An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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Student Question

What does Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” reveal about the relationship between churchgoers and poetry readers?

Quick answer:

A careful reader of "An Essay on Criticism" can infer that Pope believes that both the churchgoer and the reader of poetry should attempt to live humble lives. Being only human, it becomes a prideful act to assume we can understand the larger picture of God's ineffable plan or grasp the entire scope of art in a single judgment.

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While Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” is most explicitly a treatise on art and criticism, readers can draw plenty of connections between art and religion—specifically, that churchgoers and the readers of poetry (taking the place of the “critics” in the poem) are synonymous.

To make the connection between readers of poetry and churchgoers, it is imperative to look at the language used in the poem. Pope hints at the link with his use of highly religious words: “Heav’n,” “sacrilege,” and “celestial” appear numerous times, and Pope even explicitly compares art to the divine in part 1, stanza 7. Some of the most famous lines of “An Essay on Criticism” also contain religious resonance and symbolism, such as “To err is human; to forgive, divine” and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

We learn even more about this connection in part 2, when Pope invokes the deadliest of all the sins: pride. The opening lines state,

Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

This, once more, drives home the comparison. Both the reader of poetry and the churchgoer must be ever-vigilant not to fall into prideful judgment. Later in part 2, Pope warns again of another folly that readers may easily slip into:

Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
Still make the whole depend upon a part ...

Once more, the “critics,” in this case, become synonymous with churchgoers. These lines touch upon the idea that, like God, art is boundless. If people were to take God in such a small part, they would miss what it is God is attempting to teach them. The same is true for the critic who takes a small piece of a poem—or takes a single poem to represent the whole of art. That critic would be missing the scope of what it is they are attempting to criticize, thereby making a false judgment.

Part 3 of the poem offers the path to salvation. In effect, what Pope says about the relationship between the churchgoer and the reader of poetry is that they should both lead a humble life, free from the excess of poor judgment and the “avarice ... of sense.” And while they are “not free from faults,” they shouldn’t allow themselves to become “too vain to mend.”

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