Summary Of An Essay On Criticism By Alexander Pope


Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope: An Overview

Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism is an ambitious work of art written in heroic couplet. Published in 1711, this poetic essay was a venture to identify and define his own role as a poet and a critic. He strongly puts his ideas on the ongoing question of if poetry should be natural or written as per the predetermined artificial rules set by the classical poets.


Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

This essay by Pope is neoclassical in its premises; in the tradition of Horace and Boileau. Pope believes that the value of literary work depends not on its being ancient or modern, but on its being true to Nature. This truth to Nature is found in true wit. Nature is to be found both in the matter and in the manner of expression, the two being inseparable. When the poet is asked to follow Nature, he is actually asked to “stick to the usual, the ordinary, and the commonplace.” He is to portray the world as he sees it. The truth of human nature is to be found in common humanity, not in any eccentricity. Pope argued that human nature is ever the same.  The proper object of imitation is the fundamental form of reality for Pope and the basic rule of art is to “follow nature” – “nature methodized. He does not negate the possibility of transgressing the rules if the basic aim of poetry is achieved and this transgression brings hope closer to the idea of the sublime. Clearly, the poet must have a strong sense of literary tradition in order to make intelligent judgments as the critic must have it too. Pope notes Virgil’s discovery that to imitate Homer is also to imitate nature. Pope says an artist imitates the nature. His nature is the combination of two elements society (human nature) and rules of classical artists-“nature is methodized”. Classical artist already discovers the natural rules and laws. Now, it is not necessary to go to nature again because to follow the classical artist is to go to the nature. So, sources of art are society and ancient artists.

Pope’s primary concern in this essay is his advice mainly for critics, and secondarily for artists or poets. Pope claims that artists possess genius whereas critics possess taste (classical taste developed by classical artist). By taking the ideas of classical artists, a critic has to judge the text. Artist can’t go beyond his intention, he is limited within his desires. He should not be over ambitious and over imaginative but critics can go beyond their intention. Artist has to undergo practice, learning and experiences. Which are equally important to critics too. Pope says, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. So, critic must not be proud. A critic if has pride, can’t take out the real essence from the text. To be good critic, one should have courage, modesty and honesty. Decorum, for Pope, is the proper balance between expression and sound of content and form and it comes under versification. Pope considers wit as the polished and decorated form of language. Style and thought should go together. Artist uses ‘heroic couplet’ (form) to express the heroic subject matter (content). Pope implies that if the artist needs to break rules and regulation, he should use poetic license.

An Essay on Criticism was published when Pope was relatively young. The work remains, however, one of the best-known commentaries on literary criticism. Although the work treats literary criticism in particular and thus relies heavily upon ancient authors as type masters, Pope still extends this criticism to general judgment about all walks of life. He demonstrates that true genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven; at the same time, he argues, many possess the seeds of these gifts, such that with proper training they can be developed. His organization takes on a very simple structure: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which he judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic.

Part 1 begins with Pope’s heavy indictment of false critics. In doing so, he suggests that critics often are partial to their own judgment, judgment deriving, of course, from nature, like that of the poet’s genius. Nature provides everyone with some taste, which may in the end help the critic to judge properly. Therefore, the first job of the critic is to know himself or herself, his or her own judgments, his or her own tastes and abilities.

The second task of the critic is to know nature. Nature, to Pope, is a universal force, an ideal sought by critic and poet alike, an ideal that must be discovered by the critic through a careful balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberate reason. The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal acceptance: namely, the works of antiquity. Pope points out that, in times past, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature, whereas in his contemporary scene critics are straying from such principles. Moderns, he declares, seem to make their own rules, which are pedantic,...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

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