An Essay on Criticism Summary & Analysis by Alexander Pope
- Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
- Poetic Devices
- Vocabulary & References
- Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
- Line-by-Line Explanations
Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" seeks to lay down rules of good taste in poetry criticism, and in poetry itself. Structured as an essay in rhyming verse, it offers advice to the aspiring critic while satirizing amateurish criticism and poetry. The famous passage beginning "A little learning is a dangerous thing" advises would-be critics to learn their field in depth, warning that the arts demand much longer and more arduous study than beginners expect. The passage can also be read as a warning against shallow learning in general. Published in 1711, when Alexander Pope was just 23, the "Essay" brought its author fame and notoriety while he was still a young poet himself.
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The Full Text of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”
1 A little learning is a dangerous thing;
2 Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
3 There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
4 And drinking largely sobers us again.
5 Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
6 In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
7 While from the bounded level of our mind,
8 Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
9 But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
10 New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
11 So pleased at first, the towering Alps we try,
12 Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
13 The eternal snows appear already past,
14 And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
15 But those attained, we tremble to survey
16 The growing labours of the lengthened way,
17 The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
18 Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
“From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing” Summary
“from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” themes.
Shallow Learning vs. Deep Understanding
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Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”
A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts, In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts, While from the bounded level of our mind, Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first, the towering Alps we try, Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky; The eternal snows appear already past, And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attained, we tremble to survey The growing labours of the lengthened way, The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes, Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
“From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing” Symbols
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“From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
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“from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” vocabulary.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
- A little learning
- Pierian spring
- Bounded level
- Short views
- The lengthened way
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Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”
Rhyme scheme, “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” speaker, “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” setting, literary and historical context of “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing”, more “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” resources, external resources.
The Poem Aloud — Listen to an audiobook of Pope's "Essay on Criticism" (the "A little learning" passage starts at 12:57).
The Poet's Life — Read a biography of Alexander Pope at the Poetry Foundation.
"Alexander Pope: Rediscovering a Genius" — Watch a BBC documentary on Alexander Pope.
More on Pope's Life — A summary of Pope's life and work at Poets.org.
Pope at the British Library — More resources and articles on the poet.
LitCharts on Other Poems by Alexander Pope
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“[It is] difficult to know which part to prefer, when all is equally beautiful and noble.” Weekly Miscellany comments on the poetry of Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope spent his childhood in Windsor forest and, from an early age, gained a keen appreciation for nature. Later in his life he lived in a property by the River Thames in London where he cultivated his own garden that he opened for visitors. In today’s poem, written in 1709, we can see this love of the natural world through his shaping of elements of the landscape into an extended metaphor for knowledge. This landscape is vast and mountainous: the Alps , Europe’s largest mountain range are a prominent feature, as are hills, vales , an endless sky and eternal snows . Compared to this vast landscape, people are almost insignificant. Their role in the poem is to act as explorers who set off on a journey of discovery, trying to conquer the highest mountains by ascending to the summit; we tempt the heights of Arts… the towering Alps we try… Finally, despite being almost exhausted by his efforts, the explorer realises that his journey has barely begun; the mountain vista stretches ahead, unbroken, into the distance:
A poem’s central idea, often developed into an extended metaphor, is known as a conceit . Unlocking the first couplet should provide you the key to Pope’s conceit in An Essay on Criticism . Pope begins with a warning that:
The Pierian Spring is an important place in Greek Mythology , the source of a river of knowledge that was associated with the nine ancient Muses, themselves a metaphor for artistic inspiration. In this poem, it’s part of the landscape that functions as an extended metaphor for learning. It might seem strange that Pope begins by giving his readers a warning to taste not the waters of this river. However, it’s important to realise that Pope isn’t saying not to drink from the well of knowledge at all. He tells us to drink deep , emphasising his instruction with both alliterative D and using the imperative tense (where the verb is placed at the beginning of the line or phrase). To Pope’s mind, learning is seductive and intoxicating . Once you set out on the journey of learning, or take even a tiny sip from the wellspring of knowledge, you won’t be able to resist the temptation to learn more. Therefore, he suggests that you either prepare to immerse yourself completely in the Pierian Spring , or don’t drink at all.
Once you’ve discovered the connotations of Pierian Spring , the rest of the poem can be read as a warning (or criticism ) of anyone who is rash enough not to follow Pope’s instruction. Should you venture unprepared into the unknown, you must be clear about your limitations. As a spring is the starting point of a river, so too is it the starting point of Pope’s extended metaphor . From here, the reader sets out on a journey into an imposing mountainous landscape that, while initially appearing it can be ‘climbed’ or conquered, actually keeps expanding into an endless vista. No matter how far the explorer climbs, the top of the mountain never gets any nearer. Heights, lengthening way, increasing prospect and, most telling of all, eternal snows conjure the visual image of the landscape metaphysically stretching out in front of our weary eyes. Individual people are tiny and easily lost in this ever-shifting world. Pope creates a contrast between the boundless landscape and the bounded limits of human perception. At the last, the human explorer is tired by his efforts to conquer these mountains of knowledge – but the poem ends by revealing that he’d barely even gotten started on his journey: Hills peep o’er hills; Alps upon Alps arise .
Before we get too much further into the discussion of Pope’s ‘essay’, it might be helpful to place these lines in context. Despite the way they seem to be a complete poem in themselves, they are actually part of a much longer poem which stretches to three parts and a total of 744 lines! The eighteen-line extract you’ve read constitutes the second verse of Part 2 and it may help you to know that, in the first verse, Pope singled out pride as the characteristic that would eventually lead to the downfall of his explorer. Here are four lines from earlier in the Essay:
In this short sample, you can see the names Pope calls people who rush off on foolhardy adventures without taking the time to properly prepare: blind man , weak head and fools ! Younger readers might not enjoy this interpretation, but Pope finds the overconfidence of young people most problematic, associating youth with a kind of recklessness that, in hindsight, is misplaced.
