Encyclopedia Britannica

  • Games & Quizzes
  • History & Society
  • Science & Tech
  • Biographies
  • Animals & Nature
  • Geography & Travel
  • Arts & Culture
  • On This Day
  • One Good Fact
  • New Articles
  • Lifestyles & Social Issues
  • Philosophy & Religion
  • Politics, Law & Government
  • World History
  • Health & Medicine
  • Browse Biographies
  • Birds, Reptiles & Other Vertebrates
  • Bugs, Mollusks & Other Invertebrates
  • Environment
  • Fossils & Geologic Time
  • Entertainment & Pop Culture
  • Sports & Recreation
  • Visual Arts
  • Demystified
  • Image Galleries
  • Infographics
  • Top Questions
  • Britannica Kids
  • Saving Earth
  • Space Next 50
  • Student Center

Illustration of "The Lamb" from "Songs of Innocence" by William Blake, 1879. poem; poetry

An Essay on Criticism

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

  • Poetry Foundation - An Essay on Criticism
  • The Victorian Web - Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism": An Introduction

An Essay on Criticism , didactic poem in heroic couplets by Alexander Pope , first published anonymously in 1711 when the author was 22 years old. Although inspired by Horace ’s Ars poetica , this work of literary criticism borrowed from the writers of the Augustan Age . In it Pope set out poetic rules, a Neoclassical compendium of maxims, with a combination of ambitious argument and great stylistic assurance . The poem received much attention and brought Pope a wider circle of friends, notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele , who were then collaborating on The Spectator .

The first of the poem’s three sections opens with the argument that good taste derives from Nature and that critics should imitate the ancient rules established by classical writers. The second section lists the many ways in which critics have deviated from these rules. In this part Pope stressed the importance of onomatopoeia in prosody, suggesting that the movement of sound and metre should represent the actions they carry:

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) only confirmed photograph of Emily Dickinson. 1978 scan of a Daguerreotype. ca. 1847; in the Amherst College Archives. American poet. See Notes:

’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.

The final section, which discusses the characteristics of a good critic, concludes with a short history of literary criticism and a catalog of famous critics.

The work’s brilliantly polished epigrams (e.g., “A little learning is a dang’rous thing,” “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”), while not original, have become part of the proverbial heritage of the English language .

essay on criticism written by

An Essay on Criticism Summary & Analysis by Alexander Pope

  • Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
  • Poetic Devices
  • Vocabulary & References
  • Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
  • Line-by-Line Explanations

essay on criticism written by

Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" seeks to lay down rules of good taste in poetry criticism, and in poetry itself. Structured as an essay in rhyming verse, it offers advice to the aspiring critic while satirizing amateurish criticism and poetry. The famous passage beginning "A little learning is a dangerous thing" advises would-be critics to learn their field in depth, warning that the arts demand much longer and more arduous study than beginners expect. The passage can also be read as a warning against shallow learning in general. Published in 1711, when Alexander Pope was just 23, the "Essay" brought its author fame and notoriety while he was still a young poet himself.

  • Read the full text of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”
LitCharts

essay on criticism written by

The Full Text of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”

1 A little learning is a dangerous thing;

2 Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

3 There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

4 And drinking largely sobers us again.

5 Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,

6 In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,

7 While from the bounded level of our mind,

8 Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

9 But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise

10 New, distant scenes of endless science rise!

11 So pleased at first, the towering Alps we try,

12 Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;

13 The eternal snows appear already past,

14 And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;

15 But those attained, we tremble to survey

16 The growing labours of the lengthened way,

17 The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,

18 Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

“From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing” Summary

“from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” themes.

Theme Shallow Learning vs. Deep Understanding

Shallow Learning vs. Deep Understanding

  • See where this theme is active in the poem.

Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”

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.

essay on criticism written by

Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts, In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts, While from the bounded level of our mind, Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise New, distant scenes of endless science rise!

Lines 11-14

So pleased at first, the towering Alps we try, Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky; The eternal snows appear already past, And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;

Lines 15-18

But those attained, we tremble to survey The growing labours of the lengthened way, The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes, Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

“From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing” Symbols

Symbol The Mountains/Alps

The Mountains/Alps

  • See where this symbol appears in the poem.

“From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Alliteration.

  • See where this poetic device appears in the poem.

Extended Metaphor

“from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” vocabulary.

Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.

  • A little learning
  • Pierian spring
  • Bounded level
  • Short views
  • The lengthened way
  • See where this vocabulary word appears in the poem.

Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “From An Essay on Criticism: A little learning is a dangerous thing”

Rhyme scheme, “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” speaker, “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” setting, literary and historical context of “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing”, more “from an essay on criticism: a little learning is a dangerous thing” resources, external resources.

The Poem Aloud — Listen to an audiobook of Pope's "Essay on Criticism" (the "A little learning" passage starts at 12:57).

The Poet's Life — Read a biography of Alexander Pope at the Poetry Foundation.

"Alexander Pope: Rediscovering a Genius" — Watch a BBC documentary on Alexander Pope.

More on Pope's Life — A summary of Pope's life and work at Poets.org.

Pope at the British Library — More resources and articles on the poet.

LitCharts on Other Poems by Alexander Pope

Ode on Solitude

Ask LitCharts AI: The answer to your questions

The LitCharts.com logo.

litdevices logo

Our edition is built from the version produced by the Text Creation Partnership. We have changed the long "s" in the original to a modern "s."

Editorial Statements

Research informing these annotations draws on publicly-accessible resources, with links provided where possible. Annotations have also included common knowledge, defined as information that can be found in multiple reliable sources. If you notice an error in these annotations, please contact [email protected].

Original spelling and capitalization is retained, though the long s has been silently modernized and ligatured forms are not encoded.

Hyphenation has not been retained, except where necessary for the sense of the word.

Page breaks have been retained. Catchwords, signatures, and running headers have not.

Materials have been transcribed from and checked against first editions, where possible. See the Sources section for more information.

Linked Data: Places related to this work.

graphic

Add to Coursepack

Create a new coursepack, reset password, create an account.

Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Literature › Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope

Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on December 6, 2017 • ( 4 )

An Essay on Criticism , published anonymously by Alexander Pope (1688–1744) in 1711, is perhaps the clearest statement of neoclassical principles in any language. In its broad outlines, it expresses a worldview which synthesizes elements of a Roman Catholic outlook with classical aesthetic principles and with deism. That Pope was born a Roman Catholic affected not only his verse and critical principles but also his life. In the year of his birth occurred the so-called “Glorious Revolution”: England’s Catholic monarch James II was displaced by the Protestant King William III of Orange, and the prevailing anti-Catholic laws constrained many areas of Pope’s life; he could not obtain a university education, hold public or political office, or even reside in London. Pope’s family, in fact, moved to a small farm in Windsor Forest, a neighbourhood occupied by other Catholic families of the gentry, and he later moved with his mother to Twickenham. However, Pope was privately taught and moved in an elite circle of London writers which included the dramatists Wycherley and Congreve, the poet Granville, the critic William Walsh, as well as the writers Addison and Steele, and the deistic politician Bolingbroke. Pope’s personal life was also afflicted by disease: he was a hunchback, only four and a half feet tall, and suffered from tuberculosis. He was in constant need of his maid to dress and care for him. Notwithstanding such social and personal obstacles, Pope produced some of the finest verse ever written. His most renowned publications include several mock-heroic poems such as The Rape of the Lock (1712; 1714), and The Dunciad (1728). His philosophical poem An Essay on Man (1733–1734) was a scathing attack on human arrogance or pride in failing to observe the due limits of human reason, in questioning divine authority and seeking to be self-reliant on the basis of rationality and science. Even An Essay on Criticism is written in verse, following the tradition of Horace’s Ars poetica , and interestingly, much of the philosophical substance of An Essay on Man is already formulated in this earlier poem, in its application to literature and criticism. While An Essay on Man identifies the chief fault of humankind as the original sin of “pride” and espouses an ethic based on an ordered and hierarchical universe, it nonetheless depicts this order in terms of Newtonian mechanism and expresses a broadly deistic vision.

The same contradictions permeate the Essay on Criticism , which effects an eclectic mixture of a Roman Catholic vision premised on the (negative) significance of pride, a humanistic secularism perhaps influenced by Erasmus, a stylistic neoclassicism with roots in the rhetorical tradition from Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, and modern disciples such as Boileau, and a modernity in the wake of figures such as Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke. Some critics have argued that the resulting conglomeration is inharmonious; in fairness to Pope, we might cite one of his portraits of the satirist:

Verse-man or Prose-man, term me which you will, Papist or Protestant, or both between, Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean, In moderation placing all my glory, While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory. ( Satire II.i)

Clearly, labels can oversimplify: yet it is beyond doubt that, on balance, Pope’s overall vision was conservative and retrospective. He is essentially calling for a return to the past, a return to classical values, and the various secularizing movements that he bemoans are already overwhelming the view of nature, man, and God that he is attempting to redeem.

Indeed, Pope’s poem has been variously called a study and defense of “nature” and of “wit.” The word “nature” is used twenty-one times in the poem; the word “wit” forty-six times. Given the numerous meanings accumulated in the word “nature” as it has passed through various traditions, Pope’s call for a “return to nature” is complex, and he exploits the multiple significance of the term to generate within his poem a comprehensive redefinition of it. Among other things, nature can refer, on a cosmic level, to the providential order of the world and the universe, an order which is hierarchical, in which each entity has its proper assigned place. In An Essay on Man Pope expounds the “Great Chain of Being,” ranging from God and the angels through humans and the lower animals to plants and inanimate objects. Nature can also refer to what is normal, central, and universal in human experience, encompassing the spheres of morality and knowledge, the rules of proper moral conduct as well as the archetypal patterns of human reason.

The word “wit” in Pope’s time also had a variety of meanings: it could refer in general to intelligence and intellectual acuity; it also meant “wit” in the modern sense of cleverness, as expressed for example in the ability to produce a concise and poignant figure of speech or pun; more specifically, it might designate a capacity to discern similarities between different entities and to perceive the hidden relationships underlying the appearances of things. In fact, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, “wit” was the subject of a broad and heated debate. Various parties contested the right to define it and to invest it with moral significance. A number of writers such as Nicolas Malebranche and Joseph Addison , and philosophers such as John Locke, argued that wit was a negative quality, associated with a corrupting imagination, distortion of truth, profanity, and skepticism, a quality opposed to “judgment,” which was a faculty of clear and truthful insight. Literature generally had come to be associated with wit and had been under attack from the Puritans also, who saw it as morally defective and corrupting. On the other side, writers such as John Dryden and William Wycherley, as well as moralists such as the third earl of Shaftesbury, defended the use and freedom of wit. Pope’s notions of wit were worked out in the context of this debate, and his redefinition of “true” wit in Essay on Criticism was a means not only of upholding the proper uses of wit but also of defending literature itself, wit being a mode of knowing or apprehension unique to literature.1

alexander-pope-3

While much of Pope’s essay bemoans the abyss into which current literary criticism has fallen, he does not by any means denounce the practice of criticism itself. While he cautions that the best poets make the best critics (“Let such teach others who themselves excell,” l. 15), and while he recognizes that some critics are failed poets (l. 105), he points out that both the best poetry and the best criticism are divinely inspired:

Both must alike from Heav’n derive their Light, These born to Judge, as well as those to Write. (ll. 13–14)

By the word “judge,” Pope refers to the critic, drawing on the meaning of the ancient Greek word krites . Pope sees the endeavor of criticism as a noble one, provided it abides by Horace’s advice for the poet:

But you who seek to give and merit Fame, And justly bear a Critick’s noble Name, Be sure your self and your own Reach to know, How far your Genius , Taste , and Learning go; Launch not beyond your Depth . . . (ll. 46–50)

Indeed, Pope suggests in many portions of the Essay that criticism itself is an art and must be governed by the same rules that apply to literature itself. However, there are a number of precepts he advances as specific to criticism. Apart from knowing his own capacities, the critic must be conversant with every aspect of the author whom he is examining, including the author’s

. . . Fable, Subject, Scope in ev’ry Page, Religion, Country, Genius of his Age: Without all these at once before your Eyes, Cavil you may, but never Criticize . (ll. 120–123)

Perhaps ironically, Pope’s advice here seems modern insofar as he calls for a knowledge of all aspects of the author’s work, including not only its subject matter and artistic lineage but also its religious, national, and intellectual contexts. He is less modern in insisting that the critic base his interpretation on the author’s intention: “In ev’ry Work regard the Writer’s End , / Since none can compass more than they Intend ” (ll. 233–234, 255–256).

