An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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Does Pope apply his definition of wit from An Essay on Criticism to his translation of the Odyssey?

Excerpt from An Essay on Criticism and the excerpt (starting with the line "Now Pallas" through the line "And a red deluge floats") from his translation of the Odyssey.

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For Pope, wit is more than cleverness or humor. It is what we today might call creativity or imagination. True wit allows the poet to express what ordinary people cannot. As Pope writes in a famous passage in An Essay on Criticism,

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind.

The great poet, Pope says in the quote above, can intuit what people are thinking and say it for them in such a way that it becomes clear that it was exactly what they thought. However, they could not put it into words as beautifully and precisely as the poet could.

In the passage cited at the end of The Odyssey, in which Pallas (Athena) helps finish the job that Odysseus has largely completed of vanquishing the suitors who have pestered and tormented Penelope for so many years, Pope uses wit as he describes the scene—the final rout of the trapped suitors. The language and imagery convey in strong terms what happens to these men, who are likened in an extended metaphor to helpless birds caught in a net from which there is no escape from death:

No help, no flight; but wounded every way,
Headlong they drop; the fowlers seize their prey.
On all sides thus they double wound on wound,
In prostrate heaps the wretches beat the ground,
Unmanly shrieks precede each dying groan,
And a red deluge floats the reeking stone.

Not only does the description help us see the suitors piled up like dead birds of prey, the sound imagery, such as "unmanly shrieks" and "dying groan," along with the visual imagery of "red deluge" (flowing blood everywhere), conveys the emotional energy and intensity of the scene. It is hard to imagine more vivid or expressive words than those Pope comes up with, and thus we can say that Pope's concept of wit applies to his own translation of Homer's epic.

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