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Alexander Pope by Walter Jackson Bate

In the Essay on Criticism (1711), written in 1709 when he was hardly twenty-one, Pope was trying to write a poetical essay which would hold the same important place in English that Boileau'sArt Potique (1674) was holding in French criticism. If it did not quite attain this position, the reason is not that Pope's essay is inferior to Boileau's. It is simply that English writers of any period, including the age of Pope, have a way of refusing to form schools and follow manifestoes. Still, Pope's Essay on Criticism is not only the last but perhaps the most rewarding of the important critical essays in verse modeled on Horace's Art of Poetry. It draws upon the previous verse-essays of Horace, Vida, and Boileau, as well as those of two minor Restoration writers, the Earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon. It also draws upon precepts from the Roman Quintilian and the French critics, Rapin and Le Bossu. Above all, its general tone is kept comparatively liberal and flexible by the influence of Dryden, and, to some extent, of Longinus. The background is broad. This may partly explain why the Essay on Criticism is more comprehensive in what it covers than any of the other Horatian verse-essays, including that of Boileau. It also quite equals Boileau in edge of style, and it surpasses him in compactness. The Essay on Criticism is more profitably introduced by a topical summary of its themes than by an analysis of its premises. For its premises and aims are those of the entire neoclassic tradition. And the poem itself is a statement or summary of them rather than an individual argument or analysis. The essay may be described as falling into three parts, with the following subdivisions: I. General qualities needed by the critic (1-200): A. Awareness of his own limitations (46-67). B. Knowledge of Nature in its general forms (68-87). 1. Nature defined (70-79). 2. Need of both wit and judgment to conceive it (80-87). C. Imitation of the Ancients, and the use of rules (88-200). 1. Value of ancient poetry and criticism as models (88-103). 2. Censure of slavish imitation and codified rules (104-117). 3. Need to study the general aims and qualities of the Ancients (118-140). 4. Exceptions to the rules (141-168). II. Particular laws for the critic (201-559):

Digression on the need for humility (201-232).


A. Consider the work as a total unit (233-252). B. Seek the author's aim (253-266). C. Examples of false critics who mistake the part for the whole (267-383).

1. The pedant who forgets the end and judges by rules (267-288). 2. The critic who judges by imagery and metaphor alone (289-304). 3. The rhetorician who judges by the pomp and colour of the diction (305-336). 4. Critics who judge by versification only (337-343).

Pope's digression to exemplify "representative meter" (344-383).


D. Need for tolerance and for aloofness from extremes of fashion and personal mood (384-559). 1. The fashionable critic: the cults, as ends in themselves, of the foreign (398-405), the new (406-423), and the esoteric (424-451). 2. Personal subjectivity and its pitfalls (452-559). III. The ideal character of the critic (560-744): A. Qualities needed: integrity (562-565), modesty (566-571), tact (572-577), courage (578-583). B. Their opposites (584-630). C. Concluding eulogy of ancient critics as models (643-744). The intention of this outline is simply to clarify the topics discussed by Pope. It is by no means intended to attribute an argumentative or reasoned order to the poem. For as Johnson said of Warburton's attempt to discover the order or design of the Essay on Criticism:
Almost every poem, consisting of precepts, is so far arbitrary and immethodical, that many of the paragraphs may change place with no apparent inconvenience; for of two and more positions, depending upon some remote or general principle, there is seldom any cogent reason

An Essay on Criticism
An Essay on Criticism is one of the first major poems written by the English writer Alexander Pope (16881744). It is written in a type of rhyming verse called heroic couplets. The poem first appeared in 1711, but was written in 1709. It is clear from Pope's correspondence[1] that many of the poem's ideas had existed in prose form since at least 1706. It is a verse essay written in the Horatian mode and is primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in the new literary commerce of Pope's contemporary age. The poem covers a range of good criticism and advice. It also represents many of the chief literary ideals of Pope's age. Pope contends in the poem's opening couplets that bad criticism does greater harm than bad writing: 'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill Appear in Writing or in Judging ill, But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence, To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense Some few in that, but Numbers err in this, Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;

A Fool might once himself alone expose, Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose. ... (18) Despite the harmful effects of bad criticism, literature requires worthy criticism. Pope delineates common faults of critics, e.g., settling for easy and clich rhymes: And ten low words oft creep in one dull line: While they ring round the same unvaried chimes, With sure returns of still expected rhymes; Wher'er you find "the cooling western breeze", In the next line, it "whispers through the trees"; If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep", The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep" . . . (347353) Throughout the poem, Pope refers to ancient writers such as Virgil, Homer, Aristotle, Horace and Longinus. This is a testament to his belief that the "Imitation of the ancients" is the ultimate standard for taste. Pope also says, "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance" (362363), meaning poets are made, not born. As is usual in Pope's poems, the Essay concludes with a reference to Pope himself. Walsh, the last of the critics mentioned, was a mentor and friend of Pope who had died in 1710. An Essay on Criticism was famously and fiercely attacked by John Dennis, who is mentioned mockingly in the work. Consequently, Dennis also appears in Pope's later satire, the Dunciad. Part II of An Essay on Criticism includes a famous couplet: A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. in reference to the spring of Pieria in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses. The first line of this couplet is often misquoted as "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Part II is also the source of this famous line: To err is human, to forgive divine. The line "Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear to Tread" from Part III has become part of the popular lexicon, and has been used for and in various works.

The poem commences with a discussion of the rules of taste which ought to govern poetry, and which enable a critic to make sound critical judgements. In it Pope comments, too, upon the authority which ought properly to be accorded to the classical authors who dealt with the subject; and concludes (in an apparent attempt to reconcile the opinions of the advocates and opponents of rules) that the rules of the ancients are in fact identical with the rules of Nature: poetry and painting, that is, like religion and

morality, actually reflect natural law. The "Essay on Criticism," then, is deliberately ambiguous: Pope seems, on the one hand, to admit that rules are necessary for the production of and criticism of poetry, but he also notes the existence of mysterious, apparently irrational qualities "Nameless Graces," identified by terms such as "Happiness" and "Lucky Licence" with which Nature is endowed, and which permit the true poetic genius, possessed of adequate "taste," to appear to transcend those same rules. The critic, of course, if he is to appreciate that genius, must possess similar gifts. True Art, in other words, imitates Nature, and Nature tolerates and indeed encourages felicitous irregularities which are in reality (because Nature and the physical universe are creations of God) aspects of the divine order of things which is eternally beyond human comprehension. Only God, the infinite intellect, the purely rational being, can appreciate the harmony of the universe, but the intelligent and educated critic can appreciate poetic harmonies which echo those in nature. Because his intellect and his reason are limited, however, and because his opinions are inevitably subjective, he finds it helpful or necessary to employ rules which are interpretations of the ancient principles of nature to guide him though he should never be totally dependent upon them. We should note, in passing, that in "The Essay on Criticism" Pope is frequently concerned with "wit" the word occurs once, on average, in every sixteen lines of the poem. What does he mean by it? Pope then proceeds to discuss the laws by which a critic should be guided insisting, as any good poet would, that critics exist to serve poets, not to attack them. He then provides, by way of example, instances of critics who had erred in one fashion or another. What, in Pope's opinion (here as elsewhere in his work) is the deadliest critical sin a sin which is itself a reflection of a greater sin? All of his erring critics, each in their own way, betray the same fatal flaw. The final section of the poem discusses the moral qualities and virtues inherent in the ideal critic, who is also the ideal man and who, Pope laments, no longer exists in the degenerate world of the early eighteenth century.