An Essay on Criticism: Part 2

Original Text: 
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (London: Lewis, 1711). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 3626.A1 1970 TRIN.
202Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
203What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
204Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
205Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
207For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
208What wants in blood and spirits, swell'd with wind;
209Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
210And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
211If once right reason drives that cloud away,
212Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
213Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
214Make use of ev'ry friend--and ev'ry foe.
215     A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
217There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
218And drinking largely sobers us again.
219Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
221While from the bounded level of our mind,
222Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
223But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
224New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
225So pleas'd at first, the tow'ring Alps we try,
226Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
227Th' eternal snows appear already past,
228And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
229But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
230The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
231Th' increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes,
232Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
233     A perfect judge will read each work of wit
234With the same spirit that its author writ,
235Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find,
236Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
237Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
238The gen'rous pleasure to be charm'd with wit.
239But in such lays as neither ebb, nor flow,
241That shunning faults, one quiet tenour keep;
242We cannot blame indeed--but we may sleep.
243In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
244Is not th' exactness of peculiar parts;
245'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
246But the joint force and full result of all.
248(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine, O Rome!'
249No single parts unequally surprise;
250All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
251No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
252The whole at once is bold, and regular.
253     Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
254Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
255In ev'ry work regard the writer's end,
256Since none can compass more than they intend;
258Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
259As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,
260T' avoid great errors, must the less commit:
262For not to know such trifles, is a praise.
263Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
264Still make the whole depend upon a part:
266And all to one lov'd folly sacrifice.
268A certain bard encount'ring on the way,
269Discours'd in terms as just, with looks as sage,
271Concluding all were desp'rate sots and fools,
273Our author, happy in a judge so nice,
274Produc'd his play, and begg'd the knight's advice,
275Made him observe the subject and the plot,
276The manners, passions, unities, what not?
277All which, exact to rule, were brought about,
278Were but a combat in the lists left out.
279"What! leave the combat out?" exclaims the knight;
280"Yes, or we must renounce the Stagirite."
281"Not so by Heav'n" (he answers in a rage)
282"Knights, squires, and steeds, must enter on the stage."
283So vast a throng the stage can ne'er contain.
284"Then build a new, or act it in a plain."
285     Thus critics, of less judgment than caprice,
286Curious not knowing, not exact but nice,
287Form short ideas; and offend in arts
288(As most in manners) by a love to parts.
290And glitt'ring thoughts struck out at ev'ry line;
291Pleas'd with a work where nothing's just or fit;
292One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
293Poets, like painters, thus, unskill'd to trace
294The naked nature and the living grace,
295With gold and jewels cover ev'ry part,
296And hide with ornaments their want of art.
297True wit is nature to advantage dress'd,
298What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd,
299Something, whose truth convinc'd at sight we find,
300That gives us back the image of our mind.
301As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
302So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit.
303For works may have more wit than does 'em good,
304As bodies perish through excess of blood.
305     Others for language all their care express,
306And value books, as women men, for dress:
307Their praise is still--"the style is excellent":
308The sense, they humbly take upon content.
309Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
310Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
311False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
313The face of Nature we no more survey,
314All glares alike, without distinction gay:
315But true expression, like th' unchanging sun,
316Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon,
317It gilds all objects, but it alters none.
318Expression is the dress of thought, and still
320A vile conceit in pompous words express'd,
322For diff'rent styles with diff'rent subjects sort,
323As several garbs with country, town, and court.
324Some by old words to fame have made pretence,
325Ancients in phrase, mere moderns in their sense;
326Such labour'd nothings, in so strange a style,
327Amaze th' unlearn'd, and make the learned smile.
329These sparks with awkward vanity display
330What the fine gentleman wore yesterday!
331And but so mimic ancient wits at best,
332As apes our grandsires, in their doublets dress'd.
333In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
334Alike fantastic, if too new, or old;
335Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
336Not yet the last to lay the old aside.
338And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong:
339In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,
340Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,
341Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,
342Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,
343Not for the doctrine, but the music there.
