Discord in "An Essay on Man" and "A Nocturnal Reverie

The systems of order proposed in Pope’s "An Essay on Man" and Finch’s "A Nocturnal Reverie" differ in their explanation of the discord existing between Man and nature. For both poets, Man causes strife between himself and the Nature, leaving him in a state whose remedy is reconciliation with Nature. Their systems differ primarily over the Horation principle of concordia discors. Pope strictly and primarily adheres to the concept of a universe formed and maintained by a benevolent, supreme, and prescient being whose "wisdom infinite must form the best [system]"(44). Since discord cannot exist in the best system, then discord must be "harmony, not understood"(291) in which case it is a misperception, a product of the pride’s excessive desires. Accordingly, Pope attempts to form arguments that will expose the absurdity of these desires. Finch portrays discord as a result of human interests being at odds with Nature. Man has the capacity, forbidden by Pope’s providence, to truly oppose nature as dramatically as day does night. Conversely, nature has the capacity to aid man, which is equally forbidden by the indivisibility of a supreme cause which is "kept in Nature, and is kept in man"(Pope, 172) equally so that it is "As full, as perfect, in vile Man that mourns, / As the rapt seraph that adores and burns"(Pope, 277-278). "Proper bliss"(Pope 282) and "Joy"(Finch 46) are prescriptions based on these opposing views of man’s agency or lack thereof; if we have no agency, as Pope would have it, we need only "Submit" to "the hand of one disposing Pow’r"(287), if we do have the capacity to oppose nature, as Finch would have it, we must "pursue" our "pleasures"(50) as we would the goal of a journey.

This "bliss" or "joy", which are both the precursor to and the solution for man’s discordant state, provides the basis for comparison between these two works; the similarity between prelude and solution provides a contrast in which the argument is highlighted. In both poems, harmony is the sovereign power and man is the usurper. Finch refers to "tyrant-man"(38)(tyrant: "one who seizes upon the sovereign power in a state without legal right"(OED)) whose world is "repelling day"(21). Pope describes man in similar terms of arrogation, referring to his willingness to "Snatch from [God’s] hand the balance and the rod, / Rejudge his justice, be the God of God!"(121-122). In both poems this illegal power, whether it be man’s delusion (as in Pope) or his reality (as in Finch), must be relinquished.

The issue of discord as real or perceived is what distinguishes the respective forms and messages expressed by "An Essay on Man" and "A Nocturnal Reverie". The principle of supreme and divine providence invalidates the notion that any aspect of universal order is wrong; therefore, it is Pope’s job to show us how it is that we exist in order, yet perceive discord. His response is that it is "In pride, in reas’ning pride, our error lies"(123). It is the mental faculty that produces discord, and Pope responds appropriately with an poem based on logical arguments and a conclusion based totally on human will: submission.

Finch on the other hand believes in a real opposition between two powers, the world of man (day), and the world of nature (night), that possesses agency and influence. Since this poems takes place at night, we don’t actually see the offense of daytime, rather we infer it; "Sunburnt hills [conceal] their swarthy looks"(27)(swarthy implying both "black or blackish; dusky" and "malignant, dismal"(OED)), "kine" are left "unmolested" as they "rechew the cud"(34) and "no fierce light disturbs"(40). We see how nature acts and recovers in the absence of day, learning of Man’s offenses. Furthermore we see night and nature personified, "invit[ing]"(12), "direct[ing]"(6), and even "charm[ing]"(43) man whose own response is detailed largely though the shift of pronoun tense. In "A Nocturnal Reverie" these two capacities for change (man and nature) must interact to reconcile on account of the reality of the discord. In "An Essay on Man" only the mental capacity of Man need be addressed, which Pope does through the language and reasoning of logic.

"An Essay on Man" is essentially the reductio ad impossibile of a supreme divine providence. I propose this admittedly stretched use of the term because it is through the reductio ad absurdum of pride that providence is established. And although prideful desire is not the opposite of a divine providence, its demolition allows man to accept that "Man’s as perfect as he ought: / His knowledge measured to his state and place"(70-71). This is demonstrated in his reductio ad absurdum of Man’s tendency to "Be pleased with nothing, if not blessed with all"(188):

 

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?

