Alexander Pope envisioned a universe perfect by definition. Every facet of this universe is designed solely for its place in the hierarchy of existence, and is in fact perfect for its particular station. This idea of perfection in completeness is encompassed in the famous concluding words of the first epistle of Pope’s An Essay on Man: “Whatever IS, is RIGHT.” This aphorism, however, belies the effort Pope took to solidify his assertion. In order to substantiate his idea of a perfectly structured universe, Pope delineates—in extremely structured and formal heroic verse—an argument positing the failure of human reason, fettered as it is by ignorance and pride, in obtaining a proper idea of man’s station in the universe. This argument flows from point to point, over the course of nine stanzas, eventually culminating in his famous assertion. Although there are descriptions in the poem that seem to contradict Pope’s ultimate notion, a proper reading of the poem as a whole will render all ideas in Pope’s favor.
One truth is clear of Pope’s poetry: It is superbly structured. Each line of An Essay on Man maintains a strict pentameter with iambic feet. Virtually all 294 lines of the first epistle rigidly maintain this formal structure. Although each line is identically formed, no two lines can be said to be identical, and not one line appears out of place or superfluous. Heroic verse, then, and the form it entails, is the perfect parallel to the idea of the universe that Pope attempts to portray. Every line is different just as every creature is different. Some lines are perhaps less important within the poem than others; similarly, Pope sees some creatures as higher along a scale than others: “Far as creation’s ample range extends, / The scale of sensual, mental powers ascends” (Pope An Essay on Man 207-9). Also, just as every creature is perfectly suited to its place and man is “as perfect as he ought” (70), each line of An Essay on Man is a brilliantly constructed description of the idea it entails. Instead of saying, for instance, that the world is beautiful, but we cannot notice its beauty, that what is seemingly random is in fact purposeful, that what appears to be discord is in fact harmony, that what is apparently evil in context is in fact good overall, Pope crafts lines so beautiful, purposeful, harmonic, and good as to appear perfectly representative of the same ideas just expressed:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good (289-92).
The structure of Pope’s poem and the perfection of each individual line for its purpose clearly parallel his vision of the universe and consequently bolster his argument.
Although An Essay on Man is brilliantly organized, so are all of Pope’s other poems. This structure does not of itself prepare the reader for the poem’s dramatic final assertion or...