Pope's Poems and Prose

Breaking Clod: Hierarchical Transformation in Pope's An Essay on Man

Pope's "An Essay on Man" can be read as a self-conscious consideration of the idea of formal systems, both at the level of the poem and of the world. Pope moves philosophically from the lowest- to the highest-ranked levels of being and back, charting these hierarchies through a series of rhymed iambic pentameter couplets. While this structure is not in itself noteworthy, as it is a common phenomenon in Pope's work, it gains significance when one considers it in the context of the poem's subject matter. The concept of hierarchy, both as a cause of limitation and as praise of man's place in the world, is brought into focus as Pope considers the confines of these hierarchies, and the ways in which a lower and a higher level might merge.

For example, with the question "The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,/ Had he thy Reason, would he skip and play?", Pope highlights the limited mental world of the lamb, and suggests that the limitation may, in this case, be purposeful. Because of man's brutality, Pope argues, the lamb is better off in a state of ignorance; in this way, he will not have to suffer the presentiment of death. Such passages, Nuttall suggests, argue that "Man, so limited...

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