of Pope's "Essay on Criticism"
Part 1. This
section offers general principles of good criticism (and of poetry--since
criticism for Pope means determining the merit of a work rather than
its meaning, understanding the principles of good criticism means understanding
the rules for good poetry and vice versa).
The problem: "'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none/ Go just alike, yet each
believes his own." Judgments are partial, and true taste is as rare
as true genius (9-35). Some critics go astray through false learning, others
through envy of wit (19-45). Self-awareness is therefore a crucial quality
for a critic (46-67): "Be sure yourself and your own reach you know."
- First solution: "First
follow Nature" (68-87). (Nature here means something like "the
universe as God created it" or "that which is permanently true.")
- Second solution: learn
the "rules of old," i.e. the precepts of poetry and criticism set
down by the classical Greek and Roman authors or deducible from their literature
(88-140). Take care, however, not to follow the rules slavishly, but rather
"know well each ancient's proper character," especially Homer.
- One reason to be flexible
in applying the rules: there are "beauties yet no precepts can declare."
Great writers can break the rules successfully (141-180). Modern poets should
take care, however, that if they break a rule they should "ne'er transgress
its end" (161-169).
Part 2. This section identifies
the main flaws a critic is prone to, and therefore the greatest obstacles to
- The biggest pitfall,
in criticism as in just about everything else: pride (201-214).
- Flaw #2: "little
learning" (215-232). A little learning makes critics susceptible to
pride, by making them think they know more than they do. (Pope is not praising
here; the cure for the pride of little learning is more learning, which teaches
the scholar how little he or she knows.)
- #3: "a love to parts"--i.e.
emphasizing one aspect of a poem at the expense of all others (233-383). A
critic SHOULD, instead, "read each work of wit/With the same spirit that
its author writ"; "Survey the whole" and "regard the writer's
- an absurd example
of "a love to parts": for Don Quixote, a poem is no good unless
it has a combat in it (267-284).
- part #1: conceit
(elaborate, clever tropes) (289-304).
- part #2: eloquence
of language (305-337), as opposed to the ideas the language is supposed
to express. One example: archaic language (324-336).
- part #3: "numbers," i.e.
meter (337-384). Included in the section is a dazzling display of metrical
craft--note how the lines exemplify what they're talking about.
- #4: love of extremes
- #5: liking only "one
small sect," e.g. foreign writers, British author, ancients, or moderns,
as opposed to approving of merit wherever it is found (394-407).
- #6:judging authors according
to the opinions of others rather than the merit of the work (408-424). E.g.:
- judging the name
rather than the work (412-413).
- worst case: judging
the work on the basis of social rank (414-424).
- #7: conversely, prizing
novelty above everything else (424-451).
- #8: valuing only those
works which agree with one's own point of view, are written by member of one's
own party, are written by friends, etc. (452-473). Envy plays a big part here,
- arising from the above,
some premises: "Be thou the first true merit to defend," even though
we cannot expect modern writers to endure as the ancients did (474-493).;
don't let yourself succumb to envy (494-525). Be generous: "To err is
human, to forgive divine."
- But DO scourge "provoking
crimes" such as obscenity and blasphemy (526-555). Here too, however,
one must take care not to "mistake an author into vice" (556-559).