Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man concludes with these lines:

That, urg'd by thee, I turn'd the tuneful art
From sound to things, from fancy to the heart;
For wit's false mirror held up nature's light;
Shew'd erring pride, whatever is, is right;
That reason, passion, answer one great aim;
That true self-love and social are the same;
That virtue only makes our bliss below;
And all our knowledge is, ourselves to know.

It seems that in the first three lines of this stanza, Pope is speaking of his poem itself. Presumably "the tuneful art" is the art of poetry, and he's saying that his goal in this poem went beyond "sounding nice" towards more substantial things (i.e. his philosophy of how to live). The last five lines of the stanza seem to list the five key tenets of his philosophy, which are presumably informed by "nature's light" (the Enlightenment-era idea of "light of nature").

But then what does he mean in the third line by "wit's false mirror"? Presumably this is a reference to his own famous wittiness. Why does he think his witty poetry a false mirror rather than a true mirror to the "light of nature"?

1 Answer 1


Pope is claiming that his earlier works, such as The Rape of the Lock or The Dunciad, were not as meaningful or true as Essay on Man. Being mock-heroic or satirical in tone, those poems were concerned with social or cultural rather than philosophical matters. Pope says that they held up a mirror that wittily reflected current events. As satires, they were concerned with correcting "erring pride", but only on the social and cultural level.

The phrase "from fancy to the heart" is a key one here. His earlier poems were fancies, i.e., they were intellectual exercises that were witty enough, but superficial in their aims. Essay on Man gets to the heart, in the sense of both core matters and the true self. With this poem, Pope turned to more philosophical and didactic aims. It is no longer enough merely to hold up a witty mirror to erring pride so that social or cultural norms can be enforced. It is necessary to hold up a lamp that can serve as a moral guide. A mirror reflects what is there; a lamp illuminates and shows the way forward.

The reason a mirror is false is that it does not show the reality of things. It stays on the surface and tricks us into thinking that there isn't anything more. It does not serve, for example, to "vindicate the ways of God to man" or show that "whatever is, is right". Pope says that Essay on Man has gone beyond corrective wit to show the path of true virtue. In the light of this poem, the wit of the earlier ones is a false mirror.

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