An Essay on Criticism: Part 1

Original Text: 
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (London: Lewis, 1711). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 3626.A1 1970 TRIN.
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)
2Appear in writing or in judging ill;
3But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
4To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
5Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
6Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
7A fool might once himself alone expose,
8Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
9     'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
10Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
11In poets as true genius is but rare,
12True taste as seldom is the critic's share;
13Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
14These born to judge, as well as those to write.
15Let such teach others who themselves excel,
16And censure freely who have written well.
17Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
18But are not critics to their judgment too?
19     Yet if we look more closely we shall find
20Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
21Nature affords at least a glimm'ring light;
22The lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
23But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac'd,
24Is by ill colouring but the more disgrac'd,
25So by false learning is good sense defac'd;
26Some are bewilder'd in the maze of schools,
27And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
28In search of wit these lose their common sense,
29And then turn critics in their own defence:
30Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
31Or with a rival's, or an eunuch's spite.
32All fools have still an itching to deride,
33And fain would be upon the laughing side.
35There are, who judge still worse than he can write.
36     Some have at first for wits, then poets pass'd,
37Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last;
38Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
39As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
40Those half-learn'd witlings, num'rous in our isle
41As half-form'd insects on the banks of Nile;
42Unfinish'd things, one knows not what to call,
45Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.
46     But you who seek to give and merit fame,
47And justly bear a critic's noble name,
48Be sure your self and your own reach to know,
49How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
50Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
51And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.
52     Nature to all things fix'd the limits fit,
53And wisely curb'd proud man's pretending wit:
54As on the land while here the ocean gains,
55In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains;
56Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
57The solid pow'r of understanding fails;
58Where beams of warm imagination play,
59The memory's soft figures melt away.
62Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
63But oft in those, confin'd to single parts.
64Like kings we lose the conquests gain'd before,
66Each might his sev'ral province well command,
67Would all but stoop to what they understand.
68     First follow NATURE, and your judgment frame
69By her just standard, which is still the same:
70Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
71One clear, unchang'd, and universal light,
72Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
73At once the source, and end, and test of art.
74Art from that fund each just supply provides,
75Works without show, and without pomp presides:
78Each motion guides, and ev'ry nerve sustains;
79Itself unseen, but in th' effects, remains.
80Some, to whom Heav'n in wit has been profuse,
81Want as much more, to turn it to its use;
82For wit and judgment often are at strife,
83Though meant each other's aid, like man and wife.
84'Tis more to guide, than spur the Muse's steed;
85Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed;
86The winged courser, like a gen'rous horse,
87Shows most true mettle when you check his course.
89Are Nature still, but Nature methodis'd;
90Nature, like liberty, is but restrain'd
91By the same laws which first herself ordain'd.
92     Hear how learn'd Greece her useful rules indites,
93When to repress, and when indulge our flights:
95And pointed out those arduous paths they trod;
96Held from afar, aloft, th' immortal prize,
97And urg'd the rest by equal steps to rise.
98Just precepts thus from great examples giv'n,
99She drew from them what they deriv'd from Heav'n.
100The gen'rous critic fann'd the poet's fire,
101And taught the world with reason to admire.
102Then criticism the Muse's handmaid prov'd,
103To dress her charms, and make her more belov'd;
104But following wits from that intention stray'd;
105Who could not win the mistress, woo'd the maid;
106Against the poets their own arms they turn'd,
107Sure to hate most the men from whom they learn'd.
108So modern 'pothecaries, taught the art
111Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.
112Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey,
113Nor time nor moths e'er spoil'd so much as they:
114Some drily plain, without invention's aid,
115Write dull receipts how poems may be made:
116These leave the sense, their learning to display,
117And those explain the meaning quite away.
118     You then whose judgment the right course would steer,
119Know well each ANCIENT'S proper character;
120His fable, subject, scope in ev'ry page;
121Religion, country, genius of his age:
122Without all these at once before your eyes,
123Cavil you may, but never criticise.
124Be Homer's works your study and delight,
125Read them by day, and meditate by night;
126Thence form your judgment, thence your maxims bring,
127And trace the Muses upward to their spring;
128Still with itself compar'd, his text peruse;
130     When first young Maro in his boundless mind
131A work t' outlast immortal Rome design'd,
132Perhaps he seem'd above the critic's law,
133And but from Nature's fountains scorn'd to draw:
134But when t' examine ev'ry part he came,
135Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
136Convinc'd, amaz'd, he checks the bold design,
137And rules as strict his labour'd work confine,
139Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;
140To copy nature is to copy them.
141     Some beauties yet, no precepts can declare,
142For there's a happiness as well as care.
143Music resembles poetry, in each
144Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
145And which a master-hand alone can reach.
146If, where the rules not far enough extend,
147(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
148Some lucky LICENCE answers to the full
149Th' intent propos'd, that licence is a rule.
150Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
151May boldly deviate from the common track.
152Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend,
153And rise to faults true critics dare not mend;
154From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,
155And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
156Which, without passing through the judgment, gains
157The heart, and all its end at once attains.
158In prospects, thus, some objects please our eyes,
159Which out of nature's common order rise,
160The shapeless rock, or hanging precipice.
161But tho' the ancients thus their rules invade,
162(As kings dispense with laws themselves have made)
163Moderns, beware! or if you must offend
164Against the precept, ne'er transgress its end;
165Let it be seldom, and compell'd by need,
166And have, at least, their precedent to plead.