You may argue that qualities such as fearless and passionate (fired) seem like compliments; but I detect a note of criticism in Pope’s words; he suggests that young people confuse emotion with clear thinking and they are too eager to plunge into the unknown. There’s an emphasis on speed and rashness ( pleased at first; at first sight ) that cannot last, like a novice marathon runner who goes sprinting out of the blocks while older, more wily competitors know to save themselves for the challenges ahead. While the young explorer does encounter some early success (implied by words like mount , more advanced , attained and, more significantly by an image : tread the sky ), the race is longer than the runner thought and inevitably the pace must sag. Later in the poem, positive diction disappears and words like trembling , growing labours , and tired take over as the true scale of the challenge becomes apparent. Sharp-eyed readers will already have noticed that the image of ‘treading the sky’ was in fact a simile : seem to tread the sky. Subtly, Pope’s use of a simile implies that any success the explorer thought he’d achieved wasn’t actually real.
The implication that over-enthusiasm can cloud good judgment can be traced through diction to do with looking and seeing: a t first sight, short views, see, behold, appear, survey, eyes and peep pepper the poem and convey the poet’s belief that, to our detriment, we can be short-sighted and tunnel-visioned. The eighth line of the poem is entirely concerned with this idea: short views we take, nor see the lengths behind paints a picture of a young explorer who only looks in one direction – eyes fixed straight ahead – and so misses the bigger picture.
While the poem is certainly didactic (it’s trying to impart a lesson), Pope’s tone of voice is not too condescending or stand-offish because he includes himself in his criticism as well. Throughout the poem the words us, we and our soften his accusations so there’s never a ‘them-and-us’ divide between young and old. In fact, Pope was only 21 years old when he finished his Essay on Criticism , so use your mind’s ear to imagine him speaking ruefully from experience, rather than as a nagging or pestering adult complaining about ‘young people today.’ The line Fired at first sight by what the Muse imparts is revealing in this regard. Alluding to the nine Muses of Greek mythology , this line personifies poetic inspiration, so in one sense the extended metaphor of trying to conquer an unknowable landscape represents his own experiences of writing poetry. ‘Meta-poems’ (poems about the writing of poems) actually have a name: ars poetica . Pope implies that rushing off on a path of artistic endeavour without realising the true extent of the commitment that entails is a mistake that he himself has made in his own attempts at writing.
If you’re a student reading this who thinks you might be able to use Pope’s poem as an excuse not to do your homework or give up on your own writing: you shouldn’t be too rash. Pope’s not suggesting we should quit. Instead, he’s warning us that what might seem like a shallow pool is in fact a deep river of knowledge. Once you jump in, the current will sweep you away and there’s no going back. The poem is a criticism of unpreparedness and arrogance rather than an acknowledgement of futility. In fact, an element of form suggests that, for all the faults Pope has pointed out in young people who are too confident in their limited abilities, it is much more praiseworthy to try and fail to conquer the heights than never to try at all. The poem is written in iambic pentameter that is constant and regular as if, no matter how tough the going gets, the young explorer doesn’t give up. Compare these two lines, with iambic accents marked, from the beginning and end of the poem to see how the rhythm is unfailing:
More, the poem is arranged in rhyming couplets (the rhyme scheme is AA, BB, CC and so on). Rhyming couplets written in iambic pentameter are traditionally known by a more dramatic name: heroic couplets . Pope was widely considered to be the master of writing poetry in heroic couplets ; using them here implies that Pope ultimately believes any young person who’s brave – or foolhardy – enough to embark upon the lifelong journey of learning is worthy of praise.
The structure of Pope’s poetical essay matches the message he’s trying to convey – that, once you start learning, you won’t be able to stop. Look carefully at the punctuation marks, in particular his use of full stops . You’ll find the first one at the end of the fourth line, the second after the tenth and the third at the end of the poem (after eighteen lines). In other words, if the poem was arranged in verses, the first verse would be nice and short at only four lines, the second would stretch to six, but the final verse would have doubled in length to eight lines. Expanding sentences represent the conceit – a little learning is a dangerous thing – and match the images of the landscape expanding ( eternal snows , increasing prospect, lengthening way ) as you read further down the poem.
The end of the poem brings Pope’s criticism to its conclusion. We see the young explorer break through the eternal snows , climb above the clouds, and stand triumphantly on the mountain top, proudly surveying his achievements. Only now does he take a moment to look more deliberately at the mountains he’s trying to conquer:
Be alert to two words that might seem insignificant: appear and seem , words that signal the mistake the explorer made; he thought that he had already past the bulk of his journey. Read carefully to punctuation as well, and you’ll see the colon – a longer pause, which creates a caseura – representing the traveler pausing at the moment of his triumph… and it’s here that realisation finally dawns. Despite the difficulty of his climb thus far, the landscape ( increasing prospect ) stretches out endlessly in front of him: Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise . Here, repetition mixes with all that increasing and lengthening diction to create a surreal image of an ever-expanding landscape stretching out ahead. You might also notice P sounds peppering the last two lines of the poem in the words p ee p , Al p s, Al p s, and p ros p ect . Coming from a category of alliteration called plosive , this sound is excellent at conveying a release of negative emotion, as it is formed by pushing air through closed lips. The sound helps us perceive the taste of victory turning to defeat as the weary traveler’s shoulders slump at the prospect of the endless climb still to come.
What does Pope offer as a solution? He already warned us at the start of the poem: drinking largely sobers us again . Suddenly, the importance of the word sober becomes clear. While the idea of heading off on this journey of discovery was intoxicating , firing up those with passion to learn, discover and explore – the reality is very different. That young, over-confident learner/explorer is gone, replaced by a wiser, but more world-weary traveler who can finally see the true scale of the task ahead. By now it’s too late, he’s stuck on the mountain top and there’s only one thing he can do – go onwards!
So drink deep and be prepared to encounter much more than you expected when you set out on your journey.
Suggested poems for comparison:
- from Essay on Man by Alexander Pope
An Essay on Criticism was not the only poetical essay written by Pope. French writer Voltaire so admired Pope’s Essay on Man that he arranged for its translation into French and from there it spread around Europe.
