Alexander Pope's Understanding of Literary Criticism

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What was Alexander Pope’s Understanding of the role of Literary Criticism.

Alexander Pope’s theory on Literary Criticism, and his understanding of it, is mostly displayed in his poetry, and his style of poetry. However, one poem of his stands out as particularly important due to the fact that it is a poem analysing poetry, which is his Essay on Criticism, which first appeared anonymously in 1711. In this essay I will use Essay on Criticism to show Pope’s opinions on the subject. In the poem, Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) details many claims on the subject of poetry, and the composition of poetry, as well as on Literary Criticism using his depiction of critics found in the aforementioned poem as a representation of Literary Criticism at his time. Here I will work through each comment in his poem and discus them with relation to his opinions on the subject so far as we can ascertain.

It is a Didactic poem[1], which aims to teach about the rules of poetry, composing and critiquing, and is Pope’s most ambitious poem at that time. It was an effort to both establish and refine his opinion on Poetry, and to respond to the ongoing debate to whether poetry should be ‘Natural’ or ‘Artificial’ i.e. based on the rules inherited from the classical period.

As soon as we start the poem we find Alexander Pope’s voice, and within the first two lines he both enters the poem and makes a statement on Literary Criticism: with this heroic couplet:

This couplet introduces the poem with an interesting statement; it opens the first of the three parts which discuses the standard poetic rules of taste by which critics should evaluate a piece of work and give sound judgement on. After this Pope expands into:

Here Pope puts forward the idea that bad criticism is worse, and more harmful than bad writing. This opening stanza also shows why Pope continues to be popular today, as this statement is still relevant today. He then gives some advice for both professional and aspiring critics with this stanza:

In essence this stanza advises that you should not try to critic beyond the limits of your knowledge and skill.

Criticism is not the only subject discussed in the poem. Throughout Essay on Criticism Pope talks of poetry being natural:

And with this theme he constantly refers back to the ancient, epic writers of Homer, Virgil and Horace, and referred to Aristotle and Plato in this poem as establishing the rules of composing poetry and the ultimate standard of taste. This he states in the last lines of the poem, from line 643 onward. With these closing lines we can see Pope’s appreciation for the classics, which might be considered as a bias; but this was a way of marrying the two sides of the aforementioned argument of whether poetry should be ‘Natural’ or ‘Artificial’. What this states is that the rules we inherited from the classics are Natural. This is an effort to console the advocates of both opinions into mutual agreement.

The poem in this respect seems to be deliberately ambiguous. Pope both admits that rules are a necessity, while also stating that poetry is founded on mysterious, natural forces which a poet of good taste and ‘genius’ can appear to transcend these rules. The critic then must be an equal if he is to appreciate the poet’s ‘genius’.

The couplet found in this section “True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance/As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance” also states (and rightly so) that Poetry is an art form, and that all good poetry comes from talent, practise and learning the rules of poetry – not just from contemporaries, but from the older poets too, or the classics. This is complemented by the next few lines, which run thus:

These lines also state that, like dance, bad writing is recognisable to the ear; good writing is pleasant to read, and sounds good to the ear whereas bad writing is equally recognisable. With this I must go back to the opening lines of the poem to demonstrate Pope’s understanding of the role of Criticism quoted before: “Tis hard to say, if greater want of Skill/Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” Which demonstrates that Pope considers bad writing to be a fault - though mostly due to a lack of respect and care given to the craft in learning the poems and the rules of poetry set down by the classic writers - this is not as harmful to literature as bad criticism is. This is expressed in these lines, shortly afterward:

In this Pope attacks both critical clichés, and bad critics who depend entirely on the majority opinion without stating anything original. However, this critique of bad critics can also very easily be applied to bad poets too, and thus Pope is warning against unoriginality (clichés, dead metaphors, Plagiarism) which was later a large thought of Romantic thinking, who were greatly inspired by Pope. In this stanza Pope also states that it is not the poet that should be critiqued, but a poem he has written. At this time people would critique, often disparagingly, the personality of the poet, rather than discussing a certain poem (as in the lines 452 – 559). This is referenced in another of Pope’s poems, in the Rape of the Lock there is the line “At every word a reputation dies.” In Canto III, line 16, when talking about a fashionable meeting spot.

Pope also states in the poem that the critic should seek the poets intentions with a poem, instead of simply stating that they do not understand it; this is discussed in the lines 253 – 266, which are:

Again this is the fault of a critic who fails to learn the rules around what they are critiquing, because with these rules known, even if the meaning proves evasive, the critic can recognise when a poet is knowledgeable and skilled in his craft because of the way his poem is written. Pope in the essay also critiques critics who concentrate on only one part of the poem, not looking at the bigger picture. For example, he talks about critics who judge by the imagery and metaphor alone (lines 269 - 288), critics who judge a poem on its use of language (lines 305 - 336), and critics who judge by versification (lines 337 - 343).

Other than criticising critical approaches, and bad critics, Pope describes what he considers to be the ideal critic[3]. He does this between lines 560 and 643. The ideal critic, in Pope’s opinion, should have Integrity:


Sense of what is appropriate and inoffensive:

And courage enough to express their own opinions: [3]

Pope then begins to discuss the attributes of critics that he finds most distasteful (lines 584 - 630), which is essentially a recap of what has already been said. Pope then ends the poem with a list of classical poets and critics, and their influences.

Much of the poem is a discussion of critics, as a reflection on literary criticism as a genre, describing both the worst and the best qualities of the common critical approaches of the time; and thus we can take from this poem a sense that critics have lost the proper art of Literary Criticism reducing it to little more than a game of wits and slander, instead of a proper procedure with rules inherited from the Classical writers to evaluate a piece of work.

In short, Pope appears to think that Literary Criticism should, instead of attacking poets and following fashions, should instead aid poets. This opinion is backed up by Pope in the foreword to another of his poems, Epistle to Arbuthnot, which suggests that Pope considers that the ultimate decider of the quality of a poem is the reading public. The quote bellow should demonstrate this:

This relates to one of the faults of the critic, as described in Essay on Criticism, but also suggests that Pope had faith in the tastes of the reading public to be the ultimate decider on the quality of a poem; that Literary Criticism should be in some ways secondary to the opinions of the readers, and that Criticism should be an aid to the poet, rather than a mode of personal attack.

1 – With this poem Pope was essentially writing a version of Horace’s Ars Poetica for his day. Horace was a classical poem whom Pope appeared to have a great deal of respect for, for he even quotes him for a motto to Essay on Criticism. The two texts are also set out in very similar styles. This also seems significant because he was referring to the Classical writers who he believed set down the guidelines for interpreting and exploring the natural art of poetry; meaning that he both considered poetry and art, and a god-given experience.

2 – The word ‘Wit’ appears frequently in the poem; however its meaning in Essay on Criticism is unclear.

3 – And in his opinion, the ideal man it seems.

4 – These connect with the lines 269 - 288, 305 - 336, and 337 – 343, mentioned above.
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