Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 762 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Published when Alexander Pope was twenty-two years of age, An Essay on Criticism remains one of the best known discussions of literary criticism, of its ends and means, in the English language. It is the source of numerous familiar epigrams known to the reading public. Pope was young when he wrote the work; existing evidence points to 1708 or 1709 as the probable period of composition. Pope wrote of its composition: “The things that I have written fastest, have always pleased the most. I wrote the Essay on Criticism fast; for I had digested all the matter in prose, before I began upon it in verse.”
Although Pope may seem to rely too heavily upon the authority of the ancient authors as literary masters, he recognizes, as many readers fail to note, the “grace beyond the reach of art” that no model can teach. True genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven, as Pope says, but many people possess the seeds of taste and judgment that, with proper training, may flourish. The genius of the ancients cannot be imitated, but their principles may be.
The poem is structured in three parts: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which a critic judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic. Part 1 opens with Pope’s indictment of the false critic. He remarks that as poets may be prejudiced about their own merits, so critics can be partial to their own judgment. Judgment, or “true taste,” derives from...
(The entire section is 1972 words.)