- Marrysong by Dennis Scott
As in Pope’s poem, Scott creates a metaphor of the landscape to represent his marriage. He is an explorer in a strange land – each time the explorer glances up from his map, the landscape has changed and he’s lost again.
- Through the Dark Sod – As Education by Emily Dickinson
Victorians brought many different associations to all kinds of plants and flowers. In this Emily Dickinson poem, the lily represents beauty, purity and rebirth. This link will also take you to a fantastic blog which aims to read and provide comment on all of Emily Dickinson’s poems. So that’s 1 down, and nearly 2000 more to go…
- In the Mountains by Wang Wei
Often spoken of with the same reverence as Li Bai and Du Fu, Wang Wei is a famous imagist poet in China. In these exquisite portrait poems, Wang Wei paints pictures of the impressive landscapes of his mountain home.
If you are teaching or studying An Essay on Criticism at school or college, or if you simply enjoyed this analysis of the poem and would like to discover more, you might like to purchase our bespoke study bundle for this poem. It costs only £2 and includes:
- Study Questions with guidance on how to answer in full paragraphs;
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- A fun crossword quiz, perfect for a starter activity, revision or a recap;
- A four-page activity booklet that can be printed and folded into a handout – ideal for self study or revision;
- 4 practice Essay Questions – and one complete model Essay Plan.
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Literary Theory and Criticism
Home › Analysis of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism
Analysis of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism
By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on July 8, 2020 • ( 1 )
An Essay on Criticism (1711) was Pope’s first independent work, published anonymously through an obscure bookseller [12–13]. Its implicit claim to authority is not based on a lifetime’s creative work or a prestigious commission but, riskily, on the skill and argument of the poem alone. It offers a sort of master-class not only in doing criticism but in being a critic:addressed to those – it could be anyone – who would rise above scandal,envy, politics and pride to true judgement, it leads the reader through a qualifying course. At the end, one does not become a professional critic –the association with hired writing would have been a contaminating one for Pope – but an educated judge of important critical matters.
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence, To tire our Patience, than mislead our Sense: Some few in that, but Numbers err in this, Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss; A Fool might once himself alone expose, Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
The simple opposition we began with develops into a more complex suggestion that more unqualified people are likely to set up for critic than for poet, and that such a proliferation is serious. Pope’s typographically-emphasised oppositions between poetry and criticism, verse and prose,patience and sense, develop through the passage into a wider account of the problem than first proposed: the even-handed balance of the couplets extends beyond a simple contrast. Nonetheless, though Pope’s oppositions divide, they also keep within a single framework different categories of writing: Pope often seems to be addressing poets as much as critics. The critical function may well depend on a poetic function: this is after all an essay on criticism delivered in verse, and thus acting also as poetry and offering itself for criticism. Its blurring of categories which might otherwise be seen as fundamentally distinct, and its often slippery transitions from area to area, are part of the poem’s comprehensive,educative character.
Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope
Addison, who considered the poem ‘a Master-piece’, declared that its tone was conversational and its lack of order was not problematic: ‘The Observations follow one another like those in Horace’s Art of Poetry, without that Methodical Regularity which would have been requisite in a Prose Author’ (Barnard 1973: 78). Pope, however, decided during the revision of the work for the 1736 Works to divide the poem into three sections, with numbered sub-sections summarizing each segment of argument. This impluse towards order is itself illustrative of tensions between creative and critical faculties, an apparent casualness of expression being given rigour by a prose skeleton. The three sections are not equally balanced, but offer something like the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of logical argumentation – something which exceeds the positive-negative opposition suggested by the couplet format. The first section (1–200) establishes the basic possibilities for critical judgement;the second (201–559) elaborates the factors which hinder such judgement;and the third (560–744) celebrates the elements which make up true critical behaviour.
Part One seems to begin by setting poetic genius and critical taste against each other, while at the same time limiting the operation of teaching to those ‘who have written well ’ ( EC, 11–18). The poem immediately stakes an implicit claim for the poet to be included in the category of those who can ‘write well’ by providing a flamboyant example of poetic skill in the increasingly satiric portrayal of the process by which failed writers become critics: ‘Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,/Or with a Rival’s, or an Eunuch ’s spite’ ( EC, 29–30). At the bottom of the heap are ‘half-learn’d Witlings, num’rous in our Isle’, pictured as insects in an early example of Pope’s favourite image of teeming, writerly promiscuity (36–45). Pope then turns his attention back to the reader,conspicuously differentiated from this satiric extreme: ‘ you who seek to give and merit Fame’ (the combination of giving and meriting reputation again links criticism with creativity). The would-be critic, thus selected, is advised to criticise himself first of all, examining his limits and talents and keeping to the bounds of what he knows (46-67); this leads him to the most major of Pope’s abstract quantities within the poem (and within his thought in general): Nature.
First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame By her just Standard, which is still the same: Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, One clear, unchang’d, and Universal Light, Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart, At once the Source, and End, and Te s t of Art.
( EC, 68–73)
Dennis complained that Pope should have specified ‘what he means by Nature, and what it is to write or to judge according to Nature’ ( TE I: 219),and modern analyses have the burden of Romantic deifications of Nature to discard: Pope’s Nature is certainly not some pantheistic, powerful nurturer, located outside social settings, as it would be for Wordsworth,though like the later poets Pope always characterises Nature as female,something to be quested for by male poets . Nature would include all aspects of the created world, including the non-human, physical world, but the advice on following Nature immediately follows the advice to study one’s own internal ‘Nature’, and thus means something like an instinctively-recognised principle of ordering, derived from the original,timeless, cosmic ordering of God (the language of the lines implicitly aligns Nature with God; those that follow explicitly align it with the soul). Art should be derived from Nature, should seek to replicate Nature, and can be tested against the unaltering standard of Nature, which thus includes Reason and Truth as reflections of the mind of the original poet-creator, God.
In a fallen universe, however, apprehension of Nature requires assistance: internal gifts alone do not suffice.
