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English Poetry I: From Chaucer to Gray.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Alexander Pope

280. An Essay on Man

Epistle III—Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Society

HERE then we rest; ‘The universal cause

Acts to one end, but acts by various laws.’

In all the madness of superfluous health,

The trim of pride, the impudence of wealth,

Let this great truth be present night and day;

But most be present, if we preach or pray.

Look round our world; behold the chain of love

Combining all below and all above.

See plastic nature working to this end,

The single atoms each to other tend,

Attract, attracted to, the next in place

Form’d and impell’d its neighbour to embrace.

See matter next, with various life endu’d,

Press to one centre still, the gen’ral good.

See dying vegetables life sustain,

See life dissolving vegetate again:

All forms that perish other forms supply,

(By turns we catch the vital breath, and die),

Like bubbles on the sea of matter born,

They rise, they break, and to that sea return.

Nothing is foreign; parts relate to whole;

One all-extending, all-preserving soul

Connects each being, greatest with the least;

Made beast in aid of man, and man of beast;

All serv’d, all serving: nothing stands alone;

The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown.

Has God, thou fool! work’d solely for thy good,

Thy joy, thy pastime, thy attire, thy food?

Who for thy table feeds the wanton fawn,

For him as kindly spread the flow’ry lawn:

Is it for thee the lark ascends and sings?

Joy tunes his voice, joy elevates his wings.

Is it for thee the linnet pours his throat?

Loves of his own and raptures swell the note.

The bounding steed you pompously bestride,

Shares with his lord the pleasure and the pride.

Is thine alone the seed that strews the plain?

The birds of heav’n shall vindicate their grain.

Thine the full harvest of the golden year?

Part pays, and justly, the deserving steer:

The hog, that plows not, nor obeys thy call,

Lives on the labours of this lord of all.

Know, nature’s children all divide her care;

The fur that warms a monarch, warm’d a bear.

While man exclaims, ‘See all things for my use!’

‘See man for mine!’ replies a pamper’d goose:

And just as short of reason he must fall,

Who thinks all made for one, not one for all.

Grant that the pow’rful still the weak control;

Be man the wit and tyrant of the whole:

Nature that tyrant checks; he only knows,

And helps, another creature’s wants and woes.

Say, will the falcon, stooping from above,

Smit with her varying plumage, spare the dove?

Admires the jay the insect’s gilded wings?

Or hears the hawk when Philomela sings?

Man cares for all: to birds he gives his woods,

To beasts his pastures, and to fish his floods;

For some his int’rest prompts him to provide,

All feed on one vain patron, and enjoy

Th’ extensive blessing of his luxury,

That very life his learned hunger craves,

He saves from famine, from the savage saves;

Nay, feasts the animal he dooms his feast,

And, till he ends the being, makes it blest:

Which sees no more the stroke, or feels the pain,

Than favour’d man by touch ether’al slain.

The creature had his feast of life before;

Thou too must perish, when thy feast is o’er!

To each unthinking being, heav’n, a friend,

Gives not the useless knowledge of its end:

To man imparts it; but with such a view

As, while he dreads it, makes him hope it too:

The hour conceal’d, and so remote the fear,

Death still draws nearer, never seeming near.

Great standing miracle! that heav’n assign’d

Its only thinking thing this turn of mind.

II. Whether with reason, or with instinct blest,

Know, all enjoy that pow’r which suits them best;

To bliss alike by that direction tend,

And find the means proportion’d to their end.

Say, where full instinct is th’ unerring guide,

What Pope or council can they need beside?

Reason, however able, cool at best,

Cares not for service, or but serves when prest,

Stays ’till we call, and then not often near;

But honest instinct comes a volunteer,

Sure never to o’er-shoot, but just to hit;

While still too wide or short is human wit;

Sure by quick nature happiness to gain,

Which heavier reason labours at in vain.

This too serves always, reason never long;

One must go right, the other may go wrong.

See then the acting and comparing pow’rs

One in their nature, which are two in ours;

And reason raise o’er instinct as you can,

In this ’tis God directs, in that ’tis man.

Who taught the nations of the field and flood

To shun their poison, and to chuse their food?

Prescient, the tides or tempests to withstand,

Build on the wave, or arch beneath the sand?

Who made the spider parallels design,

Sure as De Moivre, without rule or line?

Who bid the stork, Columbus-like, explore

Heav’ns not his own, and worlds unknown before?

