An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet
And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.

As I mentioned in my review of All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), I am not learned in the poetic arts.  I had a bad experience.  I interpreted a poem according to my reading and was corrected quite sternly.  Being young, I had but a single maxim:  there is no right or wrong.  I took the correction to be her ignorance and vanity.  What should have been a discussion was a chastisement.  “To err is human, to forgive divine.”  I must deny my divinity.

An Essay in Criticism (1711), by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), is a ranging poem on poetry, criticism, poets, and critics.  As in any piece, the coverage spans more than the title suggests.  From my reading, I take it to be an entertaining caution to your own thoughts.  It is also a treasure trove of quotables on these subjects.  It is not a thing to summarize, but to wade through.

A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ.

Pope was a Catholic, and therefore unemancipated at the time, and a popular poet.  A reader of the Greek and Latin poets, which peppers this poem.  He was also engaged in the public arena with and against other poets and critics.  Thus, many of the biting remarks or passages would be directed and often recognizable (when not simply overt).

Pope is not a perfect figure to take as the font of all wisdom.  He was, at times, envious, irritable, grudging, vain, and engaged in rivalries.  What we usually call “human.”  The erring, quoted above, appears in this poem.  From the introduction: “As a poet he was deficient in originality and creative power, and thus was inferior to his prototype, Dryden, but as a literary artist, and brilliant declaimer satirist and moralizer in verse he is still unrivaled.”  About what he was unoriginal, I cannot say, but I can say that he could (at least) channel the profound.

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.

If you think yourself creative or critic, then it is as stirring a sermon as any from Jonathan Edwards.  Am I a spider held in Pope’s fingers?  No, he’s dead.  It is only my Pope (as it was surely Edwards’ God) that so seizes my anxieties.  Being of a similar snideness quotient, I happily ally with him against some of his targets.  “Regard not then if wit be old or new, But blame the false, and value still the true” I take to be a shared antagonism to the derogatory term “cliché.”  “Some praise at morning what they blame at night, But always think the last opinion right.”  A brand of sophistry that one sees so frequently in political opposition.  These one can control, but others are always there, hanging above you like the devil.

Some valuing those of their own side or mind
Still make themselves the measure of mankind:
Fondly we think we honor merit then,
When we but praise ourselves in other men.

You don’t mean…me!?  You can see what I mean when I call it cautionary.  I don’t think we need abandon hope when we enter upon criticism, but we should certainly adopt caution.  I need the hope.  The hope that those who read a declaratory phrase and think it pretense.  When not for profit, it’s all in good fun.

Again noting my modest association with the field, I would spare only a word on style.  As you can read in the examples above, the style lends itself very well to the aphoristic.  I enjoy it a great deal.  Some take a little decoding—two lines at a time might take as long as three readings to understand—but they do gratify.  A part of that is the scope of the poem, but it is also the expression.  The allusions are classical, (when footnoted) accessible, and rare.  The emotional allusions that can only enjoy conjecture are, in my reading, entirely absent.  That is appreciated.  The style, then, only advances the substance—“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

The Greek and Latin reading comes out a bit towards the end (though you could say its influence is ubiquitous).  Neat lines that I think, “If ever I write on the subject, I’ll have to come back to this poem.”  If you write on the culture of the Roman empire: “Learning and Rome alike in empire grew; And arts still followed where her eagles flew.”  For those who question the intellectual utility of the early church:  “The monks finished what the Goths begun.”  Made eyeliner profitable again, perhaps.  On politics:  “Seldom at council, never in a war.”  That one probably needs to be taken out of context, but I’m pleased by the initial thoughts.

This is a rather short poem—some 750 lines—and full of golden or silver nuggets.  I do not claim alliance with every thought he expresses, but there is more wisdom here than spite.  I can highly recommend the free Kindle version, which is well (and not excessively) footnoted and introduced.  I leave you with some of my favorite lines (not already quoted in full).

On the apparent necessity (felt by critics) of ticking the elemental boxes (which is in pretty extreme tension with occasional approval of Aristotle):

Thus critics of less judgment than caprice,
Curious, not knowing, not exact, but nice,
Form short ideas, and offend in arts
(As most in manners) by a love to parts.

On a clean (my word) expression of ideas, or the want of it:

Some to conceit alone their taste confine,
And glittering thoughts struck out at every line;
Pleased with a work where nothing’s just or fit;
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find
That gives us back the image of our mind.
As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit
For works may have more wit than does them good,
As bodies perish through excess of blood.

Same:

But true expression, like the unchanging sun,
Clears and improve whate’er it shines upon;
It gilds all objects, but it alters none.

On the phenomenon I would call the “I know what I like” school of criticism:

But most by numbers judge a poet’s song
And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong.

On expression through (or matching) style as well as content:

As those move easiest who have learned to dance
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows,
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar,
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;

On unoriginal minds (in criticism):

Some ne’er advance a judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading notion of the town,
They reason and conclude by precedent,
And own stale nonsense which they ne’er invent.
Some judge of authors names not works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the writing, but the men.

On too original a mind:

The vulgar thus through imitation err;
As oft the learned by being singular.
So much they scorn the crowd that if the throng
By chance go right they purposely go wrong.

I feel that one sometimes.  How many movies did I discount for the public’s sway, but now I fear I go too far the other way.  It’s catching, isn’t it?  I dabbled with the idea of writing the whole thing in that style, but found the prospect too great and gave up after a little while.  Still, I now know that a twelve syllable line is called an Alexandrine.

Here’s a well-known one, though the context (which I will supply) is ignored:

No place so sacred from such fops is barred,
Nor is Paul’s Church more safe than Paul’s Churchyard:
Nay, fly to altars; here they’ll talk you dead,
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread

For completeness sake, I’ll give the context on erring:

To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urged, through sacred lust of praise!
Ah, ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost
Good-nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Worry not dear reader, much is left behind.
You will enjoy it and think me kind
But beware ye who share my leaning
And style be thy master in lieu of meaning.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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One Response to An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

  1. Pingback: Casablanca | Prof. Ratigan

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