Pope specifies two further guidelines for the critic. The first is to recognize the overall unity of a work, and thereby to avoid falling into partial assessments based on the author’s use of poetic conceits, ornamented language, and meters, as well as those which are biased toward either archaic or modern styles or based on the reputations of given writers. Finally, a critic needs to possess a moral sensibility, as well as a sense of balance and proportion, as indicated in these lines: “Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost! / Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join” (ll. 523–525). In the interests of good nature and good sense, Pope urges the critic to adopt not only habits of self-criticism and integrity (“with pleasure own your Errors past, / And make each Day a Critick on the last,” ll. 570–571), but also modesty and caution. To be truthful is not enough, he warns; truth must be accompanied by “Good Breeding” or else it will lose its effect (ll. 572–576). And mere bookish knowledge will often express itself in showiness, disdain, and an overactive tongue: “ Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread. / Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks” (ll. 625–626). Pope ends his advice with this summary of the ideal critic:

But where’s the Man, who Counsel can bestow, Still pleas’d to teach , and yet not proud to know ? Unbiass’d, or by Favour or by Spite ; Not dully prepossest , nor blindly right ; Tho learn’d, well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere; . . . Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin’d; A Knowledge both of Books and Humankind ; Gen’rous Converse ; a Soul exempt from Pride ; And Love to Praise , with Reason on his Side? (ll. 631–642)

As we read through this synthesis of the qualities of a good critic, it becomes clear that they are primarily attributes of humanity or moral sensibility rather than aesthetic qualities. Indeed, the only specifically aesthetic quality mentioned here is “taste.” The remaining virtues might be said to have a theological ground, resting on the ability to overcome pride. Pope effectively transposes the language of theology (“soul,” “pride”) to aesthetics. It is the disposition of humility – an aesthetic humility, if you will – which enables the critic to avoid the arrogant parading of his learning, to avoid falling into bias, and to open himself up to a knowledge of humanity. The “reason” to which Pope appeals is not the individualistic and secular “reason” of the Enlightenment philosophers; it is “reason” as understood by Aquinas and many medieval thinkers, reason as a universal archetype in human nature, constrained by a theological framework. Reason in this sense is a corollary of humility: it is humility which allows the critic to rise above egotistical dogmatism and thereby to be rational and impartial, and aware of his own limitations, in his striving after truth. Knowledge itself, then, has a moral basis in good breeding; and underlying good breeding is the still profounder quality of sincerity, which we might understand here as a disposition commensurate with humility: a genuine desire to pursue truth or true judgment, unclouded by personal ambitions and subjective prejudices. Interestingly, the entire summary takes the form not of an assertion but of an extended question, implying that what is proposed here is an ideal type, to which no contemporary critic can answer.

Pope’s specific advice to the critic is grounded on virtues whose application extends far beyond literary criticism, into the realms of morality, theology, and art itself. It is something of an irony that the main part of his Essay on Criticism is devoted not specifically to criticism but to art itself, of which poetry and criticism are regarded as branches. In other words, Pope sees criticism itself as an art. Hence most of the guidance he offers, couched in the language of nature and wit, applies equally to poetry and criticism. Not only this, but there are several passages which suggest that criticism must be a part of the creative process, that poets themselves must possess critical faculties in order to execute their craft in a self-conscious and controlled manner. Hence there is a large overlap between these domains, between the artistic elements within criticism and the critical elements necessary to art. While Pope’s central piece of advice to both poet and critic is to “follow Nature,” his elaboration of this concept enlists the semantic service of both wit and judgment, establishing a close connection – sometimes indeed an identity – between all three terms; wit might be correlated with literature or poetry; and judgment with criticism. Because of the overlapping natures of poetry and criticism, however, both wit and judgment will be required in each of these pursuits.

Before inviting the poet and critic to follow nature, Pope is careful to explain one of the central functions of nature:

Nature to all things fix’d the Limits fit, And wisely curb’d proud Man’s pretending Wit; . . . One Science only will one Genius fit; So vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit . . . (ll. 52–53, 60–61)

Hence, even before he launches into any discussion of aesthetics, Pope designates human wit generally as an instrument of pride, as intrinsically liable to abuse. In the scheme of nature, however, man’s wit is puny and occupies an apportioned place. It is in this context that Pope proclaims his famous maxim:

First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame By her just Standard, which is still the same: Unerring Nature , still divinely bright, Once clear , unchang’d , and Universal Light, Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart, At once the Source , and End , and Test of Art. (ll. 68–73)

The features attributed to nature include permanence or timelessness and universality. Ultimately, nature is a force which expresses the power of the divine, not in the later Romantic sense of a divine spirit pervading the physical appearances of nature but in the medieval sense of expressing the order, harmony, and beauty of God’s creation. As such, nature provides the eternal and archetypal standard against which art must be measured: the implication in the lines above is not that art imitates nature but that it derives its inspiration, purpose, and aesthetic criteria from nature.

Pope’s view of nature as furnishing the universal archetypes for art leads him to condemn excessive individualism, which he sees as an abuse of wit. Wit is abused when it contravenes sound judgment: “For Wit and Judgment often are at strife, Tho’ meant each other’s Aid, like Man and Wife ” (ll. 80–83). However, Pope does not believe, like many medieval rhetoricians, that poetry is an entirely rational process that can be methodically worked out in advance. In poetry, as in music, he points out, are “ nameless Graces which no Methods teach” (l. 144). Indeed, geniuses can sometimes transgress the boundaries of judgment and their very transgression or license becomes a rule for art:

Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend , And rise to Faults true Criticks dare not mend ; From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part, And snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art, Which, without passing thro’ the Judgment , gains The Heart , and all its End at once attains. (ll. 152–157)

If Kant had been a poet, he might have expressed his central aesthetic ideas in this very way. Kant also believed that a genius lays down the rules for art, that those rules cannot be prescribed in advance, and that aesthetic judgment bypasses the conventional concepts of our understanding. Indeed, Kant laid the groundwork for many Romantic aesthetics, and if Pope’s passage above were taken in isolation, it might well be read as a formulation of Romantic aesthetic doctrine. It seems to assert the primacy of wit over judgment, of art over criticism, viewing art as inspired and as transcending the norms of conventional thinking in its direct appeal to the “heart.” The critic’s task here is to recognize the superiority of great wit. While Pope’s passage does indeed in these respects stride beyond many medieval and Renaissance aesthetics, it must of course be read in its own poetic context: he immediately warns contemporary writers not to abuse such a license of wit: “ Moderns , beware! Or if you must offend / Against the Precept , ne’er transgress its End ” (ll. 163–164). In fact, the passage cited above is more than counterbalanced by Pope’s subsequent insistence that modern writers not rely on their own insights. Modern writers should draw on the common store of poetic wisdom, established by the ancients, and acknowledged by “ Universal Praise” (l. 190).

Pope’s exploration of wit aligns it with the central classical virtues, which are themselves equated with nature. His initial definition of true wit identifies it as an expression of nature: “ True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought , but ne’er so well Exprest ” (ll. 297–298). Pope subsequently says that expression is the “ Dress of Thought ,” and that “true expression” throws light on objects without altering  them (ll. 315–318). The lines above are a concentrated expression of Pope’s classicism. If wit is the “dress” of nature, it will express nature without altering it. The poet’s task here is twofold: not only to find the expression that will most truly convey nature, but also first to ensure that the substance that he is expressing is indeed a “natural” insight or thought. What the poet must express is a universal truth which we will instantly recognize as such. This classical commitment to the expression of objective and universal truth is echoed a number of times through Pope’s text. For example, he admonishes both poet and critic: “Regard not then if Wit be Old or New , / But blame the False , and value still the True ” (ll. 406–407).

A second classical ideal urged in the passage above is that of organic unity and wholeness. The expression or style, Pope insists, must be suited to the subject matter and meaning: “The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense ” (l. 365). Elsewhere in the Essay , Pope stresses the importance, for both poet and critic, of considering a work of art in its totality, with all the parts given their due proportion and place (ll. 173–174). Once again, wit and nature become almost interchangeable in Pope’s text. An essential component underlying such unity and proportion is the classical virtue of moderation. Pope advises both poet and critic to follow the Aristotelian ethical maxim: “Avoid Extreams. ” Those who go to excess in any direction display “ Great Pride , or Little Sense ” (ll. 384–387). And once again, the ability to overcome pride – humility – is implicitly associated with what Pope calls “right Reason” (l. 211).

Indeed, the central passage in the Essay on Criticism , as in the later Essay on Man , views all of the major faults as stemming from pride: Of all the Causes which conspire to blind

Man’s erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind, . . . Is Pride , the never-failing Vice of Fools . (ll. 201–204)

It is pride which leads critics and poets alike to overlook universal truths in favor of subjective whims; pride which causes them to value particular parts instead of the whole; pride which disables them from achieving a harmony of wit and judgment; and pride which underlies their excesses and biases. And, as in the Essay on Man , Pope associates pride with individualism, with excessive reliance on one’s own judgment and failure to observe the laws laid down by nature and by the classical tradition.

9781333666545-uk-300

Pope’s final strategy in the Essay is to equate the classical literary and critical traditions with nature, and to sketch a redefined outline of literary history from classical times to his own era. Pope insists that the rules of nature were merely discovered, not invented, by the ancients: “Those Rules of old discover’d , not devis’d , / Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz’d ” (ll. 88–89). He looks back to a time in ancient Greece when criticism admirably performed its function as “the Muse’s Handmaid,” and facilitated a rational admiration of poetry. But criticism later declined from this high status, and those who “cou’d not win the Mistress, woo’d the Maid” (ll. 100–105). Instead of aiding the appreciation of poetry, critics, perhaps in consequence of their own failure to master the poetic art, allowed the art of criticism to degenerate into irrational attacks on poets. Pope’s advice, for both critic and poet, is clear: “Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them ” (ll. 139–140). Before offering his sketch of literary-critical history, Pope laments the passing of the “Golden Age” of letters (l. 478), and portrays the depths to which literature and criticism have sunk in the degenerate times of recent history:

In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease, Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv’d with large Increase; When Love was all an easie Monarch’s Care; Seldom at Council , never in a War . . . . . . The following Licence of a Foreign Reign Did all the Dregs of bold Socinus drain; Then Unbelieving Priests reform’d the Nation, And taught more Pleasant Methods of Salvation; Where Heav’ns Free Subjects might their Rights dispute, Lest God himself shou’d seem too Absolute . . . . Encourag’d thus, Wit’s Titans brav’d the Skies . . . (ll. 534–537, 544–552)

Pope cites two historical circumstances here. By “easie Monarch” he refers to the reign of Charles II (1660–1685), whose father King Charles I had engaged in a war with the English Parliament, provoked by his excessive authoritarianism. Having lost the war, Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and England was ruled by Parliament, under the leadership of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Shortly after Cromwell’s death, a newly elected Parliament, reflecting the nation’s unease with the era of puritanical rule, invited Prince Charles to take the throne of England as Charles II. The new king, as Pope indicates, had a reputation for easy living, lax morality, and laziness. The reigns of Charles II and his brother James II (1685–1688) are known as the period of the Restoration (of the monarchy). Both kings were strongly pro-Catholic and aroused considerable opposition, giving rise to the second historical event to which Pope refers above, the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. In 1688 the Protestants Prince William of Orange and his wife Mary (daughter of James II) were secretly invited to occupy the throne of England. Under their rule, which Pope refers to as the “Licence of a Foreign Reign,” a Toleration Act was passed which granted religious freedom to all Christians except Catholics and Unitarians. Also enacted into law was a Bill of Rights which granted English citizens the right to trial by jury and various other rights.

Hence, as far as understanding Pope’s passage is concerned, there were two broad consequences of the Glorious Revolution. First, various impulses of the earlier Protestant Reformation, such as religious individualism and amendment of the doctrines of the Church of England, were reconfirmed. Pope refers to Faustus Socinus (1539 – 1604), who produced unorthodox doctrines denying Christ’s divinity, as being of the same theological tenor as the “Unbelieving Priests,” the Protestants, who reformed the nation. The second, even more significant, consequence of the revolution was the complete triumph of Parliament over the king, the monarchy’s powers being permanently restricted. Protestantism in general had been associated with attempts to oppose absolute government; clearly, Pope’s sympathies did not lie with these movements toward democracy. Significantly, his passage above wittily intertwines these two implications of the Glorious Revolution: he speaks sarcastically of “Heav’ns Free Subjects” disputing their rights not only with temporal power but also with God himself. Such is the social background, in Pope’s estimation, of the modern decline of poetry and criticism: religious and political individualism, the craving for freedom, and the concomitant rejection of authority and tradition, underlie these same vices in the sphere of letters, vices which amount to pride and the contravention of nature.

Pope now furnishes an even broader historical context for these modern ills. He traces the genealogy of “nature,” as embodied in classical authors, to Aristotle. Poets who accepted Aristotle’s rules of poetic composition, he suggests, learned that “Who conquer’d Nature , shou’d preside oe’r Wit ” (l. 652). In other words, the true and false uses of wit must be judged by those who have learned the rules of nature. Likewise, Horace, the next critic in the tradition Pope cites, was “Supream in Judgment, as in Wit” and “his Precepts teach but what his Works inspire” (ll. 657, 660). Other classical critics praised by Pope are Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ca. 30–7 bc) and the Roman authors of the first century Petronius and Quintilian, as well as Longinus, the first-century Greek author of On the Sublime . After these writers, who represent the classical tradition, Pope says, a dark age ensued with the collapse of the western Roman Empire at the hands of the Vandals and Goths, an age governed by “tyranny” and “superstition,” an age where “Much was Believ’d , but little understood ” (ll. 686– 689). What is interesting here is that Pope sees the medieval era as a continuation of the so-called Dark Ages. He refers to the onset of medieval theology as a “ second Deluge” whereby “the Monks finish’d what the Goths begun” (ll. 691–692). Hence, even though he was himself a Catholic and placed great stress on the original sin of pride, Pope seems to reject the traditions of Catholic theology as belonging to an age of superstition and irrational belief. He is writing here as a descendent of Renaissance thinkers who saw themselves as the true heirs of the classical authors and the medieval period as an aberration. What is even more striking is Pope’s subsequent praise of the Renaissance humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus, who “drove those Holy Vandals off the Stage” (ll. 693–694). Erasmus, like Pope, had a love for the classics grounded on rationality and tolerance. He rejected ecclesiastical Christianity, theological dogmatism, and superstition in favor of a religion of simple and reasonable piety. His writings helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation, though he himself was skeptical of the bigotry he saw on both Protestant and Catholic sides.