Some, to whom Heav’n in Wit has been profuse, Want as much more, to turn it to its use; For Wit and Judgment often are at strife, Tho’ meant each other’s Aid, like Man and Wife.
( EC, 80–03)
Wit, the second of Pope’s abstract qualities, is here seamlessly conjoined with the discussion of Nature: for Pope, Wit means not merely quick verbal humour but something almost as important as Nature – a power of invention and perception not very different from what we would mean by intelligence or imagination. Early critics again seized on the first version of these lines (which Pope eventually altered to the reading given here) as evidence of Pope’s inability to make proper distinctions: he seems to suggest that a supply of Wit sometimes needs more Wit to manage it, and then goes on to replace this conundrum with a more familiar opposition between Wit (invention) and Judgment (correction). But Pope stood by the essential point that Wit itself could be a form of Judgment and insisted that though the marriage between these qualities might be strained, no divorce was possible.
Nonetheless, some external prop to Wit was necessary, and Pope finds this in those ‘RULES’ of criticism derived from Nature:
Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d, Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz’d; Nature, like Liberty , is but restrain’d By the same Laws which first herself ordain’d.
( EC, 88–91)
Nature, as Godlike principle of order, is ‘discover’d’ to operate according to certain principles stated in critical treatises such as Aristotle’s Poetics or Horace’s Ars Poetica (or Pope’s Essay on Criticism ). In the golden age of Greece (92–103), Criticism identified these Rules of Nature in early poetry and taught their use to aspiring poets. Pope contrasts this with the activities of critics in the modern world, where often criticism is actively hostile to poetry, or has become an end in itself (114–17). Right judgement must separate itself out from such blind alleys by reading Homer: ‘ You then whose Judgment the right Course would steer’ ( EC, 118) can see yourself in the fable of ‘young Maro ’ (Virgil), who is pictured discovering to his amazement the perfect original equivalence between Homer, Nature, and the Rules (130–40). Virgil the poet becomes a sort of critical commentary on the original source poet of Western literature,Homer. With assurance bordering consciously on hyperbole, Pope can instruct us: ‘Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem;/To copy Nature is to copy Them ’ ( EC, 139–40).
Despite the potential for neat conclusion here, Pope has a rider to offer,and again it is one which could be addressed to poet or critic: ‘Some Beauties yet, no Precepts can declare,/For there’s a Happiness as well as Care ’ ( EC, 141–2). As well as the prescriptions of Aristotelian poetics,Pope draws on the ancient treatise ascribed to Longinus and known as On the Sublime . Celebrating imaginative ‘flights’ rather than representation of nature, Longinus figures in Pope’s poem as a sort of paradox:
Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend, And rise to Faults true Criticks dare not mend; From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part, And snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art, Which, without passing thro’ the Judgment , gains The Heart, and all its End at once attains.
( EC, 152–7)
This occasional imaginative rapture, not predictable by rule, is an important concession, emphasised by careful typographic signalling of its paradoxical nature (‘ gloriously offend ’, and so on); but it is itself countered by the caution that ‘The Critick’ may ‘put his Laws in force’ if such licence is unjustifiably used. Pope here seems to align the ‘you’ in the audience with poet rather than critic, and in the final lines of the first section it is the classical ‘ Bards Triumphant ’ who remain unassailably immortal, leavingPope to pray for ‘some Spark of your Coelestial Fire’ ( EC, 195) to inspire his own efforts (as ‘The last, the meanest of your Sons’, EC, 196) to instruct criticism through poetry.
Following this ringing prayer for the possibility of reestablishing a critical art based on poetry, Part II (200-559) elaborates all the human psychological causes which inhibit such a project: pride, envy,sectarianism, a love of some favourite device at the expense of overall design. The ideal critic will reflect the creative mind, and will seek to understand the whole work rather than concentrate on minute infractions of critical laws:
A perfect Judge will read each Work of Wit With the same Spirit that its Author writ, Survey the Whole, nor seek slight Faults to find, Where Nature moves, and Rapture warms the Mind;
( EC, 233–6)
Most critics (and poets) err by having a fatal predisposition towards some partial aspect of poetry: ornament, conceit, style, or metre, which they use as an inflexible test of far more subtle creations. Pope aims for akind of poetry which is recognisable and accessible in its entirety:
True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest, Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find, That gives us back the Image of our Mind:
( EC, 296–300)
This is not to say that style alone will do, as Pope immediately makesplain (305–6): the music of poetry, the ornament of its ‘numbers’ or rhythm, is only worth having because ‘The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense ’ ( EC, 365). Pope performs and illustrates a series of poetic clichés – the use of open vowels, monosyllabic lines, and cheap rhymes:
Tho’ oft the Ear the open Vowels tire … ( EC , 345) And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line … ( EC , 347) Where-e’er you find the cooling Western Breeze, In the next Line, it whispers thro’ the Trees … ( EC, 350–1)
These gaffes are contrasted with more positive kinds of imitative effect:
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 shou’d like the Torrent roar.
( EC, 366–9)
Again, this functions both as poetic instance and as critical test, working examples for both classes of writer.
After a long series of satiric vignettes of false critics, who merely parrot the popular opinion, or change their minds all the time, or flatter aristocratic versifiers, or criticise poets rather than poetry (384-473), Pope again switches attention to educated readers, encouraging (or cajoling)them towards staunchly independent and generous judgment within what is described as an increasingly fraught cultural context, threatened with decay and critical warfare (474–525). But, acknowledging that even‘Noble minds’ will have some ‘Dregs … of Spleen and sow’r Disdain’ ( EC ,526–7), Pope advises the critic to ‘Discharge that Rage on more ProvokingCrimes,/Nor fear a Dearth in these Flagitious Times’ (EC, 528–9): obscenity and blasphemy are unpardonable and offer a kind of lightning conductor for critics to purify their own wit against some demonised object of scorn.
