From An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

From An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

“An Essay on Criticism” is a poetic essay written by Alexander Pope and first published anonymously in 1709. As a major work of the Augustan Age, Pope’s essay delves into the principles of literary criticism and offers guidance to poets and critics. It is a didactic poem, and Pope employs the heroic couplet, a form he mastered, to convey his ideas with wit and precision. This essay is renowned for its concise and memorable statements on the nature of poetry and criticism.

The poem begins with the famous line “First in the field, but less in the art,” immediately setting the tone for the discussion on the state of literary criticism in Pope’s time. Pope contends that critics who come first in the field are often not the most skilled in the art of criticism. This opening line establishes the central theme of the essay: a critique of the shortcomings and errors of contemporary literary criticism.

Pope emphasizes the importance of moderation and balance in the critic’s judgment. He states, “Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy them.” Here, he suggests that a critic should value the wisdom found in ancient rules and use them as a guide. The idea of copying nature echoes the neoclassical belief that art should imitate and adhere to the principles of nature and classical models.

The essay explores the dangers of excessive pride and ambition in the realm of poetry and criticism. Pope famously declares, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” This warning underscores the idea that partial or incomplete knowledge can lead to misguided judgment and criticism. The “Pierian spring” refers to the metaphorical source of knowledge and inspiration from the Muses in Greek mythology.

Pope introduces the concept of “wit” in the essay, and he distinguishes between “true” and “false” wit. He argues that true wit is nature’s endowment and is characterized by being “judicious,” “just,” and “exact.” On the other hand, false wit arises from artificial efforts and often results in strained and unnatural expressions. Pope’s critique of false wit is a reflection of his commitment to clarity, precision, and naturalness in literary expression.

The essay addresses the issue of the use of metaphor in poetry. Pope advises poets to employ metaphors that are “aptly smooth” and “sprightly” rather than those that are forced or extravagant. This advice aligns with the neoclassical emphasis on decorum and appropriateness in artistic expression. A metaphor should enhance the understanding of the reader and harmonize with the overall tone of the poem.

One of the most quoted lines from “An Essay on Criticism” is “To err is human, to forgive divine.” This statement encapsulates Pope’s understanding of human nature and the need for tolerance in criticism. It implies that making mistakes is a natural human trait, while forgiveness is a higher, almost divine, virtue. This line is often cited in discussions on human fallibility and the importance of forgiveness.

Pope explores the role of critics and the challenges they face. He observes, “First, if you please, the ancient critics next.” By acknowledging the authority of ancient critics, Pope suggests that contemporary critics should respect and learn from the established principles of literary criticism. This call to continuity with tradition is a recurring theme in neoclassical thought.

In discussing the various forms of poetry, Pope asserts that different genres have different rules. He famously states, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” This principle underscores the importance of the harmony between the form and content of a poem. The sound of the words should mirror and enhance the meaning they convey, creating a unified and resonant effect.

Pope offers guidelines on the proper use of rhyme, emphasizing that rhymes should be “harmless,” “easy,” and “natural.” His emphasis on simplicity and naturalness aligns with neoclassical ideals of clarity and adherence to classical models. Rhymes, according to Pope, should not draw attention to themselves but rather contribute to the overall flow and harmony of the poem.

The essay concludes with a call for humility and self-awareness among poets and critics. Pope advises, “Be silent always when you doubt your sense.” This injunction underscores the importance of recognizing one’s limitations and avoiding the expression of doubtful or unclear judgments. It reflects Pope’s belief in the value of modesty and self-awareness in the pursuit of artistic and critical endeavors.

In summary, “An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope stands as a significant work in the realm of literary criticism. Pope’s use of the heroic couplet, his wit, and his keen observations make this essay a timeless piece of neoclassical thought. The essay’s enduring appeal lies in its exploration of the principles of good poetry and sound criticism, offering valuable insights that continue to resonate with readers and writers alike. Pope’s emphasis on clarity, balance, and adherence to tradition reflects the neoclassical ideals of his era, making “An Essay on Criticism” a notable contribution to the ongoing conversation about the nature and purpose of literature.