An Essay on Man: Epistle I

Original Text: 
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, 4 vols. (London, 1733-34). E-10 1503 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto). Facs. edn. Menston: Scolar Press, 1969. PR 3627 A1 1734A ROBA.
To Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke
2To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
3Let us (since life can little more supply
4Than just to look about us and to die)
5Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
7A wild, where weeds and flow'rs promiscuous shoot;
9Together let us beat this ample field,
12Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
13Eye Nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies,
18What can we reason, but from what we know?
19Of man what see we, but his station here,
20From which to reason, or to which refer?
21Through worlds unnumber'd though the God be known,
22'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.
23He, who through vast immensity can pierce,
24See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
25Observe how system into system runs,
26What other planets circle other suns,
27What varied being peoples ev'ry star,
28May tell why Heav'n has made us as we are.
30The strong connections, nice dependencies,
31Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
32Look'd through? or can a part contain the whole?
34And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee?
36Why form'd so weak, so little, and so blind?
37First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
38Why form'd no weaker, blinder, and no less!
39Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
40Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
41Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
44That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
45Where all must full or not coherent be,
46And all that rises, rise in due degree;
48There must be somewhere, such a rank as man:
49And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
50Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?
51     Respecting man, whatever wrong we call,
52May, must be right, as relative to all.
55In God's, one single can its end produce;
56Yet serves to second too some other use.
57So man, who here seems principal alone,
58Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
60'Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
61     When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
62His fiery course, or drives him o'er the plains:
63When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
65Then shall man's pride and dulness comprehend
66His actions', passions', being's, use and end;
67Why doing, suff'ring, check'd, impell'd; and why
68This hour a slave, the next a deity.
70Say rather, man's as perfect as he ought:
71His knowledge measur'd to his state and place,
72His time a moment, and a point his space.
73If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
74What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
75The blest today is as completely so,
76As who began a thousand years ago.
78All but the page prescrib'd, their present state:
80Or who could suffer being here below?
81The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
82Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
83Pleas'd to the last, he crops the flow'ry food,
84And licks the hand just rais'd to shed his blood.
85Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv'n,
86That each may fill the circle mark'd by Heav'n:
88A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
89Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd,
90And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
92Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore!
93What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
95Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
96Man never is, but always to be blest:
97The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
98Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
99     Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutor'd mind
100Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
101His soul, proud science never taught to stray
102Far as the solar walk, or milky way;
103Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
104Behind the cloud-topt hill, an humbler heav'n;
105Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
106Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
107Where slaves once more their native land behold,
108No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold.
109To be, contents his natural desire,
110He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire;
111But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
112His faithful dog shall bear him company.
114Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
115Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
116Say, here he gives too little, there too much:
118Yet cry, if man's unhappy, God's unjust;
120Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
121Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
122Rejudge his justice, be the God of God.
123  In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies;
124All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
125Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
126Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
128Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
129And who but wishes to invert the laws
130Of order, sins against th' Eternal Cause.
131     Ask for what end the heav'nly bodies shine,
132Earth for whose use? Pride answers, " 'Tis for mine:
134Suckles each herb, and spreads out ev'ry flow'r;
135Annual for me, the grape, the rose renew,
136The juice nectareous, and the balmy dew;
137For me, the mine a thousand treasures brings;
138For me, health gushes from a thousand springs;
139Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;
140My foot-stool earth, my canopy the skies."
141     But errs not Nature from this gracious end,
142From burning suns when livid deaths descend,
143When earthquakes swallow, or when tempests sweep
144Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep?
145"No, ('tis replied) the first Almighty Cause
146Acts not by partial, but by gen'ral laws;
147Th' exceptions few; some change since all began:
148And what created perfect?"--Why then man?
149If the great end be human happiness,
150Then Nature deviates; and can man do less?
151As much that end a constant course requires
153As much eternal springs and cloudless skies,
154As men for ever temp'rate, calm, and wise.
155If plagues or earthquakes break not Heav'n's design,
159Pours fierce ambition in a Cæsar's mind,
161From pride, from pride, our very reas'ning springs;
162Account for moral, as for nat'ral things:
163Why charge we Heav'n in those, in these acquit?
164In both, to reason right is to submit.
165     Better for us, perhaps, it might appear,
166Were there all harmony, all virtue here;
167That never air or ocean felt the wind;
168That never passion discompos'd the mind.
169But ALL subsists by elemental strife;
171The gen'ral order, since the whole began,
172Is kept in nature, and is kept in man.
173     What would this man? Now upward will he soar,
174And little less than angel, would be more;
175Now looking downwards, just as griev'd appears
176To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears.
