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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

The Principles of Artistic Greatness

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Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” partially functions as a treatise on the aesthetic ideals of the neoclassical period in English literature. Though the work begins as a criticism of critics themselves (as the title implies), its deeper purpose is to explore the nature of literature and art in general and to describe the principles that are responsible for artistic greatness.

According to the speaker of the poem, artists should know their limitations, or as the speaker puts it, “Be sure yourself and your own reach to know / How far your genius, taste, and learning go.” This argument is not unlike the colloquialism often taught to beginning writers, namely “write what you know.” At the same time, however, the speaker paradoxically advocates for acquiring comprehensive knowledge of all the precepts that are the foundation of great literature. Finding a balance between the comprehensive and the personal can be difficult but is necessary for achieving literary greatness. The basic credo of the neoclassical age—balance and restraint as the guiding principles of art—is arguably summed up in the lines:

‘Tis more to guide, than spur the Muse’s steed,
Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed;
The winged courser, like a gen’rous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.

By evoking classical imagery—such as the Muses, who inspired legendary poets like Homer, or the winged horse Pegasus—the speaker instructs the readers that art requires restraint, purpose, and discipline as well as ambition. Much of Pope’s own work consists of translations (primarily of Homer) and imitations of Greek and Latin models. Pope and other contemporary authors and critics used the principles of antiquity as the basis for their work. “An Essay on Criticism” can be read as a summation of those ideals as Pope and his neoclassical peers saw them.

Poetry as a Life-Long Pursuit

The speaker of “An Essay on Criticism” believes that an artist’s task of learning and self-training never comes to an end. He compares this endeavor to that of a mountain climber who sees one tall peak after another rising before him. This description serves as both a metaphor to illustrate this principle and a statement on how Nature is the ideal teacher of any poet:

Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

These lines evoke not just the sublime beauty of Nature but also the limitations humans face in art and in life more generally. This view contrasts with that of certain Romantic poets a century later. In particular, William Wordsworth thought that man’s ability was unlimited. In his epic The Prelude, Wordsworth draws upon the figure of the Alps, but his speaker successfully surmounts them, despite their great power.

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