Pope’s implicit allegiance to Erasmus (and in part to contemporary figures such as Bolingbroke) points in the direction of a broad deism which, on the one hand, accommodates the significance of pride in secular rather than theological contexts, and, on the other hand, accommodates reason within its appropriate limits. His historical survey continues with praises of the “Golden Days” of Renaissance artistic accomplishments, and suggests that the arts and criticism thereafter flourished chiefly in Europe, especially in France, which produced the critic and poet Nicolas Boileau. Boileau was a classicist influenced greatly by Horace. Given Boileau’s own impact on Pope’s critical thought, we can see that Pope now begins to set the stage for his own entry into the history of criticism. While he notes that the English, “Fierce for the Liberties of Wit ,” were generally impervious to foreign literary influences, he observes that a handful of English writers were more sound: they sided with “the juster Ancient Cause , / And here restor’d Wit’s Fundamental Laws ” (ll. 721–722). The writers Pope now cites were either known to him or his tutors. He names the earl of Roscommon, who was acquainted with classical wit; William Walsh, his mentor; and finally himself, as offering “humble” tribute to his dead tutor (ll. 725–733). All in all, Pope’s strategy here is remarkable: in retracing the lineage of good criticism, as based on nature and the true use of wit, he traces his own lineage as both poet and critic, thereby both redefining or reaffirming the true critical tradition and marking his own entry into it. Pope presents himself as abiding by and exemplifying the critical virtues he has hitherto commended.

1. Edward Niles Hooker’s “Pope on Wit: The Essay on Criticism ,” in The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature from Bacon to Pope , R. F. Jones et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), pp. 225–246.

Share this:

Categories: Literature

Tags: Alexander Pope , An Essay on Criticism , An Essay on Man , Dionysius of Halicarnassus , Faustus Socinus , Literary Criticism , Literary Theory , Nicolas Malebranche , Poetry , The Dunciad , The Rape of the Lock

Related Articles

essay on criticism written by

  • Literary Criticism of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  • Literary Criticism of Giovanni Boccaccio – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  • Literary Criticism of Joseph Addison – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  • Key Theories of Wimsatt and Beardsley – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Poetry Prof

Read, Teach, Study Poetry

from An Essay on Criticism

' src=

Join Alexander Pope on a metaphysical journey of discovery… that will last a lifetime.

essay on criticism written by

“[It is] difficult to know which part to prefer, when all is equally beautiful and noble.” Weekly Miscellany comments on the poetry of Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope spent his childhood in Windsor forest and, from an early age, gained a keen appreciation for nature. Later in his life he lived in a property by the River Thames in London where he cultivated his own garden that he opened for visitors. In today’s poem, written in 1709, we can see this love of the natural world through his shaping of elements of the landscape into an extended metaphor for knowledge. This landscape is vast and mountainous: the Alps , Europe’s largest mountain range are a prominent feature, as are hills, vales , an endless sky and eternal snows . Compared to this vast landscape, people are almost insignificant. Their role in the poem is to act as explorers who set off on a journey of discovery, trying to conquer the highest mountains by ascending to the summit; we tempt the heights of Arts… the towering Alps we try… Finally, despite being almost exhausted by his efforts, the explorer realises that his journey has barely begun; the mountain vista stretches ahead, unbroken, into the distance:

A poem’s central idea, often developed into an extended metaphor, is known as a conceit . Unlocking the first couplet should provide you the key to Pope’s conceit in An Essay on Criticism . Pope begins with a warning that:

The Pierian Spring is an important place in Greek Mythology , the source of a river of knowledge that was associated with the nine ancient Muses, themselves a metaphor for artistic inspiration. In this poem, it’s part of the landscape that functions as an extended metaphor for learning. It might seem strange that Pope begins by giving his readers a warning to taste not the waters of this river. However, it’s important to realise that Pope isn’t saying not to drink from the well of knowledge at all. He tells us to drink deep , emphasising his instruction with both alliterative D and using the imperative tense (where the verb is placed at the beginning of the line or phrase). To Pope’s mind, learning is seductive and intoxicating . Once you set out on the journey of learning, or take even a tiny sip from the wellspring of knowledge, you won’t be able to resist the temptation to learn more. Therefore, he suggests that you either prepare to immerse yourself completely in the Pierian Spring , or don’t drink at all.

essay on criticism written by

Once you’ve discovered the connotations of Pierian Spring , the rest of the poem can be read as a warning (or criticism ) of anyone who is rash enough not to follow Pope’s instruction. Should you venture unprepared into the unknown, you must be clear about your limitations. As a spring is the starting point of a river, so too is it the starting point of Pope’s extended metaphor . From here, the reader sets out on a journey into an imposing mountainous landscape that, while initially appearing it can be ‘climbed’ or conquered, actually keeps expanding into an endless vista. No matter how far the explorer climbs, the top of the mountain never gets any nearer. Heights, lengthening way, increasing prospect and, most telling of all, eternal snows conjure the visual image of the landscape metaphysically stretching out in front of our weary eyes. Individual people are tiny and easily lost in this ever-shifting world. Pope creates a contrast between the boundless landscape and the bounded limits of human perception. At the last, the human explorer is tired by his efforts to conquer these mountains of knowledge – but the poem ends by revealing that he’d barely even gotten started on his journey: Hills peep o’er hills; Alps upon Alps arise .

Before we get too much further into the discussion of Pope’s ‘essay’, it might be helpful to place these lines in context. Despite the way they seem to be a complete poem in themselves, they are actually part of a much longer poem which stretches to three parts and a total of 744 lines! The eighteen-line extract you’ve read constitutes the second verse of Part 2 and it may help you to know that, in the first verse, Pope singled out pride as the characteristic that would eventually lead to the downfall of his explorer. Here are four lines from earlier in the Essay:

In this short sample, you can see the names Pope calls people who rush off on foolhardy adventures without taking the time to properly prepare: blind man , weak head and fools ! Younger readers might not enjoy this interpretation, but Pope finds the overconfidence of young people most problematic, associating youth with a kind of recklessness that, in hindsight, is misplaced.

You may argue that qualities such as fearless and passionate (fired) seem like compliments; but I detect a note of criticism in Pope’s words; he suggests that young people confuse emotion with clear thinking and they are too eager to plunge into the unknown. There’s an emphasis on speed and rashness ( pleased at first; at first sight ) that cannot last, like a novice marathon runner who goes sprinting out of the blocks while older, more wily competitors know to save themselves for the challenges ahead. While the young explorer does encounter some early success (implied by words like mount , more advanced , attained and, more significantly by an image : tread the sky ), the race is longer than the runner thought and inevitably the pace must sag. Later in the poem, positive diction disappears and words like trembling , growing labours , and tired take over as the true scale of the challenge becomes apparent. Sharp-eyed readers will already have noticed that the image of ‘treading the sky’ was in fact a simile : seem to tread the sky. Subtly, Pope’s use of a simile implies that any success the explorer thought he’d achieved wasn’t actually real.

essay on criticism written by

The implication that over-enthusiasm can cloud good judgment can be traced through diction to do with looking and seeing: a t first sight, short views, see, behold, appear, survey, eyes and peep pepper the poem and convey the poet’s belief that, to our detriment, we can be short-sighted and tunnel-visioned. The eighth line of the poem is entirely concerned with this idea: short views we take, nor see the lengths behind paints a picture of a young explorer who only looks in one direction – eyes fixed straight ahead – and so misses the bigger picture.

While the poem is certainly didactic (it’s trying to impart a lesson), Pope’s tone of voice is not too condescending or stand-offish because he includes himself in his criticism as well. Throughout the poem the words us, we and our soften his accusations so there’s never a ‘them-and-us’ divide between young and old. In fact, Pope was only 21 years old when he finished his Essay on Criticism , so use your mind’s ear to imagine him speaking ruefully from experience, rather than as a nagging or pestering adult complaining about ‘young people today.’ The line Fired at first sight by what the Muse imparts is revealing in this regard. Alluding to the nine Muses of Greek mythology , this line personifies poetic inspiration, so in one sense the extended metaphor of trying to conquer an unknowable landscape represents his own experiences of writing poetry. ‘Meta-poems’ (poems about the writing of poems) actually have a name: ars poetica . Pope implies that rushing off on a path of artistic endeavour without realising the true extent of the commitment that entails is a mistake that he himself has made in his own attempts at writing.

If you’re a student reading this who thinks you might be able to use Pope’s poem as an excuse not to do your homework or give up on your own writing: you shouldn’t be too rash. Pope’s not suggesting we should quit. Instead, he’s warning us that what might seem like a shallow pool is in fact a deep river of knowledge. Once you jump in, the current will sweep you away and there’s no going back. The poem is a criticism of unpreparedness and arrogance rather than an acknowledgement of futility. In fact, an element of form suggests that, for all the faults Pope has pointed out in young people who are too confident in their limited abilities, it is much more praiseworthy to try and fail to conquer the heights than never to try at all. The poem is written in iambic pentameter that is constant and regular as if, no matter how tough the going gets, the young explorer doesn’t give up. Compare these two lines, with iambic accents marked, from the beginning and end of the poem to see how the rhythm is unfailing:

More, the poem is arranged in rhyming couplets (the rhyme scheme is AA, BB, CC and so on). Rhyming couplets written in iambic pentameter are traditionally known by a more dramatic name: heroic couplets . Pope was widely considered to be the master of writing poetry in heroic couplets ; using them here implies that Pope ultimately believes any young person who’s brave – or foolhardy – enough to embark upon the lifelong journey of learning is worthy of praise.

essay on criticism written by

The structure of Pope’s poetical essay matches the message he’s trying to convey – that, once you start learning, you won’t be able to stop. Look carefully at the punctuation marks, in particular his use of full stops . You’ll find the first one at the end of the fourth line, the second after the tenth and the third at the end of the poem (after eighteen lines). In other words, if the poem was arranged in verses, the first verse would be nice and short at only four lines, the second would stretch to six, but the final verse would have doubled in length to eight lines. Expanding sentences represent the conceit – a little learning is a dangerous thing – and match the images of the landscape expanding ( eternal snows , increasing prospect, lengthening way ) as you read further down the poem.

The end of the poem brings Pope’s criticism to its conclusion. We see the young explorer break through the eternal snows , climb above the clouds, and stand triumphantly on the mountain top, proudly surveying his achievements. Only now does he take a moment to look more deliberately at the mountains he’s trying to conquer:

Be alert to two words that might seem insignificant: appear and seem , words that signal the mistake the explorer made; he thought that he had already past the bulk of his journey. Read carefully to punctuation as well, and you’ll see the colon – a longer pause, which creates a caseura – representing the traveler pausing at the moment of his triumph… and it’s here that realisation finally dawns. Despite the difficulty of his climb thus far, the landscape ( increasing prospect ) stretches out endlessly in front of him: Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise . Here, repetition mixes with all that increasing and lengthening diction to create a surreal image of an ever-expanding landscape stretching out ahead. You might also notice P sounds peppering the last two lines of the poem in the words p ee p , Al p s, Al p s, and p ros p ect . Coming from a category of alliteration called plosive , this sound is excellent at conveying a release of negative emotion, as it is formed by pushing air through closed lips. The sound helps us perceive the taste of victory turning to defeat as the weary traveler’s shoulders slump at the prospect of the endless climb still to come.

What does Pope offer as a solution? He already warned us at the start of the poem: drinking largely sobers us again . Suddenly, the importance of the word sober becomes clear. While the idea of heading off on this journey of discovery was intoxicating , firing up those with passion to learn, discover and explore – the reality is very different. That young, over-confident learner/explorer is gone, replaced by a wiser, but more world-weary traveler who can finally see the true scale of the task ahead. By now it’s too late, he’s stuck on the mountain top and there’s only one thing he can do – go onwards!

So drink deep and be prepared to encounter much more than you expected when you set out on your journey.

essay on criticism written by

Suggested poems for comparison:

  • from Essay on Man by Alexander Pope

An Essay on Criticism was not the only poetical essay written by Pope. French writer Voltaire so admired Pope’s Essay on Man that he arranged for its translation into French and from there it spread around Europe.

  • Marrysong by Dennis Scott

As in Pope’s poem, Scott creates a metaphor of the landscape to represent his marriage. He is an explorer in a strange land – each time the explorer glances up from his map, the landscape has changed and he’s lost again.

  • Through the Dark Sod – As Education by Emily Dickinson

Victorians brought many different associations to all kinds of plants and flowers. In this Emily Dickinson poem, the lily represents beauty, purity and rebirth. This link will also take you to a fantastic blog which aims to read and provide comment on all of Emily Dickinson’s poems. So that’s 1 down, and nearly 2000 more to go…

  • In the Mountains by Wang Wei

Often spoken of with the same reverence as Li Bai and Du Fu, Wang Wei is a famous imagist poet in China. In these exquisite portrait poems, Wang Wei paints pictures of the impressive landscapes of his mountain home.

Additional Resources

If you are teaching or studying  An Essay on Criticism  at school or college, or if you simply enjoyed this analysis of the poem and would like to discover more, you might like to purchase our bespoke study bundle for this poem. It costs only £2 and includes: 

  • Study Questions with guidance on how to answer in full paragraphs;
  • A sample analytical paragraph for essay writing; 
  • An interactive and editable powerpoint, giving line-by-line analysis of all the poetic and technical features of the poem; 
  • An in-depth worksheet with a focus on analysing diction and explaining lexical fields ;
  • A fun crossword quiz, perfect for a starter activity, revision or a recap;
  • A four-page activity booklet that can be printed and folded into a handout – ideal for self study or revision;
  • 4 practice Essay Questions – and one complete model Essay Plan.

