Monday, April 11, 2016

On 'Nature'

What 'Nature' meant to the world before the rise of Science, and to the Romantics during its rise, is expressed exquisitely by Alexander Pope, in his 1709 Essay on Criticism. Some pertinent lines (in heroic couplets, no less) follow. Note for one that Pope is explaining to critics of art and literature that their analyses and expositions are worthless or worse if they do not use Nature as their standard. And note for another that Pope--an acknowledged intellectual genius of the first order--uses our own Homer as his ideal for art and idea.

Nature to all things fixed the limits fit
And wisely curbed proud man's pretending wit.
As on the land while here the ocean gains.
In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains
Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
The solid power of understanding fails
Where beams of warm imagination play,
The memory's soft figures melt away
One science only will one genius fit,
So vast is art, so narrow human wit
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confined to single parts
Like kings, we lose the conquests gained before,
By vain ambition still to make them more
Each might his several province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.
First follow nature and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.
Unerring nature still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged and universal light,
Life force and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source and end and test of art
Art from that fund each just supply provides,
Works without show and without pomp presides
In some fair body thus the informing soul
With spirits feeds, with vigor fills the whole,
Each motion guides and every nerve sustains,
Itself unseen, but in the effects remains.
Some, to whom Heaven in wit has been profuse,
Want as much more, to turn it to its use;
For wit and judgment often are at strife,
Though meant each other's aid, like man and wife.
'Tis more to guide, than spur the muse's steed,
Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed,
The winged courser, like a generous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.
Those rules, of old discovered, not devised,
Are nature still, but nature methodized;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrained
By the same laws which first herself ordained.
Hear how learned Greece her useful rules indites,
When to repress and when indulge our flights.
High on Parnassus' top her sons she showed,
And pointed out those arduous paths they trod;
Held from afar, aloft, the immortal prize,
And urged the rest by equal steps to rise.
Just precepts thus from great examples given,
She drew from them what they derived from Heaven.
The generous critic fanned the poet's fire,
And taught the world with reason to admire.
Then criticism the muse's handmaid proved,
To dress her charms, and make her more beloved:
But following wits from that intention strayed
Who could not win the mistress, wooed the maid
Against the poets their own arms they turned
Sure to hate most the men from whom they learned
So modern pothecaries taught the art
By doctors bills to play the doctor's part.
Bold in the practice of mistaken rules
Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.
Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey,
Nor time nor moths e'er spoil so much as they.
Some dryly plain, without invention's aid,
Write dull receipts how poems may be made
These leave the sense their learning to display,
And those explain the meaning quite away.
You then, whose judgment the right course would steer,
Know well each ancient's proper character,
His fable subject scope in every page,
Religion, country, genius of his age
Without all these at once before your eyes,
Cavil you may, but never criticise.
Be Homers works your study and delight,
Read them by day and meditate by night,
Thence form your judgment thence your maxims bring
And trace the muses upward to their spring.
Still with itself compared, his text peruse,
And let your comment be the Mantuan Muse.
When first young Maro in his boundless mind,
A work to outlast immortal Rome designed,
Perhaps he seemed above the critic's law
And but from nature's fountain scorned to draw
But when to examine every part he came
Nature and Homer were he found the same
Convinced, amazed, he checks the bold design
And rules as strict his labored work confine
As if the Stagirite o'erlooked each line
Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem,
To copy nature is to copy them.

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