An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

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What does Alexander Pope mean in the following lines from ''An Essay on Criticism''?: Others for language all their care express And value books as women men for dress Words are like leaves and...

What does Alexander Pope mean in the following lines from ''An Essay on Criticism''?:

Others for language all their care express

And value books as women men for dress

Words are like leaves and where they most abound

Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found

But true expression like the unchanging sun,

Clears, and improves what'er it shines upon

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afarpajian eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Pope’s point involves the importance of conciseness and clarity of expression. The use of the heroic couplet is an obvious illustration of the neoclassical wish to express thoughts in a “pithy” way: each couplet is self-contained, projecting an idea or ideas in the most striking and memorable way possible. Using many words, as Pope states in these lines, would be the opposite of his technique. A verbose manner, he implies, more likely than not simply hides a lack of “sense” or meaning. Poetic language should (like the sun) clarify thoughts rather than obscure them.

Despite this criticism about preferences for thoughts over mere words, some might charge (and have done so) Pope himself with violating his own dictum. Much of the value of his poetry consists in the elegance of his language—not the number of words used, but their quality. His thoughts are often not original, and the value of his verse lies in the way he expresses accepted ideas so that the words are what ultimately have the real value.

Samuel Johnson disliked the ideas expressed in the “Essay on Man” and claimed that their falsity was covered up by the “blaze of embellishments” with which Pope presented them—in other words, that words were in fact being used to obscure the wrongness of the ideas. This, however, is a somewhat different thing from using too many words, which is the fault described in Pope’s own lines you have quoted.

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Lorna Stowers eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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While Pope's text offers readers a lesson on literary criticism, many aspects of his text can be applied to both literature and life. The amazing thing about literature is that it is open to multiple interpretations.

Essentially, Pope is stating that some people are not honest about their interest in some things. Some people may pretend to be interested in something because it is a popular or trendy thing at that moment. Some people also like to impress others with regurgitated ideologies and interpretations, hoping that they sound far more intelligent than they are.

In these situations and others like them, one's words (or "leaves") contain no real meaning. In fact, the words fail to have any real impact--or in Pope's case, they fail to bear fruit (possess meaning). The more words that are spoken, the less likely they are to have a real impact on those around the speaker. Instead, they simply pile up.

In the end, it is only the words which exhibit "true expression," and not regurgitation, that impact a real conversation. One must value words and books far more than they value materialistic things. Unlike meaningful words and books, the materialistic things will fall away. Words and books, for the most part, will not.

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droxonian eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Pope is here criticizing people who make a show of being clever and loving language and books, doing it purely so that people will admire it about them, while actually not really knowing anything of substance. These are people who "express" a great love of language, but who value books in the same way that some women value men—for dress," or as a fashion item. Pope then goes on to say that words are akin to leaves, in that where there are lots of them, there is little "fruit" to be seen—so, in the same way that great piles of fallen leaves generally mean that the fruit of the tree is no longer in evidence, people who use a lot of words are generally not concealing any nuggets of wisdom within all those words.

In Pope's estimation, "true expression" should be like the sun: it should improve everything it touches, and should be clear and constant. Pope seems to be asking for conciseness and plain speaking in language, and warning us against those who use fancy words and talk a lot but don't really say anything of value.

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thanatassa eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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These three heroic couplets from Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" are part of a sequence of comments on imperfect critics who focus only on one aspect of a poem rather than reading a poem as a whole. In this section, he is criticizing a type of rhetorical criticism found in handbooks on tropes and figures that judges the value of a poem based on clever use of ornate language. Pope is arguing here that just as you should value people for their ideas and moral nature more than their clothing, so poems should be valued for thought as much as form. The best language for Pope is that which makes ideas clearer rather than obscuring them, i.e.:

But true expression like the unchanging sun,

Clears, and improves what'er it shines upon

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