Pope's "Essay on Criticism" tackles not only the problems of poor criticism but also the problems of poor writing. As he writes in the first stanza of Part I, "Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/Appear in writing or in judging ill." In other words, he asks which is worse--writing poorly or criticizing poorly? He feels that poor criticism is worse, as a poor writer bores his or her audience, while a poor critic misleads his or her audience. He goes on to say that good writing and good critical skills are both rare, as "Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light." In other words, there's a touch of the divine in both pursuits.
Critics, he feels, can go awry by relying on too much didacticism. He says in the third stanza, "So by false learning is good sense defac'd." In other words, critics' desire to seem witty can ruin their common sense. He urges critics and writers not to try to surpass their own talents. As he says, "Be sure your self and your own reach to know,/How far your genius, taste, and learning go." In other words, if they are not wits, they shouldn't try to be too clever. Instead, he advises them to follow nature. As he writes, "Nature to all things fix'd the limits fit." He tells critics and writers that they shouldn't indulge in too much pomp but should write naturally and restrain themselves. Much of the last part of Part I is dedicated to praising the ancients, such as the Greeks, who understood the importance of restraint and following nature in creating art.
In Part II, Pope says that the main cause of people's poor judgment is pride. As he writes in the first stanza of Part II, "Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defense,/And fills up all the mighty void of sense!" He writes that a little bit of learning can cause people's downfall in writing and in criticism.
He also writes that a critic should look over the entire work of writing and not judge it based on one part. As he writes, "survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find." He believes that perfection in writing does not exist and that the critic can praise a piece with merits even if that piece has small faults. He also believes that it's acceptable to break Aristotle's rules of drama and that an overly narrow adherence to classical drama does not always help writers.
In addition, he takes issue with writers using too many fancy devices to cover what is truly not very good. As he writes, these types of writers "hide with ornaments their want of art." In other words, these writers cover up their poor writing with ornamentation. Others use too many words or disguise the emptiness of their writing with supposed eloquence. He also criticizes the arbitrary nature of critics, who "praise at morning what they blame at night;/But always think the last opinion right." In other words, they constantly change their minds but regard themselves as " the measure of mankind."
In Part 3, he urges critics to be humble and practice restraint: "Be silent always when you doubt your sense; /And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence." He regards the ancients, such as Horace and Erasmus, as the greatest critics and writers because they followed sense and conveyed "The truest notions in the easiest way." He finds modern critics wanting in the sense shown by the ancients.
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,...
(The entire section is 762 words.)