Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is considered to be the most outstanding literary figure of the 18th century (neo-classical age). He was born to catholic parents in London. On account of his religion, he was an outsider in the protestant dominated society and was barred from seeking admission to public schools and universities. He was largely self-educated as he said ‘he had dipped into a great number of English, French, Italian, Latin and Greek poets’. He was largely influenced by Roman poets.

As a poet, he was an intellectual personality. He wrote in the chaste and flawless language. He aimed to achieve absolute correctness. He brought the heroic couplet to perfection dealing with social and intellectual themes; his poetry exposed the social hypocrisies and vanities of his contemporaries. His important works are Pastorates, The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Man, Imitation of Horace etc.

The poem ‘Know Then Thyself’ is an extract taken from An Essay on Man: Epistle II. This long poem ‘An Essay on Man’ has four Epistles. It is considered to be a sublime work of poetry. This extract ‘Know Then Thyself’ argues that human beings should learn to look at themselves and try to learn about their own nature, power, limitations, and weakness. It is a plea to look inward to gather knowledge about oneself. It is in fact a scientific inquiry propagated by enlightenment.

Keywords

Thyself –Yourself

Deem -Consider in a specific way

Alike –Similar

Presume – to be arrogant to examine closely;
Scan – to examine closely;
Isthmus – a narrow strip of land with water on either side;
Darkly wise – foolishly wise;
Rudely great – great and yet mean;
Stoic – a person who is not disturbed by pain or not excited by joy;
Hangs between – neither a god nor a beast;
in doubt – not sure;
Doubt …. prefer – pulled apart by rival forces of the body and the mind;
Born … die – once he is born, he can not escape death;
Reasoning – able to think logically;
alike – same (remaining equally ignorant);
Chaos – completely confused;
Abused – deceived, misled;
Disabused – self enlightened;
Half to rise – to succeed partially;
Great Lord – the crown of creation;
Sole – man is the only being gifted with powers to know the truth from untruth;
Glory – crown;
Jest – laughing stock;
Riddle – puzzle.

Summary of the Poem

‘Know Then Thyself’ is a poem written by Alexander Pope, the famous poet of the eighteenth century. He was a famous satirist of his time. He wrote a number of philosophical poems also. The present selection is an extract from the Second Epistle of Pope’s long argumentative poem, ‘An Essay on Man’. It is commonly believed to have derived its underlying idea from Lord Boling broke, to whom it is dedicated. Written in four Epistles, The Essay tries to ‘vindicate the ways of God to man’, based on the doctrine that whatever is, is right.

Pope’s subject in Epistle II from where the present lines have been extracted is the ‘nature and state of Man, with respect to himself as an individual. His basic theme here, as throughout the Essay, is the providential order underlying apparent disorder. The famous opening lines of Epistle II reduce man to chaos and riddle.

In this poem, the poet advises man that he should know himself. He should be limited only to the study of his own nature and existence and not to waste his energy in knowing or judging the scheme of universe propounded by God. For studying mankind, we must study man. Pope says that man occupies a paradoxical position in this world. He is a link between God and animal which on the one hand endows him with godlike qualities and all the other levels him down with animals. Man is a strange creature full of contrary qualities and feelings of wisdom and folly, greatness and pettiness, reason and passion, love and hate. He is ignorant as well as wise. He is wise; so he cannot be a sceptic. He is so weak that he cannot be a stoic. Man is like a ‘Trishanku’, dangling between heavenly aspirations and earthly existence. Man is forever caught in the conflicting claims of body and soul. He cannot decide if he should prefer his body or mind.

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Man is born only to die. Pope says that his birth is nothing but the beginning of his end and his reasoning nothing but an instrument of erring. In other words, man commits mistakes despite his reasoning power. He is a mixture of thoughts and feeling. God has made man in such a way that he can either rise or be a god, or he can fall and be a beast. He thinks that he is the master of this universe, yet he falls prey to everything. Finally, the poet abandons his search to understand man’s nature because he finds him to be too chaotic and contradictory to be understood. The poet sums up man’s position in the last line of the poem. Pope says that man is at once “the glory, Jest, riddle of world!”

