A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing, Drink Deep, or Taste Not the Pierian Spring

Alexander Pope, best known for popularizing the heroic couplet, came to my attention in an English literature class at Michigan State University in the mid-1960s.

I was more interested in reading Pope at the time than learning about Pope because he clearly knew how to do what I call “turn a word”. That is, to write a string of words that grabs your attention and delivers a thought so profound that it cannot be ignored.

Pope was a master at this art in writing. Perhaps you have read or heard these gems:

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

To err is human, to forgive, divine.

The ends must justify the means.

More than one author has rewritten these thoughts and claimed them for monetary gain. Each of these thoughts could remind us of a stunning truth: someone said it first.

Some pundits say that England’s William Shakespeare is the most read and most quoted author ever. Many suggest that the Holy Bible is second. It has been said that British author Agatha Christie’s books have only been outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible.

Alexander Pope may not have sold as many books, but he has been cited as the second most frequently quoted writer in the English language, after William Shakespeare.

Pope (1688-1744), the master of the heroic couplet, is generally regarded as the greatest English poet of the early 18th Century. He was widely known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer.

For the uninitiated, the heroic couplet is a pair of rhyming iambic pentameters. Iambic is a verse using iambs, and an iamb is a metrical foot consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable. So there you have it, learning once again springs on your computer monitor.

The heading to this article is an example of Pope’s heroic couplet: A little learning is a dangerous thing, Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.

Read for a moment, appreciate just how good Pope and his verses were, and understand why he would grab my attention:

On bribery: Judges and senates have been bought for gold; Esteem and love were never to be sold.

On churches: Who builds a church to God, and not to Fame, Will never mark the marble with his Name.

On curiosity: One who is too wise an observer of the business of others, like one who is too curious in observing the labor of bees, will often be stung for his curiosity.

On the Devil: Satan is wiser now than before, and tempts by making rich instead of poor.

On education: ‘Tis education forms the common mind. Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.

On expectation: Blessed is he who expects nothing for he shall never be disappointed.

On fashion: Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

On gossip: And all who told it added something new, and all who heard it, made enlargements too.

On judgment: ‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none go just alike, yet each believes his own.

On order: Order is Heaven’s first law; and this confess, Some are and must be greater than the rest.

On pride: What the weak head with strongest bias rules, Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

On proverbs: Hope springs eternal in the human breast, Man never is, but always to be blest.

On providence: Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust, Yet cry, if man’s unhappy, God’s unjust.

On right: Always do right. That will gratify some of the people and astonish the rest.

On self-knowledge: Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, Make use of every friend and every foe.

On self-sacrifice: Many men have been capable of doing a wise thing, more a cunning thing, but very few a generous thing.

Here is the message: Great writing and great writers are timeless for those who seek knowledge and truth. If you care for neither then it does not matter. For example:

If today’s generation is on spring break at the beach, drinking and drugging, and running around half-naked willing to hump each other that is their business and their perfect right.

My suspicion is that their personal life is so bereft of anything meaningful that they must put on a public display to convince themselves they are having a life experience. In their effort to raise shallowness to an art form they occasionally succeed.

Now back to something worth examining, the life of Alexander Pope, who should provide inspiration for not only poets and writers but also for the handicapped.

Pope, born in London, was the son of a linen merchant and his wife. Since they were Roman Catholic, he grew up having to deal with the Church of England, which banned Catholics from teaching upon pain of perpetual imprisonment.

His aunt taught him to read and he was educated at two secret Catholic schools that, while illegal, were tolerated in some areas.

Pope suffered from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis affecting the spine. This stunted his growth and deformed his body, perhaps ending his life at 56. He was only 4-foot-6 and was apparently not very attractive, which may explain why he never married.

Despite his inauspicious start in life, Louis Kronenberger in “Alexander Pope Selected Works” says “In terms of money as well as fame Pope was probably the most successful English poet who ever lived. No other in his own day—few in any day—had so many readers or received such nearly universal acclaim.”

Pope’ s works would not cause him to be forgotten, but the growth of Romanticism in the late 18th century would. Joseph Warton would deny that Pope was ever a “true poet” and dismiss him as merely a “man of wit” and a “man of sense” thus hastening the demise of the “Age of Pope”.

It would take until the 1930s to rediscover Alexander Pope and his works. By posting this article on Internet directories hopefully Alexander Pope and his works will again take their rightful place among the great works in history. With apologies to a great writer:

Then Alexander Pope who was soon forgot,
Might finally become a true juggernaut.

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