1. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
Pope is a poet and translator from Latin to English.
❖ A. Pope was not very original, his thoughts are derived mainly from Dryden.
❖ In his essay we don’t ﬁnd Latin words because he was a translator and he wanted to support English language.
❖ The essay is written in heroic couplet.
❖ It is divided into 3 parts: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
❖ It explains what a bad critic is? and what a good critic is?
❖ Many people were educated in the eighteenth century, (Augustan) so they thought of their thoughts to be valuable. There was, in result, a lot of
publishing which was mostly bad.
PART I (1-200)
Thesis - it presents a problem
First: writing or judgment.
(1-2) number one problem and the topic of the whole essay. Is it easier to be a writer or to be a judge?
(3-8) he’s saying that of every ten failed poets, one will always rise up and say i’m a critic. In the 18th century it was common that people who are
unsuccessful in writing will claim to be critics. Pope says that this is an offense because if you are a bad writer by deﬁnition you have to be a bad critic.
(9-10) not only they claim to be critics, but they also believe in it.
(11-12) not any critic has taste.
(17-18) if I am a poet and I wrote a poem, it’s natural for me to refuse criticism.
(25-26) reference to Dryden when he said if you had a bad education it will reﬂect in your writing.
(28-45) A. Pope attacks bad poets who pretend to be critics. They are useless and attack everyone whether they can or cannot write. Pope calls them
half-learned, half-formed, and unﬁnished things.
(46) addressing the reader saying that potentially you’re a good critic.
(47-51) to be a critic you’re noble. A good critic has to have self-knowledge that entails knowing if you have received appropriate education or not,
taste (knowing where your taste lies in so you don’t attack something just because you don’t like it), and knowing your genius. To know your genius
you have to know your limits and creativity.
your ﬁrst object to a critic is you. You need to criticize your limits, education, and you need to admit that you make mistakes.
(52-53) my limits have to answer to Nature. (ﬁrst mention of Nature and wit)
(55-59) sometimes imagination is important, sometimes memory is important, sometimes both is essential, and sometimes neither of them is
(62-63) Nature and wit should not be bounded.
(92-93) you always need when to indulge, express, your ideas and when to repress them.
(108-111) poets who pretend to be critics are like pharmacists who pretend to be doctors. “and call their masters fools,” their masters might be abstract
ﬁgures or poets who came before them.
(112) they go back to ancient literary works and either attack them or from them.
(118-123) I should not judge people based on my own thoughts, meaning that if you’re not like me then you’re bad.
(139-140) to copy Nature is to copy the classicists.
(141-142) not every good thing has a way to express it.
Third: abstract qualities
those qualities are essential to every writer.
(68-73) ﬁrst quality is Nature: Nature to Pope is God-like. It’s the source and the end of Art. What is Nature to Pope? A. Pope was highly inﬂuenced by
classical thoughts. The classical notion of Nature is order, method, organization, and everything that is useful and has a purpose. When I discuss Nature
I need to
(74-79) All art has to come from Nature.
(80-83) second quality is wit: he doesn’t explain what wit means to him, but Ms. Eman believes it’s satire, clever language, and strong imagination.
“For Wit and Judgment often are at strife,” strife means they’re ﬁghting with each other. Therefore, he might mean by wit is creativity and by judgment
is correction. Why? because when I write something I’m creative, then I judge whether I made mistakes or not. So wit and judgment are meant to
support each other “like man and wife.” Or, he might mean by wit is poetry and by judgment is criticism.
(88-89) “Rules of old” rules = Nature, old = classics. Fruit doesn’t appear by itself, it has to follow a process, so are we, we need to have a method.
(90-91) what rules to follow? the rules of Nature. Who chose Nature? Nature itself did.
PART II (201-559)
Antitheses - what makes a bad critic?
(201-204) number one is pride: people who are proud are always fools. Sometimes they have a good piece of literature but they’re too proud to admit
that it’s good so they attack it.
(209-212) “where wit fails,” meaning creativity.
(213-214) ﬁrst advise (A): How to cure pride? you have to listen to your friends and enemies. Don’t trust yourself but know your defects instead.
(215) number two is little learning: this goes back to Dryden who said bad education makes a bad dramatist. A. Pope believes little learning to be
dangerous because you claim that you know and you don’t. You analyze without having enough information and force people to believe your analysis
while your understanding is faulty.
(220-222) number three is fearless youth: youth leads us to short views.
(234) you need to understand from the author’s point of view.
(233-238) second advise (B): you need to read the whole work with a clean set of mind, not to read to ﬁnd mistakes.