And… discuss! 

Did you enjoy this analysis of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism ? Do you agree that the poem somewhat singles out young people? Can you relate to Pope’s messages about the temptations of learning? Why not share your ideas, ask a question, or leave a comment for others to read below. For nuggets of analysis and all-new illustrations, find and follow Poetry Prof on Instagram.

Follow

One comment

I would like to have an explanation of the frontispiece appended to the 1711 edition of An Essay on Criticism. Is it related to Pierrian Spring and the Muse of Poetry referred to in the poem. I would like to know more on it.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of follow-up comments by email.

Notify me of new posts by email.

  • Skip to main content
  • email Contact Us
  • list Browse
  • search Search
  • bookmark Bookbag
  • login Log in

An essay on criticism: Written by Mr. Pope.

To the extent possible under law, the Text Creation Partnership has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this keyboarded and encoded edition of the work described above, according to the terms of the CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/). This waiver does not extend to any page images or other supplementary files associated with this work, which may be protected by copyright or other license restrictions. Please go to http://www.lib.umich.edu/tcp/ecco/ for more information.

  • AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM.

An Essay on Criticism

Guide cover image

33 pages • 1 hour read

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Essay Analysis

Key Figures

Symbols & Motifs

Literary Devices

Important Quotes

Essay Topics

Discussion Questions

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “an essay on criticism: written in the year 1709”.

Alexander Pope was a prominent English poet and satirist who was born in 1688 and died in 1744. He published An Essay on Criticism in 1711, though the subtitle suggests that he wrote it earlier, and it is the work that made him famous and launched his career. The poem is largely written in heroic couplets and iambic pentameter and is a critique of the state of literary criticism in the early 18th century. It offers a satire of the authors of Pope’s era and a thesis about the best way to judge and write literature. Pope focuses on how to develop and define good taste and judgment, the rules of good literature as he sees them handed down from the ancient (classical Greek and Roman) poets, and what makes a good modern critic in his eyes.

This guide is based on the Oxford World’s Classics edition of An Essay on Literature , published in 2006 as part of The Major Works and edited by Pat Rogers. The edition is based on the William Bowyer quarto editions of 1744, which were edited with Pope’s help.

Get access to this full Study Guide and much more!

  • 7,950+ In-Depth Study Guides
  • 4,800+ Quick-Read Plot Summaries
  • Downloadable PDFs

The argument of An Essay on Criticism is broken into three parts. The first focuses on what Pope sees as the over-abundance of literary critics in the early 18th century. Pope argues that it takes as much skill to be a critic as it does to be a writer but that people often venture beyond their natural talents; further, while many people do have the capacity for good taste, some have been “ spoiled by false education” (Line 17). For both writers and critics, Pope argues, aesthetic judgment should stem first and foremost from “nature.” According to Pope, the literary conventions that classical writers followed were not arbitrary but rather logically derived from the inherent order of things. However, writers must also rely on a natural sense of creativity. This may necessitate breaking certain artistic rules, but artistic rule-breaking must serve a broader function within the piece; otherwise, criticism of the work is justified. In this section, Pope also argues for a relationship between critic and poet that is complementary rather than one-sided or self-interested; the good critic’s praise will inspire more good poetry and vice versa.

In the second part, Pope goes into detail about what he sees as the barriers to good judgment. These include pride and a failure to recognize one’s own limitations, the above-mentioned false (particularly shallow) education, too much focus on the parts of a work of literature with not enough attention to the whole, excessive loyalty to one particular school of thought or kind of literature, and critics who are envious or unnecessarily severe. In his discussion of the inappropriate focus on the part over the whole, Pope singles out overly ornamental language and unnecessary reliance on extended metaphor or conceit . Likewise, he cautions against expecting strict adherence to acoustic elements like meter and rhyme . He puts forward the idea that poetic expression works best when the author balances techniques to achieve their aim. This section also discusses the tendency to single out one writer or group of writers for praise or criticism—e.g., only those from a particular country or era. For example, Pope suggests that a knowledge of classical literature is necessary to produce good modern literature, but he cautions against taking one side over the other simply out of loyalty or current fads. Pope also urges critics not to delay praising good work and so deprive writers of their already too-fleeting fame. This, he suggests, is a particular tendency among writers who have already achieved renown; they may disparage works that are, if not equal to their own, at least commendable.

The SuperSummary difference

  • 8x more resources than SparkNotes and CliffsNotes combined
  • Study Guides you won ' t find anywhere else
  • 175 + new titles every month

The third segment of Pope’s begins by stressing that critics must not merely understand their subject but must also know how and when to praise or criticize. He then gives a literary and critical history from ancient times to the 18th century, including examples of philosophers and poets whom Pope believes should be honored and copied. In particular, he focuses on the ancients Aristotle, Horace , Dionysius, Petronius, Quintilian, and Longinus, arguing that aesthetic standards declined after the fall of the Roman Empire. Erasmus, Pope argues, partially revived classical learning, but France has heeded the knowledge of the ancients more carefully than England. Pope concludes with a personal message of thanks to William Walsh, who supported Pope’s earlier career and whom Pope refers to as “the Muse’s judge and friend” (Line 729).

blurred text

Related Titles

By Alexander Pope

An Essay on Man

Guide cover image

Eloisa to Abelard

Guide cover image

The Dunciad

Guide cover image

The Rape of the Lock

Guide cover image

Featured Collections

View Collection

Books About Art

Books & Literature

  • Poem Guides
  • Poem of the Day
  • Collections
  • Harriet Books
  • Featured Blogger
  • Articles Home
  • All Articles
  • Podcasts Home
  • All Podcasts
  • Glossary of Poetic Terms
  • Poetry Out Loud
  • Upcoming Events
  • All Past Events
  • Exhibitions
  • Poetry Magazine Home
  • Current Issue
  • Poetry Magazine Archive
  • Subscriptions
  • About the Magazine
  • How to Submit
  • Advertise with Us
  • About Us Home
  • Foundation News
  • Awards & Grants
  • Media Partnerships
  • Press Releases
  • Newsletters

essay on criticism written by

An Essay on Criticism: Part 2

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • Print this page
  • Email this page

Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

Eloisa to abelard, epistles to several persons: epistle ii: to a lady on the characters of women, epistles to several persons: epistle iv, epistle to dr. arbuthnot.

  • Audio Poems
  • Audio Poem of the Day
  • Twitter Find us on Twitter
  • Facebook Find us on Facebook
  • Instagram Find us on Instagram
  • Facebook Find us on Facebook Poetry Foundation Children
  • Twitter Find us on Twitter Poetry Magazine
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Poetry Mobile App
  • 61 West Superior Street, Chicago, IL 60654
  • © 2024 Poetry Foundation

The acknowledged master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, British writer Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century. He is known for having perfected the rhymed couplet form of...

  • Arts & Sciences
  • Poetry & Poets
  • Reading & Books
  • Social Commentaries

AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM.

Alexander pope..

This eminent English poet was born in London, May 21, 1688. His parents were Roman Catholics, and to this faith the poet adhered, thus debarring himself from public office and employment. His father, a linen merchant, having saved a moderate competency, withdrew from business, and settled on a small estate he had purchased in Windsor Forest. He died at Chiswick, in 1717. His son shortly afterwards took a long lease of a house and five acres of land at Twickenham, on the banks of the Thames, whither he retired with his widowed mother, to whom he was tenderly attached and where he resided till death, cultivating his little domain with exquisite taste and skill, and embellishing it with a grotto, temple, wilderness, and other adjuncts poetical and picturesque. In this famous villa Pope was visited by the most celebrated wits, statesmen and beauties of the day, himself being the most popular and successful poet of his age. His early years were spent at Binfield, within the range of the Royal Forest. He received some education at little Catholic schools, but was his own instructor after his twelfth year. He never was a profound or accurate scholar, but he read Latin poets with ease and delight, and acquired some Greek, French, and Italian. He was a poet almost from infancy, he "lisped in numbers," and when a mere youth surpassed all his contemporaries in metrical harmony and correctness. His pastorals and some translations appeared in 1709, but were written three or four years earlier. These were followed by the Essay on Criticism , 1711; Rape of the Lock (when completed, the most graceful, airy, and imaginative of his works), 1712-1714; Windsor Forest , 1713; Temple of Fame , 1715. In a collection of his works printed in 1717 he included the Epistle of Eloisa and Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady , two poems inimitable for pathetic beauty and finished melodious versification.

From 1715 till 1726 Pope was chiefly engaged on his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey , which, though wanting in time Homeric simplicity, naturalness, and grandeur, are splendid poems. In 1728-29 he published his greatest satire—the Dunciad , an attack on all poetasters and pretended wits, and on all other persons against whom the sensitive poet had conceived any enmity. In 1737 he gave to the world a volume of his Literary Correspondence , containing some pleasant gossip and observations, with choice passages of description but it appears that the correspondence was manufactured for publication not composed of actual letters addressed to the parties whose names are given, and the collection was introduced to the public by means of an elaborate stratagem on the part of the scheming poet. Between the years 1731 and 1739 he issued a series of poetical essays moral and philosophical, with satires and imitations of Horace, all admirable for sense, wit, spirit and brilliancy of these delightful productions, the most celebrated is the Essay on Man to which Bolingbroke is believed to have contributed the spurious philosophy and false sentiment, but its merit consists in detached passages, descriptions, and pictures. A fourth book to the Dunciad , containing many beautiful and striking lines and a general revision of his works, closed the poet's literary cares and toils. He died on the 30th of May, 1744, and was buried in the church at Twickenham.

Pope was of very diminutive stature and deformed from his birth. His physical infirmity, susceptible temperament, and incessant study rendered his life one long disease. He was, as his friend Lord Chesterfield said, "the most irritable of all the genus irritabile vatum , offended with trifles and never forgetting or forgiving them." His literary stratagems, disguises, assertions, denials, and (we must add) misrepresentations would fill volumes. Yet when no disturbing jealousy vanity, or rivalry intervened was generous and affectionate, and he had a manly, independent spirit. As a poet he was deficient in originality and creative power, and thus was inferior to his prototype, Dryden, but as a literary artist, and brilliant declaimer satirist and moralizer in verse he is still unrivaled. He is the English Horace, and will as surely descend with honors to the latest posterity.

AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM,

Written in the year 1709.

[The title, An Essay on Criticism hardly indicates all that is included in the poem. It would have been impossible to give a full and exact idea of the art of poetical criticism without entering into the consideration of the art of poetry. Accordingly Pope has interwoven the precepts of both throughout the poem which might more properly have been styled an essay on the Art of Criticism and of Poetry.]

'Tis hard to say if greater want of skill Appear in writing or in judging ill, But of the two less dangerous is the offense To tire our patience than mislead our sense Some few in that but numbers err in this, Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss, A fool might once himself alone expose, Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none Go just alike, yet each believes his own In poets as true genius is but rare True taste as seldom is the critic share Both must alike from Heaven derive their light, These born to judge as well as those to write Let such teach others who themselves excel, And censure freely, who have written well Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true [ 17 ] But are not critics to their judgment too?

Yet if we look more closely we shall find Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind Nature affords at least a glimmering light The lines though touched but faintly are drawn right, But as the slightest sketch if justly traced Is by ill coloring but the more disgraced So by false learning is good sense defaced Some are bewildered in the maze of schools [ 26 ] And some made coxcombs nature meant but fools In search of wit these lose their common sense And then turn critics in their own defense Each burns alike who can or cannot write Or with a rival's or an eunuch's spite All fools have still an itching to deride And fain would be upon the laughing side If Maevius scribble in Apollo's spite [ 34 ] There are who judge still worse than he can write.

Some have at first for wits then poets passed Turned critics next and proved plain fools at last Some neither can for wits nor critics pass As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass. Those half-learned witlings, numerous in our isle, As half-formed insects on the banks of Nile Unfinished things one knows not what to call Their generation is so equivocal To tell them would a hundred tongues require, Or one vain wits that might a hundred tire.

But you who seek to give and merit fame, And justly bear a critic's noble name, Be sure yourself and your own reach to know How far your genius taste and learning go. Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.

Nature to all things fixed the limits fit And wisely curbed proud man's pretending wit. As on the land while here the ocean gains. In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains Thus in the soul while memory prevails, The solid power of understanding fails Where beams of warm imagination play, The memory's soft figures melt away One science only will one genius fit, So vast is art, so narrow human wit Not only bounded to peculiar arts, But oft in those confined to single parts Like kings, we lose the 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.

First follow nature and your judgment frame By her just standard, which is still the same. Unerring nature still divinely bright, One clear, unchanged and universal light, Life force and beauty, must to all impart, At once the source and end and test of art Art from that fund each just supply provides, Works without show and without pomp presides In some fair body thus the informing soul With spirits feeds, with vigor fills the whole, Each motion guides and every nerve sustains, Itself unseen, but in the effects remains. Some, to whom Heaven in wit has been profuse, [ 80 ] Want as much more, to turn it to its use; For wit and judgment often are at strife, Though meant each other's aid, like man and wife. 'Tis more to guide, than spur the muse's steed, Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed, The winged courser, like a generous horse, [ 86 ] Shows most true mettle when you check his course.

Those rules, of old discovered, not devised, Are nature still, but nature methodized; Nature, like liberty, is but restrained By the same laws which first herself ordained.

