An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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What are the major neoclassical themes in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism?

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In Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope presents neoclassical themes like studying nature to learn the rules of beauty, reliance on the Greeks and Romans as models, the focus on order and reason, and the necessity of virtue for critics.

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Neoclassicism in literature in the days of Alexander Pope is characterized by a return to the classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome as models for contemporary writers and critics. Neoclassicists focused on order, decorum, virtue, and reason. They turned toward nature for inspiration but presented nature in a balanced, structured way with wit, rationality, and moderation.

Alexander Pope captures many of these neoclassical themes and ideas in Essay on Criticism. For instance, he sets forth a series of rules for literary critics so they might perform their tasks in an orderly, reasonable way. “First follow Nature, and your judgment frame / By her just standard, which is still the same,” he commands. Nature presents its own rules about what is beautiful and can, therefore, help critics determine whether or not poets have captured true beauty. All must be orderly and balanced, both in poetry and in criticism.

Pope also asserts that critics must “Know well each Ancient's proper character.” They must study Homer, for example, to be able to form a proper judgment about quality in literary works. They should know Aristotle and Horace, Dionysius and Longinus. The ancient poets and critics present the proper model for all to follow, for they have climbed to the heights of beauty and reason.

Finally, Pope declares the necessity of virtue for critics. Integrity stands at the top of required moral values. “'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join; / In all you speak, let truth and candour shine,” he advises critics. They must have the courage to speak truth but with tact and modesty and always with the proper order and decorum, guided by reason rather than passion.

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Rules are very important for Pope, as they were for neoclassicists in general. In An Essay on Criticism he is anxious to argue quite strongly that following the appropriate rules is conducive to good writing. The target audience of the Essay was very small, consisting of a tiny, well-bred readership drawn largely from the upper classes. If one wished to communicate something of lasting significance to this self-selecting literary elite, then it was thought necessary to speak to them in a language they could understand. There was no place in the world of the eighteenth-century English salon or literary coterie for anything that smacked of eccentricity or overt individuality; to ignore this basic prohibition was considered incredibly rude and ill-mannered.

In part 1 of the Essay, Pope further stresses the importance of following human nature not just in writing, but in any kind of creative endeavor. In common with most people at the time, Pope tended to look upon human nature as fixed. Accordingly, writers must endeavor to express human nature in all its universality. Among other things, this approach would ensure that creative works such as poems and novels would endure long after they were written. As they were concerned with the universal and the general, rather than the particular and the specific, they were able to speak clearly to each successive generation.

If writers wish to convey universal truths in their work, they could do a lot worse, says Pope, than to follow the shining example set by their great forebearers of antiquity such as Cicero, Quintilian, and "The Stagirite," namely, Aristotle. These men have spoken to successive generations, and continue to do so, precisely because they dealt so skillfully with human nature. Therein lies their contemporary relevance.

As a highly skilled poet himself, Pope understands that the poetic temperament often instinctively rebels against specific rules and the formal constraint they impose. This, he feels, is a mistake. The great poets of the past understood the necessity of buckling under the rules bequeathed to them by their predecessors. Indeed, if they had not, then Pope would not be in a position to enjoin the current generation of writers to follow their example.

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An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope encapsulates the Neoclassical literary theories of eighteenth-century England, a period sometimes referred to as "Augustan" for the way writers self-consciously imitated the classical writers of Rome during the period of Augustus, especially Horace.

The first typically Neoclassical theme is the reverence for the great writers of the past. Rather than valorizing originality or eccentricity, Pope advocates synthesizing meticulous craftsmanship with universal and rationally discoverable intellectual and human truths. He sees human nature and the natural world as part of a vast, ordered cosmos with a divine creator and sees all great art as echoing that universal divine order. What makes the ancient poets great for Pope, and defines the impetus behind the Neoclassical emulation of them, is precisely their universality. Poet phrases this eloquently in the lines:

But when t’ examine ev’ry part he came,

Nature and Homer were, he found, the same. ...

Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;

To copy Nature is to copy them.

Next, Pope admires balance and symmetry in all aspects of poetry, with the poetic form suited to the subject matter and the language clear and natural, as opposed to technical and contorted, as he thought the case with the Metaphysical poets. 

Another major Neoclassical element in the poem is its satiric genre. Satire was the mode par excellence of Augustan poetry, using wit to deflate the pretensions of what the Augustans saw as radical innovations and grandiose posturing. 

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