The Poetry Corner

Moral Essays. Epistle I.--To Sir Richard Temple, Lord Cobham.

By Alexander Pope

ARGUMENT. OF THE KNOWLEDGE AND CHARACTERS OF MEN. That it is not sufficient for this knowledge to consider man in the abstract: books will not serve the purpose, nor yet our own experience singly, ver. 1. General maxims, unless they be formed upon both, will be but notional, ver. 10. Some peculiarity in every man, characteristic to himself, yet varying from himself, ver. 15. Difficulties arising from our own passions, fancies, faculties, &c., ver. 31. The shortness of life, to observe in, and the uncertainty of the principles of action in men, to observe by, ver. 37, &c. Our own principle of action often hid from ourselves, ver. 41. Some few characters plain, but in general confounded, dissembled, or inconsistent, ver. 51. The same man utterly different in different places and seasons, ver. 71. Unimaginable weaknesses in the greatest, ver. 70, &c. Nothing constant and certain but God and nature, ver. 95. No judging of the motives from the actions; the same actions proceeding from contrary motives, and the same motives influencing contrary actions, ver. 100. II. Yet to form characters, we can only take the strongest actions of a man's life, and try to make them agree: the utter uncertainty of this, from nature itself, and from policy, ver. 120. Characters given according to the rank of men of the world, ver. 135. And some reason for it, ver. 140. Education alters the nature, or at least character of many, ver. 149. Actions, passions, opinions, manners, humours, or principles, all subject to change. No judging by nature, from ver. 158 to 174. III. It only remains to find (if we can) his ruling passion: that will certainly influence all the rest, and can reconcile the seeming or real inconsistency of all his actions, ver. 175. Instanced in the extraordinary character of Clodio, ver. 179. A caution against mistaking second qualities for first, which will destroy all possibility of the knowledge of mankind, ver. 210. Examples of the strength of the ruling passion, and its continuation to the last breath, ver. 222, &c. Yes, you despise the man to books confined, Who from his study rails at human kind; Though what he learns he speaks, and may advance Some general maxims, or be right by chance. The coxcomb bird, so talkative and grave, That from his cage cries 'Cuckold,' 'Whore,' and 'Knave,' Though many a passenger he rightly call, You hold him no philosopher at all. And yet the fate of all extremes is such, Men may be read, as well as books, too much. To observations which ourselves we make, We grow more partial for the observer's sake; To written wisdom, as another's, less: Maxims are drawn from notions, those from guess. There's some peculiar in each leaf and grain, Some unmark'd fibre, or some varying vein: Shall only man be taken in the gross? Grant but as many sorts of mind as moss. That each from other differs, first confess; Next that he varies from himself no less: Add nature's, custom's, reason's, passion's strife, And all opinion's colours cast on life. Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds, Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds? On human actions reason though you can, It may be reason, but it is not man: His principle of action once explore, That instant 'tis his principle no more. Like following life through creatures you dissect, You lose it in the moment you detect. Yet more; the difference is as great between The optics seeing, as the objects seen. All manners take a tincture from our own; Or come discolour'd, through our passions shown; Or fancy's beam enlarges, multiplies, Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes. Nor will life's stream for observation stay, It hurries all too fast to mark their way: In vain sedate reflections we would make, When half our knowledge we must snatch, not take. Oft, in the passions' wild rotation toss'd, Our spring of action to ourselves is lost: Tired, not determined, to the last we yield, And what comes then is master of the field. As the last image of that troubled heap, When sense subsides, and fancy sports in sleep, (Though past the recollection of the thought), Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought: Something as dim to our internal view, Is thus, perhaps, the cause of most we do. True, some are open, and to all men known; Others so very close, they're hid from none; (So darkness strikes the sense no less than light) Thus gracious Chandos is beloved at sight; And every child hates Shylock, though his soul Still sits at squat, and peeps not from its hole. At half mankind when generous Manly raves, All know 'tis virtue, for he thinks them knaves: When universal homage Umbra