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Essay on Criticism

Alexander Pope

Walter J. Bate's critique On Pope's Essay

Alexander Pope An Essay on Criticism (The Poem)

Questions towards the End…To ponder by Kent-Drury


Part I (1-200)

INTRODUCTION. That it is as great a fault to judge ill as to write ill, and a more dangerous one to the public. That a true Taste is as rare to be found as a true Genius. That most men are born with some Taste, but spoiled by false education. The multitude of Critics, and causes of them. That we are to study our own Taste, and know the limits of it. Nature the best guide of judgment. Improved by Art and rules, which are but methodized Nature. Rules derived from the practice of the ancient poets. That therefore the ancients are necessary to be studied by a Critic, particularly Homer and Virgil. Of licenses, and the use of them by the ancients. Reverence due to the ancients, and praise of them.


Part II

Causes hindering a true judgement. Pride. Imperfect learning. Judging by parts, and not by the whole. Critics in wit, language, and versification only. Being too hard to please, or too apt to admire. Partiality--too much love to a sect--to the ancients or moderns. Prejudice or prevention. Singularity. Inconstancy. Party spirit. Envy. Against envy, and in praise of good-nature. When severity is chiefly to be used by critics.

Part III

Rules for the conduct and manners in a Critic. Candour. Modesty. Good breeding. Sincerity and freedom of advice. When one's counsel is to be restrained. Character of an incorrigible poet. And of an impertinent critic. Character of a good critic. The history of criticism, and characters of the best critics; Aristotle. Horace. Dionysius. Petronius. Quintiallian. Longinus. Of the decay of Criticism, and its revival. Erasmus. Vida. Boileau. Lord Roscommon, etc. Conclusion.

  1. As you read, write down words and names you don't recognize. I'll ask you for them in class. Also, if you notice any quotations you've heard before, note them.
  2. Also as you read, jot down a rough paraphrase of each stanza (it doesn't have to be long). This will help you organize and make sense of the whole.
  3. What is the poetic form of An Essay on Criticism?
  4. Why is a bad critic worse than a bad poet?
  5. What does Pope think is the reason for bad criticism?
  6. What advice does Pope give critics?
  7. How does Pope seem to define "Nature"?
  8. How does Pope use triplets? Does he seem to be making a different kind of point in these places?
  9. What does Pope say about following "Rules"? What is the relationship between rules and license? What metaphors does he use to illustrate this relationship? How does one know when it is acceptable to violate the rules?
  10. Look at lines 337-393 (there is something special about this passage). Read it aloud. What is Pope saying, and what is he doing?
  11. How do bad critics judge good writing (that is, what criteria do they use)?
  12. Pope has some criticisms to make of earlier reigns (he is writing during the reign of Queen Anne). What was wrong with the writing during Charles II's reign? What was wrong during William III's reign? What does this suggest about he critic's moral responsibilities?
  13. What should a critic do when he or she makes a mistake?
  14. When should a critic be silent?
  15. Pope provides a history of criticism as he sees it. Which classical critics does Pope respect? What happened to end the reign of the good Classical critics?
  16. What critics eventually emerged in Europe to take the place of the classical critics as good critics?
  17. What is the place of Britain in the history of criticism?
  18. Are you skeptical of any of Pope's claims?