Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope: An OverviewAlexander Pope's Essay on Criticism is an ambitious work of art written in heroic couplet. Published in 1711, this poetic essay was a venture to identify and define his own role as a poet and a critic. He strongly puts his ideas on the ongoing question of if poetry should be natural or written as per the predetermined artificial rules set by the classical poets.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
This essay by Pope is neoclassical in its premises; in the tradition of Horace and Boileau. Pope believes that the value of literary work depends not on its being ancient or modern, but on its being true to Nature. This truth to Nature is found in true wit. Nature is to be found both in the matter and in the manner of expression, the two being inseparable. When the poet is asked to follow Nature, he is actually asked to “stick to the usual, the ordinary, and the commonplace.” He is to portray the world as he sees it. The truth of human nature is to be found in common humanity, not in any eccentricity. Pope argued that human nature is ever the same. The proper object of imitation is the fundamental form of reality for Pope and the basic rule of art is to “follow nature” – “nature methodized. He does not negate the possibility of transgressing the rules if the basic aim of poetry is achieved and this transgression brings hope closer to the idea of the sublime. Clearly, the poet must have a strong sense of literary tradition in order to make intelligent judgments as the critic must have it too. Pope notes Virgil’s discovery that to imitate Homer is also to imitate nature. Pope says an artist imitates the nature. His nature is the combination of two elements society (human nature) and rules of classical artists-“nature is methodized”. Classical artist already discovers the natural rules and laws. Now, it is not necessary to go to nature again because to follow the classical artist is to go to the nature. So, sources of art are society and ancient artists.
Pope’s primary concern in this essay is his advice mainly for critics, and secondarily for artists or poets. Pope claims that artists possess genius whereas critics possess taste (classical taste developed by classical artist). By taking the ideas of classical artists, a critic has to judge the text. Artist can’t go beyond his intention, he is limited within his desires. He should not be over ambitious and over imaginative but critics can go beyond their intention. Artist has to undergo practice, learning and experiences. Which are equally important to critics too. Pope says, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. So, critic must not be proud. A critic if has pride, can’t take out the real essence from the text. To be good critic, one should have courage, modesty and honesty. Decorum, for Pope, is the proper balance between expression and sound of content and form and it comes under versification. Pope considers wit as the polished and decorated form of language. Style and thought should go together. Artist uses ‘heroic couplet’ (form) to express the heroic subject matter (content). Pope implies that if the artist needs to break rules and regulation, he should use poetic license.
An Essay on Criticism is one of the first major poems written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1688–1744). It is the source of the famous quotations "To err is human, to forgive divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (frequently misquoted as "A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing"), and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." It first appeared in 1711 after having been written in 1709, and it is clear from Pope's correspondence that many of the poem's ideas had existed in prose form since at least 1706. Composed in heroic couplets (pairs of adjacent rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) and written in the Horatian mode of satire, it is a verse essay 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, and 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. ... (1–8)
Despite the harmful effects of bad criticism, literature requires worthy criticism.
Pope delineates common faults of poets, e.g., settling for easy and cliché 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" ... (347–353)
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" (362–363), 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.
This is in reference to the spring in the Pierian Mountains in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses. The first line of this couplet is often misquoted as "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".
The Essay also gives this famous line (towards the end of Part II):
- To err is human, to forgive divine.
The phrase "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.
- Dunning–Kruger effect, the empirically observed pattern that individuals possessing a nonzero but low degree of competence in a field tend to overestimate their competence whereas individuals possessing high competence in that field tend to accurately assess or even underestimate their competence relative to others'
- ^An Essay on Criticism (1 ed.). London: Printed for W.Lewis in Russel Street, Covent Garden; and Sold by W.Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, T.Osborn near the Walks, and J. Graves in St. James Street. 1711. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^22 October 1706: Correspondence, i.23–24.