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Home Literary Criticism Augustans Characteristics Neoclassicism Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)


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Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)

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Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familiarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.
He, who Supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg’d with Coolness tho’ he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.

Our Criticks take a contrary Extream,
They judge with Fury, but they write with Fle’me:
Nor suffers Horace more in wrong Translations
By Wits, than Criticks in as wrong Quotations. (An Essay on Criticism, ll. 653-664)

Basic set up:

In this section of Pope’s poem (yeah, it’s a poem, but it’s also an essay), he praises the ancient Roman poet Horace.

Thematic Analysis

The Augustans’ love for the classics is reflected in these lines. Here, Pope is waxing lyrical about what a wonderful writer the ancient poet Horace was.

According to Pope, Horace is great at talking us “into Sense.” He conveys to us “the truest Notions in the easiest way.” Basically, if you ask Pope, Horace is so much better than all those hacks writing during Pope’s own time, who “judge with Fury, but… write with Fle’me.

That’s phlegm, folks. Tasty image.

Stylistic Analysis

Pope doesn’t just praise Horace in this excerpt; he also tries to emulate Horace’s wit and style. Look at how neat and graceful those heroic couplets are: “Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,/ And without Method talks us into Sense, / Will like a Friend familiarly convey/ The truest Notions in the easiest way.”

Like Horace, Pope is also trying to talk us into sense here. He’s trying to convey “Notions” to us in the “easiest way,” that is, by employing a style and language that’s graceful, convincing, and witty all at once.

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Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Alexander Pope is an English essayist, critic, and satirist. He can be regarded as one of the greatest poets of Enlightenment. He is born in Roman Catholic family in 1688. He has some health problems throughout his life. Pope’s body is deformed because of tuberculosis which affects his spine, backbone. He dies; he is at the age of 56.

Alexander Pope starts to writing poetry when he is 12. actually, first major contribution of Pope to the literary world is An Essay on Criticism, which is published in 1711. When he writes An Essay on Criticism he is 23. Then, in 1712 he writes The Rape of the Lock, which is known as his most popular poem. Eloisa to Abelard and Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady are written in 1717. Pope has also some translations. For example, he translates Homer’s Iliad in the period of 1715-1720. After this translation, he is encouraged and start to tranlate the Odyssey (1725-1726). In this translation, Pope works with William Broome and Elijah Fenton. The Dunciad (1728), is the moral and satiric poems which is written by Pope. His other major poems are Moral Essays (1731-1735), Imitations of Horace (1733-1738), The Epistle to Arbuthnot (1735), the Essay on Man (1734), and an expanded edition of the Dunciad (1742).

In his works, Pope deals with directly the major religious, political and intellectual problems of his time. He uses the heroic couplet.


An Essay on Criticism is published on 15 May 1711 without knowing its author. An Essay on Criticism is didactic work. In An Essay on Criticism, there is an attempt to bring harmony the contemporary dispute between the proponents of ancient and modern learning. The poem is the nearest thing in eighteenth-century, English writing to what might be called a neo-classical manifesto.

An Essay on Criticism can be regarded as a handbook, or guide, to the critic’s and poet’s art. The works is written in the style of Horace’s Ars Poetica. Moeover, Pope takes the some English works as models such as the Earl of Roscommon’s translation of Horace, The Art Of Poetry, (1680), and John Sheffield’s (the Duke of Buckingham’s) Essay On Poetry, (1682). He is familiar with these works in his early ages.

An Essay on Criticism


                                     ‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
                             Appear in writing or in judging ill;
                             But of the two less dangerous is the offense
                             To tire our patience than mislead our sense.
                                                                                                                (Lines: 1-4)

In these opening lines of the poem, the speaker expresses his opinion about which one requires more skill being bad author or bad critic. Then, he says that being bad critic is more dangerous. The speaker in the poem is Alexander Pope.

                                       In poets as true genius is but rare,
                                       True taste as seldom is the critic’s share;
                                       Both must alike from Heaven derive their light,
                                       These born to judge, as well as those to write.
                                                                                                             (Lines: 11-14)

There are not many good poets and good critics. Actually, both of them should have skill, genius in order to be good at their professions.

                                      Most have the seeds of judgement in their mind:
                                      Nature affords at least a glimmering light;
                                      The lines, though touched but faintly, are drawn right.
                                      But as the slighest sketch, if justly traced,
                                      Is by ill coloring but the more disgraced,
                                      So by false learning is good be sense defaced:
                                      Some are bewildered in the maze of schools,
                                     And some made coxcombs1 Nature meant but fools.
                                     In search of wit these lose their common sense,
                                     And then turn critics in their own defense:

Most of critics have ability judgement in their mind naturally. If they do not judge, criticize works, they can have problesm. On the other hand, natural ability, skill has little portion in being good critic. There is another important component to be a good critic. The component is education because education can have either positive or negative efffects on critics’ judgement ability. Some of critics lose their judgement ability because of bad education. Some of them lose their direction in the mess of education, knowledge. Some of the educated critics pretends as they know everything, actually they do not. Since their ability is defeated by bad education, at this time they start to defence themselves rather than criticize works.