Explain with Reference to the Context:

Stanza 1

Known then thyself …………………………. The stoic’s pride

Reference to Context:-

These lines quoted above have been taken from the well-known poem ‘Know Then Thyself’ written by Alexander Pope. In this poem, the poet says that man is a strange combination of opposite qualities. He advises man to study himself. Man’s disability prevents him from taking any single direction: one aspect of his nature cancels out another

Explanation:-

In these lines, the poet advises man that he should not try to study God. He advises man to limit himself only to the study of his own nature and existence and not try to investigate the power of judging the schemes of universe propounded by God. If he wants to study mankind, he should study himself. Man is a very complex creature and occupies a paradoxical position in this world. Man is a link between God and animal. Pope relates man on the muddled ‘middle state’, which on the one hand endows him with godlike qualities and on the other, levels him down with the animals. Man is a mixture of contrary qualities. He is ignorant as well as wise. He is rude and great he has so much knowledge that he cannot be a sceptic. He has so much weakness that he cannot be indifferent to pain and sufferings. Man is like a ‘Trishanku,’ dangling between heavenly aspirations and earthly existence. Thus these lines sum up the living contradiction of man’s nature.

Stanza 2

He hangs between ………………….. or too much

Reference to Context:-

These lines have been taken from Pope’s poem ‘Know Then Thyself’. The poet says that man is a very complex creature and is a paradox of the world. He is a combination of opposite qualities. He occupies the middle position between God and animal.

Explanation:-

In this stanza, the poet says that man is a strange creature full of contrary qualities and feelings of wisdom and folly, greatness and pettiness, reason and passion, love and hate. He always remains in doubt. He cannot decide whether to work hard in life or to be satisfied with his present position. Man is forever caught in the conflicting claims of body and soul. He fails to decide whether he should prefer the physical pleasure of the intellectual things of life. He is born to die. Man has the gift of reason, even then the commits mistakes. Either a man thinks too little or too much, he cannot overcomes his ignorance. In other words, Pope sums up the paradoxical nature of man by pointing out that his birth is nothing but the beginning of his end and reasoning nothing but an instrument of erring.

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Stanza 3

Chasos of thought ……………………….riddle of the worlds.

Reference to Context:-

These lines have been taken from Alexander Pope’s well-known poem ‘Know Then Thyself’. The poet tells us about the middle position of man in the world. Man is a combination of contrary qualities. He often remains confused and fails to decide between different courses of action. Man’s disability prevents him from taking any single direction: one aspect of his nature cancels out another

Explanation:-

In this stanza, the Pope says that man is a complex mixture of thoughts and feelings. The poet further expands the idea of man shuttled and torn between opposites. He is always being self-deceived or undeceived. In simple words, he can realise what is good or bad for him. He is the master of the universe because he is blessed with the power of reason by God. But even then he becomes a victim of all things around him. He is the only judge of truth, yet he makes countless mistakes. He is the glory of the world because God has given him the gift of knowledge and wisdom. But at the same time, he is also a jest of the world as he commits many mistakes in his life. He is a riddle also as he does not know whether he belongs to the category of angels or to the animals.

Important devices

Use of rhyming couplets(2 lines rhyming together)

• The poet is particularly skilled at pulling his ideas into epigrams

‘the glory, jest and riddle of the world’

Use of repetition/alliteration

Endless – errors

Sceptic- side

Use of paradox
darkly wise and rudely great

• All these devices helped the poet reiterate his point of view.

Questions -Answer (Essay Type)

Q.1. Sum up in your own words Pope’s conception of man.

Ans.: In this poem ‘Know Then Thyself’, Alexander Pope sums up man’s position in this world. Man is the supreme creature in the world. God has made him such a way that he can rise and be equal to the gods. But this seldom happens. There are number of limitations on man’s knowledge and capabilities. According to pope man has placed himself in the middle state, which on the one hand endows him with godlike qualities and on the other levels him down with the animals. He wants to develop a stoic attitude to pain and suffering but then there are so many weaknesses in him that he fails to be a stoic. He always remains in doubt and cannot decide what to choose. In his doubts, he can not decide whether to do work or take some rest. He fails to understand his position in this world. He cannot decide whether he is a god or is a beast. He thinks that he is the master of this universe but falls victim to everything. Thus there are a number of limitations on man.

