superfluous health

The madness of superfluous health, says Pope in one of the chiding moments in the Essay on Man. There are rather too many chiding moments. The balance feels wrong. One did chide in such expository poems, Hesiod had done it, so had Lucretius, but Pope's lessons have not a sufficiently copious enthusiasm to excuse his lofty reproofs. Go, wiser thou... Go wondrous creature... Fools! (he proceeds) thou fools ... Blind to truth... Cease then... - and much more in the same vein. This is not so much about enlightening the insanely healthy questioners as about telling them to shut their noise: Whatever is, is RIGHT. His paean to Order involves too much ordering people about.

Anyway, here's the phrase back in its context, the opening lines of Epistle III:

    Here then we rest: 'The universal cause
    Acts to one end, but acts by various laws.'
    In all the madness of superfluous health,
    The trim of pride, the impudence of wealth,
    Let this great truth be present night and day;
    But most be present, if we preach or pray.

It's the healthy, wealthy and proud who hold all the poetic cards here. How can Pope, the great apophthegmist, try and pass off this unmeaning, uninteresting verbiage about the universal cause as a great truth? As pallid is my conception of Pope preaching, or indeed Pope praying. I think he'd rather be playing in the road with the trim and impudent.

Pope knew there was something unachieved about the Essay on Man. He self-accuses it of a certain dryness, of generality without detail; defines its method as a faute de mieux; demotes it to the status of preliminaries to a more fruitful sequel; tacitly condemns it by not delivering that sequel.

Still, the great chain is fascinating. When he says:

    See dying vegetables life sustain,
    See life dissolving vegetate again:

when he sees the insulated concentration of the kind:

    Say, will the falcon, stooping from above,
    Smit with her varying plumage, spare the dove?

when (best of all) he admires the essential motors of action and passion, and their creative patterning thus:

    The rising tempest puts in act the soul,
    Parts it may ravage, but preserves the whole...
    Passions, like elements, though born to fight,
    Yet, mixed and softened, in his work unite...

these are glimmerings of the processes that sustain an ecology. That image of a chain, however, is inevitably too one-dimensional; too much like a gentlemanly line, or the grades of estate staff. It has its later analogy in apex predators and the like, but it isn't helpful when thinking about the inter-relations of complex groups of plants and animals. Pope intermittently knows it too: the lioness has a hopeless sense of smell. Who claims the grain? Even the humble birds. And the enchanting hog, that ploughs not nor obeys thy call, makes his living as well as Man.

Of the chain's mechanism, no satisfactory explanation emerges.

    From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,
    Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

In Pope's own terms it's difficult to see what could justify this assertion except a pious compliment to the great maker's precision. The chain is conceived as a fragile perfection, like the one and only answer to a difficult sum. Adaptation, the continuing self-repair and adjustment to changed conditions, these ideas are not to be glimpsed. The chain, being divinely imposed and RIGHT, is apparently too static to require what, to our eyes, makes the natural world a far more impressive creation.

And still, there's sometimes a wonderful energy in Pope's intuitions roving, with a liberty that was already becoming amateurish, from Nature to Man. This of the strange comforts that make everyone unwilling to trade places with another:

    The starving chemist in his golden views
    Supremely blessed, the poet in his muse.

Of our toys: the child Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw carried through to the deflating grace of beads and prayer-books are the toys of age. No simplicities of RIGHT here: but a broad, amused, wonderment; the spirited delectation of a superfluous health that Pope experienced only in his verse.

Michael Peverett

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