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The Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

17 Jan 2017Personal Essays

The Essay on Criticism, published in 1711, was written by the British writer Alexander Pope in 1709 and was intended as a poetical essay, one that would match Boileau’s Art Poetique, but it fell short of the goal. 1 Instead, it became Pope’s first major poem, a compilation of his perse literary opinions. It is, according to Cody (2000), an attempt to identify and improve his own roles as poet and critic. 2 In it, he tries to reconcile the dispute between the supporters of ancient and contemporary learning. He also presents the chief literary ideals of his time and gives counsel and some criticism.

The Essay begins with a discussion on the laws of “taste”, which governs poetry and which allows a critic to generate sound judgment. In it, Pope comments about the classical authors (Homer, Virgil, etc.) who have dealt with the topic, and concludes that the laws of the ancients are identical to those of Nature. By this he meant that poetry, painting, and other forms of art imitate Nature. But, according to Cody (2000), there is a certain ambiguity to the Essay. 3

On one hand, Pope says that rules are essential to the creation and criticism of poetry. On the other hand, he refers to the existence of inexplicable, apparently illogical qualities which he calls “Nameless Graces” –“Happiness”, “Lucky Licence”, “Musick” – with which Nature is gifted, and which allows true genius, endowed with sufficient “taste”, to surpass those same rules.4 To be able to appreciate that genius, the critic must be in possession of the same gifts.

Pope then discusses the laws which must guide the critic. He insists that the critic exists to serve the poet, not to condemn him. 5 The rest of the poem talks about the qualities intrinsic in the ideal critic – also the ideal man – who, according to Pope, no longer exists.

Pope’s goal in writing the Essay was to simplify, categorize, and give as novel an expression as he could to the floating comments about the poet’s aims and methods, and the critic’s responsibilities, to “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”. 6 According to Pope, erroneous criticism is far worse than erroneous writing; and yet even though the danger of bad criticism is ever-present, critics are necessary and some worthy persons need to become critics. In the Essay, he also identifies a typical mistake made by critics which is the use of rhymes, saying

“…ten low words oft creep in one dull line/ While they ring round the same unvaried chimes/ With sure returns of still expected rhymes”. 7

Of these “still expected rhymes”, he gives examples, in a loosely acerbic way:

“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’…” 8

The lines “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest/ What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest” refers to the relationship between Nature and true wit. 9 According to Pope, true wit is a product of Nature refined or “dressed up” (“to Advantage drest”). 10

Nature, according to Pope, is the accepted truth. The soul forms the body the way Nature forms a work of art (art being any creation of the imagination). Art is described as Nature dressed in nice clothes, and Pope says that Nature is a test of art. He also says that the ancients are models of Nature, and that Nature gives life, force, and beauty.

Wit is Nature refined. It is the quickness of intellect; the exact opposite of which is dullness. Consequently, wit and judgment are like man and wife. They complement each other. According to Pope, one should frame judgment in the same way that one frames a house. Judgment provides the rules of art, and these rules have existed since ancient times. Pope says that we all have the seeds of judgment within us, and we are all capable of becoming good critics.

In Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Nature, wit, and judgment are like threads weaved together to form a tapestry. Nature, “to Advantage drest” is True Wit. Wit, on the other hand, exists side-by-side with judgment. One must possess true wit to be a sound critic, to produce rational judgment. To complete the cycle, “Nature is the best guide of judgment”. 11 Nature, being the true order of the universe, provides the laws for forming and obeying judgment. Righteous principles never change and are the same for everyone. Furthermore, Pope says that judgment is “improved by art and rules, which are but methodized Nature”. 12

The Essay on Criticism is considered to be the only significant treatise written in the English language and in verse. It is famous for its many quotable lines, many of which have become proverbial (e.g. “To err is human, to forgive, pine”; “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread”; “A little learning is a dangerous thing”). However, it cannot lay claim to being one of the great original contributions to critical thought; it is, instead, a mere amalgamation of Pope’s varied literary and philosophical opinions.

A key term in the Essay is “Nature” as evidenced by lines 68-69:

“First follow Nature and your Judgment frame By her just Standard, which is still the same:” 13

But the Nature described here is not the one the Romantics were familiar with. Pope’s Nature reflects order, depth and moderation, as opposed to the Romantic notion of mystery and violence.

Pope’s heroic couplets disclose a lot about the flavor of the age and about Pope’s own ambitions as a poet. His poem serves to be an inspiration for would-be writers and his discussion of criticism acts as a guide for critics. However, there is no occasion within the poem where he reflects on a particular text or author in detail. Thus, his counsel appears to be too generalized, too universal, to be of any particular value.

Works Cited

  • Bate, W. J. (n.d.). Alexander Pope (A Study Guide for the Essay). In Library of Mainly Eighteenth Century Authors. Retrieved from <http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/batewj/pope.htm> on October 12, 2006.
  • Cody, C. (2000). Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”: An Introduction. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from on October 12, 2006.
  • Pope, A. (1711). An Essay on Criticism. Jack Lynch (Ed.) Rutgers University. Retrieved from on October 12, 2006.

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