Hear how learned Greece her useful rules indites, When to repress and when indulge our flights. High on Parnassus' top her sons she showed, [ 94 ] And pointed out those arduous paths they trod; Held from afar, aloft, the immortal prize, And urged the rest by equal steps to rise. [ 97 ] Just precepts thus from great examples given, She drew from them what they derived from Heaven. The generous critic fanned the poet's fire, And taught the world with reason to admire. Then criticism the muse's handmaid proved, To dress her charms, and make her more beloved: But following wits from that intention strayed Who could not win the mistress, wooed the maid Against the poets their own arms they turned Sure to hate most the men from whom they learned 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. Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey, Nor time nor moths e'er spoil so much as they. Some dryly plain, without invention's aid, Write dull receipts how poems may be made These leave the sense their learning to display, And those explain the meaning quite away.

You then, whose judgment the right course would steer, Know well each ancient's proper character, His fable subject scope in every page, Religion, country, genius of his age Without all these at once before your eyes, Cavil you may, but never criticise. Be Homers works your study and delight, Read them by day and meditate by night, Thence form your judgment thence your maxims bring And trace the muses upward to their spring. Still with itself compared, his text peruse, And let your comment be the Mantuan Muse. [ 129 ]

When first young Maro in his boundless mind, [ 130 ] A work to outlast immortal Rome designed, Perhaps he seemed above the critic's law And but from nature's fountain scorned to draw But when to examine every part he came Nature and Homer were he found the same Convinced, amazed, he checks the bold design And rules as strict his labored work confine As if the Stagirite o'erlooked each line [ 138 ] Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem, To copy nature is to copy them.

Some beauties yet no precepts can declare, For there's a happiness as well as care. Music resembles poetry—in each Are nameless graces which no methods teach, And which a master hand alone can reach If, where the rules not far enough extend (Since rules were made but to promote their end), Some lucky license answer to the full The intent proposed that license is a rule. Thus Pegasus a nearer way to take May boldly deviate from the common track Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend, And rise to faults true critics dare not mend, From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part, And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art, Which without passing through the judgment gains The heart and all its end at once attains. In prospects, thus, some objects please our eyes, Which out of nature's common order rise, The shapeless rock or hanging precipice. But though the ancients thus their rules invade (As kings dispense with laws themselves have made), Moderns beware! or if you must offend Against the precept, ne'er transgress its end, Let it be seldom, and compelled by need, And have, at least, their precedent to plead. The critic else proceeds without remorse, Seizes your fame, and puts his laws in force.

I know there are, to whose presumptuous thoughts Those freer beauties, even in them, seem faults Some figures monstrous and misshaped appear, Considered singly, or beheld too near, Which, but proportioned to their light, or place, Due distance reconciles to form and grace. A prudent chief not always must display His powers in equal ranks and fair array, But with the occasion and the place comply. Conceal his force, nay, seem sometimes to fly. Those oft are stratagems which errors seem, Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream. [ 180 ]

Still green with bays each ancient altar stands, Above the reach of sacrilegious hands, Secure from flames, from envy's fiercer rage, [ 183 ] Destructive war, and all-involving age. See, from each clime the learned their incense bring; Hear, in all tongues consenting Paeans ring! In praise so just let every voice be joined, And fill the general chorus of mankind. Hail! bards triumphant! born in happier days; Immortal heirs of universal praise! Whose honors with increase of ages grow, As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow; Nations unborn your mighty names shall sound, [ 193 ] And worlds applaud that must not yet be found! Oh may some spark of your celestial fire, The last, the meanest of your sons inspire, (That, on weak wings, from far pursues your flights, Glows while he reads, but trembles as he writes), To teach vain wits a science little known, To admire superior sense, and doubt their own!

Of all the causes which conspire to blind Man's erring judgment and misguide the mind, What the weak head with strongest bias rules, Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools. Whatever nature has in worth denied, She gives in large recruits of needful pride; For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find What wants in blood and spirits, swelled with wind: Pride where wit fails steps in to our defense, 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 every friend—and every foe.

A little learning is a dangerous thing Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring [ 216 ] There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again. Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts, In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts While from the bounded level of our mind Short views we take nor see the lengths behind But more advanced behold with strange surprise, New distant scenes of endless science rise! So pleased at first the towering Alps we try, Mount o'er the vales and seem to tread the sky, The eternal snows appear already passed And the first clouds and mountains seem the last. But those attained we tremble to survey The growing labors of the lengthened way The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes, Hills peep o'er hills and Alps on Alps arise!

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, Nor lose for that malignant dull delight The generous pleasure to be charmed with wit But in such lays as neither ebb nor flow, Correctly cold and regularly low That, shunning faults, one quiet tenor keep; We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep. In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts Is not the exactness of peculiar parts, 'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call, But the joint force and full result of all. Thus, when we view some well proportioned dome (The worlds just wonder, and even thine, O Rome!), [ 248 ] No single parts unequally surprise, All comes united to the admiring eyes; No monstrous height or breadth, or length, appear; The whole at once is bold, and regular.

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. As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit, To avoid great errors, must the less commit: Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays, For not to know some trifles is a praise. Most critics, fond of some subservient art, Still make the whole depend upon a part: They talk of principles, but notions prize, And all to one loved folly sacrifice.

Once on a time La Mancha's knight, they say, [ 267 ] A certain bard encountering on the way, Discoursed in terms as just, with looks as sage, As e'er could Dennis, of the Grecian stage; [ 270 ] Concluding all were desperate sots and fools, Who durst depart from Aristotle's rules Our author, happy in a judge so nice, Produced his play, and begged the knight's advice; Made him observe the subject, and the plot, The manners, passions, unities, what not? All which, exact to rule, were brought about, Were but a combat in the lists left out "What! leave the combat out?" exclaims the knight. "Yes, or we must renounce the Stagirite." "Not so, by heaven!" (he answers in a rage) "Knights, squires, and steeds must enter on the stage." "So vast a throng the stage can ne'er contain." "Then build a new, or act it in a plain."

Thus critics of less judgment than caprice, Curious, not knowing, not exact, but nice, Form short ideas, and offend in arts (As most in manners) by a love to parts.

Some to conceit alone their taste confine, And glittering thoughts struck out at every line; Pleased with a work where nothing's just or fit; One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit. Poets, like painters, thus, unskilled to trace The naked nature and the living grace, With gold and jewels cover every part, And hide with ornaments their want of art. True wit is nature to advantage dressed; What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed; 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 For works may have more wit than does them good, As bodies perish through excess of blood.

Others for language all their care express, And value books, as women men, for dress. Their praise is still—"the style is excellent," The sense they humbly take upon content [ 308 ] Words are like leaves, and where they most abound Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. False eloquence, like the prismatic glass. [ 311 ] Its gaudy colors spreads on every place, The face of nature we no more survey. All glares alike without distinction gay: But true expression, like the unchanging sun, Clears and improves whate'er it shines upon; It gilds all objects, but it alters none. Expression is the dress of thought, and still Appears more decent, as more suitable, A vile conceit in pompous words expressed, Is like a clown in regal purple dressed For different styles with different subjects sort, As several garbs with country town and court Some by old words to fame have made pretense, Ancients in phrase, mere moderns in their sense; Such labored nothings, in so strange a style, Amaze the unlearned, and make the learned smile. Unlucky, as Fungoso in the play, [ 328 ] These sparks with awkward vanity display What the fine gentleman wore yesterday; And but so mimic ancient wits at best, As apes our grandsires in their doublets dressed. 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

But most by numbers judge a poet's song And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong. In the bright muse though thousand charms conspire, Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire, Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear, Not mend their minds, as some to church repair, Not for the doctrine but the music there These equal syllables alone require, Though oft the ear the open vowels tire; While expletives their feeble aid do join; And ten low words oft creep in one dull line, While they ring round the same unvaried chimes, With sure returns of still expected rhymes, Where'er you find "the cooling western breeze," In the next line it "whispers through the trees" If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep" The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep" Then, at the last and only couplet fraught With some unmeaning thing they call a thought, A needless Alexandrine ends the song [ 356 ] That, like a wounded snake drags its slow length along.

Leave such to tune their own dull rhymes, and know What's roundly smooth or languishingly slow; And praise the easy vigor of a line, Where Denham's strength, and Waller's sweetness join. [ 361 ] True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those move easiest who have learned to dance 'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense, The sound must seem an echo to the sense. Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows, [ 366 ] 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 labors, and the words move slow; Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain, Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main. [ 373 ] Hear how Timotheus' varied lays surprise, [ 374 ] And bid alternate passions fall and rise! While, at each change, the son of Libyan Jove [ 376 ] 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 subdued by sound? [ 381 ] The power of music all our hearts allow, And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

Avoid extremes, and shun the fault of such, Who still are pleased too little or too much. At every trifle scorn to take offense, That always shows great pride, or little sense: Those heads, as stomachs, are not sure the best, Which nauseate all, and nothing can digest. Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move; For fools admire, but men of sense approve: As things seem large which we through mist descry, Dullness is ever apt to magnify. [ 393 ]

Some foreign writers, some our own despise, The ancients only, or the moderns prize. Thus wit, like faith, by each man is applied To one small sect, and all are damned beside. Meanly they seek the blessing to confine, And force that sun but on a part to shine, Which not alone the southern wit sublimes, But ripens spirits in cold northern climes. Which from the first has shone on ages past, Enlights the present, and shall warm the last, Though each may feel increases and decays, And see now clearer and now darker days. Regard not then if wit be old or new, But blame the false, and value still the true.

Some ne'er advance a judgment of their own, But catch the spreading notion of the town, They reason and conclude by precedent, And own stale nonsense which they ne'er invent. Some judge of authors names not works, and then Nor praise nor blame the writing, but the men. Of all this servile herd the worst is he That in proud dullness joins with quality A constant critic at the great man's board, To fetch and carry nonsense for my lord What woful stuff this madrigal would be, In some starved hackney sonnetteer, or me! But let a lord once own the happy lines, How the wit brightens! how the style refines! Before his sacred name flies every fault, And each exalted stanza teems with thought!

The vulgar thus through imitation err; As oft the learned by being singular. So much they scorn the crowd that if the throng By chance go right they purposely go wrong: So schismatics the plain believers quit, And are but damned for having too much wit. 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. We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow; Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so. Once school-divines this zealous isle o'erspread. Who knew most sentences was deepest read, [ 441 ] Faith, Gospel, all, seemed made to be disputed, And none had sense enough to be confuted: Scotists and Thomists now in peace remain, [ 444 ] Amidst their kindred cobwebs in Duck Lane. [ 445 ] If faith itself has different dresses worn, What wonder modes in wit should take their turn? Oft, leaving what is natural and fit, The current folly proves the ready wit; And authors think their reputation safe, Which lives as long as fools are pleased to laugh.

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. Parties in wit attend on those of state, And public faction doubles private hate. Pride, malice, folly against Dryden rose, In various shapes of parsons, critics, beaux; [ 459 ] But sense survived, when merry jests were past; For rising merit will buoy up at last. Might he return, and bless once more our eyes, New Blackmores and new Millbourns must arise: [ 463 ] Nay, should great Homer lift his awful head, Zoilus again would start up from the dead [ 465 ] Envy will merit, as its shade, pursue, But like a shadow, proves the substance true: For envied wit, like Sol eclipsed, makes known The opposing body's grossness, not its own. When first that sun too powerful beams displays, It draws up vapors which obscure its rays, But even those clouds at last adorn its way Reflect new glories and augment the day

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 them live betimes No longer now that golden age appears When patriarch wits survived a thousand years [ 479 ] Now length of fame (our second life) is lost And bare threescore is all even that can boast, Our sons their fathers failing language see And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be So when the faithful pencil has designed 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 colors 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 colors the fair art betray And all the bright creation fades away!

Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things Atones not for that envy which it brings In youth alone its empty praise we boast But soon the short lived vanity is lost. Like some fair flower the early spring supplies That gayly blooms but even in blooming dies What is this wit, which must our cares employ? The owner's wife that other men enjoy Then most our trouble still when most admired And still the more we give the more required Whose fame with pains we guard, but lose with ease, Sure some to vex, but never all to please, 'Tis what the vicious fear, the virtuous shun, By fools 'tis hated, and by knaves undone!

If wit so much from ignorance undergo, Ah! let not learning too commence its foe! Of old, those met rewards who could excel, And such were praised who but endeavored well: Though triumphs were to generals only due, Crowns were reserved to grace the soldiers too. Now they who reach Parnassus' lofty crown, Employ their pains to spurn some others down; 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 urged, 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.

But if in noble minds some dregs remain, Not yet purged off, of spleen and sour disdain; Discharge that rage on more provoking crimes, Nor fear a dearth in these flagitious times. No pardon vile obscenity should find, Though wit and art conspire to move your mind; But dullness with obscenity must prove As shameful sure as impotence in love. In the fat age of pleasure, wealth, and ease, Sprung the rank weed, and thrived with large increase: When love was all an easy monarch's care, [ 536 ] Seldom at council, never in a war Jilts ruled the state, and statesmen farces writ; Nay, wits had pensions, and young lords had wit: The fair sat panting at a courtier's play, And not a mask went unimproved away: [ 541 ] The modest fan was lifted up no more, And virgins smiled at what they blushed before. The following license of a foreign reign, [ 544 ] Did all the dregs of bold Socinus drain, [ 545 ] Then unbelieving priests reformed the nation. And taught more pleasant methods of salvation; Where Heaven's free subjects might their rights dispute, Lest God himself should seem too absolute: Pulpits their sacred satire learned to spare, And vice admired to find a flatterer there! Encouraged thus, wit's Titans braved the skies, [ 552 ] And the press groaned with licensed blasphemies. These monsters, critics! with your darts engage, Here point your thunder, and exhaust your rage! Yet shun their fault, who, scandalously nice, Will needs mistake an author into vice; All seems infected that the infected spy, As all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.

