Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion

By Reuben A. Brower | Go to book overview
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VIII
THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND

On human actions reason tho' you can, It may be reason, but it is not man . . . ( Epistle to Cobham, 35-36)

THE doubts that occur in reading even the best parts of the Essay on Man disappear completely when we turn to one of the great passages in the Moral Essays:

At Timon's Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, "What sums are thrown away"
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.
Greatness, with Timon, dwells in such a draught
As brings all Brobdignag before your thought.
To compass this, his building is a Town,
His pond an Ocean, his parterre a Down:
Who but must laugh, the Master when he sees,
A puny insect, shiv'ring at a breeze!
( Epistle to Burlington, 99-108)

Here is the élan and rapture of genius, of a poet moving freely and yet with perfect control, compressing into a few lines a great variety of rhythmic and dramatic effect with swift changes of irony and brilliant contrasts of image. The passage goes easily from the grand narrative swing of the first couplet to the resounding oratorical architecture of preposterous praise, to the small-voiced thrust of the last murderous line. The irony of exaggerated compliment, 'So proud, so grand. . .' gives way first to the muted politeness of 'Soft and Agreeable come never there', then rises to a tremendous Swiftian parody of Milton,

As brings all Brobdignag before your thought.

The final reduction of 'Greatness' is cinematographic, the eye shifting from Vanbrughian monstrosity to the mean and almost charmingly microscopic. We are left with an

-240-

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