essay on Man")
(1) Describe the poetic structure for An Essay on Man. What is its meter and what poetic units make up the entire poem? What is the rhyme scheme (i.e., ABAB, CDCD, or what?)