An Essay on Criticism: Part 3

Original Text: 
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (London: Lewis, 1711). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 3626.A1 1970 TRIN.
561For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.
562'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;
564That not alone what to your sense is due,
565All may allow; but seek your friendship too.
566     Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
567And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
568Some positive, persisting fops we know,
569Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
570But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
572     'Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
573Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
574Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
575And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
576Without good breeding, truth is disapprov'd;
577That only makes superior sense belov'd.
578     Be niggards of advice on no pretence;
579For the worst avarice is that of sense.
581Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.
582Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;
583Those best can bear reproof, who merit praise.
584     'Twere well might critics still this freedom take,
586And stares, Tremendous ! with a threatening eye,
587Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry!
588Fear most to tax an honourable fool,
589Whose right it is, uncensur'd, to be dull;
590Such, without wit, are poets when they please,
593And flattery to fulsome dedicators,
594Whom, when they praise, the world believes no more,
595Than when they promise to give scribbling o'er.
596'Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
597And charitably let the dull be vain:
598Your silence there is better than your spite,
599For who can rail so long as they can write?
600Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep,
602False steps but help them to renew the race,
603As after stumbling, jades will mend their pace.
604What crowds of these, impenitently bold,
605In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,
606Still run on poets, in a raging vein,
607Even to the dregs and squeezings of the brain,
608Strain out the last, dull droppings of their sense,
609And rhyme with all the rage of impotence!
610     Such shameless bards we have; and yet 'tis true,
611There are as mad, abandon'd critics too.
612The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
613With loads of learned lumber in his head,
614With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
615And always list'ning to himself appears.
616All books he reads, and all he reads assails,
618With him, most authors steal their works, or buy;
620Name a new play, and he's the poet's friend,
621Nay show'd his faults--but when would poets mend?
622No place so sacred from such fops is barr'd,
624Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead:
625For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
626Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks;
627It still looks home, and short excursions makes;
628But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks;
630Bursts out, resistless, with a thund'ring tide.
631     But where's the man, who counsel can bestow,
632Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know?
633Unbias'd, or by favour or by spite;
634Not dully prepossess'd, nor blindly right;
635Though learn'd, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;
636Modestly bold, and humanly severe?
637Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
638And gladly praise the merit of a foe?
639Blest with a taste exact, yet unconfin'd;
640A knowledge both of books and human kind;
642And love to praise, with reason on his side?
643     Such once were critics; such the happy few,
644Athens and Rome in better ages knew.
645The mighty Stagirite first left the shore,
646Spread all his sails, and durst the deeps explore:
647He steer'd securely, and discover'd far,
649Poets, a race long unconfin'd and free,
650Still fond and proud of savage liberty,
651Receiv'd his laws; and stood convinc'd 'twas fit,
654And without methods talks us into sense,
655Will, like a friend, familiarly convey
657He, who supreme in judgment, as in wit,
658Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
659Yet judg'd with coolness, though he sung with fire;
660His precepts teach but what his works inspire.
661Our critics take a contrary extreme,
663Nor suffers Horace more in wrong translations
664By wits, than critics in as wrong quotations.
666And call new beauties forth from ev'ry line!
668The scholar's learning, with the courtier's ease.
670The justest rules, and clearest method join'd;
671Thus useful arms in magazines we place,
672All rang'd in order, and dispos'd with grace,
673But less to please the eye, than arm the hand,
674Still fit for use, and ready at command.
676And bless their critic with a poet's fire.
677An ardent judge, who zealous in his trust,
678With warmth gives sentence, yet is always just;
679Whose own example strengthens all his laws;
681     Thus long succeeding critics justly reign'd,
682Licence repress'd, and useful laws ordain'd;
683Learning and Rome alike in empire grew,
684And arts still follow'd where her eagles flew;
685From the same foes, at last, both felt their doom,
686And the same age saw learning fall, and Rome.
687With tyranny, then superstition join'd,
688As that the body, this enslav'd the mind;
689Much was believ'd, but little understood,
690And to be dull was constru'd to be good;
691A second deluge learning thus o'er-run,
692And the monks finish'd what the Goths begun.
695Stemm'd the wild torrent of a barb'rous age,
696And drove those holy Vandals off the stage.
