" Knowing that his enemies would pounce upon and ravage any poem bearing his name, Pope took elaborate precautions to disguise his authorship as the separate epistles of the Essay were published. In the year from January 1733 to January 1734 when the four epistles of the Essay were being published anonymously by a bookseller not earlier associated with him, Pope was simultaneously publishing new works bearing his name and the imprint of his usual booksellers. The epistles of the Essay were in subsequent editions to be addressed to Pope's friend and neighbor Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. But knowing that inclusion of Bolingbrokes name in the poem would encourage speculation that Pope was the author, the first epistle was issued in February 1733 addressed to Laelius rather than St. John:
Awake, my Laelius! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
Let us (since Life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of Man;
A mighty maze! of walks without a plan.
Pope's deception worked. Even recently abused dunces like Leonard Welsted and Bezaleel Morrice croaked forth unqualified praise of this new wonder of philosophical poetry. An Essay on Man is "above all commendation," Welsted wrote, as Pope reminded him in subsequent editions of the Dunciad. Recurrent in initial responses to the anonymous poem is praise for its simultaneous success as poetry and as philosophy. ... the London Evening Post praised the first epistle of the Essay for its inspired blending of the charms of verse with the ratiocinative rigor of prose:
"Go on, Great Genius, with thy bold Design,
And Prosed Strength with Verse's Softness join."
Most reviews, (following the Weekly Miscellany's judgment upon the publication of the third epistle, found it "difficult to know which Part to prefer, when all is equally beautiful and noble." A correspondent from Bath lauds the Essay as an "inimitable" poem "calculated on the noblest Basis of Philosophy and Divinity." In the same issue a commendatory poem "To the Unknown author of the Essay on Man" begins:
*To praise thy judgment or commend thy strain,
in this were all superfluous or vain.
Hail, then, instructing bard (whoe'er thou art)
That opens thus our eyes and clears our heart!
Similarly, a correspondent from the north of England writes the Gentleman's Magazine praising the Essay as uniting "the most Nervous Reasoning in the Advancement of profound natural Truths" with "the sublimest . . . Poetry in its Kind." When read "with deliberate Attention," the writer concludes, the Essay at once enlarges the Understanding, convinces the Judgment, and touches the Heart." The aspiring footman Robert Dodsley encapsulated contemporary response when he celebrated Popes incarnation of the Philosophic Poet:
"great Bard! in whom united we admire
The Sage's Wisdom, and the Poet's Fire.
However, as Pope anticipated, once Bolingbroke was acknowledged as the "guide, philosopher, and friend" addressed in the epistles, Pope's authorship was suspected; and both their enemies attacked with greater vehemence for having been gulled into immoderate praise.
When neither Pope's nor Bolingbroke's name was associated with the Essay, the poem's piety seems not to have been a salient consideration. With various degrees of difficulty the Essay was assimilated to the preexisting theology of its admirers, some even attributing its authorship to a Christian divine. "The design of concealing myself was good," Pope confided to Swift, "and has had its full effect; I was thought a divine, a philosopher and what not? and my doctrine had a sanction I could not have given to it."
from The Rape of the Text: Reading and Misreading Pope's Essay on Man (1993) by Harry R. Solomon