By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘To err is human, to forgive divine’. This quotation carries the force of a proverb: the sort of thing that we might expect to find in the Biblical Book of Proverbs, from the Old Testament, or else perhaps in some Elizabethan book of folk wisdom, the author of this pithy quotation long since forgotten.
But in fact, we know exactly who first said (or wrote) ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’. And we know where he said 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. Neoclassical poetry was marked by its sense of order and reason: Augustan poets recalled the days of the Roman emperor Augustus, under whose rule poetry and the arts had flourished.
And much neoclassical poetry is composed in a form known as the heroic couplet, which comprises two lines of iambic pentameter verse, with both lines rhyming with each other. Iambic pentameter is the ten-syllable, five-foot line which is most familiar to us from Shakespeare’s plays (and his sonnets). So Romeo’s ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’ or Romeo’s ‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’ is an example of an iambic pentameter line.
Alexander Pope’s poetry uses this same metre or rhythm, which he tends to stick to closely: again, order is the order of the day, if you will, even in the choice of poetic form. Everything should have its proper place and function.
In 1711, Pope’s first great poem was published: a didactic work titled An Essay on Criticism. And it is in this work that we find his famous line, ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine.’ (Indeed, you can even hear the iambic pentameter metre in this line if you say it aloud: ‘To ERR is HU-man; TO for-GIVE di-VINE’. Five feet: ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM.)
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.
Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism gave us not only ‘to err is human; to forgive divine’ 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 ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. Given how entrenched into the popular consciousness 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 old.
‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ concludes the section of An Essay on Criticism in which Pope is advising critics – and, by extension, all writers – not to think their natural wit and cleverness will make them a great writer. Indeed, if you privilege wit over basic decency and humanity, you will probably end up friendless (and perhaps jobless).
The good critic knows to balance his ‘wit’ (which, in Pope’s time, meant not just pithy humour but, more broadly, knowledge and intellect: the words wit and wisdom are etymologically related, and both related to the idea of knowledge). So, Pope argues:
Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things,
Atones not for that envy which it brings.
In youth alone its empty praise we boast,
But soon the short-liv’d vanity is lost:
Here, again, ‘vanity’ refers not just to the conceitedness of youth, but the emptiness of wit when it is unsupported by other qualities.
If wit so much from ign’rance undergo,
Ah let not learning too commence its foe!
Of old, those met rewards who could excel,
And such were prais’d who but endeavour’d well:
Though triumphs were to gen’rals only due,
Crowns were reserv’d to grace the soldiers too.
Now, they who reach Parnassus’ lofty crown,
Employ their pains to spurn some others down;
With his reference to generals and soldiers, Pope is arguing that one should be magnanimous in victory (and success): if a writer is successful, he shouldn’t try to put other writers down, but should instead be generous towards them. (This is somewhat ironic, given that Pope, in later works such as The Dunciad, would go on to attack his rivals and critics with his rapier wit.) Pope concludes this section of his argument by urging:
Ah ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost!
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
‘Join’, by the way, is not half-rhyme here: the word ‘join’ was probably pronounced ‘jine’ in Pope’s time, much as ‘tea’ rhymed with ‘obey’ and so was pronounced ‘tay’, as in his famous couplet from The Rape of the Lock (1712): ‘Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey, / Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.’ However, recalling this fact only makes me think of the Two Ronnies.
‘To err is human, to forgive divine’, in summary, is Alexander Pope’s call to critics (and writers) not to forget their humanity when criticising or judging others. Making mistakes or ‘erring’ (when we get ‘error’, of course) is a natural part of being human. Indeed, forgiving others for their minor faults is not only a humane act, but one which puts us on the side of the angels: a ‘divine’ act.