An Essay on Criticism was published when Pope was relatively young. The work remains, however, one of the best-known commentaries on literary criticism. Although the work treats literary criticism in particular and thus relies heavily upon ancient authors as type masters, Pope still extends this criticism to general judgment about all walks of life. He demonstrates that true genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven; at the same time, he argues, many possess the seeds of these gifts, such that with proper training they can be developed. His organization takes on a very simple structure: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which he judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic.
Part 1 begins with Pope’s heavy indictment of false critics. In doing so, he suggests that critics often are partial to their own judgment, judgment deriving, of course, from nature, like that of the poet’s genius. Nature provides everyone with some taste, which may in the end help the critic to judge properly. Therefore, the first job of the critic is to know himself or herself, his or her own judgments, his or her own tastes and abilities.
The second task of the critic is to know nature. Nature, to Pope, is a universal force, an ideal sought by critic and poet alike, an ideal that must be discovered by the critic through a careful balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberate reason. The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal acceptance: namely, the works of antiquity. Pope points out that, in times past, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature, whereas in his contemporary scene critics are straying from such principles. Moderns, he declares, seem to make their own rules, which are pedantic,...
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Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism was written by him in 1709 when he was barely twenty years old, and published in 1711.
E on C has become a landmark of criticism in English Literature for two reasons: its major critical standpoint -- and theoretical basis -- is "Nature;" and it is a critique of poetic criticism itself in Pope's times. In this context, the word "wit" is very important because Pope uses it to mean several things: intelligence and poetic expressions on the one hand, and their users, i.e., poets and intellectuals on the other.
In the first part of the poem he raises the perennial problem of poets and critics. It is a greater sin, he says to be a poor critic than to be a poor poet. Why? Because a poor poet only demeans himself; but a poor critic can influence other literary opinions in a dangerous way. To Pope, in this Essay, people with a "true Taste" in literature is as rare as a "true poet." What maks it a problem, Pope says, is that almost everybody has some capacity for literary taste. It is a problem because when "taste" (by which Pope means a critical, discriminating temperament) is supplemented with poor or faulty education, "taste" itself goes askew, and the person turns into a bad -- and dangerous -- critic. Thus, it is important for the critic to know his own limits.
But what does Pope mean by faulty or poor education? Only "Nature" (with a capital N) is the guide for right education. By "Nature," Pope means not simply vegetation or human nature but that which has been portrayed to perfection by the classical authors, Homer and Virgil. Therefore, studying those poets, is the best education for a literary critic. Nature is the best guide for "Judgment," Pope says, meaning critical judgment.
In the second part of the poem Pope enters into a discussion of what hinders "true judgment." Pride and imperfect learning, he says, hinders our capacity to be sincere critics. Poor critics rely too much on memory; memory discourges the power of "Understanding," by which he means "reasoning." It also stunts the imagination. A good critic must be well read in the classics but he must not rely overly in his memory.
Finally, wit. "True wit," says Pope, "is Nature to advantage dressed." Elsewhere he also says that "Art is Nature methodized" (by wit). So what is wit? To Pope and the other late seventeenth and early eighteenth century critics, wit is a combination of classical reading, and the power to combine "thought, words and subject" (John Dryden). Pope thoroughly believed in this.
Therefore, in analyzing a literary text, Pope would have said we need to have the knowledge of the classics, which, in turn, endows us with the knowledge of Nature; it also enables us to combine thoughts and words -- "proper words in proper places," as Swift used to say --appropriate to the subject. Thus, a tripartite relationship between these three concepts, would result in our becoming true critics. The combination of thought, words and subject results in "wit," and in our becoming "true wits."
Is Pope right? Well, in our times, when the very bond between a signifier (word) and signified (thought) is suspect, Pope's critical system probably should be read in its historical context. What interests me about this poem, is not as much Pope's method of criticism but elitist politics it implies. As Edward Niles Hooker pointed out, Pope's E on C expresses the voice of the classical literary elite, "the power of the drawing room."