177Made for his use all creatures if he call,
178Say what their use, had he the pow'rs of all?
179Nature to these, without profusion, kind,
180The proper organs, proper pow'rs assign'd;
183All in exact proportion to the state;
184Nothing to add, and nothing to abate.
186Is Heav'n unkind to man, and man alone?
187Shall he alone, whom rational we call,
188Be pleas'd with nothing, if not bless'd with all?
189     The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)
190Is not to act or think beyond mankind;
191No pow'rs of body or of soul to share,
192But what his nature and his state can bear.
193Why has not man a microscopic eye?
195Say what the use, were finer optics giv'n,
196T' inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav'n?
197Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o'er,
198To smart and agonize at ev'ry pore?
200Die of a rose in aromatic pain?
201If nature thunder'd in his op'ning ears,
202And stunn'd him with the music of the spheres,
203How would he wish that Heav'n had left him still
204The whisp'ring zephyr, and the purling rill?
205Who finds not Providence all good and wise,
206Alike in what it gives, and what denies?
208The scale of sensual, mental pow'rs ascends:
209Mark how it mounts, to man's imperial race,
210From the green myriads in the peopled grass:
211What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme,
215Of hearing, from the life that fills the flood,
216To that which warbles through the vernal wood:
217The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine!
218Feels at each thread, and lives along the line:
219In the nice bee, what sense so subtly true
220From pois'nous herbs extracts the healing dew:
221How instinct varies in the grov'lling swine,
222Compar'd, half-reas'ning elephant, with thine:
224For ever sep'rate, yet for ever near!
225Remembrance and reflection how allied;
226What thin partitions sense from thought divide:
227And middle natures, how they long to join,
228Yet never pass th' insuperable line!
229Without this just gradation, could they be
230Subjected, these to those, or all to thee?
231The pow'rs of all subdu'd by thee alone,
232Is not thy reason all these pow'rs in one?
233     See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth,
234All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
236Around, how wide! how deep extend below!
237Vast chain of being, which from God began,
239Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
240No glass can reach! from infinite to thee,
241From thee to nothing!--On superior pow'rs
242Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
243Or in the full creation leave a void,
244Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroy'd:
245From nature's chain whatever link you strike,
246Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
247     And, if each system in gradation roll
249The least confusion but in one, not all
250That system only, but the whole must fall.
251Let earth unbalanc'd from her orbit fly,
252Planets and suns run lawless through the sky;
253Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurl'd,
254Being on being wreck'd, and world on world;
256And nature tremble to the throne of God.
257All this dread order break--for whom? for thee?
260Or hand to toil, aspir'd to be the head?
261What if the head, the eye, or ear repin'd
262To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
263Just as absurd for any part to claim
264To be another, in this gen'ral frame:
266The great directing Mind of All ordains.
267     All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
268Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
270Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
271Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
272Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
273Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
274Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
275Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
276As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
277As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
278As the rapt seraph that adores and burns;
279To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
282Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
283Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree
284Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
285Submit.--In this, or any other sphere,
286Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
287Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
288Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
289All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
290All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
291All discord, harmony, not understood;
292All partial evil, universal good:
293And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
294One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.


1] Although Pope worked on this poem from 1729 and had finished the first three epistles by 1731, they did not appear until between February and May 1733, and the fourth epistle was published in January 1734. The first collected edition was published in April 1734. The poem was originally published anonymously, Pope not admitting its authorship until its appearance in The Works, II (April 1735).
The Essay on Man was originally conceived as part of a longer philosophical poem (see Pope's introductory statement on the Design). In the larger scheme, the poem would have consisted of four books: the first as we now have it; a second book of epistles on human reason, human arts, and sciences, human talent, and the use of learning, science and wit "together with a satire against the misapplications of them"; a third book on the Science of Politics; and a fourth book concerning "private ethics" or "practical morality." The only part of the scheme, therefore, which was fully completed was the four epistles of the Essay on Man. Parts of the fourth book of The Dunciad were composed using material for the second book of the original essay and the four moral epistles were originally conceived as parts of the fourth book (see below).
Pope's explanation of the aim of the work and his summary of the first epistle are as follows. "The Design/Having proposed to write some pieces on human life and manners, such as (to use my Lord Bacon's expression) `come home to Men's Business and Bosoms,' I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering Man in the abstract, his nature and his state; since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection or imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.
"The science of human nature is, like all other sciences, reduced to a few clear points: There are not many certain truths in this world. It is therefore in the anatomy of the mind as in that of the body; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the large, open, and perceptible parts, than by studying too much such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of which will for ever escape our observation. The disputes are all upon these last, and, I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice, more than advanced the theory, of morality. If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite, in passing over terms utterly unintelligible, and in forming a temperate yet not inconsistent, and a short yet not imperfect system of Ethics.
