I suppose some listeners will be put off by Pope's extreme theodicy — and think immediately of Leibniz and Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's "Candide" — but "An Essay on Man" is a jam-packed with famous phrases, wit, and historical significance. Thanks to Mr. Geeson's carefully nuanced reading, it is easy on the ears to listen to his recording repeatedly, which is useful since, whereas Pope is not really all that difficult, we are talking early 18th-Century English and a classic work densely packed with important philosophical ideas and allusions.
The text of An Essay on Man was the result of a tortuous composition process. Pope first made prose notes on the philosophical arguments he wished to put forth, then worked out couplets on scraps of paper and composed a first draft. On fresh sheets, shown here, he neatly copied the verses he had composed thus far and reworked them heavily. Another fair copy with further revisions followed. Even after the poem was published, Pope continued to refine it for later editions. Dr. Johnson, who studied examples of Pope's manuscripts, found them a source of delight for those who wish "to trace the mind from the rudeness of its first conceptions to the elegance of its last."
An Essay on Man, 4 vols., 1733–34; edited by Maynard Mack, 1950
Alexander Pope was born in London to a Roman Catholic family. A childhood sickness left him with stunted height, a curved spine, and ill health for the rest of his life. Pope earned fame and great financial success as a poet, satirist, and translator. He is perhaps best remembered for his mastery of the heroic couplet, as in An Essay on Man and “The Rape of the Lock.”