Alexander Pope thought the poet a supreme critic—of mankind’s second nature, in its variety of forms, manners, and habits. But in “Epistle to Cobham,” at least, he admits that the critic and poet were also responsible to and for fictions, provided those fictions were responsive to life. Among the least satisfactory passages in the poem would seem to be:
Judge we by Nature? Habit can efface,
Int’rest o’ercome, or Policy take place:
By Actions? those Uncertainty divides:
By Passions? these Dissimulation hides:
Opinions? they still take a wider range:
Find, if you can, in what you cannot change.
Search then the Ruling Passion: There alone,
The Wild are constant, and the Cunning known;
The Fool consistent, and the False sincere;
Priests, Princes, Women, no dissemblers here.
The introduction of Ruling Passions has struck many as too convenient, consonant perhaps with the neatness of Pope’s orderly cosmology, but perhaps more objectionable as flying in the face of what the poem suggests: that there is no constancy in mankind, either in observer or object of observation. It would seek to resolve what feels, to readers nowadays at least, a potential source of entropic energies upon which Pope’s imagination would better feed.
Fairer, though, would be to ask how the notion of the Ruling Passion fits within the skepticism of the poem—a skepticism owing, as the notes tell us, to Montaigne and his interlocutors. It may be that Pope tempers or mitigates the extremism of Montaigne (a note from Warburton tells us that he praises “more sage Charron” over Montaigne on account of his “moderating everywhere the extreme Pyrrhonism of his friend”), but Montaigne himself could be said to have had to establish some stay against Pyrrhonism in order to get his work off the ground at all. That note might also recall to us that the Epistle to Cobham is in fact an epistle, that it is a letter to a friend, couched conversationally, with the “Yes” opening the poem like an interjection into a conversation.
The figure of man in the study surrounded by books at the poem’s opening is Montaigne in his tower, and Pope does push back against the temptation to draw examples only from his reading—this push being the opening of the poem—and in so creating space against Cobham, he is also in conversation with Montaigne; but the disagreement is not on the nature of mankind, so much as it is the means of knowing that nature. Preferring to study instances of the mankind surrounding him, rather than pulling from Plutarch’s Lives, Pope reaches a dizzyingly skeptical conclusion: there is no knowing character because character of judger and judge are alike inherently unstable, coming to rest only when they come to their final rest, death. What moves them near the end is what must, Pope decides, have moved them towards the end, throughout their lives; so Pope’s poem, in its final depiction of death, is Freudian Thanatos in comic couplets, where Eros and Thanatos are Momus-faced, and the only grounds for constancy:
The frugal Crone, whom praying priests attend,
Still tries to save the hallow’d taper’s end,
Collects her breath, as ebbing life retires,
For one puff more, and in that puff expires.
Montaigne and Pope might have agreed that the true aim of philosophy was to die well. At any rate, the disagreement with Montaigne is not over the discovery but the methodology, and even here the disagreement is less wide than it otherwise seems, for Pope’s observations of mankind are only meaningful as observations in the form of the poetry he writes: it need not be the case to say that everything is text to say that everything judged is a text. Logos permits criticism, and criticism depends on logos, in some form or other. What Pope is doing is furnishing a commonplace book out of his own society, written into his own poem; Montaigne, furnishing a commonplace book out of his reading, would claim to write it into himself.
But that distinction is misleading. Ultimately Montaigne’s first-person judgment unites into a self through its powers of dissolution, which in turn repeatedly undo their unity; Pope’s poem, which does not claim to be speaking about the self in anything like the way Montaigne’s essays do, is nonetheless a conscious exertion of first-person judgment, as unstable as “Nature’s, Custom’s, Reason’s, Passion’s strife.” Pope would be a poor poet if he held himself above the world he theorizes (to paraphrase Empson), and he acknowledges early in the Epistle:
All Manners take a tincture from our own,
Or come discolour’d thro’ our Passions shown.
Or Fancy’s beam enlarges, multiplies,
Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes.
It would seem the very unity of Pope’s judgment, its consistency and ability to find and afford a measure of comparison, is undone by the lines; but, as with the dissolution of doubt in which Montaigne discovers himself, the capacity of Fancy to enlarge and multiply where Pope can find his angle of repose. He is able to judge by the fictions he creates; his supreme fiction is the criticism that depends upon fancy if it is to get off the ground.
And the poem, I think, invites us to see the “Ruling Passion” as itself such an object of fancy—an invention to serve a need, a provisional notion by which the final thrusts of the poem’s satire can be given aim and take hold of their targets. It feels too convenient—and that convenience is supposed, I think, to be a performance, an improvisatory gesture by which this quite impersonal of poems acknowledges the instability of first-person judgment upon which it rests, and which saves the first-person judgment from the tailspin of skepticism. Pope’s rocking-horse couplets would be stilted and lifeless were they not rocking upon a firmament o mind that is itself unsettled, making its way forward, alive in its telling—detached from the objects of judgment, but inescapably acting out its own scenes of judging with no script but its next thought.