Pope and the 'Microscopic Eye'

Robert W. Williams


Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

When, in 1733, Alexander Pope published this couplet in his Essay on Man, the answer to his rhetorical question, based as it is on a particular philosophical and moral world-view, seemed selfevident. The verse-paragraph of which this couplet forms a part asserts a belief in 'the eternal fitness of things' and such an answer would therefore be axiomatic; but, in taking the stance that he does, Pope is being both illogical and reactionary. Since the middle of the seventeenth century European science had possessed the microscope itself and a knowledge of the microscopic world. Enlightened Englishmen in general had possessed both since 1665, when secretary Robert Hooke published his handsomely illustrated Micrographia for the Royal Society. The microscopical demonstrations which Hooke prepared for the Society on a regular basis, his detailed descriptions and speculations, the meticulous drawings which he caused to be made for Micrographia, were of great importance in advancing the cause of English science.

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