344These equal syllables alone require,
345Tho' oft the ear the open vowels tire,
346While expletives their feeble aid do join,
347And ten low words oft creep in one dull line,
348While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
349With sure returns of still expected rhymes.
350Where'er you find "the cooling western breeze",
351In the next line, it "whispers through the trees":
352If "crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep",
353The reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with "sleep".
354Then, at the last and only couplet fraught
355With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
356A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
357That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
358Leave such to tune their own dull rhymes, and know
359What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
360And praise the easy vigour of a line,
362True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
363As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
364'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
365The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
366Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
367And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
368But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
369The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
371The line too labours, and the words move slow;
373Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.
375And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
377Now burns with glory, and then melts with love;
378Now his fierce eyes with sparkling fury glow,
379Now sighs steal out, and tears begin to flow:
381And the world's victor stood subdu'd by sound!
382The pow'r of music all our hearts allow,
383And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.
384     Avoid extremes; and shun the fault of such,
385Who still are pleas'd too little or too much.
386At ev'ry trifle scorn to take offence,
387That always shows great pride, or little sense;
388Those heads, as stomachs, are not sure the best,
389Which nauseate all, and nothing can digest.
390Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move,
392As things seem large which we through mists descry,
393Dulness is ever apt to magnify.
394     Some foreign writers, some our own despise;
395The ancients only, or the moderns prize.
396Thus wit, like faith, by each man is applied
397To one small sect, and all are damn'd beside.
398Meanly they seek the blessing to confine,
399And force that sun but on a part to shine;
401But ripens spirits in cold northern climes;
402Which from the first has shone on ages past,
403Enlights the present, and shall warm the last;
404(Though each may feel increases and decays,
405And see now clearer and now darker days.)
406Regard not then if wit be old or new,
407But blame the false, and value still the true.
408Some ne'er advance a judgment of their own,
409But catch the spreading notion of the town;
410They reason and conclude by precedent,
411And own stale nonsense which they ne'er invent.
412Some judge of authors' names, not works, and then
413Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.
414Of all this servile herd, the worst is he
415That in proud dulness joins with quality,
416A constant critic at the great man's board,
417To fetch and carry nonsense for my Lord.
418What woeful stuff this madrigal would be,
419In some starv'd hackney sonneteer, or me?
420But let a Lord once own the happy lines,
421How the wit brightens! how the style refines!
422Before his sacred name flies every fault,
423And each exalted stanza teems with thought!
424     The vulgar thus through imitation err;
425As oft the learn'd by being singular;
426So much they scorn the crowd, that if the throng
427By chance go right, they purposely go wrong:
428So Schismatics the plain believers quit,
429And are but damn'd for having too much wit.
430     Some praise at morning what they blame at night;
431But always think the last opinion right.
432A Muse by these is like a mistress us'd,
433This hour she's idoliz'd, the next abus'd;
434While their weak heads, like towns unfortified,
435Twixt sense and nonsense daily change their side.
436Ask them the cause; they're wiser still, they say;
438We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
439Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.
442Faith, Gospel, all, seem'd made to be disputed,
443And none had sense enough to be confuted:
446If Faith itself has different dresses worn,
447What wonder modes in wit should take their turn?
448Oft, leaving what is natural and fit,
449The current folly proves the ready wit;
451Which lives as long as fools are pleased to laugh.
452     Some valuing those of their own side or mind,
453Still make themselves the measure of mankind;
455When we but praise ourselves in other men.
457And public faction doubles private hate.
458Pride, Malice, Folly, against Dryden rose,
459In various shapes of Parsons, Critics, Beaus;
460But sense surviv'd, when merry jests were past;
461For rising merit will buoy up at last.
462Might he return, and bless once more our eyes,
464Nay should great Homer lift his awful head,
466Envy will merit, as its shade, pursue,
467But like a shadow, proves the substance true;
468For envied wit, like Sol eclips'd, makes known
469Th' opposing body's grossness, not its own.
