ESSAYS ON WIT AND NATURE
Nature to all things fixed the limits fit,
And wisely curbed proud man's pretending wit.
( Essay on Criticism, 52-53)
If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is
in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly
opposite. . . .
( An Essay on Man, "The Design")
THE Essay on Criticism and the Essay on Man are classic examples of the need for distinguishing between what a poem says and what it expresses. Both say so much in the form of statement or argument that many readers, including some of Pope's contemporaries, have doubted or forgotten that they were poems of any sort whatever. Writers who have attacked or defended the Essay on Man have tended to treat it either as a philosophical treatise dictated by Bolingbroke or a defence of Deism or as a metaphysical and ethical discourse in the Neoplatonic-Christian tradition. Critics and editors in the nineteenth century and the early part of this century usually (with the notable exceptions of Hazlitt and Courthope) regarded the Essay on Criticism as a versification of commonplaces gleaned from Greek, Latin, and French sources. Eighteenth-century readers were probably better prepared to take both works as poetic expressions rather than bodies of doctrine because they saw at once that both were collections of
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed. . .
Being thoroughly familiar with what was being said, they could relax and enjoy Pope's marvellous 'feat of words' as he led them through familiar intellectual scenes. Their preparation for reading the two poems 'with the same spirit that its author writ' was not doctrinal, not a matter of knowing the