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Last Updated on February 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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...

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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 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 and that not all strong poetry adheres to standard conventions or rules.

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.

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 philosophers and poets in matters of taste while also keeping in mind the importance of Nature in writing. Other poets can use more classical works as models for improving their craft and engage with meaningful subject matter.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

An Essay on Criticism was published when Pope was relatively young. The work remains, however, one of the best-known commentaries on literary criticism. Although the work treats literary criticism in particular and thus relies heavily upon ancient authors as type masters, Pope still extends this criticism to general judgment about all walks of life. He demonstrates that true genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven; at the same time, he argues, many possess the seeds of these gifts, such that with proper training they can be developed. His organization takes on a very simple structure: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which he judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic.

Part 1 begins with Pope’s heavy indictment of false critics. In doing so, he suggests that critics often are partial to their own judgment, judgment deriving, of course, from nature, like that of the poet’s genius. Nature provides everyone with some taste, which may in the end help the critic to judge properly. Therefore, the first job of the critic is to know himself or herself, his or her own judgments, his or her own tastes and abilities.

The second task of the critic is to know nature. Nature, to Pope, is a universal force, an ideal sought by critic and poet alike, an ideal that must be discovered by the critic through a careful balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberate reason. The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal acceptance: namely, the works of antiquity. Pope points out that, in times past, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature, whereas in his contemporary scene critics are straying from such principles. Moderns, he declares, seem to make their own rules, which are pedantic, unimaginative, and basely critical of literature. Pope does admit that certain beauties of art cannot be learned by rules, intangible beauties that must be found in an individual way by true masters, but he goes on to warn readers that few moderns are able to acquire such tastes, especially those who exceed their grasp too quickly.

Part 2 traces the causes hindering good judgment. The reader is advised to avoid the dangers of blindness caused by pride by learning his or her own defects and by profiting even from the strictures of his or her enemies. Inadequate learning is another reason critics err; critics who look too closely at the parts of a poem may find themselves preferring a poem dull as a whole yet perfect in parts, to one imperfect in part but pleasing as a whole. What Pope seeks is the unity of the many small parts into one whole, the latter being the more important. According to Pope, some critics err in loving parts only; others confine their attention to conceits, images, or metaphors. Still others praise style and language too highly without respect to content. The true critic generally abides by rules of tolerance from extremes of fashion and personal taste. Pope advises that the true critic will not be a patron of a special interest group. He even admits that moderns may have a contribution to make, along with the ancients. Above all, critics should not err by being subjective. The true critic must put aside personal motives and praise according to less personal criteria.

Finally, part 3 outlines the ideal character of a critic. It lists rules for manners and contrasts the ideal critic with the bad poet and the erring critic. This part concludes with a brief summary of literary criticism and the character of the best critics. It is not enough for critics to know; they must also share the qualities of good people. Integrity stands at the top of the list of qualities of a good critic. Modesty, tact, and courage are necessary for a true critic. Pedantry and impertinence are not part of a critic with integrity. The learned fool rushes in “where angels fear to tread.” Having outlined the characteristics of true critics, Pope then in classic fashion catalogs the most famous critics of Greece and Rome: Aristotle, Horace, Dionysius, Quintilian, and Longinus. In closing the work, Pope reminds the reader that at the fall of Rome, most good criticism stopped. Erasmus revived it in the early Renaissance and Nicolas Boileau of France advanced it more in Europe. Thus, says, Pope, one must return to the “juster ancient cause.” With An Essay on Criticism, the neoclassic world of Pope has a helpmeet.

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