Alexander Pope

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What is a detailed analysis of Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Burlington"?

A detailed analysis of Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Burlington" could focus on his ideas about taste and sense. You could discuss his distaste for both the miser and the prodigal and dive into what he means by "Good Sense." You could also dissect Timon's villa and tell why it earns Pope's ire. Lastly, you could connect Pope's ideas about extravagance to contemporary theories on decadence, especially those espoused by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

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If we were asked to undertake a detailed analysis of Alexander Pope's poem "Epistle to Burlington" (also known as "An Epistle to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington"), we'd focus on what Pope might be trying to say about decadence, extravagance, and sense.

In the first stanza, Pope introduces us to a miser and a prodigal. The miser has "Riches he can ne'er enjoy" and the prodigal "waste / His Wealth to purchase what he ne'er can taste." Neither of these two polarities seem to be supported by Pope, do they? He doesn't champion the person who spends nothing, nor does he promote the person who spends everything. We might say that both are a kind of extravagance since both are rather extreme.

What is the quality Pope is after? We'll go with "Sense / Good Sense, which only is the Gif of Heav'n." For Pope, we must "Begin with Sense, of ev'ry Art he Soul, / Parts answr'ing Parts, shall slide into a Whole."

Here, we could take a brief detour and analyze how the structure of Pope's poem reinforces his belief in good sense. Does Pope's poem have an extravagant structure or topsy-turvy rhyme scheme? If you ask us, it's rather simple. What we're dealing with are rhyming couplets, or, perhaps, “Parts answr'ing Parts” that work together to make a “Whole” poem.

Back to Pope's campaign against decadence. You might want to analyze Timon's villa. It's "so proud, so grand," yet it leads Pope to declare "Lo! what huge Heaps of Littleness around!" Think about how extravagance leads to emptiness. Maybe not physically emptiness, but spiritual and artistic hollowness.

If you're inclined to analyze Pope's poem in connection to present-day debates, we'd suggest you look into Ross Douthat’s ideas about modern decadence. You'll probably find many fascinating connections between the decadence Douthat sees now and the decadence that Pope saw in the first part of the 1700s.

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