(244-252) he stresses the importance of reading the whole work because of the following:
(263-266) number four is making the whole depend upon a part: as soon as a bad critic ﬁnd a single mistake he’d sacriﬁce the whole piece of
(289-292) number ﬁve is conceit: conceit is a long metaphor. (For example: in John Donne’s poem The Flea, there is a woman that he likes but she
doesn’t like him back and doesn’t want to be with him. So, there’s this ﬂea which sucks some of his blood and some of hers. And now, inside the ﬂea
his blood and her blood are united!)
Although it’s hard to achieve, some bad critics insist that a work of literature must have conceit and excessive use of literary devices.
(297) creativity in writing is actually an expression of Nature.
(302) being plain is good sometimes. (Dryden had the same idea when he said a bad dramatist use too many adjectives and big words)
(305) number six is language: some critics don’t care if you wrote a stupid plot as long as it’s written in a good language.
(309-312) Pope calls it false eloquence. Language in itself does not stand alone.
(315-319) what makes a good piece of literature is true expression of emotion. When I’m truthful when I express my love, for example, it’d show in
(337) number seven is numbers: some critics care for the shape, how many lines in a poem, how many words in a line, etc.
(333-347) they also care for rhyme and rhythm. Pope says if a poem only have rhyme and rhythm it’ll be boring.
(350-353) he makes fun of them. The word ‘sleep’ is actually a pun, he uses it to ﬁt the rhyme and also to express that it’s boring and the reader will
(360-383) he moves away and use classical references to illustrate and make a comparison between a bad critic and a good one.
(384-387) third advise (C): avoid extremes. If you’re easily offended then you’re proud. But if you’re easily pleased then you’ve no sense.
(408-409) number eight is critics who never express their own thoughts: they wait to see what others think and then they follow it.
(412-413) number nine is critics who judge by the authors’ names: if they like the author they like their works, if they hate the author they hate their
(414-417) number ten is critics who base their analysis on social status: they praise the work if the writer is someone important in society, but if he
ordinary they will attack it.
(428-431) number eleven is schismatics: critics who keep changing their minds and they’re ready to support their belief every time. The audience will
not trust a critic who keeps changing his mind. This is the opposite of pride. A good critic would stick to his opinion but if it turns to be not correct,
he’s not shameful to change it.
(434-436) they think they change their minds because they’re wise.
(452-455) number twelve is critics who make themselves the measure of mankind: if the author’s politics, religion, and social standards agrees to
the critic’s then the author is good. However, if they don’t then the author is bad. If you’re looking of copies of yourself then you’re a bad critic who
(526-527) and (532-533) genera advise: Pope says that criticism is the noblest of professions. And to be a good critic you have to purify yourself from
dulness and obscenity.
PART III (560-the end)
Synthesis - celebration of good critics.
(560-565) a critic has to be moral. As a judge you have to not create enemies but friends.
(566-669) advise: if you’re not sure don’t speak. No one is wight all the time and no one is wrong all the time.
(570-571) back to self-knowledge: Pope stresses the importance of having self knowledge.
(572-574) know when to speak even if your analysis is beneﬁcial.
It’s always best to teach people -who are educated- in a way that doesn’t show them that they’re being educated. Express your thoughts in a nice way.
(592-593) if you’re going to teach people, criticize them, (1) you should leave dangerous truths to satire. For example, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's
Travels, there’s an argument about how to break a boiled egg. But, the real issue he was discussing is the conﬂict between protestants and catholics.
They fought over everything although they have the same religion. The only difference between them is divorce.
And (2) you should leave ﬂattery to dedicators.
(612-627) number thirteen is a critic who have too much reading which cause them to have a blockhead: if you read too much you’ll start to see
A good critic should avoid mentioning his relationships with authors even if it’s true.
(631-632) a question: who can embody all the qualities of good critic?
(643-662) an answer: Pope doesn’t give a speciﬁc answer, instead he mentions classical references that are used as examples.
There’s a voyage, in this voyage he’s invoking Aristotle. Horace is an example for friendly advice. On the other hand, 18th century critics are extremes.
(669-670) another classical example is Quintilian who used justest rules and clearest methods.
(675-676) Pope invokes Longinus, and says criticism relies heavily on inspiration same as poetry. Therefore, to him criticism is a divine art.
The nine are Muses 1.
(681-683) and (687) art died in the era between the Romans and the Renaissance because there was tyranny and superstition.
superstition came from religion where there’s strong belief in witches and miracles which prevent people from being creative.
(693) Erasmus (Petrarch) is the reason of art revival in the sixteenth century.
(700-the end) a comparison between France and England. And he says in (711) that the French literature was revolutionized after the French
Revolution. In (715-718) he says that Britons don’t follow French rules for they have their own.
(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.