Learn, then, what morals critics ought to show, For 'tis but half a judge's task to know. 'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join; In all you speak, let truth and candor shine: That not alone what to your sense is due All may allow, but seek your friendship too.

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 critique on the last.

'Tis not enough your counsel still be true; Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do; Men must be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown proposed as things forgot. Without good breeding truth is disapproved; That only makes superior sense beloved.

Be niggards of advice on no pretense; For the worst avarice is that of sense With mean complacence, ne'er betray your trust, Nor be so civil as to prove unjust Fear not the anger of the wise to raise, Those best can bear reproof who merit praise.

'Twere well might critics still this freedom take, But Appius reddens at each word you speak, [ 585 ] And stares, tremendous with a threatening eye, Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry Fear most to tax an honorable fool Whose right it is uncensured to be dull Such, without wit are poets when they please, As without learning they can take degrees Leave dangerous truths to unsuccessful satires, And flattery to fulsome dedicators Whom, when they praise, the world believes no more, Than when they promise to give scribbling o'er.

'Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain, And charitably let the dull be vain Your silence there is better than your spite, For who can rail so long as they can write? Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep, And lashed so long like tops are lashed asleep. False steps but help them to renew the race, As after stumbling, jades will mend their pace. What crowds of these, impenitently bold, In sounds and jingling syllables grown old, Still run on poets in a raging vein, Even to the dregs and squeezing of the brain; Strain out the last dull droppings of their sense, And rhyme with all the rage of impotence!

Such shameless bards we have, and yet, 'tis true, There are as mad abandoned critics, too The bookful blockhead ignorantly read, With loads of learned lumber in his head, With his own tongue still edifies his ears, And always listening to himself appears All books he reads and all he reads assails From Dryden's Fables down to Durfey's Tales [ 617 ] With him most authors steal their works or buy; Garth did not write his own Dispensary [ 619 ] Name a new play, and he's the poets friend Nay, showed his faults—but when would poets mend? No place so sacred from such fops is barred, Nor is Paul's Church more safe than Paul's Churchyard: [ 623 ] Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead, For fools rush in where angels fear to tread Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks, It still looks home, and short excursions makes; But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks, And, never shocked, and never turned aside. Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering tide,

But where's the man who counsel can bestow, Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know? Unbiased, or by favor, or in spite, Not dully prepossessed, nor blindly right; Though learned, well-bred, and though well bred, sincere, Modestly bold, and humanly severe, Who to a friend his faults can freely show, And gladly praise the merit of a foe? Blessed with a taste exact, yet unconfined; A knowledge both of books and human kind; Generous converse, a soul exempt from pride; And love to praise, with reason on his side?

Such once were critics such the happy few, Athens and Rome in better ages knew. The mighty Stagirite first left the shore, [ 645 ] Spread all his sails, and durst the deeps explore; He steered securely, and discovered far, Led by the light of the Maeonian star. [ 648 ] Poets, a race long unconfined and free, Still fond and proud of savage liberty, Received his laws, and stood convinced 'twas fit, Who conquered nature, should preside o'er wit. [ 652 ]

Horace still charms with graceful negligence, And without method talks us into sense; Will like a friend familiarly convey The truest notions in the easiest way. He who supreme in judgment as in wit, Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ, Yet judged with coolness though he sung with fire; His precepts teach but what his works inspire Our critics take a contrary extreme They judge with fury, but they write with phlegm: Nor suffers Horace more in wrong translations By wits than critics in as wrong quotations.

See Dionysius Homer's thoughts refine, [ 665 ] And call new beauties forth from every line!

Fancy and art in gay Petronius please, [ 667 ] The scholar's learning with the courtier's ease.

In grave Quintilian's copious work we find [ 669 ] The justest rules and clearest method joined: Thus useful arms in magazines we place, All ranged in order, and disposed with grace, But less to please the eye, than arm the hand, Still fit for use, and ready at command.

Thee bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire, [ 675 ] And bless their critic with a poet's fire. An ardent judge, who, zealous in his trust, With warmth gives sentence, yet is always just: Whose own example strengthens all his laws; And is himself that great sublime he draws.

Thus long succeeding critics justly reigned, License repressed, and useful laws ordained. Learning and Rome alike in empire grew; And arts still followed where her eagles flew, From the same foes at last, both felt their doom, And the same age saw learning fall, and Rome. [ 686 ] With tyranny then superstition joined As that the body, this enslaved the mind; Much was believed but little understood, And to be dull was construed to be good; A second deluge learning thus o'errun, And the monks finished what the Goths begun. [ 692 ]

At length Erasmus, that great injured name [ 693 ] (The glory of the priesthood and the shame!) Stemmed the wild torrent of a barbarous age, And drove those holy Vandals off the stage. [ 696 ]

But see! each muse, in Leo's golden days, [ 697 ] Starts from her trance and trims her withered bays, Rome's ancient genius o'er its ruins spread Shakes off the dust, and rears his reverent head Then sculpture and her sister arts revive, Stones leaped to form, and rocks began to live; With sweeter notes each rising temple rung, A Raphael painted, and a Vida sung [ 704 ] Immortal Vida! on whose honored brow The poets bays and critic's ivy grow Cremona now shall ever boast thy name As next in place to Mantua, next in fame!

But soon by impious arms from Latium chased, Their ancient bounds the banished muses passed. Thence arts o'er all the northern world advance, But critic-learning flourished most in France, The rules a nation born to serve, obeys; And Boileau still in right of Horace sways [ 714 ] But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despised, And kept unconquered and uncivilized, Fierce for the liberties of wit and bold, We still defied the Romans as of old. Yet some there were, among the sounder few Of those who less presumed and better knew, Who durst assert the juster ancient cause, And here restored wit's fundamental laws. Such was the muse, whose rule and practice tell "Nature's chief masterpiece is writing well." Such was Roscommon, not more learned than good, With manners generous as his noble blood, To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known, And every author's merit, but his own Such late was Walsh—the muse's judge and friend, Who justly knew to blame or to commend, To failings mild, but zealous for desert, The clearest head, and the sincerest heart, This humble praise, lamented shade! receive, This praise at least a grateful muse may give. The muse whose early voice you taught to sing Prescribed her heights and pruned her tender wing, (Her guide now lost) no more attempts to rise, But in low numbers short excursions tries, Content if hence the unlearned their wants may view, The learned reflect on what before they knew Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame, Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame, Averse alike to flatter, or offend, Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

[Line 17: Wit is used in the poem in a great variety of meanings (1) Here it seems to mean genius or fancy , (2) in line 36 a man of fancy , (3) in line 53 the understanding or powers of the mind , (4) in line 81 it means judgment .]

[Line 26: Schools —Different systems of doctrine or philosophy as taught by particular teachers.]

[Line 34: Maevius —An insignificant poet of the Augustan age, ridiculed by Virgil in his third Eclogue and by Horace in his tenth Epode.]

[Lines 80, 81: There is here a slight inaccuracy or inconsistency, since "wit" has a different meaning in the two lines: in 80, it means fancy, in 81, judgment .]

[Line 86: The winged courser .—Pegasus, a winged horse which sprang from the blood of Medusa when Perseus cut off her head. As soon as born he left the earth and flew up to heaven, or, according to Ovid, took up his abode on Mount Helicon, and was always associated with the Muses.]

[Line 94: Parnassus .—A mountain of Phocis, which received its name from Parnassus, the son of Neptune, and was sacred to the Muses, Apollo and Bacchus.]

[Line 97: Equal steps .—Steps equal to the undertaking.]

[Line 129: The Mantuan Muse —Virgil called Maro in the next line (his full name being, Virgilius Publius Maro) born near Mantua, 70 B.C.]

[Lines 130-136: It is said that Virgil first intended to write a poem on the Alban and Roman affairs which he found beyond his powers, and then he imitated Homer:

   Cum canerem reges et proelia Cynthius aurem    Vellit— Virg. Ecl. VI ]

[Line 138: The Stagirite —Aristotle, born at the Greek town of Stageira on the Strymonic Gulf (Gulf of Contessa, in Turkey) 384 B.C., whose treatises on Rhetoric and the Art of Poetry were the earliest development of a Philosophy of Criticism and still continue to be studied.

The poet contradicts himself with regard to the principle he is here laying down in lines 271-272 where he laughs at Dennis for

   Concluding all were desperate sots and fools    Who durst depart from Aristotle's rules.]

[Line 180: Homer nods — Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus , 'even the good Homer nods'—Horace, Epistola ad Pisones , 359.]

[Lines 183, 184: Secure from flames .—The poet probably alludes to such fires as those in which the Alexandrine and Palatine Libraries were destroyed. From envy's fiercer rage .—Probably he alludes to the writings of such men as Maevius (see note to line 34) and Zoilus, a sophist and grammarian of Amphipolis, who distinguished himself by his criticism on Isocrates, Plato, and Homer, receiving the nickname of Homeromastic (chastiser of Homer). Destructive war —Probably an allusion to the irruption of the barbarians into the south of Europe. And all-involving age ; that is, time. This is usually explained as an allusion to 'the long reign of ignorance and superstition in the cloisters,' but it is surely far-fetched, and more than the language will bear.]

[Lines 193, 194:

   'Round the whole world this dreaded name shall sound,     And reach to worlds that must not yet be found,"—COWLEY.]

[Line 216: The Pierian spring —A fountain in Pieria, a district round Mount Olympus and the native country of the Muses.]

[Line 248: And even thine, O Rome. —The dome of St Peter's Church, designed by Michael Angelo.]

[Line 267: La Mancha's Knight .—Don Quixote, a fictitious Spanish knight, the hero of a book written (1605) by Cervantes, a Spanish writer.]

[Line 270: Dennis, the son of a saddler in London, born 1657, was a mediocre writer, and rather better critic of the time, with whom Pope came a good deal into collision. Addison's tragedy of Cato , for which Pope had written a prologue, had been attacked by Dennis. Pope, to defend Addison, wrote an imaginary report, pretending to be written by a notorious quack mad-doctor of the day, entitled The Narrative of Dr. Robert Norris on the Frenz of F. D. Dennis replied to it by his Character of Mr. Pope . Ultimately Pope gave him a place in his Dunciad , and wrote a prologue for his benefit.]

[Line 308: On content .—On trust, a common use of the word in Pope's time.]

[Lines 311, 312: Prismatic glass .—A glass prism by which light is refracted, and the component rays, which are of different colors being refracted at different angles show what is called a spectrum or series of colored bars, in the order violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.]

[Line 328: Fungoso —One of the characters in Ben Jonson's Every Man out of his Humor who assumed the dress and tried to pass himself off for another.]

[Line 356: Alexandrine —A line of twelve syllables, so called from a French poem on the Life of Alexander the Great, written in that meter. The poet gives a remarkable example in the next line.]

[Line 361: Sir John Denham, a poet of the time of Charles I. (1615-1668). His verse is characterized by considerable smoothness and ingenuity of rhythm, with here and there a passage of some force—Edmund Waller (1606-1687) is celebrated as one of the refiners of English poetry. His rank among English poets, however, is very subordinate.]

[Line 366: Zephyr .—Zephyrus, the west wind personified by the poets and made the most mild and gentle of the sylvan deities.]

[Lines 366-373: In this passage the poet obviously intended to make "the sound seem an echo to the sense". The success of the attempt has not been very complete except in the second two lines, expressing the dash and roar of the waves, and in the last two, expressing the skimming, continuous motion of Camilla. What he refers to is the onomatopoeia of Homer and Virgil in the passages alluded to. Ajax , the son of Telamon, was, next to Achilles, the bravest of all the Greeks in the Trojan war. When the Greeks were challenged by Hector he was chosen their champion and it was in their encounter that he seized a huge stone and hurled it at Hector.

Thus rendered by Pope himself:

   "Then Ajax seized the fragment of a rock    Applied each nerve, and swinging round on high,    With force tempestuous let the ruin fly    The huge stone thundering through his buckler broke."

Camilla , queen of the Volsci, was brought up in the woods, and, according to Virgil, was swifter than the winds. She led an army to assist Turnus against Aeneas.

   "Dura pan, cursuque pedum praevertere ventos.     Illa vel intactae segetis per summa volaret     Gramina nec teneras cursu laesisset aristas;     Vel mare per medium fluctu suspensa tumenti,     Ferret iter, celeres nec tingeret aequore plantas."                                             Aen . vii 807-811.

Thus rendered by Dryden.

   "Outstripped the winds in speed upon the plain,    Flew o'er the fields, nor hurt the bearded grain;    She swept the seas, and as she skimmed along,    Her flying feet unbathed on billows hung"]

[Lines 374-381: This passage refers to Dryden's ode, Alexander's Feast , or The Power of Music . Timotheus, mentioned in it, was a musician of Boeotia, a favorite of Alexander's, not the great musician Timotheus, who died before Alexander was born, unless, indeed, Dryden have confused the two.]

[Line 376: The son of Libyan Jove .—A title arrogated to himself by Alexander.]

[Line 393: Dullness here 'seems to be incorrectly used. Ignorance is apt to magnify, but dullness reposes in stolid indifference.']

[Line 441: Sentences —Passages from the Fathers of the Church who were regarded as decisive authorities on all disputed points of doctrine.]

