An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

Start Free Trial

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

Pope is saying that critics who obsess on superficial aspects of a work will mislead the reader. Critics who focus on meaning, on the other hand, can lead us to enjoy and understand what we read. Written by Dr. Edward G.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In order to fully understand these lines from Pope's verse discourse An Essay on Criticism(1711), a seminal exploration of Neoclassical poetic ideals and literary criticism, we need to look briefly at Pope's argument with respect to both good poetry and good criticism, both of which are subjects of the Essay. From Pope's perspective, poetry and those who interpret poetry are inextricably bound, and between bad poetry and misinterpretation of that poetry, the misinterpretation can be the most harmful:

'Tis hard to say if greater want of skill

Appear in writing or in judging ill

But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence

To tire our patience, than mislead our sense (I:1-3).

In short, criticism that misinterprets a poem is more dangerous than a bad poem because it leads readers astray.

Pope, having come of age at the beginning of the Neoclassical Period in English literature, is not only steeped in the classics but is himself a Neoclassicist. He believes that the essence of good writing requires that the poet must

First follow NATURE, and your judgment frame

By her just standard, which is still the same:

Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,

One clear, unchang'd, and universal light,

Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,

At once the source, and end, and test of art (I:68-73).

By nature, Pope and other Neoclassicists mean not only that which is created by God but also that which is unalterably good and true. For the Neoclassicists, this conception means that poetry must exhibit: natural, uncluttered language; a natural poetic rhythm for English, which is iambic pentameter; decorum; economy in expression (the heroic couplet, for example); and, most important, poetry, in its finest expression, both instructs and delights the reader. Whatever one thinks of works like An Essay on Man, An Essay on Criticism, or The Rape of the Lock, they can be said to be instructive and delightful at the same time.

Part II of the Essay contains the lines in your question, and these lines are addressed to the literary critics who do not focus on the foundational ideals of Neoclassic poetry and are therefore likely to mislead readers:

Others for language all their care express,

And value books, as women men, for dress:

Their praise is still—"the style is excellent":

The sense, they humbly take upon content (II:305-308).

In other words, critics focus on the outward appearance of a work--like women who evaluate men by their dress--and these critics mistake the appearance for the meaning of the work. Their judgment, then, that the "style is excellent" is not a judgment of a work's intrinsic meaning or value but a valuation based on criteria that have nothing to do with those things that are unchangeably good. Pope is arguing that such critics are fooled by appearances and therefore fail to explore the meaning inherent in the work.

Pope's focus on flowery language as a primary problem is clear when he says

Words are like...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

leaves; and where they most abound,

Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found (II:309-310).

Pope points out here that profuse language often makes understanding difficult or impossible, using the simile of leaves covering up fruit as a visual aid. As I noted above, one of the elements of Neoclassical poetry is the heroic couplet, a rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter that is, because of the natural word order and flow of English, a powerful vehicle for compressed poetic expression. And if we look at the diction that Pope uses most often in the Essay, we will find that short words of one or two syllables predominate, another element preferred by the Neoclassicists because such words are readily sensible. If one is writing to instruct and delight, vocabulary must be kept as simple and straightforward as possible. Like the sun shining on our surroundings, clear and uncluttered language facilitates our view of what we read.

These lines, then, encapsulate a main point of An Essay on Criticism—that meaning is often lost in overwrought language, and critics who focus on "presentation," as opposed to the underlying meaning of a work, will inevitably not only misinterpret a work but also lead readers to the same misinterpretation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team