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.)
Pope's "Essay on Criticism" is a didactic poem in heroic couplets, begun, perhaps, as early as 1705, and published, anonymously, in 1711. The poetic essay was a relatively new genre, and the "Essay" itself was Pope's most ambitious work to that time. It was in part an attempt on Pope's part to identify and refine his own positions as poet and critic, and his response to an ongoing critical debate which centered on the question of whether poetry should be "natural" or written according to predetermined "artificial" rules inherited from the classical past.
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.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000