Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Sip from the Pierian Spring

Dear everyone:

Another aphorism, and its source, presented here as a stand-alone poem but actually a small section of Pope's "Essay on Criticism":

Alps on Alps by Alexander Pope
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.

Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,

While from the bounded level of our mind,

Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

But more advanced, behold with strange surprise

New, distant scenes of endless science rise!

So pleased at first, the towering Alps we try,

Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;

The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;

those attained, we tremble to survey

The growing labours of the lengthened way,

The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,

Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Which paraphrases to: Don't dabble in learning. Small sips are intoxicating. When you're young, you discover Art (or Poetry or Whatever) and think you can create masterpieces better than anything seen before. But with age and study you learn that the mountain you climbed is only the first of endless chains, Alps upon Alps.

What he's arguing here is not that you should only study things you're willing to devote a lifetime to, but not to be proud of your learning. Thinking you know it all already only blinds you to the possibilities of what you're doing.

The interesting thing about this poem is that it starts with its conclusion. Moral: Get serious, commit yourself to the long run, pull yourself up by your bootstraps boy, life is tough and so is art! I'm betting that in the first draft those were the last two lines. But ending the poem with them would have been a downer. By putting them first, Pope could end on that exultant vision of the limitless possibilities of art, "Alps on Alps!"

Indeed. And he even got away with ending the poem with an exclamation mark. How many poets can say that?

All best,

P. S. Pieria is a region of Thessaly (which as we all know is in Greece) containing both Mount Olympus and Mount Pierus, which was sacred to Orpheus and the Muses. The Pierian spring bubbled with the water of learning and the arts. Pope expected his readers to know this, and for the most part they did. Now don't we all feel undereducated?


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