English Poetry in the Eighteenth Century Critical poetry and An Essay on Criticism

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Critical poetry and An Essay on Criticism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The critical poem was popular in the Restoration and came into full bloom in the eighteenth century. Following the pattern set by Horace in his Ars Poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry), the Italian poet Marco Girolamo Vida wrote De arte poetica (1527; Vida’s Art of Poetry, 1725) and the French poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux wrote L’Art poétique (1674; The Art of Poetry, 1683). In England, John Sheffield’s Essay on Poetry (1682), Wentworth Dillon, earl of Roscommon’s Essay on Translated Verse (1684), and Lord Lansdowne’s Essay upon Unnatural Flights in Poetry (1701) bore testimony to the increased interest in literary criticism and theory.

Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711), the zenith of this genre, condensed eighteenth century poetic standards. An Essay on Criticism is actually a poem on how to judge a poem and on what morals are requisite for a critic. The first requirement is to follow nature, then to follow the ancients who “discov’red” and “Methodiz’d” the rules of nature. The “laws of Nature” to the Augustans meant, roughly, the right principles that every person of common sense and goodwill would follow in thought and conduct. The French called nature la belle nature, and Pope maintained that it is “the source, and end, and test of Art.” The faith that humans have in a world of universal human values underlies the concept of nature.

From An Essay on Criticism comes such neoclassic advice as: “The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense,” “Avoid Extreams” (the Augustan ideal of the golden mean), “In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine,” and “Men must be taught as if you taught them not.” The poem’s merit lies in its compressed phrasing of current standards, not in any originality of thought. Early eighteenth century poets or their audiences were not as much impressed by originality as by memorable expression: Pope said that true wit is “What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,” and Addison in The Spectator 253 wrote that “wit and fine writing doth not consist so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known agreeable turn.”