Alexander Pope: Essay on Criticism Part 1,
DUE: Weekly Post #2 for students writing on Wednesday
Like Dryden's MacFlecknoe, Pope's Essay characterizes the literary tastes of his age.
Pope's elegant, compressed heroic couplets set the standard in versification. You will find
them far more compressed than Dryden's energetic couplets; take the time to unpack them
and understand the communication in the lines.
As you read the poem, draw on Birenbaum's principles of critical reading and begin to assess the literature as
both communication and artistic object. First of all read the poem for comprehension.
Read it all the way through in order to grasp what
is happening in each couplet. Then read it in terms of artistry,
asking how each poet achieves the effects he has. Read the poetry out loud as well
in order to become accustomed to the aesthetic pleasures of eighteenth-century verse -- the rhythms and
the rhymes. Definitely read the poem several times.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
Essay on Criticism:
Also read the introductory note on Pope in Demaria, p. 701.
An Essay on Criticism is Pope's first major poem, but it is not so much an
original analysis as a compilation of literary opinions. It is a verse essay in the
Horatian mode, and it is primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in
the new literary commerce of the modern age.
As you read, recall Addison's "Account of the Greatest English Poets" and compare
this poem in terms of style and content. In what ways are they similar?
How do they differ? What do these similarities and differences tell us about the age?
About the poets?
Also as you read, jot down a paraphrase of each verse paragraph. It is a long poem that
covers a range of good criticism and advice. It also represents some of the ideals
of literature for Pope's age. It will be helpful to paraphrase each section as you
get used to the stylization of the period. (You may want to check your paraphrase against
Pope's summary, which is quoted in the first footnote.) Note any questions
and bring them to class or discuss them in your post.
By the way, there are other websites that discuss or summarize this poem. Feel free to browse them,
if they help you. But if you do read from another site, include the reference in your post.
Remember that websites are not juried or controlled, and so you need to use your judgment regarding
the validity of the information you find there. As always, if you have questions, raise them in class.
Pope begins with the contention that bad criticism is worse than poor writing.
How does he arrive at this conclusion? What does it mean? How do the subsequent
descriptions of bad criticism / bad critics support this statement?
Despite the dangers of bad criticism, some worthy individuals need to become
critics. Why? What advice does Pope give to the 'true critic'?
"Those RULES of old discover'd, not devis'd, / Are Nature still, but Nature
Methodis'd" (lines 88-89).
Some scholars read these lines as an important statement of Augustan (i.e. the
period in which Pope gained fame) aesthetics. What do you suppose they mean?
How does this reflect Pope's own style in the poem?
Throughout the poem Pope has recourse to examples from the Ancient world: Homer,
Virgil, Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, etc. Why are these writers important to Pope?
What can they teach Pope's readers (in 1711 or 1997)?
What advice does he give the true critic (beginning line 118)?
What do his precepts for good criticism suggest about good literature?
Beginning at line 201, Pope delineates the common faults of critics. What are some
of these problems? How does he illustrate these problems? Note, for instance, the change
in tone in the verse paragraph beginning -- "Once on a time, La Mancha's Knight,
they say...." (line 267).
When he complains that some critics only care for versification line 337+, Pope
creates a masterful mimetic rhythm to illustrate the problems of versification.
In this case the skilled poet chooses to make poetic blunders. What are they?
Pope's poem is characterized by a generous sense of humanity toward faults. He
stresses the need for the critic not to lose sight of his (or her) own humanity.
Why is this important? What does Pope suggest is gained by this?
Note in the stanza beginning at line 526 ("But if in Noble Minds some Dregs remain")
the criticism of Charles II's court. What does Pope find objectionable in the culture/literature
of this period? What does he recommend as a remedy?
Examine the stanza beginning at line 631 ("But where's the Man, who Counsel can
bestow") as a statement of the ideal critic. What are his characteristics?
Note how Pope creates a list of the greatest critics in literary history. How does
this compare with Addison's list of the greatest poets?
As is usual in Pope's poems, the Essay concludes with a reference to
himself. Walsh, the last of the critics mentioned, was his mentor and friend.
What do the closing lines suggest about Pope as a poet? Pope as a critic? Pope as a friend?
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