If the first parts of An Essay on Criticism outline a positive classical past and troubled modern present, Part III seeks some sort of resolved position whereby the virtues of one age can be maintained during the squabbles of the other. The opening seeks to instill the correct behaviour in the critic –not merely rules for written criticism, but, so to speak, for enacted criticism, a sort of ‘ Good Breeding ’ (EC, 576) which politely enforces without seeming to enforce:
LEARN then what MORALS Criticks ought to show, For ’tis but half a Judge’s Task , to Know. ’Tis not enough, Taste, Judgment, Learning, join; In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine … Be silent always when you doubt your Sense; And speak, tho’ sure , with seeming Diffidence …Men must be taught as if you taught them not; And Things unknown propos’d as Things forgot:
( EC , 560–3, 566–7, 574–5)
This ideally-poised man of social grace cannot be universally successful: some poets, as some critics, are incorrigible and it is part of Pope’s education of the poet-critic to leave them well alone. Synthesis, if that is being offered in this final part, does not consist of gathering all writers into one tidy fold but in a careful discrimination of true wit from irredeemable ‘dulness’ (584–630).
Thereafter, Pope has two things to say. One is to set a challenge to contemporary culture by asking ‘where’s the Man’ who can unite all necessary humane and intellectual qualifications for the critic ( EC, 631–42), and be a sort of walking oxymoron, ‘Modestly bold, and humanly severe’ in his judgements. The other is to insinuate an answer. Pope offers deft characterisations of critics from Aristotle to Pope who achieve the necessary independence from extreme positions: Aristotle’s primary treatise is likened to an imaginative voyage into the land of Homer which becomes the source of legislative power; Horace is the poetic model for friendly conversational advice; Quintilian is a useful store of ‘the justest Rules, and clearest Method join’d’; Longinus is inspired by the Muses,who ‘bless their Critick with a Poet’s Fire’ ( EC, 676). These pairs include and encapsulate all the precepts recommended in the body of the poem. But the empire of good sense, Pope reminds us, fell apart after the fall of Rome,leaving nothing but monkish superstition, until the scholar Erasmus,always Pope’s model of an ecumenical humanist, reformed continental scholarship (693-696). Renaissance Italy shows a revival of arts, including criticism; France, ‘a Nation born to serve’ ( EC , 713) fossilised critical and poetic practice into unbending rules; Britain, on the other hand, ‘ Foreign Laws despis’d,/And kept unconquer’d, and unciviliz’d’ ( EC, 715–16) – a deftly ironic modulation of what appears to be a patriotic celebration intosomething more muted. Pope does however cite two earlier verse essays (by John Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire, and Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon)  before paying tribute to his own early critical mentor, William Walsh, who had died in 1708 . Sheffield and Dillon were both poets who wrote criticism in verse, but Walsh was not a poet; in becoming the nearest modern embodiment of the ideal critic, his ‘poetic’ aspect becomes Pope himself, depicted as a mixture of moderated qualities which reminds us of the earlier ‘Where’s the man’ passage: he is quite possibly here,
Careless of Censure , nor too fond of Fame, Still pleas’d to praise, yet not afraid to blame, Averse alike to Flatter , or Offend, Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend.
( EC , 741–44)
It is a kind of leading from the front, or tuition by example, as recommended and practised by the poem. From an apparently secondary,even negative, position (writing on criticism, which the poem sees as secondary to poetry), the poem ends up founding criticism on poetry, and deriving poetry from the (ideal) critic.
Early criticism celebrated the way the poem seemed to master and exemplify its own stated ideals, just as Pope had said of Longinus that he ‘Is himself that great Sublime he draws’ ( EC, 680). It is a poem profuse with images, comparisons and similes. Johnson thought the longest example,that simile comparing student’s progress in learning with a traveller’s journey in Alps was ‘perhaps the best that English poetry can shew’: ‘The simile of the Alps has no useless parts, yet affords a striking picture by itself: it makes the foregoing position better understood, and enables it to take faster hold on the attention; it assists the apprehension, and elevates the fancy’ (Johnson 1905: 229–30). Many of the abstract precepts aremade visible in this way: private judgment is like one’s reliance on one’s(slightly unreliable) watch (9– 10); wit and judgment are like man and wife(82–3); critics are like pharmacists trying to be doctors (108–11). Much ofthe imagery is military or political, indicating something of the social role(as legislator in the universal empire of poetry) the critic is expected toadopt; we are also reminded of the decay of empires, and the potentialdecay of cultures (there is something of The Dunciad in the poem). Muchof it is religious, as with the most famous phrases from the poem (‘For Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’; ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’), indicating the level of seriousness which Pope accords the matterof poetry. Much of it is sexual: creativity is a kind of manliness, wooing Nature, or the Muse, to ‘generate’ poetic issue, and false criticism, likeobscenity, derives from a kind of inner ‘impotence’. Patterns of suchimagery can be harnessed to ‘organic’ readings of the poem’s wholeness. But part of the life of the poem, underlying its surface statements andmetaphors, is its continual shifts of focus, its reminders of that which liesoutside the tidying power of couplets, its continual reinvention of the ‘you’opposed to the ‘they’ of false criticism, its progressive displacement of theopposition you thought you were looking at with another one whichrequires your attention.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Atkins, G. Douglas (1986): Quests of Difference: Reading Pope’s Poems (Lexing-ton: Kentucky State University Press) Barnard, John, ed. (1973): Pope: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston:Routledge and Kegan Paul) Bateson, F.W. and Joukovsky, N.A., eds, (1971): Alexander Pope: A Critical Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books) Brower, Reuben (1959): Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (Oxford: Clarendon Press) Brown, Laura (1985): Alexander Pope (Oxford: Basil Blackwell) Davis, Herbert ed. (1966): Pope: Poetical Works (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress Dixon, Peter, ed. (1972): Alexander Pope (London: G. Bell and Sons) Empson, William (1950): ‘Wit in the Essay on Criticism ’, Hudson Review, 2: 559–77 Erskine-Hill, Howard and Smith, Anne, eds (1979): The Art of Alexander Pope (London: Vision Press) Erskine-Hill, Howard (1982): ‘Alexander Pope: The Political Poet in his Time’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 15: 123–148 Fairer, David (1984): Pope’s Imagination (Manchester: Manchester University Press) Fairer, David, ed. (1990): Pope: New Contexts (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf) Morris, David B. (1984): Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) Nuttall, A.D. (1984): Pope’s ‘ Essay on Man’ (London: George Allen and Unwin) Rideout, Tania (1992): ‘The Reasoning Eye: Alexander Pope’s Typographic Vi-sion in the Essay on Man’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 55:249–62 Rogers, Pat (1993a): Alexander Pope (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Rogers, Pat (1993b): Essay s on Pope (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) Savage, Roger (1988) ‘Antiquity as Nature: Pope’s Fable of “Young Maro”’, in An Essay on Criticism, in Nicholson (1988), 83–116 Schmitz, R. M. (1962): Pope’s Essay on Criticism 1709: A Study of the BodleianMS Text, with Facsimiles, Transcripts and Variants (St Louis: Washington University Press) Warren, Austin (1929): Alexander Pope as Critic and Humanist (Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press) Woodman, Thomas (1989): Politeness and Poetry in the Age of Pope (Rutherford,New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)
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Comprehensive O/A Level notes
(from) An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
This stanza is an excerpt from a much larger poem by Alexander Pope. The poem, as a whole, isn’t very open to interpretation – it is a (pretty straightforward) message to literary critics about the problems in their craft. That’s why there isn’t really much to analyse so a lot of what’s written below will just be explanations of the poem
Also, it’s incredibly boring and every fibre of my brain is crying tears of pain
A little learning is a dang’rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again.
