Alexander Pope Questions and Answers

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In Pope's essay for criticism, does he show himself to be a good critic? Also, do his politics show through?

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Our judgment of Pope himself as a critic will rest, of course, upon our own aesthetic principles with regard to literature and other forms of art. We can excerpt various passages from the Essay on Criticism,but one that seems to express the essence of Pope's aesthetic ideal best is:

'Tis more to guide, than spur the Muse's steed,

Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed.

The winged courser, like a generous horse,

Shows most true mettle when you check his course.

This goal of artistic "restraint," like Pope's thinking overall, was gradually superseded by a different ideal beginning not long after Pope's death. In his "Pope" in the Lives of the English Poets (1779-81), Samuel Johnson has to defend Pope against the recent dismissal of his work as unpoetic by countering that "If Pope be not a poet, then where is poetry to be found?" What Johnson was responding to was a changed atmosphere that would lead, in less than twenty years, to the Romantic movement.

In some sense, much of the ideal of Romanticism has effectively become permanent. Few readers of our time would agree with the classically-oriented artistic principles rooted in tradition that Pope outlines in his Essay. That said, on his own terms Pope was successful as a poet and a critic, and he not only incorporated his espoused principles into his own work but applied them in his judgment of other poets. An example is John Donne, whose satires Pope reworked in accordance with his poetic ideals. A principal factor is not only the neoclassical goal of "restraint," "elegance," and "balance" but a reverence for the poets of antiquity, especially Homer, whose Iliad Pope translated. The classical ideal is that the poet must copy "Nature," but to Pope (as described in his passage about Virgil), "Nature" and Homer are one and the same.

"Conservatism" is a label most of us would apply to Pope's philosophy of literature. The goal is not to express new ideas but to express established ideas better than others have done before:

True art is Nature to advantage dressed,

What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.

One would think this would imply conservatism in politics as well, and to an extent, this is true. But Pope's own political views were ambivalent. As a Roman Catholic, he was an outsider with respect to English or British political life in general. He appears to have had little respect for the Hanoverian dynasty that came into power relatively early in his life, but this implies neither conservatism nor progressivism. If anything, one would think Pope was largely opposed to the Whig Party, which (to some extent ironically) represented the liberalism of the timeā€”for it was the Whigs who had ousted the Catholic James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the year of Pope's birth. The Essay on Criticism for the most part is a poem dealing with artistic matters, and anything beyond our understanding of Pope's aesthetic views with regard to this one work is largely speculative.

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