Can you compare Pope's An Essay on Criticism" to Matthew Arnold's The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, with its similarities and differences?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In Mathew Arnold's essay The Function of Criticism the author contends that criticism, rather than being the "be all-end all" action that leads to any pivotal changes in literature is, in fact, a much needed touch with reality prior to the creation of anything figurative in art, or particularly in poetry. In other words, criticism is useful to dispel any figurative concoction that our imagination has made on what something is or is not. Criticism keeps the author "in check with reality", in not so many words. Arnold argues that good criticism "prepares" the poet for true poetry by extrapolating the real facts about something. The idea is that after you know something the way that it really is, then you can take creative license to add or take away figurative traits. However, Arnold does not take value away from criticism; he simply states that it is not dependent on art but interdependent and full of its own proper due value. Hence, the roll of the critic in society and in literature is to revel in the joy of knowing that his or her notations are for the good of the concept at large. In the author's words, the lack of interest on the author (the fact that he or she is devoid of any ulterior motives) on a specific words, and the main interest is to make justice to art, the work of the critic is also altruistic.

"the idea of a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."

Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism is a Horatian verse essay, which is the primary difference from his and Arnold's work (Arnold's was a traditional essay). They also differ in their main argument; while Arnold concedes that criticism has positive qualities, Pope more careful when describing criticism under a strictly positive light.  The problem, according to Pope, proposes that critics may not even know what they are looking for, or looking at, when they choose to discuss poetry. Who, but the poet, can actually give the true meaning of each and every word being written. Moreover, why would a critic even consider a poem worthy or unworthy when they themselves may have never written one. Hence, the other difference between the works: Pope views criticism as an art that may do more harm than good. In fact, he goes as far as saying that bad criticism, or criticism made with the purpose of pointing out the negative and for no reason, is even more harmful than what could be considered "bad" by them.

Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss; A Fool might once himself alone expose,Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose

As far as similarities, both authors completely agree that there is importance in criticism...if the critic is worthy. The critic, in both essays, is the artist's right hand in terms of providing the artist with the necessary feedback to more art forward. They also agree in that criticism is essential to art, as even the likes of Wordsworth was a critic once who, although detested it later, still provided amazing insights into what to expect from poetry. Again, the main difference between the two is that Pope is more concerned about the agenda behind criticism while Arnold sees it under a more positive light. 

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