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The surface meaning of the poem concerns an exploration about what defines humanity. Pope uses the rhyme scheme of alternating lines to explore the idea that humans are a work in progress, in between the heavens and hell. The speaker alternates and vacillates between the idea of human beings being somewhere in between the elements of greatness and failure. The speaker supports this idea with suggesting that in order to know who or what human beings are, one should study human behavior: “The proper study of mankind is Man.” Throughout the poem, the speaker posits human beings in between extremes: “darkly wise or rudely great,” “In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,” “He hangs in between; in doubt to act or rest.” The defining aspect of humanity, according to the speaker, is the “riddle of the world.” The symbolic meaning of the poem is that human beings are a mass of contradictory behaviors and identities. Human beings can represent both “ignorance” and “reason,” in who they are and what they do. The actions of human beings reveal that it is difficult to determine who they are. The speaker denies an original essence to human beings imparted by God (“presume not God to scan”), but rather by the actions of human beings. The tone of the poem is analytic and reflective, but its deeper sense of meaning is belied by its “nursery rhyme scheme.” The theme of the poem is that human actions define human beings. The poet’s overall intent is to explain the nature of human beings with a mood of pensive thought. As with most poetry, what one thinks of the poem is dependent on if they believe that human beings define their own identity of if it is imparted within them by other elements.
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