Who calls the council, states the certain day,

Who forms the phalanx, and who points the way?

III. God, in the nature of each being, founds

Its proper bliss, and sets its proper bounds:

But as he fram’d a whole, the whole to bless,

On mutual wants built mutual happiness:

So from the first, eternal order ran,

And creature link’d to creature, man to man.

Whate’er of life all-quick’ning ether keeps,

Or breathes thro’ air, or shoots beneath the deeps,

Or pours profuse on earth, one nature feeds

The vital flame, and swells the genial seeds.

Not man alone, but all that roam the wood,

Or wing the sky, or roll along the flood,

Each loves itself, but not itself alone,

Each sex desires alike, ’till two are one.

Nor ends the pleasure with the fierce embrace;

They love themselves, a third time, in their race.

Thus beast and bird their common charge attend

The mothers nurse it, and the sires defend;

The young dismiss’d to wander earth or air,

There stops the instinct, and there ends the care;

The link dissolves, each seeks a fresh embrace,

Another love succeeds, another race.

A longer care man’s helpless kind demands;

That longer care contracts more lasting bands:

Reflection, reason, still the ties improve,

At once extend the int’rest, and the love:

With choice we fix, with sympathy we burn;

Each virtue in each passion takes its turn;

And still new needs, new helps, new habits rise,

That graft benevolence on charities.

Still as one brood, and as another rose,

These nat’ral love maintain’d, habitual those:

The last, scarce ripen’d into perfect man,

Saw helpless him from whom their life began:

Mem’ry and fore-cast just returns engage,

That pointed back to youth, this on to age;

While pleasure, gratitude, and hope, combin’d,

Still spread the int’rest and preserv’d the kind.

IV. Nor think, in nature’s state they blindly trod;

The state of nature was the reign of God:

Self-love and social at her birth began,

Union the bond of all things, and of man.

Pride then was not; nor arts, that pride to aid;

Man walk’d with beast, joint tenant of the shade,

The same his table, and the same his bed;

No murder cloth’d him, and no murder fed.

In the same temple, the resounding wood,

All vocal beings hymn’d their equal God:

The shrine with gore unstain’d, with gold undrest,

Unbrib’d, unbloody, stood the blameless priest:

Heav’n’s attribute was universal care,

And man’s prerogative, to rule, but spare.

Ah! how unlike the man of times to come!

Of half that live the butcher and the tomb;

Who, foe to nature, hears the gen’ral groan,

Murders their species, and betrays his own.

But just disease to luxury succeeds,

And ev’ry death its own avenger breeds;

The fury-passions from that blood began,

And turn’d on man, a fiercer savage, man.

See him from nature rising slow to art!

To copy instinct then was reason’s part;

Thus then to man the voice of nature spake,

‘Go, from the creatures thy instructions take:

Learn from the birds what food the thickets yield;

Learn from the beasts the physic of the field;

Thy arts of building from the bee receive;

Learn of the mole to plow, the worm to weave;

Learn of the little nautilus to sail,

Spread the thin oar, and catch the driving gale.

Here too all forms of social union find,

And hence let reason, late, instruct mankind:

Here subterranean works and cities see;

There towns aërial on the waving tree.

Learn each small people’s genius, policies,

The ant’s republic, and the realm of bees;

How those in common all their wealth bestow,

And anarchy without confusion know;

And these forever, tho’ a monarch reign,

Their separate cells and properties maintain.

Mark what unvary’d laws preserve each state,

Laws wise as nature, and as fix’d as fate.

In vain thy reason finer webs shall draw,

Entangle justice in her net of law,

And right, too rigid, harden into wrong;

Still for the strong too weak, the weak too strong.

Yet go! and thus o’er all the creatures sway,

Thus let the wiser make the rest obey;

And for those arts mere instinct could afford,

Be crown’d as monarchs, or as gods ador’d.’

V. Great nature spoke; observant man obey’d;

Cities were built, societies were made:

Here rose one little state; another near

Grew by like means, and join’d, thro’ love or fear.

Did here the trees with ruddier burdens bend,

And there the streams in purer rills descend?

What war could ravish, commerce could bestow,

And he return’d a friend, who came a foe.

Converse and love mankind might strongly draw,

When love was liberty, and nature law.

Thus states were form’d; the name of king unknown,

’Till common int’rest plac’d the sway in one.

’Twas virtue only (or in arts or arms,

Diffusing blessings, or averting harms)

The same which in a sire the sons obey’d,

A prince the father of a people made.