470When first that sun too powerful beams displays,
471It draws up vapours which obscure its rays;
472But ev'n those clouds at last adorn its way,
473Reflect new glories, and augment the day.
474     Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
475His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.
476Short is the date, alas, of modern rhymes,
477And 'tis but just to let 'em live betimes.
478No longer now that golden age appears,
479When patriarch wits surviv'd a thousand years:
480Now length of Fame (our second life) is lost,
481And bare threescore is all ev'n that can boast;
482Our sons their fathers' failing language see,
483And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.
484So when the faithful pencil has design'd
486Where a new world leaps out at his command,
487And ready Nature waits upon his hand;
488When the ripe colours soften and unite,
489And sweetly melt into just shade and light;
490When mellowing years their full perfection give,
491And each bold figure just begins to live,
492The treacherous colours the fair art betray,
493And all the bright creation fades away!
494     Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things,
495Atones not for that envy which it brings.
496In youth alone its empty praise we boast,
497But soon the short-liv'd vanity is lost:
498Like some fair flow'r the early spring supplies,
499That gaily blooms, but ev'n in blooming dies.
500What is this wit, which must our cares employ?
501The owner's wife, that other men enjoy;
502Then most our trouble still when most admir'd,
503And still the more we give, the more requir'd;
504Whose fame with pains we guard, but lose with ease,
505Sure some to vex, but never all to please;
506'Tis what the vicious fear, the virtuous shun;
507By fools 'tis hated, and by knaves undone!
508     If wit so much from ign'rance undergo,
509Ah let not learning too commence its foe!
510Of old, those met rewards who could excel,
511And such were prais'd who but endeavour'd well:
512Though triumphs were to gen'rals only due,
514Now, they who reach Parnassus' lofty crown,
515Employ their pains to spurn some others down;
516     And while self-love each jealous writer rules,
517Contending wits become the sport of fools:
518But still the worst with most regret commend,
519For each ill author is as bad a friend.
520To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
521Are mortals urg'd through sacred lust of praise!
522Ah ne'er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
523Nor in the critic let the man be lost!
524Good nature and good sense must ever join;
525To err is human; to forgive, divine.
526     But if in noble minds some dregs remain,
528Discharge that rage on more provoking crimes,
529Nor fear a dearth in these flagitious times.
530No pardon vile obscenity should find,
531Though wit and art conspire to move your mind;
532But dulness with obscenity must prove
533As shameful sure as impotence in love.
534In the fat age of pleasure, wealth, and ease,
535Sprung the rank weed, and thriv'd with large increase:
537Seldom at council, never in a war:
538Jilts ruled the state, and statesmen farces writ;
539Nay wits had pensions, and young Lords had wit:
540The fair sat panting at a courtier's play,
542The modest fan was lifted up no more,
543And virgins smil'd at what they blush'd before.
546Then unbelieving priests reform'd the nation,
547And taught more pleasant methods of salvation;
548Where Heav'n's free subjects might their rights dispute,
549Lest God himself should seem too absolute:
550Pulpits their sacred satire learned to spare,
551And Vice admired to find a flatt'rer there!
552Encourag'd thus, wit's Titans brav'd the skies,
554These monsters, critics! with your darts engage,
555Here point your thunder, and exhaust your rage!
556Yet shun their fault, who, scandalously nice,
557Will needs mistake an author into vice;
558All seems infected that th' infected spy,
559As all looks yellow to the jaundic'd eye.


201] 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, 6560.
