For the novice, Alexander Pope’s couplets can seem a numbing wilderness of equipoise – rhyme balanced against rhyme, half lines balanced around the caesura, regular iambs marching on to the end of pentametrical time (alternatively ‘to the edge of doom’). With a bit of experience as a reader, however, it is the wrought tension of Pope’s couplets that fascinates. The balance is only ever perilously achieved in a world constantly tending to chaos.
The most quotable phrases in his philosophical poem from 1734, An Essay on Man (here republished in an elegant and scholarly edition by Tom Jones), seem to bespeak bewigged Enlightenment complacency: ‘vindicate the ways of God to Man’; ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’; ‘my guide, philosopher, and friend’; and, no less than thrice, ‘Whatever is, is right’. It sounds pompous, doesn’t it? However, this is exactly like the Shakespeare game. The most quotable quotes get taken out of a vexed context that gives them quite a different charge. ‘To thine own self be true’, says Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, but it must follow, as the night the day, that Polonius is a posturing hypocrite whose next deed is to send a spy after his son to France, and who subsequently dies of stab wounds partly consequent on his enthusiasm for pimping his daughter to the prince. Google Images tells me that ‘to thine own self be true’ is a popular tattoo. I hope they wear it ironically.