An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

While “An Essay on Criticism” isn’t a narrative poem with characters who participate in the plot, the poem does contain allusions to key figures—mostly poets from both ancient and modern times. By alluding to other writers, the speaker supplies his readers with multiple reference points for the ways that poetry should be written. The approach of this poem-qua-essay is didactic, instructing the readers in what modern audiences might see as a pedantic tone, given these esoteric references. Yet they also help display Pope’s vast knowledge of literature, both past and present.

Homer and Virgil

Homer and Virgil are widely considered the two most iconic poets of the classical Greco-Roman period. Homer was an ancient Greek poet credited for composing both the Iliad and the Odyssey, whereas Virgil was an ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aenied. All three of these epic poems describe the events surrounding the legendary Trojan War and its aftermath. Homer and Virgil are the models that aspiring poets can learn from the most, as the speaker of Pope’s poem recommends:

Be Homer’s works your study and delight,Read them by day, and meditate by night;Thence form your judgment, thence your maxims bring,And trace the Muses upward to their spring;Still with itself compar’d, his text peruse;And let your comment be the Mantuan Muse.

Homer is credited with composing what many consider to be the foundational works of the Western literary canon. For this reason, the speaker of the poem suggests that poets should return to the “spring,” or origin, of all poetry, namely the myths of ancient Greece and their muses.

Virgil (70–19 BCE) was a Roman poet of the original Augustan period of Rome, named after Emperor Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE). His full name being Publius Vergilius Maro, Virgil was born in Mantua in northern Italy, hence the speaker’s reference to “the Mantuan Muse.” Virgil’s most famous work is the Aeneid, which describes how members of the Trojan royal family survived the fall of Troy, made their way to Italy, and founded the civilization that seeded the Roman Empire. The speaker praises this work for building upon what Homer created:

When first young Maro in his boundless mindA work t’ outlast immortal Rome design’d,Perhaps he seem’d above the critic’s law,And but from Nature’s fountains scorn’d to draw:But when t’ examine ev’ry part he came,Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.

In many ways, the speaker finds in the works of Homer and Virgil a classical model in which art becomes a facsimile of Nature in its purest form. For this reason, he recommends that aspiring poets study their works before reading poets who came after.

Edmund Waller and John Denham

Among the more “modern” poets Pope alludes to are Edmund Waller (1606–1687) and John Denham (1614/15–1669):

. . . KnowWhat’s roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;And praise the easy vigour of a line,Where Denham’s strength, and Waller’s sweetness join.

These two poets were very influential in their day and helped popularize the heroic couplet. They employed the form in an especially “smooth” and elegant way that became the model for poets of the next hundred years.

John Dryden

The most important recent predecessor of Pope whom the speaker alludes to is John Dryden (1631–1700), who perfected the use of the heroic couplet and also the type of forceful, trenchant satire Pope himself became known for. Pope likens Dryden to the ancient Greek poet Timotheus of Miletus (446–357 BCE)—evidently because of a poem Dryden had recently written called “Alexander’s Feast, or the...

(This entire section contains 835 words.)

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Power of Music”—in the following lines:

Hear how Timotheus’ varied lays surprise,And bid alternate passions fall and rise!While, at each change, the son of Libyan JoveNow burns with glory, and then melts with love;Now his fierce eyes with sparkling fury glow,Now sighs steal out, and tears begin to flow:Persians and Greeks like turns of nature found,And the world’s victor stood subdu’d by sound!The pow’r of music all our hearts allow,And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

Much as he evokes Homer and Virgil, the speaker of “An Essay on Criticism” traces a line of influence from ancient writers to contemporary authors, the latter having sustained a tradition of classical poetry across the centuries. He praises Dryden for continuing Timotheus’s legacy of writing poetry that evokes lofty subjects through sonorous verse that “burns with glory, and then melts with love.”

Other Figures

There are many other names from literature and history in Pope’s essay, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ben Jonson’s character Fungoso, the Roman satirist Horace, the Greek hero Ajax, Miguel de Cervantes’s character Don Quixote, the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the Roman politician Appius, the Latin writer Petronius, the Roman grammarian and critic Quintilian, the Dutch philosopher Erasmus, the Renaissance painter Raphael, and the Roman writer Longinus.