Although Pope worked on this poem from 1729 and had finished the first three epistles by 1731, they did not appear until between February and May 1733, and the fourth epistle was published in January 1734. The first collected edition was published in April 1734. The poem was originally published anonymously, Pope not admitting its authorship until its appearance in The Works, II (April 1735).
The Essay on Man was originally conceived as part of a longer philosophical poem (see Pope's introductory statement on the Design). In the larger scheme, the poem would have consisted of four books: the first as we now have it ; a second book of epistles on human reason, human arts, and sciences, human talent, and the use of learning, science and wit "together with a satire against the misapplications of them" ; a third book on the Science of Politics ; and a fourth book concerning "private ethics" or "practical morality." The only part of the scheme, therefore, which was fully completed was the four epistles of the Essay on Man. Parts of the fourth book of The Dunciad were composed using material for the second book of the original essay and the four moral epistles were originally conceived as parts of the fourth book (see below).
Pope's explanation of the aim of the work and his summary of the first epistle are as follows. "The Design/Having proposed to write some pieces on human life and manners, such as (to use my Lord Bacon's expression) `come home to Men's Business and Bosoms,' I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering Man in the abstract, his nature and his state ; since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection or imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.
"The science of human nature is, like all other sciences, reduced to a few clear points: There are not many certain truths in this world. It is therefore in the anatomy of the mind as in that of the body ; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the large, open, and perceptible parts, than by studying too much such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of which will for ever escape our observation. The disputes are all upon these last, and, I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice, more than advanced the theory, of morality. If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite, in passing over terms utterly unintelligible, and in forming a temperate yet not inconsistent, and a short yet not imperfect
system of Ethics.
"This I might have done in prose ; but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious ; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: The other may seem odd, but is true I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself ; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions, depends on their conciseness. I was unable to treat this part of my subject in detail, without becoming dry and tedious ; or more poetically, without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering from the precision, breaking the chain of reasoning: If any man unite all these without diminution of any of them freely confess he will compass a thing above my capacity.
"What is now Published is only to be considered as a general Map of Man, marking out no more than the greater parts, their
extent, their limits, and their connection, and leaving
the particular to be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow. Consequently, these Epistles in...