How do the writings of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Robert Burns, William Blake, and John Gray reflect 18th century values, attitudes, and issues? 

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Alexander Pope was one of the most prominent poets of the Enlightenment period (1700–1800). The Enlightenment was born soon after the Renaissance, and both are considered movements away from the Dark Ages. The Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, focused on rational thought and the "scientific method" (The Literature Network, "The Enlightenment"). It was a period that saw progress in many aspects of society: the increase in production in industry, the rise of social classes, improvements in travel, and many other improvements. Since science was the focus of the period, Enlightenment thinkers also began moving away from the Church, preferring Deism, which taught a "more personal and spiritual kind of faith" as opposed to an "organized, doctrinal religion" ("The Enlightenment"). Criticism of politics, politicians, and religious leaders also ran rampant among Enlightenment thinkers.

Since criticism was a trend among Enlightenment thinkers, one aspect of Alexander Pope's poetry that strongly characterizes him as as an Enlightenment poet is the fact that many of his works are satirical ("The Enlightenment"). One of the most famous examples of his satirical work is his lengthy poem titled Essay on Man. The poem is addressed to St. John, part of Henry St. John Bolingbroke's name, otherwise known as Lord Bolingbroke (Poem Hunter, "Essay on Man--Poem by Alexander Pope," footnote #1). Lord Bolingbroke actually became quite infamous for his conniving political schemes. For example, after being made Viscount Bolingbroke and joining the house of lords, Bolingbroke connived to have his most powerful rival, the Earl of Oxford, dismissed (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Henry St. John Bolingbroke (1678 - 1751)"). He also connived with Queen Ann to create a "strong Jacobite ministry" but was dismissed by King George I, who succeeded Queen Ann after her death ("Henry St. John Bolingbroke"). Bolinbroke is also known for writing a five-volume philosophical work inspired by Locke and attempting to explain the limits of acquiring knowledge and "his beliefs about God and religion" ("Henry St. John Bolingbroke"). Hence, Pope's poem An Essay on Man can actually be seen as a satirical criticism of Bolingbroke.

In his satirical criticism, just as Bolingbroke did, Pope explores limits in man's perception, especially in man's ability to perceive God and fully understand the universe. We particularly see him questioning man's perception in the following lines in the first stanza: "Of Man what see we, but this station here, / From which to reason, or to which refer?" From there, Pope continues to speak of the enormity and complexity of the universe. In so doing, he draws a connection between the enormity and complexity of the universe and man's blindness, saying that it is only due to man's blindness that we see the universe as flawed.

Hence, we can see that Pope's poem perfectly reflects the attitudes, values, and issues of the Enlightenment period in several ways: (1) It explores the limits of knowledge and human reason, questions frequently asked by Enlightenment thinkers; (2) it refers to the universe in very scientific terms, with a focus on the planets, stars, and suns; and (3) it satirizes Lord Bolinbroke's own philosophy.