- ‘ L ittle l earning’
- ‘ D rink d eep’
- The first line is essentially just a statement about the Dunning-Kruger Effect . He warns critics that their shallow knowledge of literature may prove more destructive than constructive, because it gives them the confidence to criticise poems but blinds them to the fact that their criticism is bad. This is the message underlying the whole poem
- The usage of ‘drink’ also has a double meaning – at first, it is easy to drink water, but as your stomach gets full, it becomes more and more nauseating to do so
- It is important to note, here, that Alexander Pope is not suggesting that it is impossible for these critics to have a well-rounded view of literature. He is simply putting forwards to them the responsibility to spend a long time dedicated to the craft before they claim mastery over it.
- In the third line, the metaphor is extended – he says that ‘shallow draughts’ ie small steps into academics cloud our judgement, making us overestimate our abilities, while full mastery again humbles us into submission (that’s not the right word but I don’t know how to end the sentence)
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts, / In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
- Because of their influence, the youth are said, here, to become incredibly ambitious. This is why, in this context, the word ‘fearless’ is not a compliment but rather an indictment of rashness
- These collective pronouns are continued throughout the poem
- The usage of ‘heights’ extends upon the natural imagery started by the reference to the springs
While from the bounded level of our mind, / Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
- The comparison of delusion to tunnel vision highlights that it is a problem in the way the world is viewed – the angle via which the subject is approached – rather than the subject itself that is being highlighted here
- The natural imagery is added to via the usage of ‘views’ and ‘lengths’ – it suggests someone climbing up a mountain, savouring what little views they can get from the middle and ignoring the travel already done from the base
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise / New, distant scenes of endless science rise! / So pleas’d at first, the tow’ring Alps we try, / Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
- Sibilance (the alliteration of “hissing” sounds) is common here – “ s trange s urprise” “di s tant s cene s of endle ss sc ien c e ri s e”. This could be in order to give the new knowledge beholden a ‘slithering’ effect, making it seem sinister, as a warning of its unending depth
- The usage of mountains as a metaphor emphasises the insignificance of individual actors by contrasting the size of the mountains with puny humans
- For the first time in the poem, a line ends with an exclamation mark rather than a comma/semicolon in order to highlight the excitement first felt during this revelation
- The use of a simile (“and seem to tread the sky”) rather than a metaphor highlights the delusion
Th’ eternal snows appear already past, / And the first clouds and mountains seem the last; / But those attain’d, we tremble to survey / The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
- This is highlighted by the usage of binary oppositions “first” and “last”, “eternal” and “past”, and the usage of adjectives which emphasise a sense of delusion “appear”, “seem”. All of this makes apparent the contrast between false delusion and reality
- We see enjambment used in the next two lines, where, for the first time, a line is not ended with a punctuation mark. This creates a sense of continuation which highlights the lengthy journey that has been embarked on
- Again, the natural imagery has continued here: “snows”, “clouds”, “mountains”
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wand’ring eyes, / Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
- This endless depth is highlighted by the repetition of “hills” and “Alps”, and the ending of the poem on an exclamation mark.
- The title is pretty straightforward – it is an essay on the practices and faults of literary critic’s work
Pursuit of Knowledge:
- He dislikes the attitude people new to a subject have wherein they, with their limited knowledge, declare themselves masters and thus go around criticising everything they see. As he believes this is ultimately harmful to the public’s view of a subject, he believes that, instead, learners should adopt a steady and humble approach to learning
- There is an emphasis on the fact that the fault lies within the beholder’s attitude, not their intellect or the subject in and of itself. For example, the fault is highlighted within the trekker’s tunnel vision, which means that the problem lies in the heuristic through which he views the world.
- Like ‘Nearing Forty’, this is a poem about writing poetry – a meta-poem, or ars poetica. He is attempting, in this poem, to tell readers how they should go about writing poetry and the faults new poets usually fall to
- During this message, he does not take a condescending role, however – he often tries to sympathise with the reader’s struggle via the usage of collective pronouns, suggesting that this was a message that Pope himself could benefit from, to
- This poem contains an extended metaphor wherein the passage of learning is compared to a trek in the mountains
- There is a lot of natural imagery due to the choice of the metaphor. Immerses the reader/highlights message blah blah blah
- The lines “But those attain’d, we tremble to survey / The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,” are enjambed in order to highlight to lengthy nature of the road ahead
- “ L ittle l earning”
- “ D rink d eeply” – dental alliteration here in order to highlight his message
- In lines 9-11, sibilance is found, which highlights how sinister and off putting the discovery of depth can seem
- Repetition is found in the last line to highlight the endless nature of the subject
- Most lines end with a comma/semicolon to indicate a slight pause
- Some lines end with an exclamation point to instill a sense of wonder
- In order to maintain this iambic pentameter, Pope often uses elisions (ommits) syllables by replacing letters with apostrophes. For example, in the first line, “dangerous”, which has three syllables (the first stressed, and the second two unstressed), is transformed into a word with two syllables (“dang’rous), the first of which is stressed and the second unstressed, via the omission of an e.
