Alexander Pope

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Please identify the elements of Neoclassicism in "An Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope.

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The term neoclassical is applied to the age of Dryden and Pope in English poetry for two principal reasons. First, there was a self-conscious effort by writers to pattern their work after that of classical (meaning ancient Greek and Latin) models. Second, the poetry of the period was based on the ideals of elegance, balance, and restraint which have come to be associated with classicism in all the arts, as opposed to the more emotional and unrestrained qualities we associate with Romanticism.

Pope's Essay on Man, like all of his work, conforms to the classical aesthetic in the elegance and, almost paradoxically, the purity and simplicity of its language. The heroic couplet, in rhymed iambic pentameter, was considered the ideal metrical form in which to convey ideas in conformance with that aesthetic.

The ideas expressed by Pope in The Essay on Man are related to classicism because they are rooted in man's limitations and his acceptance of his place in the universe as an imperfect being, subordinate to God. The didactic emphasis of Pope's verse is to encourage the reader to view those limitations and flaws not as something of which to try to break free, but as qualities to be celebrated as the result of God's perfect design. It's the antithesis of the Romantic ideals of Shelley, for instance, nearly a century later, who sees man as ideally striving to become something greater than he is, to break free of the bonds that nature has imposed upon him and to become superhuman, as it were.

The ideas expressed in The Essay on Man were not original ones, nor did Pope claim they were. The philosophy of Leibniz has generally been considered their main source. This was the thinking ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide and caricatured as a belief that "this is the best of all possible worlds," while in his fable Voltaire depicts the mayhem and injustice that takes place on a daily basis, and has done throughout history. In my opinion, the Leibnizian view of the world, even in a non-caricatured form, is not necessarily a philosophy that has anything classical or neo-classical about it. Pope's thinking, his view of the cosmos, is basically rooted in deism, which rejects organized religion, though Pope merely implies this. He was nominally a Roman Catholic in a time when Catholics were still discriminated against in England. In both the religion in which he was raised and in his mature beliefs, Pope was actually a subversive, subtly anti-establishment figure. In this sense, the Essay on Man does not conform to the aspect of classicism that is conservative and endorses the existing order in society (I would argue). That said, in its poetic grace and elegance and its dependence on the aesthetic of the poetry of antiquity, Pope's work is fully of its time and is an example of neoclassicism.

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Neoclassicism is defined as the return to the ideals of the arts of the Greeks and Romans. English Neoclassicism flourished in the literature of England from the end of the 1600s (seventeenth century) through the 1700s (the eighteenth century). Prominent English literary neoclassicisits were Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift and John Dryden. Neoclassicism is characterized by reason, intellect, form and an acceptance of the limited imperfect nature of man: order and logic (reason); wit and intellect; and an emphasis on form, later rejected by the Romantics, that superseded the Renaissance emphasis on content and ingenuity.

Some elements of neoclassicism are found in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man (1733-1734). Pope emphasizes that knowledge is limited and is mankind's perfection: Mankind is set in an order and rank of things in the natural world and knows not the particular ends and relations of Nature' parts. Further, striving for ever greater knowledge, like Dr. Faustus, causes added misery. Pope admonishes against unreasonable remonstrance with Providence, which has ordered things in the Universe, and cautions against desiring to be morally perfect like the angels while desiring bodily excitations of the beasts. Pope asserts that the universe demonstrates a gradation between sensual and mental faculties and admonishes sense, thought, reflection and reason. He ends by advocating complete submission to Providence for the present and the future.   

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