                                 Some have at first for wits, then poets passed,
                                 Turned critics next, and proved plain fools at last.
                                 Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
                                 As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
                                 Those half-learn’d witlings, numerous in our isle,
                                 As half-formed insects on the banks of Nile;2
                                 Unfinished things, one knows now what to call,
                                 Their generation’s so equivocal:
                                                                                                    (Lines: 36-43)

There are some people who can be identified neither as poet not as a critic because they are not successful in a profession. Since they do not have wit, they cannot be classified. The speaker gives an example on this event; the example is that mules are also identified neither as horse nor ass. The speaker says that this type of critics have a doubtful, uncertain meaning.

                                Nature to all things fixed the limits fit,
                               And wisely curbed proud man’s pretending wit.
                               As on the land while here ocean gains,
                               In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains;
                               Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
                               The solid power of understanding fail;
                                                                                              (Lines: 52-57)

People should be aware about their limits, because all of the things in the nature are fixed according to their limits. People should not be proud. People can have well their souls, minds, but they can fail while expressing these opinions to other people. “So vast is art, so narrow human wit.” (Line: 61)  When there is a comparison between art and human wit. The former is immense and the latter is limited.

                               First follow Nature, and your judgement frame
                               By her just standard, which is still the same,
                               One clear, unchanged, and universal light,
                               Life, force, and beauty must to all impart.
                                                                                                    (Lines: 68-72)

Critics must follow nature as basic and their judgement abilities. They should make their criticism regarding life, force and beauty in other words, the all part of the life. Critics must be universal and criticize a work in the light of universalism. The speaker uses Nature as basic rule to follow by critics because the poet, Alexander Pope, is a Neo-Classic author. As we know that Neo-classic authors admire nature. They believe that everything is in the nature in its perfect shape.  “For wit and judgement often are at strife, Though meant each other’s aid, like man and wife.” (Lines: 82-83)  There is a struggle between wit and judgement, yet they always need each other. There is an example about this issue. The example is that husband and wife have also argument but they are also need each other for ever.

                            Those rules of old discovered, not devised;
                            Are Nature still, but Nature methodized;
                            Nature, like liberty, is still but restrained
                            By the same laws which first herself ordained.
                                                                                                       (Lines: 88-91)

Rules of old critics, early Greek and Roman authors are discovered by new generation of critics. On the other hand, the new generation do not learn these deeply, but mechanically. They learn these rules only its surface meaning. Unless, the new generation learns these rules deeply, Nature, ability of judgement, does not have any meaning to be good critic.

                           So modern ‘pothecartes, taught the art
                           By doctors bills° to play the doctor’s part, prescriptions
                           Bold in the practice of mistaken rules,
                           Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fool.
                                                                                                    (Lines: 108-111)

In these lines, apothecaries are used to give an example on critics, who take the rules of the old critics. These kinds of critics do not improve the rules but only apply to the work while they criticize a work. They do not have any function on the work’s critic, as apothecaries do not have any effect on ill people. Both of them only apply the rules.  “Some dryly plain without invention’s aid, Write dull receipts3 how poems may be made.” (Lines: 114-115)

The speaker gives an example on the type of authors and critics, who take the rules and apply without any change.

                         Know well each ancient’s proper character;
                         His fable,4 subject, scope° in every page; aim, purpose
                         Religion, country, genius of his age:
                         Without all these at once before your eyes,
                         Cavil you may, but never criticize.
                                                                                                 (Lines: 119-123)

A person cannot be a good critic, unless he/she learns the ancient critics’ rules very deeply. This type of critics can only argue on a literary work, but the argument cannot be regarded as critic without knowing old critics’ rules deeply.

                          I know there are, to whose presumptuous thoughts
                          Those freer beauties, even in them, seem faults5.
                          Some figures monstrous and misshaped appear,
                          Considered singly, or beheld too near,
                          Which, but proportioned in their light or place,
                          Due distance reconciles to form and grace.
                          A prudent chief not always must display
                          His powers in equal ranks and fair array,
                          But with the occasion and the place comply,
                          Conceal his force, nay seem sometimes to fly.
                          Those oft are stratagems which errors seem,
                          Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream.
                                                                                                   (Lines: 169-180)

In these above lines, the speaker says that there are some critics, who have learned the ancients’ rules in critic deeply. Moreover, these critics improve the ancient rules according to their times taste. There are many works that are criticized by this kind of critics. When the ancient critics are regarded, some of the works are criticized in a bad manner. On the other hand, some of the works are criticized so much good that any ancient critics even Homer cannot criticize in this manner.


