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“An Essay on Criticism” was written by British writer Alexander Pope
around 1709. This poem was written in heroic couplets and its purpose
was to express Pope’s opinion on literature as a poet and critic.
Pope is responding to the debate over whether or not poets should
write “naturally” or base their work on a set of pre-determined rules
as done by ancient poets. Pope’s poem can be broken down into three
main points. The first section is used by Pope to give general
principles of good criticism and poetry. The second section
identifies the flaws a critic is prone to. The third section
addresses the moral traits a good critic must have and gives examples
of outstanding critics. Pope’s use of personification throughout the
poem allows him to expand his ideas and secure his argument while
creating a very memorable poem. His use of personification allows the
poem to come to life with detail (Pope 2476).
Pope begins the poem by stating it is less offensive to “tire our
Patience, than mislead our Sense” (Pope 4) meaning it is much more
harmful to be a bad critic than a bad poet. “‘Tis with our judgments
as our watches, none/ Go just alike, yet each believes his own" (Pope
9). Here Pope uses a watch to personify judgments. Everyone may have
their own opinion that they believe is right. “Most have seeds of
judgment in their mind; Nature affords at least a glimm’ring light”
(Pope 20). Men at one time do have “seeds” of good judgment, but Pope
says that in the search wit they are defaced by false education and
loose their common sense. “Some neither can for wits nor critics
pass, as heavy mules are neither horse nor ass” (Pope 38). This line
refers to those who never became intellectuals or good critics. They
are somewhere in between, not worthy of a name. Instead they are
referred to as “half-formed insects on the banks of Nile” (Pope 41).
The bugs represent the critics who swarm every work of literature with
their malicious criticisms.
Pope recommends following nature as the first rule “By her just
standard, which is still the same […] One clear, unchanged, and
universal light” (Pope 68). Pope here states that rules are necessary
in order to criticize poetry. He compares theses rules to “unerring”
nature which is believed to be the epitome of ideal order and
harmony. The rules of the Ancients are useful guidelines for the true
critic, for they are “Nature Methodized” (Pope 89). He believes that
many recent critics have used the rules without understanding them.
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compares the critics to a doctor who prescribes drugs without
understanding the art of medicine. Pope believes that critics should
study and learn the works of Homer, Aristotle and other “Ancients”
(Pope 2478) .
The second part of the essay discusses the worst trait of a critic:
pride. “Of all the causes which conspire to blind/ Man’s erring
judgment, and misguide the mind… the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied, She gives in large recruits of
needful pride” (Pope 201). Pope is explaining that critics who lack in
knowledge about a subject rely on their pride. “For as in bodies, thus
in souls, we find/ What wants in blood and spirits, swelled with wind”
(Pope 206). Here the body is used to personify knowledge. When a
critic is lacking in knowledge, he is only filled with empty words.
“'Tis not a Lip, or Eye, we Beauty call, But the joint Force and full
Result of all” (Pope 245). Pope strongly advises every critic to
look at the whole work rather than a part. “Is like a clown in regal
purple dressed; For different styles with different subjects sort”
(Pope 321). Here Pope personifies clothes as words, comparing a clown
in purple imitating the king. Pope didn’t believe in trying to be
popular, he thought it would just make you look like a fool.
The third part of the essay explains a set of manners necessary for a
true critic. “Twere well, might critics still this freedom take; But
Appius reddens at each word you speak, And stares, tremendous! with a
threatening eye, Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry” (Pope 584).
Here Pope uses John Dennis as an example in pointing out circumstances
that critic’s should be restrained and not easily angered. Pope goes
on to describe the dull poets: “Still humming on, their drowsy course
they keep, And lashed so long, like tops, are lashed asleep […] Still
run on poets in a raging vein, Ev’n to the dregs and squeezing of the
brain; Strain out the last, dull droppings of their sense, And rhyme
with all the rage of impotence” (Pope 600). Dull poets are compared
to tops that continually spin, eventually putting you to sleep. These
boring poets tire themselves, as well as their audience, like the
draining of blood from the brain. Although they “rhyme with rage,”
they end up saying a lot of nothing (Pope 609).
There are also the “mad and abandoned critics.” Pope describes them
as the “bookful blockheads, ignorantly read, With loads of learned
lumber in his head, With his own tongue still edifies his ears, Always
listening to himself it appears”(Pope 611). These critics may read
many works, but they listen only to themselves. Pope believes both of
these types of critics should just be ignored.
Pope sums up the essay by saying that a good critic should praise and
flatter if necessary, and should no be afraid to blame or offend when
needed (Pope 2492). He also states that no one is perfect. One
should admit when he is wrong. Pope’s use of personification allows
him to define his position as a critic and poet. His personification
helped to illustrate his argument and defend his point of view.
Overall the comparing of unlike objects created a very memorable
1. Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism.” The Longman Anthology
British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. New York; Addison Wesley
Educational Publishers Inc. 2003. 2476-92.