"This I might have done in prose; but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: The other may seem odd, but is true I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions, depends on their conciseness. I was unable to treat this part of my subject in detail, without becoming dry and tedious; or more poetically, without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering from the precision, breaking the chain of reasoning: If any man unite all these without diminution of any of them freely confesshe will compass a thing above my capacity.
"What is now Published is only to be considered as a general Map of Man, marking out no more than the greater parts, their extent, their limits, and their connection, and leaving the particular to be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow. Consequently, these Epistles in their progress (if I have health and leisure to make any progress) will be less dry, and more susceptible of poetical ornament. I am here only opening the fountains, and clearing the passage. To deduce the rivers, to follow them in their course, and to observe their effects, may be a task more agreeable.
ARGUMENT OF THE FIRST EPISTLE/Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to the UNlVERSE/Of Man in the abstract--
I. That we can judge only with regard to our own system, being ignorant of the relations of systems and things, ver. 17 ff.
II. That Man is not to be deemed imperfect, but a Being suited to his place and rank in the creation, agreeable to the general order of things, and conformable to Ends and Relations to him unknown, ver. 35 ff.
III. That it is partly upon his ignorance of future events, and partly upon the hope of a future state, that all his happiness in the present depends, ver. 77 ff.
IV. The pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more perfection, the cause of man's error and misery. The impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and judging of the fitness or unfitness, perfection or imperfection, justice or injustice of his dispensations, ver. 113 ff.
V. The absurdity of conceiting himself the final cause of the creation, or expecting that perfection in the moral world, which is not in the natural, ver. 131 ff.
VI. The unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while on the one hand he demands the perfections of the angels, and on the other the bodily qualifications of the brutes; though, to possess any of the sensitive faculties in a higher degree, would render him miserable. ver. 173 ff.
VII. That throughout the whole visible world, an universal order and gradation in the sensual and mental faculties is observed, which causes a subordination of creature to creature, and of all creatures to Man. The gradations of sense, instinct, thought, refection, reason; that Reason alone countervails all the other faculties, ver. 207 ff.
VIII. How much further this order and subordination of living creatures may extend, above and below us; were any part of which broken, not that part only, but the whole connected creation must be destroyed, ver. 233 ff.
IX. The extravagance, madness, and pride of such a desire, ver. 259 ff.
X. The consequence of all, the absolute submission due to Providence, both as to our present and future state, ver. 281 ff. to the end.
St. John: Henry St. John (pronounced sin-jin), Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), outstanding Tory statesman who had to flee England in 1715. Pardoned, he returned in 1723. Bolingbroke was an early friend of Pope and Swift, and a member of the Scriblerus Club. He is considered to have given Pope the origìnal impetus for writing the Essay on Man, the Moral Essays, and the Imitations of Horace. A freethinker and Deist, he may have provided Pope with the "philosophy" of the Essay, although there has been a continual controversy as to whether the poem's point of view is Christian or Deistic. Back to Line
6] maze. A labyrinth-like arrangement was frequently used in eighteenth-century gardening. plan: (1) a drawing or sketch, (2) a scheme of arrangement. Back to Line
8] Paradise Lost, I, 1-2. Back to Line
10] open ... covert: terms from hunting, applying to ground that will not shelter animals and ground that will. Back to Line
11] tracts: (1) regions, (2) tracks. Back to Line
14] continuing the hunting metaphor. Back to Line
15] candid: (1) clear, (2) ingenuous. Back to Line
16] Cf. Paradise Lost, I, 26. Back to Line
17] "[Pope] He can reason only from things known, and judge only with regard to his own system." Back to Line
29] The terms frame, bearings, gradation, ties may have architectural overtones, but they also along with connections and ependencies were key terms of the new science. Back to Line
33] the great chain: Paradise Lost, V, 469-90. Cf. below, I, 207-41. Back to Line
35] "[Pope] He is not therefore a judge of his own perfection or imperfection, but is certainly such a being as is suited to his place and rank in the creation."
