09 January 2015

"This light and darkness in our chaos join'd"

I re-read Alexander Pope's longish poem An Essay on Man after a decade and a half. I know the world hasn't stopped long enough for us to give poetry its due (murdered cartoonists in particular are weighing on my mind though I could choose from half a dozen other world events that make sitting down with a poem feel wrong). But let me quote the second section, which begins:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great
They don't write like that anymore. The critic Harold Bloom hated An Essay on Man (calling it "a poetic disaster"), which is probably in itself a good reason to have a read. Various other great thinkers through the centuries have either adored or hated the poem.

Didactic poetry, whether the underlying philosophy is solidly formed or shaky, is a genre I have always loved. Pope's expressive power is at its peak ("darkly wise" and "rudely great" are phenomenal turns of phrase), and yet he is presuming to think through the meaning of being human. We haven't solved that one yet, but would someone dare to write a poem of that scope today with such a direct engagement with philosophy? Literary fashions have changed, of course, but the reason is deeper: Our thought is too compartmentalized. 

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