*An Essay on Criticism, by Alexander Pope
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An Essay on Criticism
by Alexander Pope, 1711
Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was 23 when An Essay on Criticism was published anonymously in May 1711. It appeared while he was engaged in some fairly orthodox prentice work in the pastoral mode, and is flanked by the publication of the Pastorals (1709) and Windsor-Forest (1713). There is an implied context of sophisticated, metropolitan literary life very different from the landscapes of classical eclogue and georgic, although arguably both these worlds coexist in another work of that time, the first version of The Rape of the Lock in 1712. It has been notoriously difficult to identify a precise date of composition for the Essay, but it seems likely that many of the preoccupations were the direct product of what Pope described to Joseph Spence as his “great reading period” of 1701–09. These were years when Pope “went through all the best critics,” and a time also when he fell under the intellectual patronage of William Walsh, who gave wise advice against the tyranny of the “mechanical rules” of neoclassicism. The poem’s appearance immediately provoked a hostile response from John Dennis, who had located an ironic portrait of himself. By the end of the year, however, Joseph Addison had come to Pope’s defense in the Spectator (no. 253), and a month later there was a second “issue,” although a “Second Edition” was not published until November 1712.
There is a long history, extending into the Twentieth-century, of selling the Essay short as a meretricious compendium of critical commonplaces. In his Spectator paper, Addison had drawn attention to the unmethodical structure of the work, reminiscent of Horace’s Ars poetica (The Poetic Art), and had noted the names that stood behind Pope’s verses: in particular, Aristotle and Longinus (On the Sublime). He had also endorsed Pope as an example of his own maxim, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” But those features that had met with the essayist’s approval, and Pope’s refreshing attempt to reconcile various strands of classical and 17th-century theory, were unlikely to survive the scrutiny of Romantic criticism. De Quincey’s reaction is predictably extreme: for him, the Essay was “substantially a mere versification, like a metrical multiplication-table of commonplaces the most mouldy with which criticism has baited its rat-traps.” Closer attention to the text might have revealed that Pope’s unwillingness to be hampered by any sort of prescriptive formalism made allowance even for the sublime ambitions of Romanticism; but it was inevitable that the debates concerning neoclassical “rules” would find little sympathy by the end of the 18th century. Twentieth-century scholarship has made efforts to rehabilitate the Essay; yet, as recently as 1976, James Reeves concluded that “Pope’s virtuosity has succeeded in blinding [us] to the emptiness and derivative quality of most of what he says” (The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope).
Addison’s citation of Horace, and his mention of the Latin poet’s dependency upon Aristotle, highlight the Augustan ethos of tradition and allusion, pointing up its distance from the Romantic preoccupation with “originality.” The Spectator essay was a reminder that Pope’s poem was very much an exercise in consolidation which naturally involved a backwardlooking reflex. Here was an attempt at a judicial review of various modern opinions, all of which claimed the sanction of classical authority. There was an insistence upon the positive and fostering role of the critic whose relationship with the text given into his care was figured in images of friendship rather than competition. And there was a warning against those forms of ungoverned individualism and vested interest that persistently distort critical judgment: snobbery, faction, arrogance, modishness, all encourage us in the belief that only our own watches tell the correct time. The critic had a social responsibility which took precedence over the eccentric satisfactions of ego. Taste and morality were not divisible.
By 1711, there was already a minor “tradition” of versified poetic theory. In 1674 Boileau had published his Art poétique (The Art of Poetry), one of many of its type, and soon the French inclination to codify literary “laws” had become a matter for debate among Restoration men of letters. The Earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon, both mentioned approvingly by Pope, respectively brought out an Essay upon Poetry (1682) and an Essay on Translated Verse (1684). Immediately distinctive is Pope’s choice of subject, but it is quickly apparent that he is as much concerned with the business of poetry as he is with criticism. Behind all this activity stands the Ars poetica. The relaxed urbanity of Horace’s verse letter provided Pope with the ideal model: “Horace still charms with graceful negligence,/And without method talks us into sense.” The easy transitions of the “epistle” could perhaps have conflicted with the conventions of the “essay,” but, in fact, there is both fluidity and orderliness in Pope’s poem.