[Line 444: Scotists —The disciples of Duns Scotus, one of the most famous and influential of the scholastics of the fourteenth century, who was opposed to Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), another famous scholastic, regarding the doctrines of grace and the freedom of the will, but especially the immaculate conception of the Virgin. The followers of the latter were called Thomists, between whom and the Scotists bitter controversies were carried on.]

[Line 445: Duck Lane .—A place near Smithfield where old books were sold. The cobwebs were kindred to the works of these controversialists, because their arguments were intricate and obscure. Scotus is said to have demolished two hundred objections to the doctrine of the immaculate conception, and established it by a cloud of proofs.]

[Line 459: Parsons .—This is an allusion to Jeremy Collier, the author of A Short View etc, of the English Stage . Critics, beaux .—This to the Duke of Buckingham, the author of The Rehearsal .]

[Line 463: Blackmore , Sir Richard (1652-1729), one of the court physicians and the writer of a great deal of worthless poetry. He attacked the dramatists of the time generally and Dryden individually, and is the Quack Maurus of Dryden's prologue to The Secular Masque . Millbourn , Rev. Luke, who criticised Dryden; which criticism, although sneered at by Pope, is allowed to have been judicious and decisive.]

[Line 465: Zoilus . See note on line 183.]

[Line 479: Patriarch wits —Perhaps an allusion to the great age to which the antediluvian patriarchs of the Bible lived.]

[Line 536: An easy monarch .—Charles II.]

[Line 541: At that time ladies went to the theater in masks.]

[Line 544: A foreign reign .—The reign of the foreigner, William III.]

[Line 545: Socinus .—The reaction from the fanaticism of the Puritans, who held extreme notions of free grace and satisfaction, by resolving all Christianity into morality, led the way to the introduction of Socinianism, the most prominent feature of which is the denial of the existence of the Trinity.]

[Line 552: Wit's Titans .—The Titans, in Greek mythology, were the children of Uranus (heaven) and Gaea (earth), and of gigantic size. They engaged in a conflict with Zeus, the king of heaven, which lasted ten years. They were completely defeated, and hurled down into a dungeon below Tartarus. Very often they are confounded with the Giants, as has apparently been done here by Pope. These were a later progeny of the same parents, and in revenge for what had been done to the Titans, conspired to dethrone Zeus. In order to scale heaven, they piled Mount Ossa upon Pelion, and would have succeeded in their attempt if Zeus had not called in the assistance of his son Hercules.]

[Line 585: Appius .—He refers to Dennis (see note to verse 270) who had published a tragedy called Appius and Virginia . He retaliated for these remarks by coarse personalities upon Pope, in his criticism of this poem.]

[Line 617: Durfey's Tales .—Thomas D'Urfey, the author (in the reign of Charles II.) of a sequel in five acts of The Rehearsal , a series of sonnets entitled Pills to Purge Melancholy , the Tales here alluded to, etc. He was a very inferior poet, although Addison pleaded for him.]

[Line 619: Garth, Dr. , afterwards Sir Samuel (born 1660) an eminent physician and a poet of considerable reputation He is best known as the author of The Dispensary , a poetical satire on the apothecaries and physicians who opposed the project of giving medicine gratuitously to the sick poor. The poet alludes to a slander current at the time with regard to the authorship of the poem.]

[Line 623: St Paul's Churchyard , before the fire of London, was the headquarters of the booksellers.]

[Lines 645, 646: See note on line 138.]

[Line 648: The Maeonian star .—Homer, supposed by some to have been born in Maeonia, a part of Lydia in Asia Minor, and whose poems were the chief subject of Aristotle's criticism.]

[Line 652: Who conquered nature —He wrote, besides his other works, treatises on Astronomy, Mechanics, Physics, and Natural History.]

[Line 665: Dionysius , born at Halicarnassus about 50 B.C., was a learned critic, historian, and rhetorician at Rome in the Augustan age.]

[Line 667: Petronius .—A Roman voluptuary at the court of Nero whose ambition was to shine as a court exquisite. He is generally supposed to be the author of certain fragments of a comic romance called Petronii Arbitri Satyricon .]

[Line 669: Quintilian , born in Spain 40 A.D. was a celebrated teacher of rhetoric and oratory at Rome. His greatwork is De Institutione Oratorica , a complete system of rhetoric, which is here referred to.]

[Line 675: Longinus , a Platonic philosopher and famous rhetorician, born either in Syria or at Athens about 213 A.D., was probably the best critic of antiquity. From his immense knowledge, he was called "a living library" and "walking museum," hence the poet speaks of him as inspired by all the Nine —Muses that is. These were Clio, the muse of History, Euterpe, of Music, Thaleia, of Pastoral and Comic Poetry and Festivals, Melpomene, of Tragedy, Terpsichore, of Dancing, Erato, of Lyric and Amorous Poetry, Polyhymnia, of Rhetoric and Singing, Urania, of Astronomy, Calliope, of Eloquence and Heroic Poetry.]

[Line 686: Rome .—For this pronunciation (to rhyme with doom ) he has Shakespeare's example as precedent.]

[Line 692: Goths .—A powerful nation of the Germanic race, which, originally from the Baltic, first settled near the Black Sea, and then overran and took an important part in the subversion of the Roman empire. They were distinguished as Ostro Goths (Eastern Goths) on the shores of the Black Sea, the Visi Goths (Western Goths) on the Danube, and the Moeso Goths, in Moesia ]

[Line 693: Erasmus .—A Dutchman (1467-1536), and at one time a Roman Catholic priest, who acted as tutor to Alexander Stuart, a natural son of James IV. of Scotland as professor of Greek for a short time at Oxford, and was the most learned man of his time. His best known work is his Colloquia , which contains satirical onslaughts on monks, cloister life, festivals, pilgrimages etc.]

[Line 696: Vandals .—A race of European barbarians, who first appear historically about the second century, south of the Baltic. They overran in succession Gaul, Spain, and Italy. In 455 they took and plundered Rome, and the way they mutilated and destroyed the works of art has become a proverb, hence the monks are compared to them in their ignorance of art and science.]

[Line 697: Leo .—Leo X., or the Great (1513-1521), was a scholar himself, and gave much encouragement to learning and art.]

[Line 704: Raphael (1483-1520), an Italian, is almost universally regarded as the greatest of painters. He received much encouragement from Leo. Vida —A poet patronised by Leo. He was the son of poor parents at Cremona (see line 707), which therefore the poet says, would be next in fame to Mantua, the birthplace of Virgil as it was next to it in place.

   "Mantua vae miserae nimium vicina Cremona."—Virg.]

[Line 714: Boileau .—An illustrious French poet (1636-1711), who wrote a poem on the Art of Poetry, which is copiously imitated by Pope in this poem.]

[Lines 723, 724: Refers to the Duke of Buckingham's Essay on Poetry which had been eulogized also by Dryden and Dr. Garth.]

[Line 725: Roscommon , the Earl of, a poet, who has the honor to be the first critic who praised Milton's Paradise Lost , died 1684.]

[Line 729: Walsh .—An indifferent writer, to whom Pope owed a good deal, died 1710.]

Study.com

In order to continue enjoying our site, we ask that you confirm your identity as a human. Thank you very much for your cooperation.

We’re fighting to restore access to 500,000+ books in court this week. Join us!

Internet Archive Audio

essay on criticism written by

  • This Just In
  • Grateful Dead
  • Old Time Radio
  • 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings
  • Audio Books & Poetry
  • Computers, Technology and Science
  • Music, Arts & Culture
  • News & Public Affairs
  • Spirituality & Religion
  • Radio News Archive

essay on criticism written by

  • Flickr Commons
  • Occupy Wall Street Flickr
  • NASA Images
  • Solar System Collection
  • Ames Research Center

essay on criticism written by

  • All Software
  • Old School Emulation
  • MS-DOS Games
  • Historical Software
  • Classic PC Games
  • Software Library
  • Kodi Archive and Support File
  • Vintage Software
  • CD-ROM Software
  • CD-ROM Software Library
  • Software Sites
  • Tucows Software Library
  • Shareware CD-ROMs
  • Software Capsules Compilation
  • CD-ROM Images
  • ZX Spectrum
  • DOOM Level CD

essay on criticism written by

  • Smithsonian Libraries
  • FEDLINK (US)
  • Lincoln Collection
  • American Libraries
  • Canadian Libraries
  • Universal Library
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Children's Library
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library
  • Books by Language
  • Additional Collections

essay on criticism written by

  • Prelinger Archives
  • Democracy Now!
  • Occupy Wall Street
  • TV NSA Clip Library
  • Animation & Cartoons
  • Arts & Music
  • Computers & Technology
  • Cultural & Academic Films
  • Ephemeral Films
  • Sports Videos
  • Videogame Videos
  • Youth Media

Search the history of over 866 billion web pages on the Internet.

Mobile Apps

  • Wayback Machine (iOS)
  • Wayback Machine (Android)

Browser Extensions

Archive-it subscription.

  • Explore the Collections
  • Build Collections

Save Page Now

Capture a web page as it appears now for use as a trusted citation in the future.

Please enter a valid web address

  • Donate Donate icon An illustration of a heart shape

An essay on criticism

Bookreader item preview, share or embed this item, flag this item for.

  • Graphic Violence
  • Explicit Sexual Content
  • Hate Speech
  • Misinformation/Disinformation
  • Marketing/Phishing/Advertising
  • Misleading/Inaccurate/Missing Metadata

Copyright and title are on cover. Some text runs into the gutter Some text printed askew

[WorldCat (this item)]

plus-circle Add Review comment Reviews

Download options, in collections.

Uploaded by Francesca Marchetti on September 6, 2022

SIMILAR ITEMS (based on metadata)

Pardon Our Interruption

As you were browsing something about your browser made us think you were a bot. There are a few reasons this might happen:

  • You've disabled JavaScript in your web browser.
  • You're a power user moving through this website with super-human speed.
  • You've disabled cookies in your web browser.
  • A third-party browser plugin, such as Ghostery or NoScript, is preventing JavaScript from running. Additional information is available in this support article .

To regain access, please make sure that cookies and JavaScript are enabled before reloading the page.

  • How to Order

User Icon

Essay Writing Guide

Writing A Body Paragraph

Nova A.

How To Write A Strong Body Paragraph

writing a body paragraph

People also read

An Easy Guide to Writing an Essay

A Complete 500 Word Essay Writing Guide

A Catalog of 370+ Essay Topics for Students

Common Types of Essays - Sub-types and Examples

Essay Format: A Basic Guide With Examples

How to Write an Essay Outline in 5 Simple Steps

How to Start an Essay? Tips for an Engaging Start

A Complete Essay Introduction Writing Guide With Examples

Learn How to Write an Essay Hook, With Examples

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Powerful Thesis Statement

20+ Thesis Statement Examples for Different Types of Essays?

How to Write a Topic Sentence: Purpose, Tips & Examples

Learn How to Write a Conclusion in Simple Steps

Transition Words For Essays - The Ultimate List

4 Types of Sentences - Definition & Examples

Writing Conventions - Definition, Tips & Examples

Essay Writing Problems - 5 Most Paralyzing Problems

Tips On How to Make an Essay Longer: 15 Easy Ways

How to Title an Essay Properly- An Easy Guide

1000 Word Essay - A Simple Guide With Examples

A Guide to Writing a Five-Paragraph Essay

Many students and writers struggle to write effective body paragraphs, often dealing with issues like clarity, coherence, and staying relevant. These challenges can result in weak arguments, messy essays, and a lack of persuasiveness.This blog is your guide to creating strong body paragraphs. With our easy steps for writing a good body paragraph, you can create clear and coherent essays.So, let’s get started!

Arrow Down

  • 1. Body Paragraph Structure
  • 2. How To Write a Body Paragraph
  • 3. Don'ts of Writing a Body Paragraph

Body Paragraph Structure

Understanding the structure of a body paragraph is crucial for crafting effective and coherent writing. Each part of the structure serves a specific purpose in developing the main idea and supporting the overall argument of the essay. 

Here is the typical structure of a body paragraph:

Topic Sentence

The topic sentence is the first sentence of a body paragraph and introduces the main idea of the paragraph. It should be clear, concise, and directly related to the thesis statement of the essay. 

A strong topic sentence sets the tone for the paragraph and gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

Supporting Sentences

Supporting sentences follow the topic sentence and provide evidence, examples, and explanations to develop the main idea. These sentences should be well-organized and logically connected to ensure coherence. 

Types of evidence include facts, statistics, quotes from experts, and real-life examples.

Explanation and Analysis

In addition to presenting evidence, it's important to explain and analyze how the evidence supports the topic sentence. This involves interpreting the significance of the evidence and connecting it back to the main idea of the paragraph.

Concluding Sentence

The concluding sentence wraps up the paragraph by summarizing the main point and providing a transition to the next paragraph. It reinforces the topic sentence and ensures that the paragraph ends on a strong note.

The TEAR structure is also an effective way to organize body paragraphs to ensure clarity and coherence. TEAR stands for Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis, and Recap.

Introduces the main idea of the paragraph and relates to the thesis statement."Effective communication is a vital skill in the workplace."
Provides facts, statistics, quotes, or examples that support the topic sentence."According to a recent survey, 85% of employees believe that good communication skills are crucial for career advancement."
Explains and interprets the evidence, showing how it supports the topic sentence."This statistic highlights the importance of communication skills in achieving professional success, as it demonstrates that the majority of employees recognize its value."
Summarizes the main point of the paragraph and transitions to the next paragraph."Therefore, developing effective communication skills is essential for anyone looking to succeed in the workplace."

