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Alexander Pope as muse — really?

I never expected to turn to Alexander Pope for poetic inspiration. He was a dim remembrance from a course in 17th-century literature, a snarky voice from the past, enunciating his ornate, precisely rhymed couplets. Grumpy, didactic and inclined to take a misogynistic glee in the follies of women.

He did come up with some great lines. A little learning is a dangerous thing. To err is human, to forgive divine. But still, his sure-of-himself voice hardly seems fashionable for our free-verse, everything’s-relative poetry times.

But then one day, I found myself working on a poem inspired by an article about the Centre for PostNatural History in Pittsburg, a smallish storefront institution devoted to organisms that have been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. Something made me stare at a couple of my lines and hear “Essay on Man” murmur from some long-lost regions of my cortex.

I went and looked up the first epistle of that heroically long work, and was immediately struck by something I never noticed all those years ago—how strongly it is imbued by 18th-century science. The latest discoveries through the microscope and telescope confirmed Pope’s concept of the Great Chain of Being ascending from the “microscopic eye” of flies to the supreme being who ordains the Newtonian orbits of planets.

Pope’s attitude to science was conflicted. On the one hand, it is “proud” and leads humans to overvalue their ability to reason. On the other hand, this is the poet who could also write the epitaph for Sir Isaac: “God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.”

The poem says, essentially, that we have only a limited window on the world and don’t/can’t know everything. Scientists—and all humans—should know their place in an exquisitely tuned ecology, and not presume that the whole system is organized with them at its heart.

Since 1734, science and the worldview associated with it have become even more complex than they were in the Age of Enlightenment. Physics has been complicated by the theories of relativity and quantum physics. In biology and chemistry, Pope’s “just gradations” dividing species are no longer rigid. As well, like Newton’s physics, Alexander’s moral theology is no longer as calmly central as once it was. We’re more conflicted than ever on whether there’s a supreme being who has consciously designed the cosmos and we bat each other over the head with differing beliefs about how this cosmos is run and what that means for organizing society.

Still, Alexander Pope’s central question – where do we fit? – and his recommendation that we should strive for a little humility in answering it resonate as much as ever. Humanity remains in its confused position

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great…

… only there are more of us than ever before. We do have to find a framework in which to live and solve our problems.

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