Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” contains several aphorisms (or short statements that convey general truths) that are easily recognizable to many English speakers. Since the poem’s publication in 1709, many of its lines have made their way into everyday English. Some of these aphorisms include “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” “A little learning is a dang’rous thing,” and “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” These statements contain truncated or condensed arguments about larger philosophical or spiritual ideas. With witty and clever turns of phrase, the speaker of the poem is able to take abstract concepts and condense them into single, memorable lines, while maintaining their depth, so that readers will be able to recall them readily.
The speaker of “An Essay on Criticism” argues that other critics of the neoclassical era often make serious mistakes in their criticism. They value poetry that is ornamental and stylized but insubstantial. Unfortunately, these same critics rarely possess “true taste,” which one acquires through attentive, critical reading of the best written works. Instead, they revert to their own biases and opinions when judging the works of others:
’Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic’s share. . . .
According to the speaker of the poem, the best poetry and art is closer to the speaker’s conception of Nature as the matrix of human existence. In order to more accurately capture the truth and beauty of their subjects, the speaker recommends that poets:
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,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
In order to determine what makes for quality poetry derived from sound observations of Nature, the speaker recommends drawing from the source of Western poetry and philosophy by reading the ancient Greeks and Romans:
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
Poets and critics can trace the history of Western art back to their “spring,” or source, by reading ancient works by authors like Homer, legendary composer of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. From there, they can feel inspired as if by the Muses (the Greek goddesses of the arts) to create their own poetic or critical works.