An Outline of Pope's "Essay on Criticism"
Part 1. This section offers general principles of good criticism (and of poetry--since criticism for Pope means determining the merit of a work rather than its meaning, understanding the principles of good criticism means understanding the rules for good poetry and vice versa).
- The problem: "'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none/ Go just alike, yet each believes his own." Judgments are partial, and true taste is as rare as true genius (9-35). Some critics go astray through false learning, others through envy of wit (19-45). Self-awareness is therefore a crucial quality for a critic (46-67): "Be sure yourself and your own reach you know."
- First solution: "First follow Nature" (68-87). (Nature here means something like "the universe as God created it" or "that which is permanently true.")
- Second solution: learn the "rules of old," i.e. the precepts of poetry and criticism set down by the classical Greek and Roman authors or deducible from their literature (88-140). Take care, however, not to follow the rules slavishly, but rather "know well each ancient's proper character," especially Homer.
- One reason to be flexible in applying the rules: there are "beauties yet no precepts can declare." Great writers can break the rules successfully (141-180). Modern poets should take care, however, that if they break a rule they should "ne'er transgress its end" (161-169).
Part 2. This section identifies the main flaws a critic is prone to, and therefore the greatest obstacles to good criticism.
- The biggest pitfall, in criticism as in just about everything else: pride (201-214).
- Flaw #2: "little learning" (215-232). A little learning makes critics susceptible to pride, by making them think they know more than they do. (Pope is not praising ignorance here; the cure for the pride of little learning is more learning, which teaches the scholar how little he or she knows.)
- #3: "a love to parts"--i.e. emphasizing one aspect of a poem at the expense of all others (233-383). A critic SHOULD, instead, "read each work of wit/With the same spirit that its author writ"; "Survey the whole" and "regard the writer's end" (233-252).
- an absurd example of "a love to parts": for Don Quixote, a poem is no good unless it has a combat in it (267-284).
- part #1: conceit (elaborate, clever tropes) (289-304).
- part #2: eloquence of language (305-337), as opposed to the ideas the language is supposed to express. One example: archaic language (324-336).
- part #3: "numbers," i.e. meter (337-384). Included in the section is a dazzling display of metrical craft--note how the lines exemplify what they're talking about.
- #4: love of extremes (384-393)
- #5: liking only "one small sect," e.g. foreign writers, British author, ancients, or moderns, as opposed to approving of merit wherever it is found (394-407).
- #6:judging authors according to the opinions of others rather than the merit of the work (408-424). E.g.:
- judging the name rather than the work (412-413).
- worst case: judging the work on the basis of social rank (414-424).
- #7: conversely, prizing novelty above everything else (424-451).
- #8: valuing only those works which agree with one's own point of view, are written by member of one's own party, are written by friends, etc. (452-473). Envy plays a big part here, says Pope.
- arising from the above, some premises: "Be thou the first true merit to defend," even though we cannot expect modern writers to endure as the ancients did (474-493).; don't let yourself succumb to envy (494-525). Be generous: "To err is human, to forgive divine."
- But DO scourge "provoking crimes" such as obscenity and blasphemy (526-555). Here too, however, one must take care not to "mistake an author into vice" (556-559).
An Essay on Criticism was published when Pope was relatively young. The work remains, however, one of the best-known commentaries on literary criticism. Although the work treats literary criticism in particular and thus relies heavily upon ancient authors as type masters, Pope still extends this criticism to general judgment about all walks of life. He demonstrates that true genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven; at the same time, he argues, many possess the seeds of these gifts, such that with proper training they can be developed. His organization takes on a very simple structure: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which he judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic.
Part 1 begins with Pope’s heavy indictment of false critics. In doing so, he suggests that critics often are partial to their own judgment, judgment deriving, of course, from nature, like that of the poet’s genius. Nature provides everyone with some taste, which may in the end help the critic to judge properly. Therefore, the first job of the critic is to know himself or herself, his or her own judgments, his or her own tastes and abilities.
The second task of the critic is to know nature. Nature, to Pope, is a universal force, an ideal sought by critic and poet alike, an ideal that must be discovered by the critic through a careful balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberate reason. The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal acceptance: namely, the works of antiquity. Pope points out that, in times past, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature, whereas in his contemporary scene critics are straying from such principles. Moderns, he declares, seem to make their own rules, which are pedantic,...
(The entire section is 762 words.)