Poesie: Pope’s Know Then Thyself

Alexander Pope was most successful as a translator of Homer, but his reputation stems from his genius as a satirist, mostly. He was also among the finest epistolary poets in English.

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This is but the first part of Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man: Epistle II”.  In this first part, the master satirist lays out how man in his pride constantly makes a fool of himself.  The second part of the epistle deals with how man can remedy his own folly.  If you feel browbeaten enough and want to know Pope solutions, head over to the PoetryFoundation for the complete Epistle II.

Know Then Thyself

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:
With too much knowledge for the Skeptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the Sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
Or tread the mazy round his follow’rs trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the Sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule —
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal Man unfold all Nature’s law,
Admir’d such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And showed a Newton as we shew an ape.

Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind,
Describe or fix one movement of his mind?
Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,
Explain his own beginning, or his end?
Alas what wonder! Man’s superior part
Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art;
But when his own great work is but begun,
What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.

~ Alexander Pope

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