The poem commences with a discussion of the rules of taste which ought to govern poetry, and which allow a critic to make sound critical judgements on a piece of writing. In it Pope comments on how very brilliant the Classical authors were and and concludes (in an apparent attempt to reconcile the opinions of those who are for and against the idea of rules in literature) that the rules of the ancients are in fact identical with the rules of Nature That is to say that poetry and painting, like religion and morality, actually reflect natural law.
The "Essay on Criticism," then, is deliberately ambiguous and difficult to decode.: Pope seems, on the one hand, to admit that rules are necessary for the production of and criticism of poetry, but he also notes the existence of mysterious, apparently irrational qualities — "Nameless Graces," identified by terms such as "Happiness" and "Lucky Licence" — with which Nature is endowed, and which permit the true poetic genius, possessed of adequate "taste," to appear to transcend those same rules
In short some people are gifted and others not.. The critic, of course, if he is to appreciate that genius, must possess similar gifts. Only God, the infinite intellect, the purely rational being, can appreciate the harmony of the universe, but the intelligent and educated critic can appreciate poetic harmonies which echo those in nature. His (critic) intellect and his reason are limited because he is human. Because his opinions are inevitably subjective, he finds it helpful or necessary to employ rules which are interpretations of the ancient principles of nature to guide him — though he should never be totally dependent upon them. We should note, in passing that in "The Essay on Criticism" Pope is frequently concerned with "wit" — the word occurs once, on average, in every sixteen lines of the poem. Wit could literally mean funny – witty- but could also mean intelligent.
Pope discusses the laws by which a critic should be guided — insisting, as any good poet would, that critics exist to serve poets, not to attack them. He then provides, by way of example, instances of critics who had been mistaken in one way or another. t All of his erring, mistaken and plain wrong critics, each in their own way, betray the same fatal flaw.
The final section of the poem discusses the moral qualities and virtues ofthe ideal critic, who is also the ideal man — and who, Pope laments, no longer exists in the degenerate world of the early eighteenth century.