pays, All see 'tis vice, and itch of vulgar praise. When flattery glares, all hate it in a queen, While one there is who charms us with his spleen. But these plain characters we rarely find; Though strong the bent, yet quick the turns of mind: Or puzzling contraries confound the whole; Or affectations quite reverse the soul. The dull, flat falsehood serves for policy; And, in the cunning, truth itself's a lie: Unthought-of frailties cheat us in the wise; The fool lies hid in inconsistencies. See the same man, in vigour, in the gout; Alone, in company; in place, or out; Early at business, and at hazard late; Mad at a fox-chase, wise at a debate; Drunk at a borough, civil at a ball; Friendly at Hackney, faithless at Whitehall. Catius is ever moral, ever grave, Thinks who endures a knave, is next a knave, Save just at dinner--then prefers, no doubt, A rogue with venison to a saint without. Who would not praise Patricio's[1] high desert, His hand unstain'd, his uncorrupted heart, His comprehensive head, all interests weigh'd, All Europe saved, yet Britain not betray'd? He thanks you not, his pride is in picquet, Newmarket fame, and judgment at a bet. What made (says Montaigne, or more sage Charron[2]) Otho a warrior, Cromwell a buffoon? A perjured prince[3] a leaden saint revere, A godless regent[4] tremble at a star? The throne a bigot keep, a genius quit, Faithless through piety, and duped through wit? Europe a woman, child, or dotard rule, And just her wisest monarch made a fool? Know, God and Nature only are the same: In man, the judgment shoots at flying game; A bird of passage! gone as soon as found, Now in the moon perhaps, now under ground. II. In vain the sage, with retrospective eye, Would from the apparent what conclude the why, Infer the motive from the deed, and show That what we chanced was what we meant to do. Behold! if fortune or a mistress frowns, Some plunge in business, others shave their crowns: To ease the soul of one oppressive weight, This quits an empire, that embroils a state: The same adust complexion has impell'd Charles[5] to the convent, Philip[6] to the field. Not always actions show the man: we find Who does a kindness, is not therefore kind; Perhaps prosperity becalm'd his breast, Perhaps the wind just shifted from the east: Not therefore humble he who seeks retreat, Pride guides his steps, and bids him shun the great: Who combats bravely is not therefore brave, He dreads a death-bed like the meanest slave: Who reasons wisely is not therefore wise, His pride in reasoning, not in acting, lies. But grant that actions best discover man; Take the most strong, and sort them as you can: The few that glare, each character must mark, You balance not the many in the dark. What will you do with such as disagree? Suppress them, or miscall them policy? Must then at once (the character to save) The plain rough hero turn a crafty knave? Alas! in truth the man but changed his mind, Perhaps was sick, in love, or had not dined. Ask why from Britain Csar would retreat? Csar himself might whisper he was beat. Why risk the world's great empire for a punk?[7] Csar perhaps might answer he was drunk. But, sage historians! 'tis your task to prove One action, conduct; one, heroic love. 'Tis from high life high characters are drawn; A saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn; A judge is just, a chancellor juster still; A gownman, learn'd; a bishop, what you will; Wise, if a minister; but, if a king, More wise, more learn'd, more just, more everything, Court-virtues bear, like gems, the highest rate, Born where Heaven's influence scarce can penetrate: In life's low vale, the soil the virtues like, They please as beauties, here as wonders strike. Though the same sun with all-diffusive rays Blush in the rose, and in the diamond blaze, We prize the stronger effort of his power, And justly set the gem above the flower. 'Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined. Boastful and rough, your first son is a squire; The next a tradesman, meek, and much a liar; Tom struts a soldier, open, bold, and brave; Will sneaks a scrivener, an exceeding knave: Is he a Churchman? then he's fond of power: A Quaker? sly: A Presbyterian? sour: A smart free-thinker? all things in an hour. Ask men's opinions: Scoto now shall tell How trade increases, and the world goes well; Strike off his pension, by the setting sun, And Britain, if not Europe, is undone. That gay free-thinker, a fine talker once, What turns him now a stupid silent dunce? Some god, or spirit he has lately found; Or chanced to meet a minister that frown'd. Judge we by nature? Habit can efface, Interest o'ercome, or policy take place: By actions? those uncertainty divides: By passions? these dissimulation hides: