A Little Learning Tends To Peter Out After Twenty Years Or So

A chance remark of Anna’s last week sent me in search of my trusty old Norton Anthology of college days to look up Alexander Pope. Of course I studied him back in the day, but apparently not in a manner that made any lasting impression. My thoughts as I tried to tell Anna about him were vague and uncertain. I had an idea he was a contemporary of Swift’s but wasn’t sure. I knew he was the originator of the oft-misquoted line, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” but I couldn’t have told in what work of his the line appears. I knew he’d written The Rape of the Lock, and that it was a mock-heroic epic, but that was the extent of my memory of the great work. So to Norton I went, seeking answers.

I am often surprised, when I read again things I was made to read long ago, how little I understood or enjoyed them. And I considered myself a serious student! That’s the trouble: I considered myself entirely too much. I took greater enjoyment from the idea of myself as a literary person than from the actual content of the things I studied. It’s sobering to realize, from the mature perspective of my forty years, how little of the material entered into my heart and mind. Some of Shakespeare did, and Milton, and Beowulf, but not as much as when I reread now.

Enough bemoaning my misspent youth. Pope’s biography alone is fascinating stuff. As a Roman Catholic, he could not attend a university, vote, or hold public office, but his translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey earned him enough wealth to live as an independent suburban gentleman at his villa by the Thames at Twickenham. This made him, says the introduction, “the only important writer of his generation who was solely a man of letters.” The editor goes on, “Almost exactly a century earlier, Shakespeare had earned enough to retire to a country estate at Stratford—but he had been an actor-manager as well as a playwright; Pope was the first English writer to demonstrate that literature alone could be a gainful profession.”

There is something compelling in the idea of the literary men of the time ensconced in their respective coffeehouses, Whigs in one camp, Tories in the other. In 1714 Pope’s group “formed a club which was to cooperate in a scheme for satirizing all sorts of false learning and pedantry. The friends proposed to write jointly the biography of a learned fool whom they named Martinus Scriblerus (Martin the Scribbler), whose life and opinions would be a running commentary on whatever they considered the abuses of learning and the follies of the learned. Some amusing episodes were later rewritten and published as the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741).” Is not this the same idea as Dilbert? The objects of the satire are of course different; Scott Adams primarily lampoons corporate America. But the idea of a recurring character—or cast of characters, in Dilbert’s case—satirizing the evils of the time in various episodes is the same, as is the later anthologizing of the serial accounts into book format.

Here’s what the Norton introduction says about Pope’s Dunciad: “In this impressive poem Pope stigmatized his literary enemies as agents of all that he disliked and feared in the literary tendencies of his time—the vulgarization of taste and the arts consequent on the rapid growth of the reading public, the development of journalism, magazines, and other popular and cheap publications, which spread scandal, sensationalism, and political partisanship—in short the new commercial spirit of the nation, which was corrupting not only the arts, but, as Pope saw it, the national life itself.” This was in 1728. One wonders what Pope would think of literary and national life today. The Internet has made it possible for any yahoo to start a blog or make a website or at the very least post a comment on a news article. Most of the material lacks literary merit and is rife with errors of grammar, usage, and logic, and there is plenty of it to be had. An hour spent reading book reviews on Amazon is a sure way for me to cultivate a deep loathing for humanity. Worst of all is when someone’s entire eighth-grade class gets on to post snide, inept reviews of some literary classic in the curriculum. That throws me into a serious funk.

I did eventually get past the introduction and read some of Pope’s actual work, starting with An Essay on Criticism, source of the aforementioned misquoted passage. The entire essay is written in heroic couplets, and the poetic form does not compromise Pope’s rational thought one whit.

Here is the justly famous (though usually misquoted) line in its context.

            A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

The spring in Pieria was on Mt. Olympus, sacred to the Muses. Pope warns against superficial wit taking itself too seriously and overreaching its scope, with embarrassing results. Any serious writer who has ever looked back on his juvenilia knows whereof Pope speaks.

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