The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope. Contributors: Paul Baines - author.
Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 2000.
AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM (1711) [TE I:195-326]
The Essay on Criticism 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.
Much of the poem is delivered as a series of instructions, but the opening is tentative,
presenting a problem to be solved: ''Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill/Appear in Writing
or in Judging ill' (EC, 1-2). The next six lines ring the changes on the differences to be
weighed in deciding the question:
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead 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
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 Test of Art.
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.
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.
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