                                Of all the causes which conspire to blind
                                Man’s erring judgement, and misguide the mind,
                                What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
                                Is pride, the never-falling vice of fools.
                                                                                              (Lines: 201-204)

Pride causes people to think in a wrong direction. All of the mistakes and misguides are caused by pride. Weak person is ruled by pride. Pride is the most dangerous sin in the seven deathly sins; therefore it has negative, bad effect on person’s judgement.

                                A little learning is a dangerous thing;
                                Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring6.
                                There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
                                And drinking largely sobers us again.
                                                                                                (Lines: 215-218)

Little learning is a dangerous thing for a person because he/she cannot overcome on a problem, or be successful in any profession. Therefore, people should learn as much as they can, or they should not learn. Actually, little knowledge cannot guide people to find the right direction. On the other hand, little knowledge causes confusion in minds. When a person has a deep knowledge on a subject, he/she becomes sure himself/herself and makes fewer mistakes maybe any mistake.

                            A perfect judge will read each work of with
                            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;
                            Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
                           The generous pleasure to be charmed with wit.
                                                                                                (Lines: 233-238)

The speaker says that a perfect judgement on a literary work can be conducted when critic reads the whole work, with regarding the author’s intention. The critic should regard the work as a whole and not focus on little mistakes. Otherwise, he cannot create a good judgement on a literary work.

                          In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
                          Is not the exactness of peculiar parts;
                         ‘Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
                          But the joint force and full result of all.
                                                                                             (Lines: 243-246)

Wit affects our thoughts, perceptions and delights. Therefore, a critic should follow wit.

                        Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
                        Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
                        In every work regard the writer’s end,
                        Since none can compass more than they intend;
                       And if the means be just, the conduct true,
                       Applause, in spite of of trivial faults, is due.
                                                                                           (Lines: 253-258)

If a critic takes a piece of literary work and criticizes according to the only one part rather than the whole work, he fails. A critic should regard the whole work, and read at the end of the work with regarding author’s intention. By this manner, he/she can be successful in the judgment.  “Most critics, fond of some subservient art, Still make the whole depend upon a part:” (Lines: 263-264)  Most of the critics make their judgement about the whole work according to only part of the work.  “True wit is Nature to advantage dressed, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;” (Lines: 297-298) Ability is a vital characteristic of a good critic, but only ability is not enough to conduct good job. In other words, a critic cannot judge in a correct perspective only his ability.

                       Others for language all their care express,
                       And value books, as women men, for dress.
                       Their praise is still-the style is excellent;
                       The sense they humbly take upon content.° mere acquiescence
                       Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
                       Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
                                                                                           (Lines: 305-310)

There are some critics, who are interested in only formal qualities, for example, language. They are so fond of language that they ignore the meaning of the work. Regarding only language is not enough criteria to judge in a correct manner. Meaning is also an important component in a literary work.

                       The face of Nature we no more survey,
                       All glares alike, without distinction gay.
                       But true expression, like the unchanging sun,
                       Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon;
                       It gilds all objects, but it alters none.
                                                                                         (Lines: 313-317)

In these lines of the poem, the poet makes a distinction between good and bad expressions. According to the poet, all of the expressions glares in the same manner. On the other hand, good expressions are always same, like the unchanging sun. ,Good expressions are described as sun.  “Avoid extremes; and shun the fault of such, Who still are pleased too little or too much.” (Lines: 384-385)  According to the poet, Alexander Pope, being balance in judgement is another important quality of good critic. In these two lines, being balance is emphasized for critics.

                    Some ne’er advance a judgement of their own,
                    But catch the spreading notion of the town;
                    They reason and conclude by precedent,
                    And own stale nonsense which they ne’er invent.
                    Some judge of authors’ names, not works, and then
                   Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.
                                                                                               (Lines: 408-413)

These lines are about the critics, who do not have their own judgment. However, they follow only the former critics. These kinds of critics regard the author’s name whether he/she is famous or not. In their judgment, the work is seen in the second surface, but the author’s name .is in the first layer. They make their judgements according to author’s name rather than the work.  “Some praise at morning what they blame at night, But always think the last opinion is right.”  (Lines: 430-431)  Some critics are not sure about their judgements, so they change their ideas in a short period. Moreover, they think that their last opinion is the best. These critics do not have a certain direction in their judgements about a work, so they change the opinion easily.

