Pope, Alexander

Assigned: Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism” (370-83). Also read the editors’ introduction (367-69).

“An Essay on Criticism” (1711)

Part 1

1. On pages 370-71, lines 1-45 (“’Tis hard to say, if greater…”), Alexander Pope identifies what he thinks are the main problems that beset his neoclassical era’s literary critics. As genius is to the poet, writes Pope, taste is to the critic. What issue does he find with the supply of “True Taste” (line 12) among critics? Where does this Taste come from, in his view? Since Pope expresses the generous sentiment that most people have “the Seeds of Judgment in their Mind” (line 20), what great cultural force keeps getting in the way and diminishing the supply of good criticism? To what extent, by implication, should the problem of bad criticism be ascribed to over-competition and envy—things that bedevil many human pursuits?

2. On 371, lines 46-75 (“But you who seek to give…”), what advice does Pope offer critics who want to excel? What must they understand about discerning and observing their own proper, limited capacities? Moreover, to what universal “Standard” (line 69) should critics adjust their individual judgments, and why should they do so? In making his point about this standard, Pope employs a classic “solar” metaphor; how does this metaphor help him better impart his lesson about the need to acknowledge a perpetual, unchanging standard for critical taste and artistic creation? Finally, reflect on Pope’s characterization of Nature as “At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art” (line 73). What image or sense of the real purpose of art and criticism does that claim give us? How does it perhaps ward us off of any prideful sense of our own importance as creators or critics, and yet affirm the value and dignity of artistic creation and criticism?

3. On 371-72, lines 76-87 (“In some fair Body thus…”), how does Pope describe the vital connection between wit and judgment? How does his organic or body/soul metaphor (lines 76-79) reinforce his argument? In responding, be sure to define the terms “wit” and “judgment” in Pope’s eighteenth-century context. How does the “wit’s” range of meaning differ from the more restricted sense we usually give it today?

Part 2

4. On 372, lines 201-14 (“Of all the Causes which…”), Pope instills one more time the ancient wisdom that “pride goeth before a fall,” and applies it this time to critics. Why does this quality, according to him, unfailingly accompany a defect in natural gifts? Why does constructive criticism by others come perhaps closest to a cure for this oldest and most lamentable of human vices?

5. On 372-73, lines 215-32 (“A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing…”), how do you interpret Pope’s famous couplet, “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring” (line 215)? How does the “Alps” metaphor that Pope uses next to explore the artist or critic’s maturing perspective on the labor involved in literary creation or criticism reflect back on the couplet just quoted, which itself employs a metaphor that equates learning with intoxication? How do both metaphors deepen the sense that criticism is a serious, complex profession, and not something merely to be dabbled in?

6. On 373-74, lines 233-84 (“A perfect Judge will read…”), how does Pope follow up on the counsel he has given just above against pride taken in individual or capricious judgment? How should a critic treat what seem to be a work’s petty faults or its failure to adhere to rigorous theoretical demands? Why, according to Pope, is it foolish to focus too intently on one particular element or part of an entire work of art? In what sense is excellence not to be confused with “perfection”?

7. On 374, lines 285-304 (“Thus Criticks, of less Judgment…”), Pope lays out some of the ways in which critics may be overly “fond of some subservient art” (line 263). The first of these subservient components is “Conceit” (line 289), by which is meant “extravagant use of similes and metaphors” (editors’ footnote 2 at page 374 bottom). How does Pope employ the ancient “sartorial metaphor” (i.e., the metaphor of clothing) against this bad tendency among artists and the critics who unwisely praise them? What service, then, does “True Wit” (line 297) perform for both Nature and the human mind? When Pope asserts that “True Wit is Nature to advantage Dress’d” (line 297), how is he thereby functioning as a perfect mimetic critic; that is, as a critic who sees art as a potentially faithful representation of the natural world and human nature?