- The usage of iambic pentameter may have been an attempt to legitimise his work in the eyes of critics by sticking to their established conventions in order to make them respect his opinion more
- The steady, constant iambic pentameter may also symbolise the steady, constant march he wants literary critics to take when advancing their education
- Rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter are called heroic couplets. Again, their usage lends legitimacy to his work and may also be a message about the heroic nature of someone who attempts to conquer a subject
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An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope, Summary, Analysis, Detailed Overview and Quotes
Introduction: Alexander Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism in poetic form which was published in 1711. This poem represents the Neoclassical beliefs about criticism and poetry which strongly asserts the importance of adherence to the Classical rules.
Read the Original Text
- He makes a compelling argument for the position that poetry should either be composed naturally or in accordance with the predefined artificial principles established by the classical poets .
- The idea of Pope's essay is neoclassical, following in the footsteps of Horace and Boileau.
- Pope contends that a literary work's value is determined by its fidelity to Nature, not by whether it is ancient or modern.
- True wit contains this natural truth. The two are interconnected, and nature can be found in both the subject and the mode of communication.
- The essence of humanity can be discovered in everyday humanity, not in any oddity.
- Pope maintained that human nature is constant and static.
- This essay explores the harmonious coexistence of good poetry with literary criticism.
- According to him, poetry and criticism are both related to nature and wit, and the finest examples of both are divinely inspired.
- Pope views both poetry and criticism as forms of art. He believes that both are built on the same literary principles.
- According to him, a critic must consider an author as someone who is aware of all of his or her attributes and who is not just conscious of their own abilities.
- Since a critic has the advantage of understanding a work in its entirety, his criticism should not be limited to a few elements, such as the author's use of devices or flowery language, but should instead focus on the work as a whole.
- For the creative process to be balanced and controlled, poets should also have critical faculties.
- The benchmark to be used before making a judgement should be nature.
- His view of nature is more in line with the mediaeval concepts of order and harmony than it is with Romanticism, which emphasises the outward look of nature.
- Like many neo-classical scholars and writers, he suggests that nature should serve as the source of artistic inspiration.
- Poets' task is to convey natural insight and universal truth.
- In Ancient Greece, a critic's job was to carefully evaluate and admire art; today, this is supplanted with attacks on poets.
- He counsels both poets and critics to avoid prejudice and adhere to ancient principles from the Classical Period.
- Pope lauds Horace as the best literary critic in history. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Petronius, Quintilian, and Longinus are further figures that Pope admires. He views them as authentic heirs to the classical tradition.
- Pope refers to the Renaissance as the "Golden Days" that contributed to the development of the arts and criticism in Europe, taking into account the historical processes that shaped art.
- He presents his own ideas in the tradition of Renaissance philosophers who held the works of the classical authors in the highest regard.
Introduction: In the three parts of his poem "An Essay on Criticism," Alexander Pope discusses the standards of conduct for critics. Throughout his career, Pope has faced criticism for his work, background, religion, and physical appearance. Pope has a lot to say to critics regarding the mistakes they frequently make and how they might effectively carry out their duties in order to promote the creative process. The poem explores Pope's belief that poetry is suffering from a cultural decline and what, in Pope's view, poets and critics must do to reverse this trend. He divides his discussion into three sections:
Pope says that poets and critics alike should be familiar with the standards for poetry established in classical Greece and Rome. These guidelines were founded on natural laws like balance, symmetry, and simplicity in beauty. Both writers and their critics must possess sound judgement and wit in order to properly "First follow NATURE." While it's crucial for authors to follow the norms, critics should also be aware that sometimes fresh perspectives are required for rapidly evolving facts. Only very gifted, clever, and accomplished writers are given an exception to the norm.
This part charts the fall of Part 1's heyday while listing the mistakes made by Pope's contemporaries in the fields of poetry and criticism. He claims that some poets use flowery language to cover up a lack of content. Some critics focus on one little issue and magnify it rather than examining the entire work. This essay enumerates all the various ways in which their criticism is incorrect and useless. Some common errors include: focusing exclusively on the rules and ignoring the content; rating poetry based on their metaphors, imagery, or other less important characteristics; and praising works just because they are novel, extreme, foreign, or they support particular viewpoints.
The final section of "An Essay on Criticism" takes a more upbeat and motivating stance. Pope looks at the qualities of a great reviewer. Integrity, humility, and courage are the best traits for a critic to have. Pope pays a lengthy tribute to the Greek, Roman, and English authors who, in his opinion, best mimic the classical authors as the poem comes to a close. The best critics are fair and analytical, carefully weighing their words in light of the fact that they can make or break an author's career.
- Year of publication: 1711
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was a celebrated poet, translator, and satirist.
- Pope is a key figure in the Age of Enlightenment also known as the Neoclassical period (1660-1820)
- The Enlightenment Age placed mind over heart, that is, reason and logic over emotions.
- Composed in heroic couplets (pairs of adjacent rhyming lines of iambic pentameter)
- Written as response to the ongoing debate whether poets should follow classic rules or not!
- The essay supports the neoclassical notions .
"To err is human; to forgive, divine" "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread". “Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound, Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.” “Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true, But are not critics to their judgment, too?” “Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call, But the joint force and full result of all.” "Men must be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos'd as things forgot."
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From An Essay on Criticism – Poem Analysis
Read the poem analysis of the poem From An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope, where the speaker of the poem takes an impersonal tone as he communicates universal truths about the art to a general audience. The purpose of the extract above is to act as guidance for individuals to learn about how to educate themselves better and improve their creative practices, as well as discourage them from being overly egotistical or too ambitious in youth.
