An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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Analysis and Summary of Select Passages in Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism"


Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" is a didactic poem that outlines the principles of literary criticism. Key passages emphasize the importance of humility, the value of understanding nature and classical art, and the dangers of pride and superficial knowledge. Pope advocates for critics to be fair, knowledgeable, and self-aware, aiming to improve both literary appreciation and the art itself.

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What is the summary of lines 75-90 in "An Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope?

In order to understand this passage, you have to begin where the passage begins. It is no good beginning to analyze or summarize a passage of poetry where the punctuation indicates a continuing thought. You must begin where the thought in interest starts. In this case, the beginning of this passage is line 68, which is also the start of this stanza. Poetic line-end punctuation is critical to attend to and the important punctuation that is a full stop (period) is at line 67. The same rationale applies when determining to end a passage: end at the closest period to the bit worrying you or of interest to you. This passage ends at line 91. The passage begins:

First follow Nature, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, [70]
One clear, unchang'd and Universal Light,
Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,
At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art.

An encapsulation of Pope's point in this passage is that poetry, inspired by the Light of Nature, can be violated--but must not be violated--by "Show" and "Pomp" and by "Wit" that lacks "Judgement." Rather, poetry must follow the "RULES" of poetry that were "discover'd, not devis'd" [discovered in previous great poems] and that are turned to poetic method under "Laws" of restraint that are similar to the laws that restrain "Liberty."

To briefly summarize the passage, Pope starts with identifying and defining poetry while linking it with "the Source, and End, and Test of Art." Poetry is said to be Nature and the "Universal Light, / Life, Force, and Beauty" that flows to all through Nature. Next, Pope turns to identifying the antithesis of poetry, which is poetry that is pompous and showy. More about antithesis later, but first he sidesteps and identifies the poet as one in whom the "Spirit" of Nature resides, filling the "whole" person with vigorous inspiration that "guides" every poetic impulse and creation. Pope clarifies that while the inspiring Spirit itself is not seen, its "Effects" upon the poet and the poetry produced are seen:

With Spirits feeds, with Vigour fills the whole,
Each Motion guides, and ev'ry Nerve sustains;
It self unseen, but in th' Effects, remains.

Pope returns to defining antithetical qualities by describing an antithetical poet. This individual is inspired not by the "Fund" of "Universal Light," but by "Wit" that lacks "Judgement." In other words, a clever verbose person who has not got a bit of artistic taste nor of good sense; someone who is a bit of a bore. Pope then explains how, in Nature, wit and judgement are united and how the "Spirit," now called the "Muse," is called upon in the same manner that one gently rides a good horse, without the "spur" and without provoking it to unrestrained "Speed." This hearkens forward to the upcoming comparison poetry to Liberty restrained by rules of order:

The winged Courser, like a gen'rous Horse,
Shows most true Mettle when you check [restrain] his Course.

Pope closes with an emphasis on rules of "Nature Methodiz'd" and with the comparison to "Liberty" restrained by laws that are innate to liberty, as rules and application of method are innate to Nature ... which is equated with Art ... which is poetry (Pope has gone full circle with his argument):

Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain'd [90]
By the same Laws which first herself ordain'd.

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What is the summary of lines 75-90 in "An Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope?

Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) is one of the most important statements about literature in the Augustan Age, also characterized by the term Neoclassicism because its supporters, including Pope, advocated a return to the type of literature created during the Greek classical period.

One of Pope's major arguments in the Essay is that writers, especially poets, should follow Nature, by which he meant the guiding principle of the universe--the highly-ordered, rational, reasonable mind of God:

First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame/By her just STANDARD, which is still the same:/Unerring Nature,still divinely bright,/One clear, unchang'd and Universal Light. . . . (ll. 69-71)

Pope's goal in these and the following lines is to convince writers that if they follow Nature's unchanging guidelines their writing will always remain true to the guiding principles of the universe, which readers will understand because they, too, desire universal truth.

Following Nature, according to Pope, is the only way for writers to achieve the ultimate goal of good writing:

Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,/At once the SOURCE, and END, and TEST of ART. (ll. 72-73)

Here, Pope makes explicit that the proper goal of any art--and here he would include both literature and visual arts--is to reflect the beauty and truth of Nature and Nature's God rather than to create art that deviates in any degree from Nature's "Standard."  Pope is taking a very conservative stance here because he is essentially arguing that there is only one kind of acceptable art--that which reflects Nature--and any art that fails to accomplish these goals is not worth producing.

In lines 74-83, Pope furthers his initial argument by pointing out that proper art achieves its goals "without Show, and without Pomp," that is, by reflecting Nature and truth, art doesn't draw attention to itself as art.  And he argues further that those writers who are especially gifted with wit ("to whom Heav'n in Wit has been profuse") are tempted to exercise their wit, which, in Pope's view, is artificial and therefore not a proper component of art:

For Wit and Judgment often are at strife . . . 'Tis more to guide than spur the Muse's Steed. . . . (ll. 82-84)

In other words, poets who are gifted with wit often use that wit rather than appropriate judgment, and the two attributes are often incompatible during the creative process.  Instead, according to Pope, wit should be used sparingly and always be tempered by good judgment (and good judgment is guided by Nature).

The poet's goal, as Pope argues in the last four lines of this section, is to tame his wit because his writing is most true to nature when "you check his Course."  In other words, wit has a role in the creative process but must be subject to Nature's principles and the poet's judgment.

In essence, one of the principal goals of writers in the Augustan Age or Neoclassical Period (the early 18thC to about mid century) is to model literature and art on the principals of Nature and what they often referred to as "Nature's God," and, equally important, to exercise moderation in all things, especially literature and the visual arts.  The "Test of Art" is, then, how closely art reflects Nature.