8. On 374-75, lines 305-336 (“Others for Language all…”), Pope continues to enumerate the ways in which critics may be overly “fond of some subservient art” (as he had said at line 263). The failure in perspective and taste described here is that of an overfondness for “Language” (305), or the endless varieties of style. What two metaphors does Pope use to describe “true Expression” (315), and, as in the previous question, how do these metaphors show the author’s dedication to the mimetic or representational theory of art, which was of course almost universal in his era? How does “true expression” perform a valuable service to the objects it describes—in what sense, that is, do apt words honor the world they represent? How, too, does Pope emphasize the detrimental effects of disregarding or downplaying content in favor of style? How does that error reduce literary works to something like mere fashion statements, or exercises in historical trivia?

9. On 375-76, lines 337-83 (“But most by Numbers judge…”), Pope criticizes the popular habit of paying too much attention to metrical variety and subtleties, which of course abounded in the quantitative classical prosody (based on the duration of the verse foot’s syllables) and poetics of the ancients who were the models for English neoclassical poets. What fundamental point about the relationship between sound and sense do all of Pope’s humorous verse examples drive home? Which line in this block of text best encapsulates that point, and why? Finally, what is Pope implying about the poet’s ability to influence or direct the perceptions and emotions of readers by means of metrical choices?

10. On 376-78, lines 384-473 (“Avoid Extreams; and shun…”), Pope begins by praising sober judgment that avoids extremes of celebration or condemnation, and then weighs in on his era’s quarrel over the respective merits of the ancients and the moderns, and finally moves on to censure several other critical pretensions. From lines 394-407, where does Pope apparently come down with respect to the quarrel over the ancients and moderns that started in earnest at least as far back as the seventeenth century? What does he say about those critics and members of the public who judge only by fashion and fad, or biographical considerations, or snobbery, or pedantry, or faction? In the end, however, what conviction instills in Pope robust optimism about the transitory nature of such errors of temperament and judgment?

Part 3

11. On 378-80, lines 560-642 (“Learn then what Morals Criticks ought…”), Pope shifts from his emphasis in Parts 1 and 2 with the relationship between critics and literary texts to new concerns: how critics should deal with the authors whose work they criticize and how they should treat their own readership. What key qualities or capacities should readers expect, then, from the critics they consult, in addition to sound judgments about the merits of a given work of art? Along the way, in what respective circumstances does Pope recommend blunt honesty, refined tact, geniality, and, occasionally, respectful (or merciful) silence? In what sense, too, would some of his elegantly turned couplets be good advice not only for critics but for teachers? Choose one or two of these couplets and briefly explain why instructors might find them valuable guides for maintaining the right attitude in their daily lectures.

12. On 380-81, lines 643-80 (“Such once were Criticks…”), what examples of excellent criticism does Pope provide from his knowledge of the ancients? On what grounds does he praise authors such as Aristotle (“The mighty Stagyrite,” line 645), Plato, Horace, Dionysius, Petronius, Quintilian, and Longinus? In light of the various interests of the authors included, what does this list suggest about the broadness of Pope’s definition of criticism?

13. On 381-83, lines 681-744 (“Thus long succeeding Criticks…”), what narrative does Pope offer for the development of criticism from the fall of Rome to his own day? How does he characterize the place of his fellow Britons in this history, and what are his apparent wishes for the near future with respect to English criticism and literature?

14. General question: Alexander Pope’s ideas in his “Essay on Criticism” would seem to accord well with the standard notions of eighteenth-century neoclassical criticism with regard to such issues as the status of representation, the moral purpose of art, and the value of craftsmanship. To what extent do you find this kind of criticism worthwhile today? What, if anything, still seems valid to you about certain of Pope’s neoclassical critical precepts, and what seems too remote from the present time to be of much value to us? Explain.

15. General question: Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” at one point, offers us a word-portrait of an insufferable critic who reviews everything and won’t shut up about it. In what way might this portrait remind a modern American of today’s “critical scene” (including academic criticism, online for-profit guides, and popular reviews of literature and film, etc.)? Criticism, it seems, is quite an industry these days, and while there’s plenty of good criticism out there, there’s also plenty of bad criticism, along with some rather insular, self-serving theory. On the whole, what kind of hierarchy does Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” promote between literary works and the critics who review, explore, and explain them? How would you describe that hierarchy in contemporary American society?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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