An Essay on Criticism Summary
"An Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope is a long, three-part poem about the nature of poetry and criticism.
- In the first part, the speaker of the poem describes how the critics of his time are defective in their judgments and tastes.
- In the second part, the speaker of the poem claims that critics favor and are misled by overly showy, needlessly intricate, and highly artificial writing.
- In the third part, the speaker claims that critics must follow the prescriptions of the ancient philosophers and poets in matters of taste while also keeping in mind the importance of Nature in writing.
Last Updated on September 21, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591
Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was an English critic, translator, satirist, and poet who became a principal figurehead of the neoclassical era in English literature, often known as the Augustan Age. Pope suffered from what was known then as “tuberculosis of the spine” (now known today as Pott’s disease), which left him sickly and disfigured from a young age. Being hunchbacked, he stood no more than four and a half feet tall. He was also a devout Catholic in a predominantly Protestant nation and could not hold public office, attend university, or even vote. Therefore, Pope learned how to use his vast knowledge, poetic skill, and sharp wit to gain notoriety and fame.
Along with his eighteenth-century contemporaries such as Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift, Pope was interested primarily in reinvigorating artistic styles, tropes, genres, and philosophy from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Other than being a witty political satirist, Pope was also a perceptive, thoughtful, and erudite critic who believed that poor criticism was, in many ways, worse than poor writing.
“An Essay on Criticism” (1709) is a work of both poetry and criticism. Pope attempts in this long, three-part poem, which he wrote when he was twenty-three, to examine neoclassical aesthetics in poetry and argues that the best kind of poetry is that which is closest to his conception of “Nature.” He also argues against a separation of form and content, arguing that naturalism in poetry should be reflected in both its form and its content.
The poem, written in heroic couplets (or two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter), is heavily influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Nicolas Boileau’s L’Art Poëtique. In its first section, the speaker of the poem describes how the critics of his time are defective in their judgments and tastes. Being largely partial to the ancient Greek and Roman writers, the speaker claims that many of his contemporaries have missed certain important aspects of good poetry, namely that poets should write what they know but not stray beyond that subject matter:
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.
He also emphasizes that not all strong poetry adheres to standard conventions or rules:
Some beauties yet, no precepts can declare,
For there’s a happiness as well as care.
In contrast to part 1’s generality, part 2 lists in greater detail the various specific mistakes made by critics of the time. One of the problems is the absence of holistic approaches in criticism; in other words, critics fail to consider the work in its entirety. The speaker of the poem also claims that critics favor and are misled by overly showy, needlessly intricate, and highly artificial writing, which often ends up sounding clumsy and “dull”: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”
In part 3, after arguing in detail about his problems with current criticism, the speaker offers some suggestions on what makes for good criticism. He claims that critics must follow the prescriptions of the ancient poets and philosophers, such as Aristotle, in matters of taste, while also keeping in mind the importance of Nature in writing. He says of Aristotle,
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.
Other poets, the speaker advises, can use more classical works as models for improving their craft and engage with meaningful subject matter.