35-36. Cf. Rom. 9:20. Back to Line
42] Satellites: tetrasyllabic: sa-tal-li-tes. Jove is the planet Jupiter, four of whose satellites were discovered by Galileo. Back to Line
43] Of systems ... due degree. These are axioms common to many traditional cosmologies: (1) that a deity of Infinite Wisdom exists and in his goodness could only create the best of all possible worlds; (2) that the world so created is a plenum formosum, i.e., full, containing the maximum number of kinds of beings; (3) that the hierarchy of kinds of being is arranged in even steps, so that each kind has its due degree. Back to Line
47] Then ... man. There must be a rank in the scale combining rational and animal. Back to Line
53] works: also in the sense of the mechanical works in a clock or machine. Back to Line
54] movement: also with reference to mechanism. Back to Line
59] which: continuing the imagery of clockwork or mechanism. Back to Line
64] Egypt's Cod. A bull was worshipped at Memphis under the name Apis. Back to Line
69] fault: rhymed with "ought." Back to Line
77] "[Pope] His happiness depends on his ignorance to a certain degree." Back to Line
79] "[Pope] See this pursued in Epist. 3 vers. 66 etc., 79 etc." Back to Line
87] Cf. Matt. 10:29-31. Back to Line
91] "[Pope] And on his hope of a relation to a future state." Back to Line
94] "[Pope] Further open'd in Epist. 2, vers. 283. Epist. 3, vers. 74. Epist. 4, vers. 346, etc." Back to Line
113] Cf. Raphael's advice to Adam, Paradise Lost, VII, 167-74. Back to Line
117] gust: taste, i.e., the pleasure of the palate. Back to Line
119] Cf. Abdiel's speech to Satan, Paradise Lost, V, 822 ff. Back to Line
127] Cf. Bacon's Advancement of Learning: "Aspiring to be like God in power, the angels transgressed and fell (Isa. XIV, 14) by aspiring to be like God in knowledge, man transgressed and fell (Gen., iii, 5)." Back to Line
133] genial: generative. Back to Line
152] desires: i.e., passions. Back to Line
156] Borgia: alludes to the fifteenth-century Italian family notorious for murders and other crimes.
Catiline: the young conspirator against the Roman Republic who was attacked by Cicero. Back to Line
157] he ... forms: Ps. 97:4, 125:1. Back to Line
158] wings ... storms: Ps. 104:3, 107:25. Back to Line
160] Young Ammon: Alexander the Great. Cf. Essay on Criticism, note on line 376. Back to Line
170] "[Pope] See this subject extended in Epist. 2 from vers. 100 to 122, 165, etc." Back to Line
181] compensated: pronounced compénsated. Back to Line
182] "[Pope] It is a certain axiom in the anatomy of creatures, that in proportion as they are formed for strength, their swiftness is lessened, or as they are formed for swiftness, their strength is abated." Back to Line
185] "[Pope] See Epist. 3, vers. 79 etc. and 110 etc." Back to Line
194] Man ... fly. It was widely believed that the fly's eye had microscopic powers. Back to Line
199] effluvia: "the real outflow of material particles too subtle to be perceived by the sense." Back to Line
207] [Pope] There is an universal ORDER and GRADATION through the whole visible world, of the sensible and mental faculties, which causes the subordination of creature to creature, and of all creatures to man, whose reason alone countervails all the other faculties.... The extent, limits and use of human reason and science, the author designed as the subject of his next book of Ethic Epistles." Back to Line
212] beam. Sight was believed to be caused by rays emitted by the eye. Back to Line
213] "[Pope] The manner of the Lions hunting their prey in the deserts of Africa is this: At their first going out in the nighttime they set up a loud roar, and then listen to the noise made by the beasts in their flight, pursuing them by the ear, and not by the nostril. It is probable the story of the jackal's hunting for the lion was occasioned by observation of this defect of scent in that terrible animal." Back to Line
214] sagacious: "acute in perception" (OED). tainted: smelling of an animal, usually one that is hunted. Back to Line
223] barrier: a disyllabic word with stress on the second syllable. Back to Line
235] progressive: "proceeding step by step" (OED). Back to Line
238] The double order in human, angel, man is explained by such traditional doctrine as: "In our minds, verily, we be so celestial and of so godly capacity that we may surmount above the nature of angels and be unite, knit, and made one with God" (Erasmus, Enchiridon, IV). Back to Line
248] amazing: ''the act of causing mental stupefaction or frenzy" (OED). Back to Line
255] Cf. Paradise Lost, VI, 218-19, 832-34. Back to Line
258] "[Pope] The extravagance, impiety and pride of such a desire." Back to Line
259] Pope uses St. Paul's analogy of the body-members illustrating unity in the system of grace and applies it to the system of nature. See I Cor. 12:15-21. Back to Line
265] "[Pope] See the prosecution and application of this in Epist. 4, ver. 162." Back to Line
269] Cf. I Cor. 12:6. Back to Line
280] equals: makes all equal. Back to Line
281] "[Pope] The consequence of all, the absolute submission due to providence, both as to our present and our future state." Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
D. F. Theall
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.130.