An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Alexander Pope’s long three-part poem “An Essay on Criticism” is largely influenced by ancient poets, classical models of art, and Pope’s own 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.

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, Virgil, 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 toward critics themselves than toward other poets and artists. For him, poor criticism is far worse than poor writing. As he puts it, “There are [those] who judge still worse than he can write.” These poor judgments often result from faulty readings of another’s work or a lack of reading altogether, causing them to base their criticism more on unfair derision or spitefulness than on any productive dialogue or useful insight. What’s worse, these aspiring critics or writers are often overly ambitious, attempting to critique writing on subjects they know little about. As he famously expresses it, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” The speaker believes that critics must first know the literary tradition they are engaging with in order to develop good taste and make sound judgments.

Because the speaker’s message throughout the poem is that art should imitate Nature, critics must also have an understanding of both classical works and the link between Nature and art. These understandings are crucial, he claims, to ensuring that critics can approach others’ writing with fairness and discernment. In the final lines of the poem, Pope states that the ideal critic ought to be

Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame,
Still pleas’d to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to flatter, or offend,
Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

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