An Essay on Criticism, didactic poem in heroic couplets by Alexander Pope, first published anonymously in 1711 when the author was 22 years old. Although inspired by Horace’s Ars poetica, this work of literary criticism borrowed from the writers of the Augustan Age. In it Pope set out poetic rules, a Neoclassical compendium of maxims, with a combination of ambitious argument and great stylistic assurance. The poem received much attention and brought Pope a wider circle of friends, notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who were then collaborating on The Spectator.
The first of the poem’s three sections opens with the argument that good taste derives from Nature and that critics should imitate the ancient rules established by classical writers. The second section lists the many ways in which critics have deviated from these rules. In this part Pope stressed the importance of onomatopoeia in prosody, suggesting that the movement of sound and metre should represent the actions they carry:
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an Echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.
The final section, which discusses the characteristics of a good critic, concludes with a short history of literary criticism and a catalog of famous critics.
The work’s brilliantly polished epigrams (e.g., “A little learning is a dang’rous thing,” “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”), while not original, have become part of the proverbial heritage of the English language.
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.