VI. ’Till then, by nature crown’d, each patriarch sate,

King, priest and parent of his growing state;

On him, their second providence, they hung,

Their law his eye, their oracle his tongue.

He from the wand’ring furrow call’d the food,

Taught to command the fire, control the flood,

Draw forth the monsters of th’ abyss profound,

Or fetch th’ aërial eagle to the ground,

’Till drooping, sick’ning, dying, they began

Whom they rever’d as God to mourn as man:

Then, looking up from sire to sire, explor’d

One great first father, and that first ador’d.

Or plain tradition that this All begun,

Convey’d unbroken faith from sire to son;

The worker from the work distinct was known,

And simple reason never sought but one:

Ere wit oblique had broke that steady light,

Man, like his maker, saw that all was right;

To virtue, in the paths of pleasure trod,

And own’d a father when he own’d a God.

Love all the faith, and all th’ allegiance then;

For nature knew no right divine in men,

No ill could fear in God; and understood

A sov’reign being, but a sov’reign good.

True faith, true policy, united ran,

That was but love of God, and this of man.

Who first taught souls enslav’d, and realms undone,

Th’ enormous faith of many made for one;

That proud exception to all nature’s laws,

T’invert the world, and counter-work its cause?

Force first made conquest, and that conquest, law;

’Till superstition taught the tyrant awe,

Then shar’d the tyranny, then lent it aid,

And gods of conqu’rors, slaves of subjects made:

She, ’midst the lightning’s blaze, and thunder’s sound,

When rock’d the mountains, and when groan’d the ground,

She taught the weak to bend, the proud to pray,

To pow’r unseen, and mightier far than they:

She, from the rending earth, and bursting skies,

Saw gods descend, and fiends infernal rise:

Here fix’d the dreadful, there the blest abodes;

Fear made her devils, and weak hope her gods;

Gods partial, changeful, passionate, unjust,

Whose attributes were rage, revenge, or lust;

Such as the souls of cowards might conceive,

And, form’d like tyrants, tyrants would believe.

Zeal then, not charity, became the guide;

And hell was built on spite, and heav’n on pride.

Then sacred seem’d th’ ether’al vault no more;

Altars grew marble then, and reek’d with gore:

Then first the flamen tasted living food;

Next his grim idol smear’d with human blood;

With heav’n’s own thunders shook the world below,

And play’d the god an engine on his foe.

So drives self-love, thro’ just, and thro’ unjust,

To one man’s pow’r, ambition, lucre, lust.

The same self-love, in all, becomes the cause

Of what restrains him, government and laws.

For, what one likes, if others like as well,

What serves one will, when many wills rebel?

How shall he keep, what, sleeping or awake,

A weaker may surprise, a stronger take?

His safety must his liberty restrain:

All join to guard what each desires to gain.

Forc’d into virtue thus, by self-defence,

Ev’n kings learn’d justice and benevolence:

Self-love forsook the path it first pursu’d,

And found the private in the public good.

’Twas then the studious head or gen’rous mind,

Follow’r of God, or friend of human-kind,

Poet or patriot, rose but to restore

The faith and moral nature gave before;

Relum’d her ancient light, not kindled new,

If not God’s image, yet his shadow drew:

Taught pow’r’s due use to people and to kings,

Taught nor to slack, nor strain its tender strings,

The less, or greater, set so justly true,

That touching one must strike the other too;

’Till jarring int’rests, of themselves create

Th’ according music of a well-mix’d state.

Such is the world’s great harmony, that springs

From order, union, full consent of things:

Where small and great, where weak and mighty, made

To serve, not suffer, strengthen, not invade;

More pow’rful each as needful to the rest,

And in proportion as it blesses, blest;

Draw to one point, and to one centre bring

Beast, man, or angel, servant, lord, or king.

For forms of government let fools contest;

Whate’er is best administer’d is best:

For modes of faith, let graceless zealots fight;

His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right:

In faith and hope the world will disagree,

But all mankind’s concern is Charity:

All must be false that thwart this one great end;

And all of God, that bless mankind, or mend.

Man, like the gen’rous vine, supported lives;

The strength he gains is from th’ embrace he gives.

On their own axis as the planets run,

Yet make at once their circle round the sun;

So two consistent motions act the soul;

And one regards itself, and one the whole.

Thus God and nature link’d the gen’ral frame,

And bade self-love and social be the same.