For this plain reason, Man is not a fly.

Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n,

T’inspect a mite, not comprehend the Heav’n?

Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o’er,

To smart and agonize ev’ry pore …

Who finds not providence all good and wise,

Alike in what it gives, and what it denies? (193-206)

This approach is particularly suited to demonstrate the providence in man’s perceived shortcomings. Pride does not lament the inequity of its excess. Reductio ad absrudum demonstrates the prudence of moderation. Through demonstrating the senselessness of these desires "An Essay on Man" tries to help it audience understand why all their greatest wishes are absurd because they are unnatural, and although human eyes see "partial evil," it is for "universal good"(292).

The form and content of A Nocturnal Reverie addresses the discord between man and nature that is not concordia discors but discord based on a definite split. The forces of nature and man, represented by night and day, have opposing motives and, more importantly, they have both posses consequential agency, the means to affect on another. Consequently, man’s increasingly harsh nature, represented by the inferential descriptions cited earlier (pg.2), isolates him from Nature. He is the reason for nature’s "jubilee" being "short-lived," "endur[ing]" only "whilst tyrant-man does sleep"(37-38). Thus nature and man have become as opposed as night and day, despite nature’s unceasing benevolence towards Man when he chooses to pursue harmony.

The notion of twilight parallels the idea of the forces of nature as acting as an intermediary between the individual and her pursuit. In lines 4-12 we see several images of nature interacting with Man as means to an end, a force separate from Man but not an end in of itself. "Philomel" "directs the wanderer right"(6) and the "cool banks [invite] pleasing rest"(12). Nature offers to direct and revitalize the wanderer, clearly portraying Man as partaking on a journey of his own.

The development of personal pronouns referring to people also creates a kind of journey. It begins with the use of the first-person plural in line 24: "And falling waters we distinctly hear." This marks a change from a general description of nature to a more specific one. The pronoun ‘we’ is used twice in lines 29-32 where the notion of experience through poetry is reinforced: "when the loosed horse … Whose stealing pace, and lengthened shade we fear, / Till torn up forage in his teeth we hear". The personification of nature and idealization of night up to this point creates a poignant moment when we find ourselves being painted into this idyllic scene.

Finch tries to embody the power of nature aesthetically in her poetry in order to imitate the effect of nature on the reader; she attempts to create this experience for the reader, demonstrating the harmony that nature and Man can achieve. She uses the first-person when Man is acting or expressing his will, and uses nouns like "wanderer" and "spirit" when nature is exercising its agency on Man. The poem shifts back to this sense of nature as agent in lines 38-43 in which the traveler is referred to as "spirit" "sedate[d]," a "mind" "urge[d]," and "free soul" "charmed." These words, like the reference to Philomel directing the wanderer(4-6) discussed earlier, show nature communicating to Man. Tense shifts suddenly to the third-person singular in line 46 and reaches its climax in line 47 with the first-person singular. This is the most personal moment in the poem, when the speaker expresses her will to "[remain] abroad"(47). When morning breaks "all’s confused again"(48) and suddenly we have a barrage of first-person plural pronouns: "Our cares, our toils, our clamors are renewed"(49); we are abruptly plunged from individuality achieved through the combined agencies of nature and man into the outcries, complaints, and opposition of daytime and city life.

Both poems strife to teach how man can best reconciliate himself with the nature that he was growing farther and farther away from in his developing sciences and growing cities. Pope emphasizes the absurdity of our pride and Finch concentrates on man’s deviant nature. In both cases I am reminded of the passage from "An Essay on Man:" "Our proper bliss depends on what we blame" (282). That is, I think the explanation for their differing approaches. It is also the reason that they reach such similar conclusions. For although they are based on different philosophies, they are based on the same reality the: urbanization of man.

 

Works Cited

Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000. Oxford University Press. 13 October. 2000 <http://dictionary.oed.com>