“Ourselves to know”: The problem of evil in the poetry of Alexander Pope
Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy argues that explanations of evil are necessary for social systems to stay themselves against chaotic forces. Individuals survive crises based on explanations of evil. In chapter one, I examine in Alexander Pope's personal letters how his reliance upon religious resignation, sovereignty, heavenly compensation, prayer, and biblical imagery reveal a theodician search. In chapter two, I show how together Eloisa to Abelard, the 1717 Rape of the Lock, and other poems from the 1710's allow Pope to address the problem in a fuller way. Pope offers in the face of grief, death, and desire a life spent pursuing virtue and the glory of heaven and leaves open hope for wideness in God's mercy. For the poet, resignation to inscrutable Providence represented wisdom. In chapter three, I argue that understood as a sapiential text, Essay on Man's contradictions become more understandable and allow Pope a tentative yet assured response to evil. Proverbial in nature and built around an ancient, rhetorical way of knowing truth, the poem offers doxological awe before God's wisdom, trust in an unseen order, and pleasure in decrying vanity.
Pope's Imitations of Horace and An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot also have a concern with wisdom and folly, reflect on limitations, castigate vanity, and are resigned to Providence. They too are aware of death and struggle to trust in God's purposes. In chapter four, I look at how Pope looks to compensation in the divine poetic muse and in honor as a self-styled friend of Virtue and how he paints his enemies as demonic beings to offer sufferers an explanation of evil. In chapter five, I argue that The Dunciad is an insistence that God judge wickedness. Pope brings together the Rablesian grotesque with mock-apocalypse and mock-epic. Pope's treatment shares a similar pattern with his theodician defense of his worldview—a stable center is challenged by transgressive forces. In the case of the grotesque, its very nature is to be an invasive power that disrupts the normal, while the apocalyptic imagines the cosmic dimensions of that threat.
0320: Religious history