READ THE EXTRACT OF THE POEM HERE
It’s dangerous only to learn a little bit – you should drink deep from the fountain of knowledge, the Pierian Spring, or otherwise, your education will be worth nothing at all. Small drinks of it leave the brain drunk and confused, but when we drink deeply, we start to think clearly again. When we first see the Muse of creativity, the inspiration she provides fires us up when we are young and fearless, causing us to try and aim for the very height of the Arts in our work (to try and create the most ambitious and difficult pieces of art). When our minds are constrained like this, we can only see a short distance ahead of us, and we can’t understand the depth that lies behind the production of great art – but, when we’re older and more advanced, we notice with strange surprise that further off, distant scenes of endless knowledge rise up before us! We try and climb a mountain at first, like the towering Alps, and feel like we’re already almost touching the sky – the eternal snows on the mountain tops are already passed, and the first clouds we reach or mountains we climb seem like the last we’ll ever have to struggle to reach – but after we get to the top of the first difficult mountain, we tremble at the scene that arises before us – we notice that it’s going to be a lot more hard work again from this point on to continue the creative journey. This realisation tires our eyes, as we see so many more mountains behind the first one that we climbed, hills peeping over hills.
Alliteration – ‘A little learning’ / ‘drink deep’ – Pope uses alliteration to accentuate the famous lines: ‘ A little learning is a dangerous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring’. These stand out because they carry a very important message – don’t only educate yourself a little bit, or half-heartedly, because unless you spend your life learning deeply and continually growing, you will not be able to fully use the knowledge that you’ve acquired. This is an invocation to readers to learn not only one small area of knowledge but to develop a broad education that covers many different areas and fields – as well as delving deep into history, classics and ancient philosophy to learn about the past.
Extended metaphor – landscape in the poem is used symbolically throughout; Pope likens the creative process to a journey or difficult pilgrimage, such as hiking up and down the mountains of the ‘Alps’. ‘Short views’ that are visible at the beginning of the journey demonstrate the limited insight that a young creative person may have at first when they approach their art. Once they scale a few ‘mountains’ (i.e. overcome some difficulties and attempt some ambitious projects), they will be ‘more advanced’ and rewarded with ‘new distance scenes’ that provide fresh and deeper inspiration.
Collective pronoun – ‘we’ – the use of this collective pronoun makes it feel as though Pope aligns himself and his own poetry with that of all other writers and creative people, across the world and through time – the effect is to make us feel less isolated and alone with our creative practises, and also to encourage every individual to think of himself or herself as a creative person.
Heroic couplets – Pope was famous for writing in heroic couplets, which are lines of iambic pentameter (five feet of unstressed- stressed syllables) that end in rhyming couplets. This metre is often used for epic or narrative poetry, as it creates an inspirational or idealistic mood; it was popularised in English by Chaucer and used commonly throughout the 17th and18th centuries. Baroque poets such as Pope and Dryden also used this form to translate classical works into English, such as the epic poems of Virgil and Homer.
Horatian satire – Satirical writing was very popular in Pope’s time (the 18th century) as its main aim is to use humour to expose the flaws in strictly ruled societies . the Roman writer Horace developed a specific form of satire which is characterised by a witty, amused tone that seeks to expose the follies of humans through ridicule. Pope’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ is inherently satirical, and draws on the tradition of Horatian satire, because it is essentially a criticism of critics themselves, who judge writers too harshly and selfishly by their own low standards, instead of genuinely appreciating artistic merit. In the extract above, Pope also satirises the stereotype of the too-eager young artist, who thinks he or she has achieved greatness at a young age, instead of striving throughout their life to always improve and reach new heights with their work.
Exclamatory sentence – ‘ New distant scenes of endless science rise!’ – Pope uses the word ‘science’ in its original sense here, to mean all ‘knowledge’, not just the discipline of science. The exclamation creates an emphatic and energetic tone to the line, showing that if the artist can overcome his or her own arrogance, many new pathways and creative inspirations will become accessible.
Shift in tone – ‘ The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes, ’ – Pope acknowledges that once we realise how far there is left to go, we are likely to feel tired and exhausted by the infinite potential of our own creativity – though the tone becomes less confident here, it is also intended to be reassuring because it encourages all readers to understand that creativity is something which ebbs and flows, rather than remaining constant.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was a famous poet and translator, known for his satirical works which humorously poked fun at the strict society of his time. When he was young, he contracted tuberculosis, which affected his health for the rest of his life and also caused him to have stunted growth – in adulthood, he was said to be only 4’6’’ tall. His family home was in Windsor Forest, and he spent his childhood there in nature, reading and providing himself with a classical education (he was unable to attend university, due to his family being Catholic). He moved to his own villa in Twickenham in 1719, where he spent his time redesigning the grounds and gardens – building an underground grotto, which turned into a camera obscura when the door was shut – projecting images of nature onto the internal walls.
Pope wrote ‘An Essay on Criticism’ when he was only 23 years old – the poem above is an extract from this long poem. The main purpose of the poem is to express issues with literary and artistic criticism. Critics are people who review and assess the quality and merits of artistic works – often, they gain a reputation for being brutal and also selfish or egotistical – a critic, for instance, has the power to make or break a writer’s career. The genius of Pope’s poem lies in the fact that he uses the form of poetry to turn himself into a critic – one whose job it is to criticise the unfairness of critics themselves! This creates a satirical tone which humorously ridicules the seriousness of critics, whilst making a very valid point about art and taste. Simultaneously, the poem educates readers on what good critics are capable of doing – namely creating a sense of true taste in culture, illuminating the beauty and complexity of artworks and enabling the general public to find deeper meaning and pleasure in the art they experience. It also makes valuable comments on the works of artists and writers themselves, suggesting what good poets should do to make their poetry more powerful and meaningful – his advice in the poem includes the idea that artists should acknowledge their own flaws and limitations, as well as always staying humble and continuing to learn throughout their lives.
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