167The critic else proceeds without remorse,
168Seizes your fame, and puts his laws in force.
169     I know there are, to whose presumptuous thoughts
172Consider'd singly, or beheld too near,
173Which, but proportion'd to their light, or place,
174Due distance reconciles to form and grace.
175A prudent chief not always must display
176His pow'rs in equal ranks, and fair array,
177But with th' occasion and the place comply,
178Conceal his force, nay seem sometimes to fly.
179Those oft are stratagems which errors seem,
180Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream.
182Above the reach of sacrilegious hands,
183Secure from flames, from envy's fiercer rage,
184Destructive war, and all-involving age.
185See, from each clime the learn'd their incense bring!
188And fill the gen'ral chorus of mankind!
189Hail, bards triumphant! born in happier days;
190Immortal heirs of universal praise!
191Whose honours with increase of ages grow,
192As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow!
193Nations unborn your mighty names shall sound,
194And worlds applaud that must not yet be found!
195Oh may some spark of your celestial fire
196The last, the meanest of your sons inspire,
197(That on weak wings, from far, pursues your flights;
198Glows while he reads, but trembles as he writes)
199To teach vain wits a science little known,
200T' admire superior sense, and doubt their own!


1] First published in May 1711, when Pope was twenty-three. Pope seems to have started the Essay in 1708. It is representative of a long tradition exemplified by Horace's Ars Poetica, Vida's De Re Poetica in the Renaissance, and Boileau's Art poétique in the seventeenth century. The use of the word "essay" in the title associates Pope's work with the techniques of Bacon and Montaigne. Pope's notes referring to classic analogues have not been reproduced.
Pope provided the following outline of the Essay on Criticism: "PART 1.
That 'tis as great a fault to judge ill, as to write ill, and a more dangerous one to the public, 1.
That a true taste is as rare to be found, as a true genius, 9-18.
That most men are born with some taste, but spoiled by false education, 19-25.
The multitude of critics, and causes of them, 26-45.
That we are to study our own taste, and know the limits of it, 46-67.
Nature is the best guide of judgment, 68-87.
Improved by art and rules, which are but methodized Nature, 88.
Rules derived from the practice of the ancient poets, 88-110.
That therefore the ancients are necessary to be studied by a critic, particularly Homer and Virgil, 120-138.
Of licences, and the use of them by the ancients, 140-180.
Reverence due to the ancients, and praise of them, 181 ff.
"PART II. Causes hindering a true judgment.
1. Pride, 208.
2. Imperfect learning, 215.
3. Judging by parts, and not by the whole, 233-288.
Critics in Wit, Language, Versification, only, 288, 305, 339 ff.
4. Being too hard to please, or too apt to admire, 384.
5. Partiality--too much love to a Sect,--to the Ancients or Modern, 394.
6. Prejudice, or Prevention, 408.
7. Singularity, 424.
8. Inconstancy, 430.
9. Party Spirit, 452 ff.
10. Envy, 466. Against Envy, and in praise of Good Nature, 508 ff.
When Severity is chiefly to be used by critics, 526 ff.
"PART III. Rules for the Conduct of Manners in a Critic,
1. Candour, 563.
Modesty, 566.
Good-breeding, 572.
Sincerity, and Freedom of Advice, 578.
2. When one's Counsel is to be restrained, 584.
Character of an incorrigible Poet, 600.
And of an impertinent Critic, 610, etc.
Character of a good Critic, 629.
The History of Criticism, and characters of the best Critics, Aristotle, 645.
Horace, 653.
Dionysius, 665.
Petronius, 667.
Quintilian, 670.
Longinus, 675.
Of the Decay of Criticism, and its Revival. Erasmus, 693.
Vida, 705.
Boileau, 714.
Lord Roscommon, etc., 725.
Conclusion." Back to Line
34] Mævius: a minor Augustan poet attacked by Virgil and Horace. Back to Line
43] equivocal: a technical term for spontaneous generation. Back to Line
44] tell 'em: to count them. Back to Line
60] One science: one branch of knowledge. Back to Line
61] art: scholarship, learning, science (OED). Back to Line
65] still: always. Back to Line
76] informing: moulding or animating (Lat. informare). Back to Line
77] spirits. Renaissance physiology taught that subtle substances of three sorts (natural, animal, and vital) permeated the blood and other organs. Back to Line
88] winged courser: Pegasus, Bellerophon's horse, associated with the Muses and poetic inspiration.
gen'rous: thoroughbred (Lat. generosus). Back to Line
94] Parnassus: a mountain near Delphi associated with the worship of Apollo and the Muses. Back to Line
109] bills: prescriptions. Back to Line
110] mistaken: misinterpreted. Back to Line
129] Mantuan Muse ... Maro. Virgil (Publius Virgilius Maro) was born at Mantua. The lines suggest studying Virgil's Aeneid as a gloss on Homer. Back to Line
138] Stagirite: Aristotle, born at Stagira. Back to Line
170] faults: Pronounced so as to rhyme with thoughts. Back to Line
171] figures: rhetorical and poetic figures. Back to Line
181] bays: tree, a wreath of whose leaves is worn by poets. Back to Line
186] consenting: in harmony. Back to Line
187] Join'd. The word is pronounced so as to rhyme with kind. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
D. F. Theall
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.88.