Friday, October 15, 2010

The Final Destination: Mortality (One of the Biggest Overall Meanings)

In an 18-line excerpt from Epistle II, An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope, the poet defines man, exercising both discipline and genius by doing so in pairs of rhymed lines of iambic pentameter (known as heroic couplets). Pope echoes the existential why in these 18 lines while providing several literary themes with which readers can work. Here are those powerful 18 lines.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed 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;
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

To interpret poetry effectively, you must first know what the words say--literally. Therefore, your first step must be to paraphrase the lines. Below, you will find a paraphrased version that will facilitate an analysis of overall meanings found in these lines.

Man[kind], your business is yourself. Do not presume to know God [lines 1-2].

Man[kind], you exist between, in the middle. You are both intelligent and brutish [lines 3-4]. You know too much to doubt everything and anything, and you are too weak to accept both suffering and joy equally [lines 5-6]. You “hang” between, never sure if you should do something or nothing, never sure if you are godlike or an animal, never sure if you should trust your mind or your gut [lines 7-9].

You come into this world with one certainty: death. You have intelligence, but you make many mistakes in logic and reasoning. Even if you think a long time or almost not at all, you may reach a conclusion and be absolutely wrong [lines 10-12].

Man[kind], you are a mess, caught in the confusion of the rational mind and the gut emotion [line 13]. You are prone to self-loathing followed by rationalizations that restore all sense of self-worth [line 14].

You were created to rise near the angels, only to fall back to earth. You may think you have sovereignty over all things, but it is only an illusion because you are vulnerable to fire, wind, water, dirt, viruses, bacteria, sworn enemies, good friends, and traps of your own making [line 15-16].

You alone determine what the truth is, but over time, you have had to admit you were quite wrong [line 17].

So, man[kind], your fate is to rise to the level of angel, fall back to earth as a beast, and endlessly wonder why [line 18].

Reading Challenge:

First, read the literal paraphrase again. Second, read the 18-line excerpt again, slowly. Third, read the paraphrase once more. Repeat these three steps as often as needed until you understand Pope as you read his 18 lines.

This process may seem laborious, requiring too much of your valuable time, but the process is essential to appreciate and comprehend poetry. I promise you that the process becomes easier and understanding comes more quickly as you practice, practice, practice.

Visit the national poetry project to find hundreds of poems to read and savor at the link “Browse Poems.” You can also type “online poetry anthologies” into search engines to discover more poetry, and when you find a poet you enjoy, type his or her name into a search engine to find his or her poetry online.

Before the brief detour into a reading challenge, I promised to use Pope’s 18 lines to uncover myriad literary themes, and so I will. Here are a few:

Human knowledge has limits.

Pope asserts that man cannot know God (line 1). Later in the excerpt, he points out that the cognitive and affective domains are at war (lines 7-9, 13), thus compromising our abilities to know absolutely. In addition, reason alone falls short for time often proves the lie in our truth (line 17). For example, once, the inherent inferiority of certain groups was accepted truth and manifested in judicial precedent, legislation, and social mores. Once that so-called truth was debunked and reconsidered, courts, law, and society shifted to a new truth, one more consistent with philosophy and science.

Human beings are duplicitous, capable of deceiving themselves and others.

Pope suggests that we deceive ourselves (lines 14, 17), but we know from experience that we often deceive others in our attempts to deceive ourselves. Self-knowledge is slippery (lines 7-9, 13, 14, 15). We humans are often blind to our own personal flaws, but ever so alert to the flaws in others.

Humans are imperfect, often prone to selfish, even cruel, acts.

Animal instincts to eat, drink, survive, and defend territory have driven human beings to prey upon others, including humans, in acts of theft, war, and slaughter (lines 3-4, 15-16, 18). We are also torn between our better selves--the selfless, sacrificial, merciful, and brave self--and the lower self, selfish, craven, judgmental, and cowardly (lines 7-9).

Humans are weak.

As stated above, we can be selfish, craven, judgmental, and cowardly (lines 7-9); furthermore, we lack stoicism (line 5-6). We celebrate success and whine about losses instead of accepting both states as equally possible and often unrelated to merit. For example, does the lottery winner deserve to become suddenly rich? Has he done anything more than play the odds? Should a rich kid be proud just because an ancestor accumulated wealth? Should a poor kid be ashamed because he happened to be born into a family without resources? Becoming a lottery winner, being born with the proverbial silver spoon, and being born among the lowly are proof that chance operates. We should neither cheer a run of heads nor bemoan the coin showing tails anymore than we should take comfort in a temporary success or find sorrow in a setback. Each is probable. All are likely. We should simply be. Be what? Stoic, accepting each and all evenly, without extreme emotion.

