Published when Alexander Pope was twenty-two years of age, An Essay on Criticism remains one of the best known discussions of literary criticism, of its ends and means, in the English language. It is the source of numerous familiar epigrams known to the reading public. Pope was young when he wrote the work; existing evidence points to 1708 or 1709 as the probable period of composition. Pope wrote of its composition: “The things that I have written fastest, have always pleased the most. I wrote the Essay on Criticism fast; for I had digested all the matter in prose, before I began upon it in verse.”
Although Pope may seem to rely too heavily upon the authority of the ancient authors as literary masters, he recognizes, as many readers fail to note, the “grace beyond the reach of art” that no model can teach. True genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven, as Pope says, but many people possess the seeds of taste and judgment that, with proper training, may flourish. The genius of the ancients cannot be imitated, but their principles may be.
The poem is structured in three parts: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which a critic judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic. Part 1 opens with Pope’s indictment of the false critic. He remarks that as poets may be prejudiced about their own merits, so critics can be partial to their own judgment. Judgment, or “true taste,” derives from nature, as does the poet’s genius; nature provides everyone with some taste, which, if not perverted by a poor education or other defects, may enable the critic to judge properly. To be a critic, one’s first job is to know oneself, one’s own judgment, tastes, abilities; in short, to know one’s personal limitations.
The second task of the critic is to know nature, which is the critic’s standard as it is the poet’s. Nature is defined ambiguously as
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,One clear, unchanged, and universal light,Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,At once the source, and end, the test of Art.
Nature thus becomes a universal or cosmic force, an ideal sought by poet and critic alike in the general scheme, things universally approved throughout history by all persons. This ideal must be apprehended through the critic’s judicious balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberative reason.
The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal approbation, the works of antiquity. From the ancient authors, critics have derived rules of art that are not self-imposed at the whim of the critic but are discovered justly operating in the writings of the best authors. Such rules are “Nature still, but Nature methodized.”
Formerly, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature; in Pope’s time, however, critics had strayed from the principles of these earlier critics whose motive was solely to make art “more beloved,” and prescribed their own rules, which are pedantic, unimaginative, and basely critical of literature. What was once a subordinate sister to creative art has replaced or turned against its superior, assuming a higher place in the order of things. Criticism, once destined to teach the “world . . . to admire” the poet’s art, now presumes to be master.
The true critic must learn thoroughly the ancients, particularly Homer and Vergil, for “To copy nature is to copy them.” There are beauties of art that cannot be taught by rules; these intangible beauties are the “nameless graces which no methods teach/ And which a master-hand alone can reach.” Modern writers should avoid transcending, unless rarely, the rules of art first established by the great artists of the past.
Part 2 traces the causes hindering good judgment—that chief virtue of a true critic. Pope advises critics to avoid the dangers of blindness caused by pride, the greatest source of poor judgment, by learning their own defects and by profiting even from the strictures of their enemies. Inadequate learning is another reason a critic errs: “A little learning is a dangerous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” A critic who looks too closely at the parts of a poem may come to prefer a poem dull as a whole yet perfect in parts to one imperfect in part but pleasing as a whole. It is the unity of the many small parts in one whole that affects readers: “’Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,/ But the joint force and full result of all.” Faultless art can never exist. Finally, a critic who condemns...