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Can you analyze Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism"?

Pope's "Essay on Criticism" tackles not only the problems of poor criticism but also the problems of poor writing. As he writes in the first stanza of Part I, "Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/Appear in writing or in judging ill." In other words, he asks which is worse--writing poorly or criticizing poorly? He feels that poor criticism is worse, as a poor writer bores his or her audience, while a poor critic misleads his or her audience. He goes on to say that good writing and good critical skills are both rare, as "Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light." In other words, there's a touch of the divine in both pursuits.

Critics, he feels, can go awry by relying on too much didacticism. He says in the third stanza, "So by false learning is good sense defac'd." In other words, critics' desire to seem witty can ruin their common sense. He urges critics and writers not to try to surpass their own talents. As he says, "Be sure your self and your own reach to know,/How far your genius, taste, and learning go." In other words, if they are not wits, they shouldn't try to be too clever. Instead, he advises them to follow nature. As he writes, "Nature to all things fix'd the limits fit." He tells critics and writers that they shouldn't indulge in too much pomp but should write naturally and restrain themselves. Much of the last part of Part I is dedicated to praising the ancients, such as the Greeks, who understood the importance of restraint and following nature in creating art.

In Part II, Pope says that the main cause of people's poor judgment is pride. As he writes in the first stanza of Part II, "Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defense,/And fills up all the mighty void of sense!" He writes that a little bit of learning can cause people's downfall in writing and in criticism.

He also writes that a critic should look over the entire work of writing and not judge it based on one part. As he writes, "survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find." He believes that perfection in writing does not exist and that the critic can praise a piece with merits even if that piece has small faults. He also believes that it's acceptable to break Aristotle's rules of drama and that an overly narrow adherence to classical drama does not always help writers.

In addition, he takes issue with writers using too many fancy devices to cover what is truly not very good. As he writes, these types of writers "hide with ornaments their want of art." In other words, these writers cover up their poor writing with ornamentation. Others use too many words or disguise the emptiness of their writing with supposed eloquence. He also criticizes the arbitrary nature of critics, who "praise at morning what they blame at night;/But always think the last opinion right." In other words, they constantly change their minds but regard themselves as " the measure of mankind." 

In Part 3, he urges critics to be humble and practice restraint: "Be silent always when you doubt your sense; /And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence." He regards the ancients, such as Horace and Erasmus, as the greatest critics and writers because they followed sense and conveyed "The truest notions in the easiest way." He finds modern critics wanting in the sense shown by the ancients. 

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Can you analyze Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism"?

The "Essay on Criticism" consists of some 746 lines written in heroic couplets, i.e. iambic pentameter lines rhymed aa, bb, cc, etc. To do a line by line analysis, you may wish to use an annotated test such as the one found at University of Toronto (reference 3 below). For each line, the best strategy is to start with carefully parsing the syntax of the line, and then paraphrasing it in your own words, eliminated inverted syntax and perhaps moving the contents of subordinate clauses into separate sentences, and substituting contemporary for 18th century language, e.g.,

'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill

2Appear in writing or in judging ill; could be paraphrased as: It is hard to say if the bad poet or the bad critic appears worse. Here Pope is suggesting that since criticism no harder to write than poetry, the bad critic has no more excuses for failure than the bad poet.

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Summarize lines 337 to 383 in Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism."

Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" is a discussion and critique of the art of poetry, and poetry readers, of his day. The lines to which you refer are in Part Two of the poem and talks about the right and wrong way to write poetry. It is a masterful display of the importance of both sound and sense in poetry.
Pope criticizes those who judge poetry based simply on the fact that it precisely follows a certain form ("by numbers judge a poet's song") but not on what it says or means ("to please their ear / Not mend their minds"). He criticizes poets who write "expected rhymes," predictable because they follow a form rather than express a new or innovative thought. 
350Where'er you find "the cooling western breeze",
351In the next line, it "whispers through the trees":
352If "crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep",
353The reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with "sleep".
Instead of such mindless conformity and predictability, Pope reveals what makes an effective poem. 
362True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
363As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
364'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
365The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
It is not enough that a poem should just not be offensive to the ear; it should couple sound with sense-- what it says should be reflected in how it sounds. What follows is a series of beautifully written lines in which the sound of the line matches the meaning of the line. This is best demonstrated by reading the lines aloud. These lines, read aloud, sound like the smoothness of a stream and a soft breeze:
366Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
367And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
The next two lines are just the opposite. The sound of the lines is choppy and rough, something you may not notice by looking but will certainly hear when it is read aloud, and the sound of the words matches the crashing of the waves.
368But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
369The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
The next two lines talk about a laborious straining, and the sound of the lines reflect that as much as the words themselves: 
370When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
371The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Just the opposite happens in the next two lines. Here there is a sense of skimming quickly across a surface. Note that although line 373 has only one more word than line 371, it reads much more quickly because of the words Pope chose to convey the meaning.
372Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain
373Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.
The following additional examples demonstrate Pope's assertion that what the poem means (the sense) must be matched by the sound. Read them aloud to see what he wants to teach us. 
347And ten low words oft creep in one dull line,
Ten words may be required in some poetic forms, but the wrong ten words create nothing but a monotone. Note the slow movement of a wounded snake in the sound of line 357 and the connection between sound and sense in line 359. (Try to say "languishingly slow" quickly; it is a perfect blend of sound and sense.)
357That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along....
359What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
Pope's essay is a kind of primer on how to write poetry.

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