An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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In An Essay on Criticism, what rules does Pope discuss?

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In An Essay on Criticism, Pope gives rules for poetry while discussing how to evaluate it. The piece focuses on how literary critics should approach deciding what constitutes good writing. To that end, he also gives rules for poets. They should avoid too much ornamentation or elaborate phrasing without real content, as well as metrical choices that are overly simple or unnecessarily complex. These are Pope's rules for writing poetry, though they are not the main point of the Essay.

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Though An Essay on Criticism centers on Pope's view of how literary critics should make judgments about writing, he does give rules for how poets should write as part of the process. A literary critic must know what a good poem looks like in order to make judgments about writing.

Pope advises looking at a piece of writing as a whole rather than letting specific fancy elements distract one. Critics tend to focus on the impressive parts of a poem, believing that it is is good because part of it is good. Pope therefore condemns poetry that features pretty phrasing and sophisticated stylistic choices at the expense of communicating actual meaning.

He also expresses his views on poetic meter. It should neither be excessively complex, as in a twelve-syllable "Alexandrine" line, or nor clumsily simple, as when every syllable in a line of iambic pentameter is a separate word. Cleverly, Pope uses variations in the meter of his own verse to show why the metrical choices he criticizes are not effective.

These rules for skillful poetry do not appear in the Essay as an end in themselves. Rather, they serve the purpose of illustrating how the literary critics Pope is addressing should evaluate the writing they examine.

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