Essay on Man

By Alexander Pope


“Essay on Man” is a thought-provoking poem written by Alexander Pope, one of the foremost poets of the 18th century, during the Enlightenment period. This poetic essay forms part of a larger work, often celebrated for its insightful approach to understanding humanity’s place in the world. Alexander Pope, known for his sharp wit and lyrical prowess, addresses profound philosophical questions about human nature and the underlying principles of the universe. 🌌

Written in heroic couplets, which are pairs of rhymed iambic pentameter lines, “Essay on Man” is considered an exemplar of the Neoclassical movement in literature, reflecting its ideals of order and harmony in both thought and form. The poem itself is structured as an argumentative text but is rich with poetic devices, making it a staple in both the study of literature and philosophy. 📚

Meaning of Essay on Man

Opening Section
The poem starts with an assertion of the unknowability of divine ways, proposing that man, limited in his perspective, cannot hope to understand the complexities of the universe. Pope begins with the famous lines:

“Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.”

These opening verses set the stage for a discussion on the human condition and the limitations inherent within it.

Mid Section
In the middle sections of the poem, Pope explores various aspects of human behavior, critiquing man’s folly and pride, but also admiring human society and governance. He delves into themes of ethics, psychology, and the social order, advocating for a balanced perspective on human nature. One notable passage is:

“Reason’s whole pleasure, all the joys of sense,
Lie in three words, health, peace, and competence.”

Here, Pope encapsulates the essence of human desires and the foundation of a content life.

Concluding Section
The conclusion of “Essay on Man” reaffirms the harmony and order of the universe, suggesting that whatever is, is right. This is a reflection of Pope’s belief in a rational cosmic order. The poem closes with:

“That Reason, Passion, answer one great aim;
That true Self-love and Social are the same.”

This reinforces the idea that personal well-being and the common good are interconnected and that human happiness lies in accepting our place within the broader system of life.

In-depth Analysis

Here we’ll examine each stanza of “Essay on Man” by breaking down the poem’s structure, themes, and use of language:

Stanza 1: The Introduction

  • Themes: Human limitations and the proper scale of human reasoning.
  • Symbols: “The pride of Kings” symbolizes not only political power but also human arrogance.
  • Literary Techniques:
    • Heroic couplets: sets a formal tone and maintains a rhythmic structure conducive to philosophical discourse.
    • Irony: to critique human arrogance while simultaneously acknowledging human greatness.

Stanza 2: The Nature of Man

  • Themes: The dual nature of humans—capable of great reason but equally capable of folly.
  • Symbols: “The proper study of Mankind is Man” points to a reflective, introspective examination of human nature.
  • Figurative Language:
    • Metaphors: to illustrate complex philosophical ideas in relatable terms.
    • Paradoxes: highlight the contradictions inherent in human nature.

Stanza 3: On the Universe

  • Themes: The order and chaos in the universe, and the human place within it.
  • Symbols: “The chain of being” represents the interconnectedness of all life and existence.
  • Literary Techniques:
    • Analogies: comparing cosmic order to a chain, suggesting both connection and hierarchy.
    • Allusion: to classical and biblical sources to lend authority and depth to the arguments.

Stanza 4: Conclusion

  • Themes: Acceptance of human limitations and the embracing of the greater cosmic order.
  • Symbols: “Whatever is, is right” encapsulates Pope’s belief in a benevolent, rational universe.
  • Figurative Language:
    • Chiasmus: inverting structures to emphasize the balance and harmony of the universe.
    • Epigrammatic finish: provides a memorable, concise statement of the poem’s philosophical conclusion.

This stanza-by-stanza breakdown reveals how Pope skillfully uses poetic form and devices to argue and embellish his philosophical vision, weaving dense conceptual threads into a cohesive, enlightening work.

Poetic Devices used in Essay on Man

Alliteration“Vast chain of being”Adds a musical quality, linking words through sound, enhancing the poem’s memorability and rhythm.
AnaphoraRepeated use of “Whatever is” in the conclusionCreates a rhythmic and emphatic effect, reinforcing the poem’s philosophical assertions.
Antithesis“Reason’s whole pleasure, all the joys of sense”Highlights contrasts within human existence, underscoring the conflict between rational and sensory experiences.
Apostrophe“Awake, my St. John!”Directly addresses a silent or absent listener, drawing attention to the urgency and importance of the philosophical discourse.
Assonance“Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled”The repetition of vowel sounds creates internal rhyming, enhancing the lyrical quality of the verse.
Consonance“For forms of government let fools contest”The repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the end of words, adds a lyrical, pleasing sound to the verse.
EnjambmentThroughout the poem to enhance the rhythmic flowAllows the sentence to continue beyond the line break, maintaining a conversational flow and emphasizing continuity of thought.
HyperboleExaggeration of man’s flaws and virtuesUses exaggeration to make a point more vividly about human nature, emphasizing the extremes of human characteristics.
Metaphor“The pride of Kings” as a symbol for vanityUses implied comparison to critique authority and human pride, deepening the thematic exploration of vanity and power.
PersonificationGiving abstract ideas human characteristicsAttributes human qualities to abstract concepts like Nature and God, making philosophical ideas more relatable and vivid.

Essay on

What is the main theme of ‘Essay on Man’?
The main theme of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” revolves around the rationalistic belief that all things in the universe happen for a reason. It discusses human nature, societal mores, and the inherent characteristics of humans, emphasizing a stoic acceptance of our place in the natural order.

How does Pope view human nature in the poem?
Pope portrays human nature as a combination of strength and weakness. He argues that while humans are capable of reason and have the potential for greatness, they are also inherently flawed and must accept their limitations.

What poetic form is used in ‘Essay on Man’?
“Essay on Man” is written in heroic couplets, which are pairs of rhymed iambic pentameter lines. This form is characteristic of neoclassical poetry, emphasizing order and harmony both in thought and structure.

Why does Pope use the phrase ‘Whatever is, is right’ in the poem?
This phrase encapsulates Pope’s belief in a benevolent, rational cosmic order. It suggests that everything in the universe, including human suffering and moral dilemmas, serves a divine purpose and should be accepted as part of a greater plan.

Essay on Man Study Guide

Exercise: Identify and list all the poetic devices used in the following verse from ‘Essay on Man’:

“All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.”

Answer Key:

  • Metaphor: “Nature” and “God” are used metaphorically to represent the body and soul, respectively, illustrating the interconnectedness of the universe.
  • Synecdoche: The use of “parts” and “whole” to represent individual entities and the universe.
  • Alliteration: “Parts” and “parts” create a repetitive sound that emphasizes the connection between the elements discussed.
  • Personification: “Nature” and “God” are personified, being attributed human-like body parts and roles.

This exercise encourages students to delve deeper into the text, understanding how poetic devices enhance the poem’s themes and Pope’s philosophical assertions.