Friday, September 02, 2011

Pope's Pardon

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
English writer and critic
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
— From An Essay on Criticism (1711)


Alexander Pope has been relegated, in my understanding and experience which is hardly broad enough for such an assessment yet, to one of the minor great figures, since he pursued grand substance less than coruscating wit. Besides the formality and artifice with which his works were associated seem to have run afoul of the Romantic movement and been whelmed beneath its depths, as it were, so that it was not only Marianne in Sense and Sensibility who valued (at least in Elinor's sarcastic character sketch) "admiring Pope no more than is proper."

In his lifetime he was a child prodigy who explored the classics a great deal, and as he grew older was at times at much of a disadvantage in his social and professional life for being a Catholic when Popery was not held in good odour and the Church of England pervaded the university, government, and other lofty authorities. I have variously heard him described as a hypersensitive, frail ego with the memory of an elephant and the vindictiveness of an adder, and as a toady; the Encyclopaedia Britannica article I am using to refresh my memory on his c.v. is much kinder and I think there's only so far one can go in criticizing someone without looking rather bad one's self. He was, at any rate, a highly social man; and, though further hampered by sickliness, entertaining and teeming of brain. And despite his submersion in a sea of flippancies he emerged still a weighty and thoroughly respectable literary figure.

This quotation, partly cribbed from the Latin, comes from his Essay on Criticism, one of his philosophe-ical literary undertakings. But the work which we undertook in school was his Rape of the Lock, the delicately turned epic poem which frames the tale of a social faux pas (involving a length of hair from a lady and a marauding pair of scissors — the "glitt'ring Forfex" — belonging to a gentleman) as a stately and suspenseful allegory, which exaggerates the hubbub to the point of ridiculousness. Besides one comes across fragments of his translation of the Odyssey and across other aphorisms for instance in Maria Edgeworth's novels and tales, which have been very good at making me go and follow literary references.

Some of his wit is clearly understood and easily quoted, like "damn with faint praise"*, some is rather obscure, some is rather noble and draws upon ancient classical wit ("All our knowledge is, ourselves to know," the direct descendant of Gnwthi seauton from the temple of Apollo) and some of it is as sharp as this one*:
But still the great have kindness in reserve,
He helped to bury whom he helped to starve.
Errare humanum est, the Latin predecessor of the quotation which is the actual subject of this blog post, is a truncated phrase born of various Roman sources. The Duke of Buckingham, John Sheffield (c. 1650-1720) had it inscribed as part of a verse on his tombstone in this form: "Humanum est nescire & errare."** The phrase itself has a pleasing humility, which Pope undercuts by his ambitious hint that we could be far, far godlier. I'm rereading the essay now so that my contextualization is not all humbug; at any rate it's obvious that Pope's line is actually not all that profound in meaning or application, as with the words "to forgive (is) divine" he's just saying "Come on, be nice," to literary critics. This admonition, too, comes after he ascribes the model that "Those who can't, teach," (i.e. those who can't write, critique) to the entire critic profession; I doubt his suggestion was very successful.

* "An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," 1735
** (When I internet-searched the phrase, it landed me with this, transcribed in England's Baronetage from the year 1803, at Google Books. "Nescire" = be ignorant.)

Quotations taken from pp. 519-522 of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1996)

P.S.: I'm surprised that this brilliant and original couplet hasn't been adopted into familiar popularity:
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
Essay on Criticism, ll. 9-10, at Project Gutenberg

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