                          Pride, Malice, Folly against Dryden rose,
                          In various shapes of parsons, critics, beaux;
                          But sense survived, when merry jests were past;
                          For rising merit, will buoy up at last.
                                                                                                         (Lines: 458-461)

In these lines, the speaker makes a list, which includes bad qualities for a critic. Some of these bad qualities are; Pride, Malice, Folly and Envy.

                         Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
                         His praise is lost who stays till all commend
                         Short is the date, alas! of modern rhymes,
                        And ’tis but just to let them live betimes.

In contrast to former lines, these lines indicate the good qualities of a critic. According to good qualities, for example, a critic should be friendly in his judgements. “Good nature and good sense must ever join;  To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Lines: 524-525) The basic qualities of a good critic are determined as good nature and good sense. In these lines, these qualities are emphasized and argued that each critic should have these qualities.

                         Discharge that rage on more provoking crimes,
                         Nor fear a dearth in these flatigious° times. scandalously wicked
                         No pardon vile obscenity should find,
                                                                                                          (Lines: 528-530)

After advising good sense and good nature, the poet says that critics should be severe against some works. The poet determines these group of works, which deserved severe, as provocative works.


                           Learn then what morals critics 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: kindness, impartiality
                           That not alone what to your sense is due
                           All may allow; but seek your friendship too.
                                                                                                   (Lines: 560-565)

In these lines, the poet gives the basic characteristics of a good critic. A critic should have a good knowledge, taste, judgment and objectivity. Moreover, there is another characteristic, which is more important than others, of a good critic. The characteristic is being friendship. “Be silent always when you doubt your sense; And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:” (Lines: 566-567)  If a critic is not sure about his/her opinion, he/she must not speak on a work. On the other hand, a critics should speak, argue with self confidence.

                           Fear most to tax an honourable fool,
                           Whose right it is, uncensured to be dull;
                           Such, without wit, are poets when they please,
                           As without learning they can take degrees.7
                           Leave dangerous truths to unsuccessful satrys°, satires
                                                                                                               (Lines: 588-592)

The poet warns critics about the bad poets. Since these poets are bad, they always show off. Critics should be aware against such type of poets.

                            Your silence there is better than your spite,
                            For who can rail so long as they can write?
                            Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep,
                            And lashed so long, like tops, are lashed asleep.8
                            False steps but help them to renew the race,
                           As, after stumbling, jades° will mend their pace. worn-out horses
                                                                                                                             (Lines: 598-603)

The speaker of the poem says that a critic should not speak when he is not sure about his judgment. Because the wrong judgement causes more harm than being silence. Then, the speaker advises that a critic should show the right direction to poets.

                          Such shameless bards we have, and yet ’tis true,
                          There are as mad, abandoned critics too.
                          The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
                          With loads of learned lumber° in his head, rubbish
                          With his own tongue still edifies his ears
                          And always listening to himself appears.
                                                                                                               (Lines: 610-615)

There are some bad critics, who are arrogant and not listen to anybody. Actually, a good critic should be disappoint with these group of bad critics.

Towards the end of the poem, Alexander Pope give an useful historical survey about the criticism’s development. He mentions many good critics and authors such as Aristotle, Horace, Homer, Erasmus and Longinus. He emphasizes on the good qualities of these authors and critics.

In conclusion, An Essay on Criticism is written by Alexander Pope in the 18th Century. The work is written in rhyming couplets, which are used skilfully by the poet. As it can be understood easily from the title, the poem is about the criteria on good critics and criticism. The work includes three parts. The first part is about the qualities of being good critic. The second part is on bad qualities that prevent being good critic. The third part is a historical survey of criticism development. Actually, An Essay on Criticism has useful information for critics, not only in Pope’s time but also in our modern time critics.

Osman Isci

End notes:
1. Superficial pretenders to learning.

2. The ancient believed that many forms of life were spontaneously generated in the fertile mud of the Nile.

3. Formulas for preparing a dish; recipes. Pope himself wrote an amusing burlesque. Receipt to Make an Epic Poem, first published in the Guardian 78 (1713).

4. Plot or story of a play or poem.

5. Pronounced fawts.

6. The spring in Pieria on Mount Olympus, sacred to the Muses.

7. Honorary degrees were granted to unqualified men of rank.

8. Tops “sleep” when they spin so rapidly that they seem not to move.


    *      The Northon Anthology of English Literature Seventh Edition Volume 1, General Editor: M.H. Abrams, New York, 2000

    * (11.12.2005)

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Alexandar Pope
Essay on Criticism
18th Century British Literature
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