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301 Study Questions on Pope's An Essay on Man

Be able to define the following vocabulary terms and apply them to the literature we read in class:

Vocabulary Apostrophe, Blank Verse, Deism, epistle, eye rhyme, Enlightenment, Glorious Revolution, heroic couplet, the Noble Savage, neoclassical, ontology, restoration, iambic pentameter, Telos, Tropes, Telos

Lecture Questions:
(1) Describe the poetic structure for An Essay on Man. What is its meter and what poetic units make up the entire poem? What is the rhyme scheme (i.e., ABAB, CDCD, or what?)

(2) Who was the first English poet in history to have made his living solely by publishing his writings?

(3) What made Pope a religious minority in England (i.e., in what denominational faith was he raised?)

(4) How is the Enlightenment a reaction against the earlier religious struggles of the Puritan Interregnum?

Reading Questions:

  • Epistle I, Part I: The poem begins with an apostrophe, "Awake, my ST. JOHN." How might this connect with Lord Bolingbroke, Pope's patron? How might it connect with Biblical references?
  • How is line 16 an echo or alteration of Milton's Paradise Lost?
  • When Pope is trying to decide to start his discussion with God above or Man below? Which does he choose? Why? (i.e., from where do we have to start as the beginning of our reason?)
  • What is Pope's stated purpose in An Essay on Man?
  • Why does Pope claim writing in verse is actually shorter and more concise than writing in prose?
  • To whom is An Essay on Man addressed?
  • The opening call to "Awake, my ST. JOHN" might refer to what two different people?
  • In lines 57-60, Pope compares humanity to "wheels" or cogs that move in circular motions in a machine too large for mankind to perceive. How is this connected to common Deistic metaphors? How does this metaphor suggest Enlightenment thinkers saw the universe?
  • Epistle I, Part II:
  • What is Pope's response to the question of why man was formed so weak, so little, and so limited in perception?
  • How perfect is man, according to Pope--rather than being imperfect?
  • Pope claims, "The blest today is as completely so, / As who began a thousand years ago." What does he mean?
  • Look at section II. Does the imagery here suggest that Pope sees the universe as a place of democratic equality? Or does he think the universe is a place or unequal hierarchy? Why?
  • At the end of section II, the final couplet is suggestive. Does this final couplet suggest that the world changes, that people today have developed further than those of the past? Is the nature of humanity static or changing according to Pope?
  • Epistle I, Part III: What does Pope mean when he says, "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate, /All but the page prescribed, their present state?"
  • In section III, what is the advantage of innocence or ignorance, according to Pope?
  • Who or what, in section V, tells mankind that God made things in nature exclusively for man's own benefit? Does Pope think it is true that nature has only one purpose?
  • Epistle I, Part IV: In what trait does "our error" lie when it comes to human perception?
  • In section VIII, Pope refers to a "Vast chain of Being." To see what he's talking about, you can read a summary of E. M. W. Tillyard's discussion here. Why would this older idea of a logically ordered hierarchical universe be especially appealing to Enlightenment thinkers?
  • The conclusion to Epistle I, section X in our book contains the most famous quotation in all of An Essay on Man. Why could the idea that "whatever is, is right" be particularly dangerous or particularly helpful to people when faced with imperfections in life?
  • In Epistle II, section III, what are the "Modes of Self-love"?
  • In Epistle II, section V, Pope appears to be worried about the "Extremes of Vice." What problem does he find when it comes to identifying an unhealthy extreme of behavior?
  • In lines 259-60 of Epistle II, section VI, what two things teach humans to welcome death and die calmly? Explain why these things might make good teachers for this final lesson.

Be able to identify the source of the following quotations and explain their significance:

(A) Say first, of God above, or man below,
What can we reason, but from what we know?
Of man what see we, but his station here,
From which to reason, or to which refer?
Through worlds unnumber'd though the God be known,
'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

(AA) "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."

(B) Why form'd so weak, so little, and so blind?
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form'd no weaker, blinder, and no less?
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why Jove's satellites are less than Jove?
Then say not man's imperfect, Heav'n in fault;
Say rather, man's as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur'd to his state and place;
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

(C) Ask for what end the heav'nly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use? Pride answers, " 'Tis for mine:
For me kind Nature wakes her genial pow'r,
Suckles each herb, and spreads out ev'ry flow'r;
Annual for me, the grape, the rose renew,
The juice nectareous, and the balmy dew;
For me, the mine a thousand treasures brings;
For me, health gushes from a thousand springs;
Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;
My foot-stool earth, my canopy the skies."

(D) All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns;
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.

(E) Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest [...]

(F) And spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite, / One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.

(G) Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And shewed a Newton as we shew an ape.


Some critics have claimed that Pope's An Essay on Man is a sort of touchstone for later Enlightenment writers. Poets after Pope tend to bring up the same ideas Pope does--sometimes to embrace them, sometimes to refute them--but his thinking shapes many of the coming writers. Look for the ideas Pope raises to appear in future writings, and make a list of which authors agree with Pope and which ones disagree with him concerning his ideas about God, nature, human individuals, or society.



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