An Essay on Criticism Summary
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,246 words.)