The Ideas of The Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope and Neoclassical Period in England

Alexander Pope, an outstanding poet and thinker of the 18th century Britain, is famous for propagation of enlightenment ideas. In his poem “Essay on Criticism” he calls for return to Greco-Roman literature traditions of the Classic Era, opposing what he sees as negative cultural trends, namely: vanity, unnecessary eloquence, overused cliches and bad taste, in critical works as well as in poems they are aiming at. 

The message of the Essay on Criticism

In the Essay on Criticism, Pope points out such damaging ways of contemporary critics as poor judgement that does not allow to understand a poet’s ideas at full extent, lack of education and the negative effects of semi-education (‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’), unnecessary attention to unimportant details or desire to scandalize authors in order to achieve their own popularity instead of honestly mentioning poems’ faults without forgetting to acknowledge their strong sides. Moreover, Pope’s essay aims at replacing these practices with best practices of classic (predominantly Greek and Roman) authors and thus improving the general relationship between critics and poets whose poems they were reviewing. It is considered as one of the key works of the neoclassical era in England.

An Essay on Criticism – Part I

The Ideas of The Essay on Criticism

The Essay was divided by its author into 3 parts, each meant to convey a separate message, as an element of the general purpose of the poem. In Part I the grave problem of false critic is introduced to the reader. Pope describes bad qualities of contemporary critics and explains the weak sides of their works. Furthermore, this motive will be reinforced in other Pope’s works in the future. Part II explores the notion of good judgement and its importance for the literature, including the criticism. The dangers of shallow reactions and blind following of fashionable trends are mentioned. Part III depicts an ideal figure of educated critic possessing all the qualities Pope sees as important for this profession.

With the help of this structure Pope tells his readers about the problem of literature criticism of that era, its importance and the ways to solve it. The following key ideas are expressed throughout all three parts of the Essay:

  • Writer’s awareness of his own limitations as a key to judge other writers;
  • Understanding laws and forces of nature and interconnections between them as a key to creativity and to the ability of understanding art; 
  • Importance of having both intellect and good judgment (as highlighted by Szilagyi, 1979);
  • Qualities of ancient poetry and criticism as a goal for a contemporary author;
  • Importance of studying ancients’ qualities instead of blindly copying their style;
  • Necessity of analyzing a poet’s aim before judging his work;
  • Fallacy of judgement by eloquence or strict literature rules without seeing a poem as a whole;
  • The need for tact and tolerance: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’.

In order to reach complete understanding of Pope’s ideas, remarks and references, it is necessary to fully understand the context of the era, as well as to have decent knowledge of a number of classical works, as stressed by Rumens (2013).

Conclusion: The Essay’s Role in English Culture

In his Essay on Criticism Pope was aiming to uphold tradition started with Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ and maintained in Boileau’s ‘Art Poétique’ and introduce it to British literary circles. Written in ancient heroic verse, Pope’s poetic essay attempts to lead others not only by his arguments, but also by the example of his style and the broad range of cultural references he makes. The essay is influenced by, and contains references to, classical works of Horace and other Roman poets, as well as some French and English writers and critics of the 17th century, making its context very broad and rich.

Sources:

  1. Rumens, C.. Poem of the week: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope. The Guardian, 2013. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jul/08/literary-criticism-poetry
  2. Szilagyi, S. J.. Pope’s Essay on Criticism; advancing a laudable tradition of wit. Lehigh University Preserve, Pennsylvania, US, 1979. Retrieved from https://preserve.lehigh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2885&context=etd

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