Waiting for the Night to Fall, Counterpoise of Day and Night

Awakening and daylight in Pope’s, "Essay on Man" are common images throughout the epistle, which are symbolic of reason and enlightenment. The text suggests that waking and daylight are most conducive to logical thought. Pope’s analysis of man’s position in the chain of being leads him to the conclusion that reason is the defining characteristic in man, and that of all the beasts man is most logical. He determines that man’s imperfection is his pride, which leads him to question his position on the chain of being and aspire to be somewhere else. He also determines that this is the main fault of mankind, because if man takes himself out of the chain it will collapse. Thus he develops the thesis that "All discord is harmony, misunderstood" (1,291). Finch makes a case for nighttime and the spirit, quiet, solitude and we discover through images of glow-worms, shaded hills and flowers the true beauty of night and the folly of our fear of it. The seemingly opposing forces of night and day when combined create harmony, as do the works of Finch and Pope, which together allow us to see that it is balance that makes up the universe and is crucial to an understanding of human nature and Man’s place in the chain of being.

In the opening verse of "An Essay on Man", Pope urges his friend, St. John, to "awake"(1,1) and "expatiate free o’er all this scene of man" (1,5). The word awake suggests daytime, specifically morning and an awakening of the conscious mind to the light of day. Expatiate (to speak or write in great detail (OED)) implies the need for reason. Considering the context of "awake", in relation to "expatiate" it takes on a second meaning: the awakening of the mind to reason and enlightenment, which are linked to daylight since man is diurnal and most of his thinking is done when he is awake. These images of daylight, reason and enlightenment are found throughout the epistle, which itself is a carefully reasoned analysis of the nature of humanity and is meant to be a source of enlightenment for Pope’s readers.

Reason is crucial to the breakdown of the nature and state of man according to Pope. He asks the empirical question, "What can we reason, but from what we know?" (1,18), suggesting that we can only "refer" (1,20) to our "station here (on earth)" (1,19) because we can only ponder what we have experienced ourselves. We see that "presumptuous man" should not attempt to reason beyond what he can understand, his reason is thus limited, "Man is as perfect as he ought" (1,70) and "his knowledge measured to his state and place" (1,71) by God who is omniscient and has given man enlightenment. Man must be careful because with reason comes pride and "pride answers, for me kind Nature wakes her genial pow’r" (1,132-3) and provides "suns to light my rise"(1,139).

Although man has been equipped with reason he must not allow the pride to overcome him. Instead he must comply with what he knows and be grateful for the capacity to reason, but to use this tool "right" (1,164) "is to submit (to God)" (1,164). Therefore, man must follow God’s universal "Order"(1,171) and without pride, his interpretation of life should follow the reasoning that "Nature wakes (him)" (1,132) and "light(s) his rise"(1,139) because God wills it to be that way. Here the language provides the reader with the reason that man is diurnal, for, as Pope illustrates, it is part of God’s plan that nature should control man’s waking with the sun. Nature has also given man five senses, sight being one of the most important, which uses light for clarity. From an empirical point of view clarity in observation is critical, thus light and day have been given a the status of desirable and are connected with reason, which is desirable to man.

It is part of God’s "Order" (1,171) that it is "he (man) alone, whom rational we call" (1,187) and that "the scale of sensual, mental pow’rs ascends/it mounts to Man’s imperial race" (1,208-9). Thus, man who depends upon the sun to "wake" (1,132), is the most sovereign being on earth due to his mental capabilities, although he is imperfect in comparison to God because of his pride. He is an essential part of the "vast chain of being, which from God began" (1,237).

It is man’s duty above all others, as the most reasonable being on earth, to maintain his position in the chain because, "where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed" (1,244). The position of each part of this chain of being is kept in check by the position of every other part, thus it is balanced by the idea that " all discord (is) harmony, not understood" (1,291). This concept of "concordia discors", meaning "a harmony of opposites" is important in Pope’s essay because it is this concept which man must keep in mind when using reason. He must step back and observe his position in the chain of being and balance his pride because pride causes man to wonder if "God has placed him wrong" (1,50). In questioning his position and focusing too much on pride, man upsets the entire balance of order in the chain of being.

For Finch, the chain of being still applies in terms of man being at the top of the chain of reason, and answering to a greater power with regard to things, "too high for syllables to speak"(2,42). However, she does not follow to the dictates of Pope’s version of nature, the sun or "tyrant-man" (2,38) but finds a "sedate content" (2,39) in her "spirit" (2,39) in the night and makes a case for it so that it may be considered at least equally important to day. Finch herself does not prefer the "fierce light" (2,40) of day, which for her "disturbs" (2,40) but suggests that the softer light of the "waving moon" (2,10) "reveals" (2,40) the peaceful, solitude of nature, which is meant to be enjoyed just as much as nature in the daylight.

Finch believes that fear, which stems from false reasoning, is responsible for the misunderstandings associated with nocturnal images. The images of shadows and "passing clouds" (2,7) which "thinly veil the heavens" (2,8) deal with an obstruction of the sense of sight, which is alarming to all people because we are so reliant on that sense to direct us safely around obstacles and to alert us to dangers. It is especially frightening for an empiricist such as Pope who bases reason on what is observed and experienced through the senses. It is easy to see how nighttime and darkness must seem frightful initially. Since daylight aids human vision it is easy to see how goodness and enlightenment have become associated with the daytime. In the night, when we observe a "stealing pace" (2,31) or a "lengthened shade" (2,31) "we fear" (2,31) "till torn up forage in his teeth we hear" (2,32) and realize it is only a horse. In this case we may see that darkness and the night have been given a bad reputation because of humankinds’ overactive imaginations, which spring from a feeling of lack of control due to the partial loss of a sense.

Finch asserts that in most cases our fear of the night is not only foolish but detrimental because it causes human beings to miss out on a number of experiences through the senses such as the "freshened grass now bear(ing) itself upright" (2,11), "Whilst now a paler hue the foxglove takes, / Yet checkers still with red the dusky brakes" (2,15-6) and "When odors which declined repelling day/ Through temperate air uninterrupted stray" (2,21-2). We may also miss the "silent musings" all of which can only be experienced by the soul when it is "free" meaning, "not in bondage to another" (OED 44). The text suggests that during the day the soul is enslaved by the "tyrant-man" representing, "Anyone who exercises power or authority oppressively" (OED 38). In this case it is humanity and empiricists like Pope who would limit experiences and reason to images of day and light, which is injurious to this very idea of experience stemming from observation because it neglects all of the experiences only found in the night.

Thus, we may apply Pope’s idea of harmony and balance to the seemingly opposing forces of day and night to find that they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but these work together in harmony. Where in the daylight man’s sense of sight may be enhanced by the sun, in the night his sense of smell might be enhanced by the more "temperate air" (2,22). Where the brightness of day may "disturb" some, the pale light of the moon may bring calm.


Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. "An Essay on Man". 1733.

Finch, Anne. "Nocturnal Reverie". 1713.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com.