Q.2. Where, according to Pope, does the root of man’s confusion lie?

Ans.: Pope says that man is a strange creature full of contrary qualities and feelings of wisdom and folly, greatness and pettiness, reason and passion, love and hate. He is a bundle of contradictions. His life is paradoxical. He is wise as well an ignorant. He is great as well as rude. He is too wise to be a sceptic. He is at the some time so weak that he cannot be a stoic. He stands halfway between being a God and being an animal. He fails to decide whether he should consider himself a God or a beast. Man is forever caught in the conflicting claims of body and soul. He cannot decide whether he should prefer his body or his mind. He is always found in his doubts. In his doubts, he fails to make proper decision whether he should lead a life of rest or a life of action. He considers himself the only judge of truth. But he commits countless errors. He thinks that he is the master of everything. Pope says that his birth is nothing but the beginning of his end and his reasoning nothing but on instrument of earning. His reasoning power also leads him to error. In this way man is like a ‘Trishanku’, dangling between heavenly aspirations and earthly existence. Man always suffers from a number of contradictions.

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Questions -Answer (Short Type)

Q.1. Explain the meaning of the first two lines of the poem ‘Know Then Thyself’.

Ans.: In the first two lines, the poet advises man to study himself. He says that man should be limited only to the study of his own nature and existence and should forget about the power of judging the scheme of universe propounded by God. Man should not try to investigate the ways of God. That is beyond his powers. It is proper for man to study himself and know himself because man himself is too difficult to understand.

Q.2. What does paradox mean? Give examples from the poem.

Ans.: A paradox is a self-contradictory statement, which seems on its face to be absurd, yet turns out to have a valid meaning. Pope in this poem ‘Know Then Thyself’ uses a number of paradoxes for examples he calls man “darkly wise”. Secondly, he says that man is “lord of all things, yet a prey to all”.

Q.3. What do you think pope means by the following phrases:-

a) ‘hangs between’

b) ‘chaos of thought and Passion’

c) ‘ a prey to all’

Ans. a) ‘hangs between‘:- Pope says that man is a confused being. He is always found in the state of doubt whether to lead a life of rest or a life or action. So he hangs between.

b) ‘Chaos of thought and Passion’:– In man’s mind there is a complex mixture of thoughts and feelings. He fails to decide whether of follow mind or heart.

c) ‘a prey to all’:- Man is a victim of everything in this world.

Q.4. Find out Pope’s use of proverbial expression in the poem.

Ans.: Pope is considered the master of proverbial use of language. He has given many famous proverbs or sayings such as

A little learning is a dangerous thing” “For Foals rush in where angels fear to tread? “To err human, to forgive divine”.

In this poem also, Pope uses a number of proverbial expressions. ‘Know Then Thyself’ is a proverb which advises man to recognize his true self. Then the poet says, ‘The proper study of mankind is man”. The last line of the poem is also proverbial. The poet says that man is “The glory, jest and riddle of the world”.

Extra Questions

Answer the following questions in a word/ phrase/ sentence

Q. What should man not presume to scan?
A. The ways of God.

Q. Who is the glory, jest and riddle of the world?
A. Man

Q. What according to the poet is the proper study of mankind?
A. The study of man

Q. What doubt does man hang between?
A. Whether to act or rest

Answer the following question in 20-30 words

Q. Explain ‘the glory, jest and the riddle of the world’?
A. Man is the sole judge of truth on this earth. Yet, his own life is a history of endless errors. Sometimes he performs deeds worthy of pride. Thus man is a glory, a jest and riddle of the world.

Q. How is man a confused being?
A. Man is a confused being because he does not know what or who is he. He has knowledge but is ignorant of many things. Thus he remains a confused being

Q. What is a paradox? Find the two instances of paradox?
A. A paradox is a statement that contains two opposite ideas. For example, Pope calls man darkly wise and rudely great. Thus man, according to him, is a paradox.

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