Friday, June 27, 2008

Poetry Friday: Alexander Pope and The Great Chain of Being

The current issue of Lapham's Quarterly examines the theme of Nature, and includes this excerpt from Pope's Essay on Man:

VIII. See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth,
All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
Above, how high, progressive life may go!
Around, how wide! how deep extend below?
Vast chain of being! which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see,
No glass can reach; from Infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing. On superior powers
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed:
From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
And, if each system in gradation roll
Alike essential to the amazing whole,
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the whole must fall.
Let earth unbalanced from her orbit fly,
Planets and suns run lawless through the sky;
Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurled,
Being on being wrecked, and world on world;
Heaven’s whole foundations to their centre nod,
And nature tremble to the throne of God.
All this dread order break—for whom? for thee?
Vile worm!—Oh, madness! pride! impiety!

Pope's theme here is the Great Chain of Being:

Its major premise was that every existing thing in the
universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was
pictured as a chain vertically extended. ("Hierarchical" refers to an order
based on a series of higher and lower, strictly ranked gradations.) An object's
"place" depended on the relative proportion of "spirit" and "matter" it
contained--the less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower down it


A major example [of this theme] was the title character of Christopher
Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of
human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. Marlowe's drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard,
suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human

I thought it might be interesting to write a post-enlightenment Great Chain of Being poem with a modern twist on all the familiar themes. In fact, it might begin with an embrace of the scientific hubris about which Renaissance artists were ambivalent. Here's a beginning -- I'll be working on this over the next few weeks:

Nothing is invisible --
We have our ways of casing the world:
Tripods squat upon their earth,
Antennae grow in thickets,
Satellites collect signs of universal dust
From glowing distant cartwheel hubs
Packed with spaces only light can cross
To inflame the axons of its curious generations
The roundup is at Biblio File!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing!

    I really like what you've written so far-- I'm looking forward to seeing how it grows!