Dr. John Arbuthnot was a physician, satirist, one of the members of Martin Scribblerus Club (together with Pope and Swift), creator of the figure of John Bull, and by all accounts an awfully nice man. “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” grew out of a collection of drafts and loose notes Pope was drafting over the years and was finally spurred to form into a complete text when he learnt that his friend was dying. The other motivation was the desire to answer back to some satires written against him by his former friend, Lady Mary Montagu and the man who never was his friend, Lord John Hervey. Fortunately Pope managed to complete and publish the poem before the death of Arbuthnot. In the “Advertisement” to this poem Pope mentions the satires to which his text is the answer. He also says that he showed mercy to the objects of his satire at Dr Arbuthnot’s urging by not mentioning their names. The poem begins with Pope complaining about how the heat of summer makes both madmen and poets active, and all the would-be poets keep on pestering him and even invade his retreat in Twickenham. On the other hand, the aspiring poets’ relatives blame Pope, like Arthur Moore, whose son James Moore Smythe stole some lines of Pope’s for his play, or a cuckold who blames Pope that his wife ran away from him because she had her head turned by poetry.
Pope argues that everyone should accept their natural place in the hierarchy of the universe, just like the foot should accept it’s a foot and not an eye. The Helpful Footnote informs us that it’s an allusion to this passage from 1 Corinthians, although I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to Tilda Swintons’ tirade from Snowpiercer. Was it the French Revolution which changed our thinking on the subject so completely, I wonder? Returning to Pope’s argument, there is no point in criticizing the organization of the universe, because if something is wrong, it’s just because we don’t get the whole picture, and “whatever is, is right”. The excerpt ends with the initial stanza of Epistle 2, which encourages man to “know thyself”. The knowledge is constituted by the admission of our existence “on this isthmus of a middle state”, between the world of spirits and of animals, possessing some knowledge, but not all, constantly in doubt. The poem has some value as a cultural document, but few people nowadays would find it easy to agree with Pope’s philosophy. But I have to admit it’s remarkable for a man who, I think, didn’t have a day when he felt completely ill since he contracted Pott’s disease as a teenager. Did he manage to convince himself that his stunted, suffering body was a part of a wonderful divine plan?
Man is constantly dissatisfied with his status, complaining that he is neither as wise as angels nor as strong as animals. But if we had some of animals’ superpowers, what would their use be to us? For instance, if we had a fly’s microscopic vision, what would be the point of being able to see the mites if we couldn’t see the sky? Or having the sense of smell so keen that the smell of a rose would kill us? The rest of the poem is the praise of the wonderful order of nature, where every capability is distributed in nice gradation between the species, from those least equipped with it to those equipped with it the most. Any change or modification of the great Chain of Being would result in the total destruction of the universe.
Pope argues that it’s actually beneficial that we can’t see “the whole picture”. If the lamb knew it was going to be slaughtered, would it skip so happily or lick the hand of the man who came to kill it? It’s really a touching description and it’s not the only time when Pope showed real sensitivity to animals’ welfare – he wrote an essay “Against Barbarity to Animals”. But on the other hand, it’s a metaphor that makes me really uneasy: if we, humans, are like these lambs playing in the meadow, then is God the butcher? Especially since in the next lines Pope describes God as someone who sees with equal indifference “a hero perish, or a sparrow fall”. What is then our refuge? “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Even a “poor Indian”, who worships clouds and wind, has an idea of a better afterlife, where he is not going to be persecuted by Christians thirsting for gold, and he hopes he can go there with his faithful dog. Our main problem is pride and anthropocentrism: we doubt the justness of God just because we, humans, feel unhappy. We assume that the whole universe was created for our pleasure and so we take natural catastrophes as a personal slight against us. But it’s as unreasonable to expect the world to be always calm and happy as it is unreasonable to expect people to be the same. Natural disasters are like bad people: God just lets them be because they are the result of the general laws of the universe. Winds in nature are like passions in people: they are the natural elements of life.
An Essay on Man is a long philosophical poem, addresses to Pope’s best friend, a disgraced Tory politician Viscount Bolingbroke. The purpose of the poem is, as Pope puts it, echong Milton, “vindicate the ways of God to man”. The poem consists of four “epistles” to Bolingbroke. At the beginning of the first epistle, Pope addresses Bolingbroke and invites him for a metaphorical walk in search of truth, during which they are going to beat the bushes like the hunters trying to drive the game into the open. The first stanza states that we can base our views of what God or man is only on the basis of our experience here on the earth, and so they are going to be out of necessity limited, because our knowledge of the universe is limited. In the second stanza Pope in a very convenient way dismisses the question about why the man is so weak and so little. One could just as well ask why oaks are bigger than other plants. It takes all sorts to make the world and so man is exactly where he should be on the great chain of being and plays a role, even if we are too stupid to see the whole point of it, just like a horse or an ox cannot comprehend what its work means.
Eloisa pictures herself prostrate on the floor of her cell, calling for Abelard to come and take away all her devotion and penitence. At this moment she finally realizes she has gone too far and asks Abelard not to come, but rather to fly away for her. She imagines a voice calling from one of the convent tombs to her, inviting her to join her in heaven. The ghost, like Eloisa, used to suffer for love, bot not anymore. In another line whose tone is kind of Protestant, the voice tells Eloisa that “Even superstition loses every fear/For God, not man, absolves our frailties here”. “Superstition” was a standard name Protestants used for Catholicism and confession, where man on behalf of God gave absolution, was of course pointless for Protestants. Eloisa imagines her death and Abelard administering her last rites, teaching her and learning from her how to die. Then Abelard himself will die and they will be joined at last in one grave. She imagines lovers visiting their grave and feeling pity for them. Finally Pope has her imagine a poet (i.e. himself), suffering like them because of the separation between him and the object of his love, and drawing from that on his descriptions of her emotions. With this the poem ends and I can’t say I am awfully moved. Maybe it’s the staccato of the heroic couplet which provides a kind of emotional distance between the text and the reader. Or maybe it’s that the poem is rather monotonous, and its most interesting bits were for me the ones which made me try to figure out how Protestant or Catholic Pope really is in this poem.
Eloisa realises she can’t truly repent her sins of the past because she still loves Abelard, so the old Christian maxim of “hate the sin, love the sinner” does not apply to her at all. So again she begs Abelard to come and teach her how to subdue her nature. She envies other nuns (whom Pope calls the more classical “vestals”) enjoying, in the line made famous by Charlie Kaufman, “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” free from all wishes and desires; all elements of her life are regulated by the convent rule, including her sleep, which is “obedient slumbers that can wake and weep”, says Eloisa, quoting anachronistically Richard Crashaw. Eloisa is tormented every night by the dreams of her lover, or rather it’s the awakening that torments her when she realizes her dreams are not true. She closes her eyes once again to evoke this dream, but this time it turns into a nightmare, when she and Abelard wander through some desert until Abelard rises to heaven and she shrieks at seeing him leave her. This is probably a reflection of how she imagines him to be, perfectly calm and free from all desires. So she once again asks him to come, because he now has nothing to be afraid of: “nature stands checked – religion disapproves”. In contrast, Eloisa always sees him, even in the middle of her religious devotions, when his image interposes itself between her and God.