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This is the penultimate line in a three-part, 744-line essay in rhymed couplets, on the subject of the nature, use, and right and wrong practice of criticism (by which Pope means the judging of writing by criteria set up in the Classical age). The first part introduces those criteria and begins the debate about whether bad criticism is a worse fault than bad writing; the second part lists the features of poor criticism and chastises those who practice it; the third section tells us “what morals critics ought to show” (line 560). The final couplet, then, praises “The learned [critics who] reflect on what before they knew” (line 740), who avoid vanity, and who are averse to the two main flaws in imperfect criticism – offense or flattery (line 743). Like so many of Pope's lines ("A little knowledge is a dangerous thing"), this line can be taken out of context and used as self-serving criticism of others, the very misuse of crticism that Pope warns against.
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