How To Write a Body Paragraph

Creating an effective body paragraph is essential for building a strong, coherent essay. 

Body paragraphs are typically placed between the essay introduction and the conclusion , forming the core of the essay. 

Follow these steps to ensure each paragraph is well-structured and supports your overall argument, as detailed in your essay outline :

Step 1: Understand the Purpose

Before you start writing, understand the purpose of your body paragraph. Each paragraph should support your thesis statement and contribute to the overall argument or narrative of your essay.

Step 2: Write a Clear Topic Sentence

Start with a topic sentence that introduces the main idea of the paragraph. This sentence should be clear, concise, and directly related to your thesis statement.

Example: "Effective communication is a crucial skill in the workplace."

Step 3: Provide Supporting Evidence

After the topic sentence, include supporting sentences that provide evidence to back up your main idea. Use facts, statistics, quotes, or real-life examples. Ensure your evidence is relevant and credible.

Example: "A recent survey found that 85% of employees believe good communication skills are essential for career advancement."

Step 4: Explain and Analyze the Evidence

Explain and analyze the evidence you provided. Show how it supports the topic sentence by interpreting the significance of the evidence and connecting it back to the main idea. This step is crucial for demonstrating your critical thinking skills and deep understanding of the topic.

Example: "This statistic highlights the importance of communication skills in professional success, as it demonstrates that most employees recognize their value."

Step 5: Conclude with a Concluding Sentence

End the paragraph with a concluding sentence that summarizes the main point and provides a transition to the next paragraph. This sentence should reinforce the topic sentence and ensure the paragraph ends on a strong note.

Example: "Therefore, developing effective communication skills is essential for anyone looking to succeed in the workplace."

Step 6: Ensure Coherence and Flow

Make sure your sentences are logically connected and that the paragraph flows smoothly from one idea to the next. Use transitional words and phrases to maintain coherence and guide the reader through your argument.

Step 7: Review and Revise

After writing your paragraph, review it to ensure it effectively supports your thesis statement and follows the TEAR structure (Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis, Recap). 

Revise for clarity, coherence, and conciseness.

Example Paragraph:

"Effective communication is a crucial skill in the workplace."

"A recent survey found that 85% of employees believe good communication skills are essential for career advancement."

"This statistic highlights the importance of communication skills in professional success, as it demonstrates that most employees recognize their value."

"Therefore, developing effective communication skills is essential for anyone looking to succeed in the workplace."

How to Write a Body Paragraph for a Research Paper

Writing body paragraphs for a research paper requires a precise approach to ensure clarity, coherence, and credibility. Here’s how you can craft effective body paragraphs for a research paper:

  • Write a Clear Topic Sentence Begin with a topic sentence that introduces the main idea of the paragraph and relates directly to your thesis statement.
  • Introduce and Cite Evidence Provide credible supporting evidence, such as data, statistics, or quotes from experts, and cite your sources properly.
  • Analyze and Interpret the Evidence Explain how the evidence supports your topic sentence, discussing its significance and implications.
  • Connect to the Broader Argument Relate the analysis back to the broader argument of your research paper. Show how this paragraph fits into your overall thesis and contributes to the understanding of the topic.
  • Conclude with a Recap or Transition End with a concluding sentence that summarizes the main point or transitions to the next paragraph.

How to Write a Body Paragraph for an Essay

Crafting body paragraphs for an essay involves presenting a coherent argument that supports your thesis statement. Here’s how to write an effective body paragraph for an essay:

  • Write a Clear Topic Sentence Start with a topic sentence that clearly states the main idea of the paragraph and links back to your thesis statement.
  • Provide Supporting Evidence Include relevant evidence, such as facts, statistics, examples, or quotes from credible sources.
  • Explain and Analyze the Evidence Interpret the evidence and explain how it supports your topic sentence, highlighting its significance.
  • Conclude with a Recap or Transition End with a sentence that summarizes the main point or transitions to the next paragraph.

Don'ts of Writing a Body Paragraph

When writing your body paragraphs, be mindful of these additional pitfalls to ensure clarity, coherence, and effectiveness in your writing:

  • Avoid unsupported claims; always provide evidence.
  • Use quotes sparingly; ensure they directly support your points.
  • Stay focused on your main idea; avoid introducing new concepts.
  • Stick to relevant information; avoid tangential details.
  • Provide specific evidence; avoid overgeneralizing.

Now you know how to write an effective body paragraph for essays and research papers. 

By following these guidelines, you can ensure your paragraphs are clear, well-supported, and contribute meaningfully to your overall argument. 

However, if you're still struggling with your writing or need further assistance, feel free to contact our essay writing service . We're here to help you craft compelling and well-structured academic papers.

So, trust your essays to our professional writers and place your order!

AI Essay Bot

Write Essay Within 60 Seconds!

Nova A.

Nova Allison is a Digital Content Strategist with over eight years of experience. Nova has also worked as a technical and scientific writer. She is majorly involved in developing and reviewing online content plans that engage and resonate with audiences. Nova has a passion for writing that engages and informs her readers.

Get Help

Paper Due? Why Suffer? That’s our Job!

Keep reading

essay writing guide

IMAGES

  1. How To Write A Critique Essay Example

    essay on criticism written by

  2. Essay On Criticism

    essay on criticism written by

  3. THE Criticism AND THE Essay

    essay on criticism written by

  4. Learn How to Write a Critique Essay in 2024

    essay on criticism written by

  5. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

    essay on criticism written by

  6. An Essay on Criticism de Alexander Pope en PDF, MOBI y EPUB gratis

    essay on criticism written by

VIDEO

  1. Literary Criticism Of Aristotle

  2. 'What is Criticism?' by Roland Barthes, Notes and Summary, MA English SEM 2, Poststructuralism, UGC

  3. 🔴Literary Criticism

  4. Art as Technique

  5. How to write an essay on importance of newspaper

  6. Russian Formalism and New Criticism Literary Theory

COMMENTS

  1. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

    Pope primarily used the heroic couplet, and his lines are immensely quotable; from "An Essay on Criticism" come famous phrases such as "To err is human; to forgive, divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing," and "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.". After 1718 Pope lived on his five-acre property at ...

  2. An Essay on Criticism

    An Essay on Criticism. An Essay on Criticism is one of the first major poems written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1688-1744), published in 1711. It is the source of the famous quotations "To err is human; to forgive, divine", "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (frequently misquoted as "A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing ...

  3. An Essay on Criticism

    Table of Contents An Essay on Criticism, didactic poem in heroic couplets by Alexander Pope, first published anonymously in 1711 when the author was 22 years old.Although inspired by Horace's Ars poetica, this work of literary criticism borrowed from the writers of the Augustan Age.In it Pope set out poetic rules, a Neoclassical compendium of maxims, with a combination of ambitious argument ...

  4. Analysis of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism

    An Essay on Criticism (1711) was Pope's first independent work, published anonymously through an obscure bookseller [12-13]. Its implicit claim to authority is not based on a lifetime's creative work or a prestigious commission but, riskily, on the skill and argument of the poem alone. It offers a sort of master-class not only in doing….

  5. An Essay on Criticism Summary & Analysis

    Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" seeks to lay down rules of good taste in poetry criticism, and in poetry itself. Structured as an essay in rhyming verse, it offers advice to the aspiring critic while satirizing amateurish criticism and poetry. The famous passage beginning "A little learning is a dangerous thing" advises would-be critics to learn their field in depth, warning that the ...

  6. AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM.

    AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM, WRITTEN IN THE YEAR 1709 [The title, An Essay on Criticism hardly indicates all that is included in the poem. It would have been impossible to give a full and exact idea of the art of poetical criticism without entering into the consideration of the art of poetry. Accordingly Pope has interwoven the precepts of both ...

  7. An Essay on Criticism: Part 1

    An Essay on Criticism: Part 1. By Alexander Pope. Si quid novisti rectius istis, Candidus imperti; si non, his utere mecum. [If you have come to know any precept more correct than these, share it with me, brilliant one; if not, use these with me] (Horace, Epistle I.6.67) PART 1. 'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill.

  8. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope: Exploring Poetic Mastery

    Introduction. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope is not just a poem—it's a monumental work in the world of literary criticism, offering a keen insight into the nature of criticism itself. Written in 1709 and published in 1711 when Pope was only 23 years old, this work showcases his precocious command of the English language and his understanding of the classical poets.

  9. "An Essay on Criticism"

    "An Essay on Criticism" By Alexander Pope. Transcription, correction, editorial commentary, and markup by The Text Creation Partnership and Students and Staff of The University of Virginia. Source ...

  10. An Essay on Criticism Summary

    Plot Summary. "An Essay on Criticism" (1709) is a work of both poetry and criticism. Pope attempts in this long, three-part poem, which he wrote when he was twenty-three, to examine ...

  11. Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope

    An Essay on Criticism, published anonymously by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in 1711, is perhaps the clearest statement of neoclassical principles in any language. In its broad outlines, it expresses a worldview which synthesizes elements of a Roman Catholic outlook with classical aesthetic principles and with deism. That Pope was born a Roman Catholic affected not…

  12. English Poetry, Full Text

    AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM. Written in the Year 1709. (by Pope, Alexander) THE CONTENTS OF THE Essay on Criticism. PART I. 1. That 'tis as great a fault to judge ill, as to write-ill, and a more dangerous one to the public.. 2. The variety of men's Tastes; of a true Taste, how rare to be found.

  13. An Essay on Criticism Analysis

    Analysis. Last Updated September 5, 2023. Alexander Pope 's long three-part poem "An Essay on Criticism" is largely influenced by ancient poets, classical models of art, and Pope's own ...

  14. from An Essay on Criticism

    An Essay on Criticism was not the only poetical essay written by Pope. French writer Voltaire so admired Pope's Essay on Man that he arranged for its translation into French and from there it spread around Europe. As in Pope's poem, Scott creates a metaphor of the landscape to represent his marriage.

  15. An Essay on Criticism

    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 ...

  16. An essay on criticism: Written by Mr. Pope

    AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM. Written by Mr. POPE —Si quid novisti rectius istis, Candidus imperti; si non, his utere mecum. HORAT. The SECOND EDITION. LONDON: Printed for W. Lewis in Russel-Street Covent-Garden. MDCCXIII. Page [unnumbered] AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM. 'TIS hard to say, if greater Want of Skill.

  17. An Essay on Criticism Summary and Study Guide

    Summary: "An Essay on Criticism: Written in the Year 1709". Alexander Pope was a prominent English poet and satirist who was born in 1688 and died in 1744. He published An Essay on Criticism in 1711, though the subtitle suggests that he wrote it earlier, and it is the work that made him famous and launched his career.

  18. An Essay on Criticism Plot Summary

    Summary. "An Essay on Criticism" is a three-part poem in which Alexander Pope shares his thoughts on the proper rules and etiquette for critics. Critics assail Pope's work, his background, his religion, and his physical appearance throughout his career. Pope has a lot to say to critics about their common mistakes and how they could do their job ...

  19. An Essay on Criticism: Part 2

    An Essay on Criticism: Part 2 By Alexander Pope About this Poet The acknowledged master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, British writer Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century. He is known for having perfected the rhymed couplet form of...

  20. AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM.

    AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM, WRITTEN IN THE YEAR 1709 [The title, An Essay on Criticism hardly indicates all that is included in the poem. It would have been impossible to give a full and exact idea of the art of poetical criticism without entering into the consideration of the art of poetry. Accordingly Pope has interwoven the precepts of both ...

  21. An Essay on Criticism Study Guide

    "An Essay on Criticism" is written in the present tense. About the Title "An Essay on Criticism" is in the form of a rhyming poem, but its content is akin to a nonfiction essay detailing and supporting Pope's arguments about writers and critics. Alexander Pope wrote and translated many different types of literature, using poetic forms to ...

  22. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

    An Essay on Criticism, frontispiece. Published in 1711, Alexander Pope 's poem An Essay on Criticism is a series of finely-wrought epigrams on the art of writing and one of the most quoted poems ...

  23. An essay on criticism : Pope, Alexander, 1688-1744 : Free Download

    An essay on criticism ... Be the first one to write a review. 119 Views . 1 Favorite. DOWNLOAD OPTIONS download 1 file . CHOCR download. download 1 file . CLOTH COVER DETECTION LOG download. Generate. EPUB download 1 file ...

  24. Compare and contrast Essay Guidelines (docx)

    Compare and contrast Essay Guidelines Assignment Description The purpose of this assignment is to write a focused analysis that examines the similarities and/or differences between two things with the intention to make a "value judgement" or argument about the merits of one over the other or to demonstrate what we can learn from examining two things alongside each other.

  25. How to Write an AP Language Argument Essay?

    The free-response section consists of three different essays: the synthesis essay, the rhetorical analysis essay, and the argument essay. The synthesis essay requires you to read multiple sources on a given topic and write an argument using those sources.

  26. An Essay on Criticism Themes

    The themes in "An Essay on Criticism" are the principles of artistic greatness and the pursuit of poetry as a life-long endeavor. The principles of artistic greatness: Pope discusses the qualities ...

  27. Analysis and commentary on CNN's presidential debate

    Read CNN's analysis and commentary of the first 2024 presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in Atlanta.

  28. How to Structure and Write A Good Body Paragraph

    How To Write a Body Paragraph. Creating an effective body paragraph is essential for building a strong, coherent essay. Body paragraphs are typically placed between the essay introduction and the conclusion, forming the core of the essay.. Follow these steps to ensure each paragraph is well-structured and supports your overall argument, as detailed in your essay outline: