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Last Updated on February 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

The Principles of Artistic Greatness

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 497 words.)

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