The risk lay in giving birth to an unacceptable hybrid. Certainly the satirical vein in Pope’s verse, with its pyrotechnical wit and substratum of sexual innuendo, might be predicted to undermine the dignity associated with the traditional prose “essay.”
However, it is not a form which claims any structured conclusiveness; it is, after all, a “trying out,” and hence possesses a resistance to formalism which was entirely appropriate to Pope’s poem. In this sense, his piece had much in common with the early 18th-century journalistic essay. Both are marked by a conversational “easiness” and the balanced, periodic sentences of the prose essayists find their equivalent in Pope’s deployment of the heroic couplet, and in the antithetical and epigrammatic quality of the verse. Again, there are larger structures to be discovered, but, in keeping with the tradition of the “essay,” symmetry is not an ambition. It is possible to map out a tripartite division, but the sections are unequal in length and loosely coupled. Part I establishes the notion of an ideal Nature, “one clear, unchanged, and universal light,” and directs us to discover it in the “Ancients.” Part II catalogues the moral and psychological causes of bad criticism. Part III makes suggestions for its rehabilitation, and concludes with a roll call of exemplary critics, both ancient and modern.
In ways reminiscent of Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1667–68), Pope set out to navigate between contentious positions. Opposed to neoclassicism’s insistence on regulations, Pope’s advice was to seek out the “useful Laws” of Greece and Rome, and his characteristically Augustan injunction was to “Avoid extremes.” Thus the French were too servile in their deference to the “Rules,” while the English, “fierce for the Liberties of Wit,” could be too stubbornly individualistic. The crisis Pope attempts to resolve concerns the nature of authority. At times, when dealing with the “bookful blockheads,” the essayist gives way to the satirist, yet above all the poem is penetrated by a conciliatory intelligence. Pope is the liberal neoclassicist who respects Horace’s recommended “decorum,” but never at the expense of that inspired moment of poetic passion which “gloriously offend[s]” to “snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.” Pope’s commitment to tradition encouraged him to normalize the idiosyncratic; he had no intention, however, of circumscribing genius by “dull receipts.”
An Essay on Criticism, 1711; edited by E.Audra Williams and Aubrey Williams, 1961, Robert M.Schmitz, 1962, Raymond Southall, 1973, and S.L.Paul, 1988
Aden, John M., “‘First follow nature’: Strategy and Stratification in An Essay on Criticism,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 55 (1956):604–17
Adler, Jacob H., “Balance in Pope’s Essays,” English Studies 43 (1962):457–67
Atkins, G.Douglas, “Fair Art’s ‘Treach’rous Colours’,” in his Quests of Difference: Reading Pope’s Poems, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986
Atkins, J.W.H., English Literary Critidsm: 17th and 18th Centuries, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1950; London: Methuen, 1951
Brown, Laura, “The ‘New World’ of Augustan Humanism,” in her Alexander Pope, Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1985
Empson, William, “Wit in the Essay on Criticism,” in his The Structure of Complex Words, London: Hogarth Press, 1985; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989 (original edition, 1951)
Fenner, Arthur, “The Unity of Pope’s Essay on Criticism” Philological Quarterly 39 (1960):435–46
Fogle, R.H., “Metaphors of Organic Unity in Pope’s Essay on Criticism” Tulane Studies in English 13 (1963):51–58
Hooker, E.N., “Pope on Wit: The Essay on Criticism, in The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature from Bacon to Pope by R.F.Jones and others writing in his honor, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1951
Isles, D., “Pope and Criticism,” in Alexander Pope, edited by Peter Dixon, London: Bell and Hyman, and Athens: Ohio University Press, 1972
Morris, D.B., “Civilized Reading: The Act of Judgment in An Essay on Criticism,” in The Art of Alexander Pope, edited by H. Erskine-Hill and A.Smith, London: Vision Press, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979
Ramsay, P., “The Watch of Judgement: Relativism in An Essay on Criticism,” in Criticism and Aesthetics, 1660–1800, edited by Howard Anderson and John S.Shea, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967
Spacks, P.M., “Imagery and Method in An Essay on Criticism,” in Pope: Recent Essays by Several Hands, edited by Maynard Mack and James A.Winn, Brighton: Harvester Press, and Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1980
Wimsatt, W.K., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978 (original edition, 1957)
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