Wednesday, September 2, 2020

An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” when he was 23; he was influenced by Quintillian, Aristotle, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Nicolas Boileau’s L’Art PoΓ«tique. Written in heroic couplets, the tone is straight-forward and conversational. It is a discussion of what good critics should do; however, in reading it one gleans much wisdom on the qualities poets should strive for in their own work. In Part I of “An Essay on Criticism,” Pope notes the lack of “true taste” in critics, stating: “’Tis with our judgments as our watches, none / Go just alike, yet each believes his own.” Pope advocates knowing one’s own artistic limits: “Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, / And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.” He stresses the order in nature and the value of the work of the “Ancients” of Greece, but also states that not all good work can be explained by rules: “Some beauties yet, no precepts can declare, / For there’s a happiness as well as care.”  

In Part II, Pope lists the mistakes that critics make, as well as the defects in poems that some critics short-sightedly praise. He advocates looking at a whole piece of work, instead of being swayed by some of its showier or faulty parts: “As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit, / T’ avoid great errors, must the less commit.” He advises against too much ornamentation in writing, and against fancy style that communicates little of merit. In his description of versification, his lines enact the effects of clumsy writing: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line,” and “A needless Alexandrine ends the song, / That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.” In Part III, Pope discusses what critics should do, holding up the “Ancients” as models, including Aristotle (the “Stagirite”) who was respected by the lawless poets: “Poets, a race long unconfin’d and free, / Still fond and proud of savage liberty, / Receiv’d his laws; and stood convinc’d ‘twas fit, / Who conquer’d nature, should preside o’er wit.”



Major Quotes 

An Essay On Criticism Quotes


1.To err is human, to forgive, divine.
Alexander Pope, 
2.Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

3.A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

4.Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.

5.Our judgments, like our watches, none
go just alike, yet each believes his own

6.True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.

7.Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown propos'd as things forgot.

8.True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit.
9.Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.
  • 10.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 trivial faults, is due.
11.Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment, too?
12.In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
13.Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry friend—and ev'ry foe.
14.Some judge of authors' names, not works, and then nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.

15.Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.
False Eloquence, like the Prismatic Glass,
Its gawdy Colours spreads on ev’ry place;
The Face of Nature was no more Survey,
All glares alike, without Distinction gay:
But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,
Clears, and improves whate’er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.


16. conquests gained before,
By vain ambition still to make them more
Each might his several province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

17.True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus' varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
While, at each change, the son of Libyan Jove
Now burns with glory, and then melts with love;
Now his fierce eyes with sparkling fury glow,
Now sighs steal out, and tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like turns of nature found,
And the world's victor stood subdu'd by sound!
The pow'r of music all our hearts allow,
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.
18.Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Not yet the last to lay the old aside.
19.Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.
20.A perfect Judge will read each work of Wit
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;
.... In wit, as nature, what effects our hearts
Is not th'exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.


21.Some valuing those of their own side or mind,
Still make themselves the measure of mankind:
Fondly we think we honor merit then,
When we but praise ourselves in other men.
22.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 'em live betimes.
No longer now that golden age appears,
When patriarch wits surviv'd a thousand years:
Now length of Fame (our second life) is lost,
And bare threescore is all ev'n that can boast;
Our sons their fathers' failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.
23.Some praise at morning what they blame at night,
But always think the last opinion right.
A Muse by these is like a mistress used,
This hour she's idolized, the next abused;
While their weak heads, like towns unfortified,
'Twixt sense and nonsense daily change their side.
Ask them the cause; they're wiser still they say;
And still to-morrow's wiser than to-day.
24.Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry friend—and ev'ry foe.

25.A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

26.As some to church repair, not for the doctrine, but the music there.

27.Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.

28.Be sure yourself and your own reach to know How far your genius taste and learning go.

29.So modern pothecaries taught the art
By doctors bills to play the doctor's part.
Bold in the practice of mistaken rules
Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.

30.And while self-love each jealous writer rules,
Contending wits become the sport of fools:
But still the worst with most regret commend,
For each ill author is as bad a friend.
To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urg'd through sacred lust of praise!
Ah ne'er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost!
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human; to forgive, divine.

31.A prudent chief not always must display
His pow'rs in equal ranks, and fair array,
But with th' occasion and the place comply,
Conceal his force, nay seem sometimes to fly.

32.Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.

33.In ev'ry 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 trivial faults, is due.

34.Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move,
For fools admire, but men of sense approve;

35.Envy will merit, as its shade, pursue,
But like a shadow, proves the substance true;
For envied wit, like Sol eclips'd, makes known
Th' opposing body's grossness, not its own.

36.So when the faithful pencil has design'd
Some bright idea of the master's mind,
Where a new world leaps out at his command,
And ready Nature waits upon his hand;
When the ripe colours soften and unite,
And sweetly melt into just shade and light;
When mellowing years their full perfection give,
And each bold figure just begins to live,
The treacherous colours the fair art betray,
And all the bright creation fades away!

37.Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human; to forgive, divine.

38.Half-learn'd witlings

39.Most critics, fond of subservient art
still make the whole depend upon a part.
They talk of principles, but notions prize
And all to one loved folly sacrifice.


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