May 03, 2008

Pope's Solitude


1 Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.

2 Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

3 Blest, who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day;

4 Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mix'd; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

5 Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

That Alexander Pope, who was one of the great publicists as poets go, wrote it makes the poem a deeply ironical performance. Pope lived the opposite kind of life- far from being normal he was deformed and a Catholic in a Protestant society, far from being eager to attain rural bliss, Pope lived as close to London as he could be legally permitted to, far from being content with oblivion, the poet endlessly endeavoured to put his name before the public- becoming one of the first poets who could afford to chop and change publishers. Pope did not live a life of rural simplicity- but was rather addicted to complication- to social nuance and to luxury: he is the appropriate beggining to a century which ended with Jane Austen. But whereas Austen can at times seem priggish, looking down through the eyes of Fanny Price on the immoral gaiety of Mary Crawford, Pope looks at society with a mocking glint in his eye, revelling in its absurdity.

So what are we to make of this poem? Firstly lets put something straight- this poem puts a very conventional viewpoint across brilliantly. Most eighteenth century wits would have agreed that the city was evil, the countryside good. The sentiments of Pope's poem sit at ease with the triumph of the pastoral in the previous century, and with the nature poets of the next. Idealising the independence of the rural life, he sits neatly with those republican theorists of his own time who saw true freedom as lying in independence. More so there is a strong Christian influence in the poem- what it describes is a demi Eden, Adam without Eve, growing alone and unconcerned by reputation and by bustle, just to fructify the earth and live in praise of God- live 'blest' by the ignorance that proceeds from solitude. This is a hero who can get everything from his land- his own flocks give him clothes, his trees give him shade. Luxury, the production of capitalism, is eshewed in conventional terms.

Did Pope actually believe this or is the poem ironic? I think it isn't ironic but actually reflects something that Pope himself actually believed in part- and this brings me on to something I think we can see established in the text of the poem. In a sense Pope was the kind of deeply sociable person who should have been most at odds with this Arcadian view- in the Rape of the Lock and in his masterpieces the Dunciad and the Essay on Criticism, he showed a true verve for critiquing others and living in society. But he is drawn back in this poem and others to the vision of the world as one of independence and the beauty of natural loneliness- his disposition draws him in one direction, the conventions of his time in another. Pope was obviously an exceedingly complicated man- and I think this poem reflects that- but if I might make a trite comment, I'd suggest that in this poem what we see is the way that convention can mould even the most resistant of us. Pope ended up praising a lifestyle he wouldn't be able to bear, simply because his age praised it in such reverent terms- whatever his rational mind said, Pope was attracted by the emotional pull of the ideal which is what this poem attests to. Its interesting in that sense because it demonstrates the way that people have a complex interrelationship with their own times- often feeling a yearning to conform even if conformity would strip them of what they were.

Even Pope afterall was willing to write against sophistication!


Ashok said...

That's a good poem, and the comment on whether this is meant to be ironic or not is solid.

Thanks for posting this!