Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” is largely influenced by ancient poets, classical models of art, and Pope’s Catholic beliefs. The poem revolves around questions of whether poets should create their works naturally or prescriptively and if they should follow the long-standing aesthetic rules established by classical poets.

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The speaker claims that poets must be able to express ethical judgments about others’ work. In order to do so, they must possess knowledge of great literary works. He praises the works of Homer and other classical writers, which he believes successfully reflect Nature in its purest form. Thus, he advocates for imitating these artists in one’s own poems: “Be Homer’s works your study and delight / Read them by day, and meditate by night.” Pope and his contemporaries were partial toward literature from the Greco-Roman period and sought to reinvigorate classical ideas and use them in their own work.

Paradoxically, the speaker of the poem argues for modeling one’s work on the classical tradition and also, when necessary, forsaking the rules and focusing on individual expression instead. By experiencing Nature firsthand, poets can use their knowledge of previous writers and acquire their own voice. Therefore, the speaker of the poem believes that an artist’s job should also be to imitate Nature and remain true to it in their own work, basing their writing and criticism on “her just standard, which is still the same . . . still divinely bright.” But rather than merely glorifying Nature, poets should portray the world as they see it and speak the truth.

Ultimately, the speaker of the poem directs more of his criticism towards critics themselves than toward other poets and artists. For him, poor criticism is far worse than poor...

(The entire section contains 452 words.)

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