“Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of fate . . .”. One of the great didactic poems of the long eighteenth century, Pope’s Essay on Man is not an easy work. Its editors must contend not only with the breadth and sophistication of Pope’s allusions, but also with some thorny textual issues arising from draft manuscripts and later authorial revisions. Maynard Mack, for one, spent the best part of a decade wrestling with his edition of the Essay. (And it was worth it: his is among the great scholarly editions of the twentieth century, and it has stood the test of time astonishingly well.)
Now Tom Jones has taken up the task once again, and has produced another highly readable edition of the Essay. A lengthy introduction situates each of the four epistles that comprise the poem in their multiple contexts. Mack’s notes are, by Jones’s own admission, “much more comprehensive” than those offered in this new edition. Like all students of Pope, Jones is deeply indebted to Mack, who pops up time and again through the notes as “MM”. However, Jones spots numerous parallels unnoticed by Mack, and his notes benefit from the past seventy years of scholarship. The inclusion of Voltaire’s manuscript annotations is a nice touch, too, considering the emphasis Jones places in his introduction on the French philosopher’s influence on Pope.
Pope emerges from Jones’s notes as more of a freethinker than he has sometimes appeared. “Among his contemporaries”, Jones writes, “Pope is closer to Toland than to Clarke.” Odd, then, that William Warburton defended the orthodoxy of the Essay in his Vindication of 1739, and that one High Church newspaper actually reprinted extracts of the poem. Jones is chiefly interested in Pope’s intellectual contexts and the sources of his philosophical thinking. Occasionally, this means missing the immediate reception history of the poem.
For whom is this edition intended, though? The introduction is substantial and lively enough to engage students new to the Essay. Yet the likelihood of student readers seeking out this one poem independently from the rest of Pope’s oeuvre is slim. Scholars will find much to admire in Jones’s lucid prose. His source-hunting will prove useful for future commentators. Voltaire enthusiasts will want to consult this edition. But Pope specialists might question Jones’s policy of adopting Mack’s text without fresh collation of all the editions and surviving manuscripts. Perhaps, then, this handsomely printed and affordable volume is aimed at educated generalists. Readers seeking further elucidation of textual issues and a fully collated text need to wait. For now, the Twickenham edition retains its place on our bookshelves.
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