What kind of advice does Alexander Pope give to writers and critics in his “Essay on Criticism”?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The eighteenth century was a time when rules were considered very important for writing, as indeed they were, in relation to art in general. And it was widely believed that the best kind of writing was one that followed traditional rules and standards, those accepted among people of discernment and taste.

Try to think of it this way: if you were invited to dine at the table of an aristocrat in 18th century England, then you'd be expected to know how to behave, how to conduct yourself in polite society. In other words, you'd have to follow the rules of etiquette. And it was the same with writing. You couldn't just do your own thing; you couldn't simply write whatever you liked and make up your own style; you always had to bear in mind the reception that your work would receive among the literate members of society.

In Part I, Pope stresses the importance of following nature. This doesn't mean nature as when we speak of the natural world; it means human nature. In his "Essay on Man," Pope famously stated that the "The proper study of mankind is man," and this applies just as much to writers and critics as it does to scientists.

Pope, like most literate folk at the time, thought that human nature remained more or less the same, irrespective of culture or historical epoch. So when writing it was absolutely necessary to express what were believed to be the universal qualities of human nature. That way it would be possible to speak to humankind in general rather than to specific individuals.

Pope strongly believed that truths were general and unchanging, and so if writers wanted to convey such truths, their work needed to reflect this. The best way to do this is by following the example of ancient authors such as Quintillian and Cicero. These writers understood the universality of human nature and wrote accordingly. It's precisely because the ancients wrote on universal themes that they are still able to speak to us today.

In Part II, Pope continues with the theme of dealing with the general rather than the particular. To that end, he argues that a piece of writing should be looked at as a whole, rather than minutely examined in its individual parts:

As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit, / T’ avoid great errors, must the less commit.

Critics often pick up on certain passages that are less than successful and then use them as an excuse to reject the whole work. This is the wrong approach, says Pope. A piece of writing should always be evaluated as a whole, as it's always much greater than the sum of its parts.

In Part III, Pope cites the example of Aristotle ("The Stagirite") as something that both critics and poets should seek to emulate:

Poets, a race long unconfin’d and free, / Still fond and proud of savage liberty, / Receiv’d his laws; and stood convinc’d ‘twas fit, / Who conquer’d nature, should preside o’er wit.

Pope is saying here that poets are traditionally undisciplined, always wanting to do their own thing. Yet in ages past, even they recognized the necessity of rules, and followed Aristotle's guidance in this regard, especially in his Poetics, generally thought to be the oldest work of literary theory in existence.

roberthendricks | Student

Alexander Pope, an 18th century British poet, wrote Essay on Criticism in 1711, not so much to give advice to writers about writing, but to critics about criticism. The catch, however, was that Pope did not think these two categories mutually exclusive, since the poet believed only writers were apt to be critics: ‘Let such teach others who themselves excel / And censure freely, who have written well.’

So given his audience and their purpose - writers evaluating other writer’s craft - what was Pope’s advice? Some pieces of advice from Pope are now easily taken for granted in the modern day: for example, the need to judge a piece of art as a whole and not in parts, as well as the need to find something to appreciate about texts, not simply findings its faults, ‘Nay, fly to the altars, there they'll talk you dead / For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’

But behind all Pope’s well-intended advice is the more insidious notion that proper criticism is synonymous with morality - itself an indication of ‘good breeding’ - and thus the rules of conduct for both life and art were the same for Pope, ‘great Examples... what they deriv'd from Heav'n’. In other words: critics and poets alike are supposed to imitate the Godly example.

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