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Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism was written by him in 1709 when he was barely twenty years old, and published in 1711.
E on C has become a landmark of criticism in English Literature for two reasons: its major critical standpoint -- and theoretical basis -- is "Nature;" and it is a critique of poetic criticism itself in Pope's times. In this context, the word "wit" is very important because Pope uses it to mean several things: intelligence and poetic expressions on the one hand, and their users, i.e., poets and intellectuals on the other.
In the first part of the poem he raises the perennial problem of poets and critics. It is a greater sin, he says to be a poor critic than to be a poor poet. Why? Because a poor poet only demeans himself; but a poor critic can influence other literary opinions in a dangerous way. To Pope, in this Essay, people with a "true Taste" in literature is as rare as a "true poet." What maks it a problem, Pope says, is that almost everybody has some capacity for literary taste. It is a problem because when "taste" (by which Pope means a critical, discriminating temperament) is supplemented with poor or faulty education, "taste" itself goes askew, and the person turns into a bad -- and dangerous -- critic. Thus, it is important for the critic to know his own limits.
But what does Pope mean by faulty or poor education? Only "Nature" (with a capital N) is the guide for right education. By "Nature," Pope means not simply vegetation or human nature but that which has been portrayed to perfection by the classical authors, Homer and Virgil. Therefore, studying those poets, is the best education for a literary critic. Nature is the best guide for "Judgment," Pope says, meaning critical judgment.
In the second part of the poem Pope enters into a discussion of what hinders "true judgment." Pride and imperfect learning, he says, hinders our capacity to be sincere critics. Poor critics rely too much on memory; memory discourges the power of "Understanding," by which he means "reasoning." It also stunts the imagination. A good critic must be well read in the classics but he must not rely overly in his memory.
Finally, wit. "True wit," says Pope, "is Nature to advantage dressed." Elsewhere he also says that "Art is Nature methodized" (by wit). So what is wit? To Pope and the other late seventeenth and early eighteenth century critics, wit is a combination of classical reading, and the power to combine "thought, words and subject" (John Dryden). Pope thoroughly believed in this.
Therefore, in analyzing a literary text, Pope would have said we need to have the knowledge of the classics, which, in turn, endows us with the knowledge of Nature; it also enables us to combine thoughts and words -- "proper words in proper places," as Swift used to say --appropriate to the subject. Thus, a tripartite relationship between these three concepts, would result in our becoming true critics. The combination of thought, words and subject results in "wit," and in our becoming "true wits."
Is Pope right? Well, in our times, when the very bond between a signifier (word) and signified (thought) is suspect, Pope's critical system probably should be read in its historical context. What interests me about this poem, is not as much Pope's method of criticism but elitist politics it implies. As Edward Niles Hooker pointed out, Pope's E on C expresses the voice of the classical literary elite, "the power of the drawing room."
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