An Essay on Criticism was published when Pope was relatively young. The work remains, however, one of the best-known commentaries on literary criticism. Although the work treats literary criticism in particular and thus relies heavily upon ancient authors as type masters, Pope still extends this criticism to general judgment about all walks of life. He demonstrates that true genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven; at the same time, he argues, many possess the seeds of these gifts, such that with proper training they can be developed. His organization takes on a very simple structure: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which he judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic.
Part 1 begins with Pope’s heavy indictment of false critics. In doing so, he suggests that critics often are partial to their own judgment, judgment deriving, of course, from nature, like that of the poet’s genius. Nature provides everyone with some taste, which may in the end help the critic to judge properly. Therefore, the first job of the critic is to know himself or herself, his or her own judgments, his or her own tastes and abilities.
The second task of the critic is to know nature. Nature, to Pope, is a universal force, an ideal sought by critic and poet alike, an ideal that must be discovered by the critic through a careful balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberate reason. The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal acceptance: namely, the works of antiquity. Pope points out that, in times past, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature, whereas in his contemporary scene critics are straying from such principles. Moderns, he declares, seem to make their own rules, which are pedantic,...
(The entire section is 762 words.)
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)
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 Supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg'd with Coolness tho' he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.
Our Criticks take a contrary Extream,
They judge with Fury, but they write with Fle'me:
Nor suffers Horace more in wrong Translations
By Wits, than Criticks in as wrong Quotations. (An Essay on Criticism, ll. 653-664)
Basic set up:
In this section of Pope's poem (yeah, it's a poem, but it's also an essay), he praises the ancient Roman poet Horace.
The Augustans' love for the classics is reflected in these lines. Here, Pope is waxing lyrical about what a wonderful writer the ancient poet Horace was.
According to Pope, Horace is great at talking us "into Sense." He conveys to us "the truest Notions in the easiest way." Basically, if you ask Pope, Horace is so much better than all those hacks writing during Pope's own time, who "judge with Fury, but… write with Fle'me."
That's phlegm, folks. Tasty image.
Pope doesn't just praise Horace in this excerpt; he also tries to emulate Horace's wit and style. Look at how neat and graceful those heroic couplets are: "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."
Like Horace, Pope is also trying to talk us into sense here. He's trying to convey "Notions" to us in the "easiest way," that is, by employing a style and language that's graceful, convincing, and witty all at once.