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
206] recruits: fresh or additional supplies. Back to Line
216] Pierian spring: a spring sacred to the Muses located at their original home, Pieria, near Mount Olympus. The Muses are sometimes called Pierades. Back to Line
220] tempt: try, attempt. Back to Line
240] regularly low: in accord with the rules (i.e., regulations) of art, but mediocre and uninspired. Back to Line
247] dome: the dome of St. Peter's, for example. Back to Line
257] conduct: arrangement of parts. Back to Line
261] verbal critic: one interested in the mere words of a literary composition. Back to Line
265] notions: probably punning on the meanings of "whims" and of "small wares." Back to Line
267] Once ... la Mancha's knight... . La Mancha's knight is Don Quixote. The passage refers to a story found in the spurious sequel to Cervantes' Don Quixote. Back to Line
270] Dennis: John Dennis (1657-1734), a major neo-classic literary critic, whose views Pope questioned, possibly because of the systematic and methodical insistence on clear definitions and distinctions. In attacking the Essay on Criticism, Dennis questioned Pope's "failure" in defining "Nature" and "wit" precisely. Back to Line
272] Aristotle's rules: the principles set down in the Poetics. Dennis was a critic "excessively given to judging by the rules." Pope, on the other hand, while respecting the ancients, satirized slavish adherence to the rules in his Peri Bathous. Back to Line
289] conceit: "a fanciful, ingenious or witty notion or expression," (OED), with overtones of "concept" (i.e., thought). Back to Line
312] colours: (1) a coloured device, badge or dress; (2) rhetorical modes or figures.
place: (1) a particular part of space; (2) in rhetoric, a subject or topic. Back to Line
319] decent: comely, seemly. Back to Line
321] clown: rustic. Back to Line
328] Unlucky, as Fungoso: "[Pope] See Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour". Back to Line
337] numbers: versification (with special reference to the concord of sound). Back to Line
361] Denham: Sir John Denham (1615-1669), Cavalier poet and playwright, whose poem Cooper's Hill was the model for "local" poetry and a standard of easy and correct writing.
Waller: Edmund Waller (1606-1687), poet and Parliamentarian, whose poetry set a standard for polish, "smoothness," and "sweetness" for the Restoration. Back to Line
370] Ajax: one of the Grecian heroes in the Iliad. Pope is referring to a passage in Ajax's battle with Hector, where Ajax picks up a stone (Iliad, VII, 268 ff.). Back to Line
372] Camilla: a maiden warrior in the Aeneid (see VII, 808 ff.). Back to Line
374] Timotheus: "[Pope] See Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music; an ode by Mr. Dryden." Back to Line
376] son of Libyan Jove. The Libyan Jove is Ammon, whose pretended son was Alexander. Back to Line
380] Turns of nature: referring to the musical modes that result in different feelings. Back to Line
391] admire: to marvel at. Back to Line
400] sublimes: exalts. Back to Line
437] still: always. Back to Line
440] school divines: scholastic theologians. Back to Line
441] sentences: books of theological aphorisms with commentary, very popular mediaeval theological works. Back to Line
444] Scotists and Thomists: theologians and philosophers claiming adherence to the views of (1) Duns Scotus, (2) St. Thomas Aquinas. Back to Line
445] Duck Lane: "[Pope] A place where old and secondhand books were sold formerly, near Smithfield." Back to Line
450] Safe-laugh: By Pope's time probably an eye-rhyme only, though "safe" rhymed with "laugh" earlier. Back to Line
454] Fondly: foolishly. Back to Line
456] attend: to follow closely upon. Back to Line
463] Blackmore: Sir Richard Blackmore (1655?-1729), physician and poet, famed for long bombastic poems, such as the epic Prince Arthur (1695).
Milbourn: Rev. Luke Milbourne (1649-1720), poet and High Church divine. Back to Line
465] Zoilus: fourth-century rhetorician and critic, whose name has become traditional for the carping critic owing to his criticisms of Homer's invention. Back to Line
485] idea: image. Back to Line
513] crowns. When a general had his triumph, various crowns were awarded to soldiers who had distinguished themselves. Back to Line
527] spleen: cf. Rape of the Lock, IV. Back to Line
536] easy Monarch: Charles II. Back to Line
541] mask: refers to Restoration women wearing masks. Back to Line
544] foreign reign: that of William III, a Hollander. Back to Line
545] bold Socinus. Laelius Socinus (1525-1562), rejected the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and of the atonement as satisfaction for sin. Back to Line
553] licenc'd blasphemies: alluding to the Licensing Act of King William. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
D. F. Theall
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.92.