Opinions? they still take a wider range: Find, if you can, in what you cannot change. Manners with fortunes, humours turn with climes, Tenets with books, and principles with times. III. Search, then, the ruling passion: there, alone, The wild are constant, and the cunning known; The fool consistent, and the false sincere; Priests, princes, women, no dissemblers here. This clue once found, unravels all the rest, The prospect clears, and Wharton stands confess'd. Wharton, the scorn and wonder of our days, Whose ruling passion was the lust of praise: Born with whate'er could win it from the wise, Women and fools must like him or he dies; Though wondering senates hung on all he spoke, The club must hail him master of the joke. Shall parts so various aim at nothing new? He'll shine a Tully and a Wilmot[8] too. Then turns repentant, and his God adores With the same spirit that he drinks and whores; Enough if all around him but admire, And now the punk applaud, and now the friar. Thus with each gift of nature and of art, And wanting nothing but an honest heart; Grown all to all, from no one vice exempt; And most contemptible, to shun contempt; His passion still to covet general praise, His life, to forfeit it a thousand ways; A constant bounty which no friend has made; An angel tongue, which no man can persuade; A fool, with more of wit than half mankind, Too rash for thought, for action too refined; A tyrant to the wife his heart approves; A rebel to the very king he loves; He dies, sad outcast of each church and state, And, harder still! flagitious, yet not great. Ask you why Wharton broke through every rule 'Twas all for fear the knaves should call him fool. Nature well known, no prodigies remain, Comets are regular, and Wharton plain. Yet, in this search, the wisest may mistake, If second qualities for first they take. When Catiline by rapine swell'd his store; When Csar made a noble dame a whore;[9] In this the lust, in that the avarice Were means, not ends; ambition was the vice. That very Csar, born in Scipio's days, Had aim'd, like him, by chastity at praise. Lucullus, when frugality could charm, Had roasted turnips in the Sabine farm. In vain the observer eyes the builder's toil, But quite mistakes the scaffold for the pile. In this one passion man can strength enjoy, As fits give vigour, just when they destroy. Time, that on all things lays his lenient hand, Yet tames not this; it sticks to our last sand. Consistent in our follies and our sins, Here honest Nature ends as she begins. Old politicians chew on wisdom past, And totter on in business to the last; As weak, as earnest, and as gravely out, As sober Lanesborough[10] dancing in the gout. Behold a reverend sire, whom want of grace Has made the father of a nameless race, Shoved from the wall perhaps, or rudely press'd By his own son, that passes by unbless'd: Still to his wench he crawls on knocking knees, And envies every sparrow that he sees. A salmon's belly, Helluo, was thy fate; The doctor call'd, declares all help too late: 'Mercy!' cries Helluo, 'mercy on my soul! Is there no hope? Alas! then bring the jowl.' The frugal crone, whom praying priests attend, Still tries to save the hallow'd taper's end, Collects her breath, as ebbing life retires, For one puff more, and in that puff expires. 'Odious! in woollen! 'twould a saint provoke,' (Were the last words that poor Narcissa[11] spoke), 'No, let a charming chintz and Brussels lace Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my lifeless face: One would not, sure, be frightful when one's dead And, Betty, give this cheek a little red.' The courtier smooth, who forty years had shined An humble servant to all human kind, Just brought out this, when scarce his tongue could stir, 'If--where I'm going--I could serve you, sir?' 'I give and I devise' (old Euclio said, And sigh'd) 'my lands and tenements to Ned.' 'Your money, sir?' 'My money, sir, what! all? Why--if I must'--(then wept)--'I give it Paul.' 'The manor, sir?'--'The manor! hold,' (he cried), 'Not that--I cannot part with that'--and died. And you, brave Cobham! to the latest breath Shall feel your ruling passion strong in death: Such in those moments as in all the past, 'Oh, save my country, Heaven!' shall be your last. VARIATIONS. After VER. 86, in the former editions-- Triumphant leaders, at an army's head, Hemm'd round with glories, pilfer cloth or bread: As meanly plunder as they bravely fought, Now save a people, and now save a groat. VER. 129, in the former editions-- Ask why from Britain Csar made retreat? Csar himself would tell you he was beat. The mighty Czar what moved to wed a punk? The mighty Czar would tell you he was drunk. In the former editions, VER. 208-- Nature well known, no miracles remain.