Man is mortal.

However much we would like to believe that we will escape the limits of time, we will not (lines 10-12), and this fact is the catalyst for an infinite number of questions, including where do we come from (but alas, human knowledge has limits), why we must grow old (but alas, human knowledge has limits), and where we go when we die (but alas, human knowledge has limits). We must rise above our own weaknesses and accept the inexorable truth: man is mortal, and the ways in which he can die (lines 15-16) are legion.

Authors weave these overall meanings into numerous works, but Shakespeare is an excellent playwright to read to see them at work in works. Hamlet makes use of every one of them.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Once, in post-graduate study in the 1980s, a male professor, having recently earned his Ph.D. and in his first post as a full college professor, required that I re-write a 39-page essay in order to shift all nouns to plural form so that I could avoid the appearance of sexism by using the gender-vague “they” rather than the gender-known “he.” I was annoyed--mighty annoyed--because

1) I am a woman, and women are generally the offended in matters of sexism, not the offender.
2) The essay was typed the old-fashioned way--on a typewriter, not a computer so re-writing a 39-page essay meant re-typing 39 pages, word after word, hour after hour, a formidable task for a woman with a full-time job, full-time marriage, full-time duties as a mother, and part-time graduate study.
3) “He,” “him,” “man,” and “mankind” are universal, traditional words that may represent he or she, man or woman, mankind or womankind.

So what’s a girl or guy to do these days in order to be clear and avoid offending readers?

First, many writers opt for s/he, he or she, him and her. These choices are legitimate but they add clutter to what should be a clean, clear message. In addition, these choices complicate verb choices. Does “s/he” demand a singular or a plural verb? “He or she” is a no-brainer: the use of the word “or” requires that a singular verb follow because it is one (he) or the other (she), not both. “Him and her,” however, challenges us because the use of “and” suggests that a plural verb is the better choice--unless the entire phrase is the subject of the sentence as it is in this sentence. Yikes!

Worse, should “he or she” as the subject of the sentence be followed with “they” or “their?” Technically, no, but you will hear and read lots of plural pronouns used incorrectly today. For example:

• Everyone needs her (or his) book is correct.
• Everyone needs their book is incorrect. Unless you are answering questions for the ACT, most people will accept and choose “their” in this context.

Second, writers may opt for the very formal “one.” Instead of gender-specific pronouns such as “he” and “she,” the writer uses a gender-neutral pronoun, “one.” The problem is that “one” seems awkward in many, many contexts because it is infrequently used and when used, often seen in the context of commands such as One always bows or curtsies when introduced to the queen.

Third, writers can do as my professor commanded me to do: change singular nouns to plural forms, thereby making plural and gender-neutral pronouns logical and correct. For example:

• The student must bring his (or her or one’s) book to class if he (or she or one) wishes to succeed.
• Students must bring their books to class if they wish to succeed.

Fourth, writers can try to be fair and balanced by using “he” and “him” in one paragraph, “she” and “her” in the next. This is an obvious effort to avoid gender bias, and readers quickly adjust to the pattern.

Fifth and finally, we can employ the traditional, old-fashioned, classical “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun representing “he,” “she,” “man,” “mankind,” and “one.” It’s clean, and most readers are quite comfortable with it, finding no offense in the use of those words, especially if the work pre-dates 1960.

What is the most common, recommended choice for contemporary writers? The third choice listed above: whenever possible, rewrite choosing plural nouns that will agree with gender-neutral, plural pronouns.

Another choice, not necessarily recommended yet, is to use “they” and “their” even if the noun is singular. Remember, language is dynamic. It shifts and morphs based upon its users. Today’s users like “they” and “their” rather than the awkward, wordy, “he and she” or “him and her” so join all the other English users--except when speaking or writing for formal occasions when you might be judged and when trying to pass the ACT. I never said language options are always simple.

Writing Challenge:

Write down each of the five theme statements generated from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” excerpt. Match each theme statement to works you have read, seen or heard.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.