By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ is a phrase which has the ring of an anonymous proverb handed down over the centuries, a pithy apercu whose author and true origins are both lost in the mists of history.
However, this assumption would be quite wrong. We know exactly where ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ originated, and we know who originated it.
The source and origin for this quotation is Alexander Pope (1688-1744), one of the leading neoclassical or Augustan poets of the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1711, Pope’s first great poem was published: a didactic work titled An Essay on Criticism.
Pope would go on to write many other works which remain widely studied, such as the mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock (a parody of epic poems by Homer and Virgil, but also a satire on the empty-headed nature of upper-class English society) and The Dunciad.
Indeed, Pope’s literary legacy is evident in the fact that two of the moons of the planet Uranus, Belinda and Umbriel, are named after characters from his work, and a third – Ariel – was named in joint honour of Pope and Shakespeare (whose The Tempest features a character of that name; Pope’s The Rape of the Lock also contains an Ariel).
Pope was a fascinating figure: as a young boy he was expelled from Twyford School for writing a satire about one of his teachers, and he continued to lose friends and create enemies through not being afraid to speak out and criticise those with whom he disagreed. (For a time, while fearing attacks from especially vicious rivals, Pope rarely left his house without a brace of pistols and his dog, a Great Dane named Bounce.)
Sadly, outside of academia, few people read Pope for fun now because his witty verses are perceived as dry and emotionless, and even in the late nineteenth century, his fellow master of the one-liner, Oscar Wilde, was quipping, ‘There are two ways of disliking poetry. One way is to dislike it, and the other is to read Pope.’
Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism gave us not only ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ but two other phrases which have become part of the language: ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ (often misquoted as ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’) and ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’. Given how proverbial all three of this statements have now become, that’s a pretty impressive hit rate for a single poem – and, what’s more, one written when its author was still only 23 years young.
‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ appears in the third part of Pope’s argument in An Essay on Criticism. The poem as a whole is offering advice (in what was, for the time, a fairly relaxed, conversational style) to critics, but much of its wisdom is applicable to other kinds of writer, including poets.
And although Pope is specifically offering advice to literary critics in this work, his advice has often become more wide-ranging than that, and applicable to a whole host of situations: writers, most obviously, but also people in everyday public life. Here, he cautions us to be cautious. But what is the precise context in which he offers this pithy piece of wisdom?
Pope is discussing the garrulous nature of critics in London’s literary scene during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). He points out that one can find these opinionated men everywhere – even in the church:
Name a new play, and he’s the poet’s friend,
Nay show’d his faults – but when would poets mend?
No place so sacred from such fops is barr’d,
Nor is Paul’s church more safe than Paul’s churchyard:
Nay, fly to altars; there they’ll talk you dead:
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short excursions makes;
But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks;
And never shock’d, and never turn’d aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thund’ring tide.
So, although it has become a proverb whose meaning is virtually synonymous with ‘look before you leap’, the original context of the phrase ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ has almost as much to do with another proverbial maxim: ‘empty vessels make the most noise’. These ‘blockheads’ are out to make a living, and their words – and opinions – are the way they earn a crust.
With this in mind, we might align ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ with another well-phrased sentiment from Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:
Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.