698Starts from her trance, and trims her wither'd bays!
699Rome's ancient genius, o'er its ruins spread,
700Shakes off the dust, and rears his rev'rend head!
701Then sculpture and her sister-arts revive;
702Stones leap'd to form, and rocks began to live;
703With sweeter notes each rising temple rung;
705Immortal Vida! on whose honour'd brow
706The poet's bays and critic's ivy grow:
708As next in place to Mantua, next in fame!
710Their ancient bounds the banished Muses pass'd;
711Thence arts o'er all the northern world advance;
713The rules a nation born to serve, obeys,
715But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despis'd,
716And kept unconquer'd, and uncivilis'd,
717Fierce for the liberties of wit, and bold,
718We still defied the Romans, as of old.
719Yet some there were, among the sounder few
720Of those who less presum'd, and better knew,
721Who durst assert the juster ancient cause,
722And here restor'd wit's fundamental laws.
723Such was the Muse, whose rules and practice tell
726With manners gen'rous as his noble blood;
727To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known,
728And ev'ry author's merit, but his own.
730Who justly knew to blame or to commend;
731To failings mild, but zealous for desert;
732The clearest head, and the sincerest heart.
733This humble praise, lamented shade! receive,
734This praise at least a grateful Muse may give:
735The Muse, whose early voice you taught to sing,
736Prescrib'd her heights, and prun'd her tender wing,
737(Her guide now lost) no more attempts to rise,
738But in low numbers short excursions tries:
739Content, if hence th' unlearn'd their wants may view,
740The learn'd reflect on what before they knew:
741Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame,
742Still pleas'd to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
743Averse alike to flatter, or offend,
744Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.


560] 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, 6745.
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
563] candour: "sweetness of temper, openness or kindness of mind." Back to Line
571] critic: critique. Back to Line
580] complacence: complaisance. Back to Line
585] Appius: one of the characters in Dennis's tragedy Appius and Virginia, which had failed in 1709. The name is applied by Pope to Dennis. Back to Line
591] they can take degrees. Nobility and persons of rank were automatically eligible for an unearned M.A. in an English university. Back to Line
592] satires: often pronounced "satyrs" in Pope's day, hence rhymes with "dedicators." Back to Line
601] asleep. When a top moves with a high velocity and spins smoothly so its motion is imperceptible, it is said to be "asleep." Back to Line
617] Dryden's Fables: the Fables Ancient and Modern (17746), containing tales from Chaucer. Boccaccio, and Ovid.
Durfey's Tales. Thomas D'Urfy published Tales Tragical and Comical in 1704. Back to Line
619] Garth ... Dispensary. Pope's friend, Dr. Samuel Garth, wrote a mock epic poem, The Dispensary, treating of a quarrel between the physicians and the apothecaries. Back to Line
623] St. Paul's Church: St. Paul's Cathedral, used as a meeting place for business. Paul's Churchyard: the booksellers' quarter was around St. Paul's Cathedral yard. Back to Line
629] shock'd: stopped. Back to Line
641] Gen'rous converse: well-bred conversation. Back to Line
648] Maeonian Star: Homer; Maeoma or Lydia was the supposed birthplace of Homer. Back to Line
652] Who conquer'd nature.... Aristotle formulated in his Poetics the laws of poetry as, in his scientific works, he had formulated those of nature. Back to Line
653] Horace. Horace's Ars Poetica was the second most important historical document for neo-classical critics. Back to Line
656] easiest: smoothest and most flowing. Back to Line
662] with fle'me: phlegmatically. Back to Line
665] Dionysius: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek writer who lived in Augustan Rome. He was a perceptive literary critic and first said "Style is the man." Pope complimented his analysis of Homer's metre. Back to Line
667] Petronius: (d. A.D. 65), a writer known as the "arbiter of elegance." He was author of a Menippean satire, the Satyricon, which gives an extraordinarily dramatic picture of Nero's Rome and satirizes many of the literary failings and vices of his day. Back to Line
669] Quintilian: Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (A.D. 35-C.95), educator and rhetorical theorist, whose Institutes both Ben Jonson and Pope praised as fundamental reading for poets, especially Books IV to IX. Pope cites Quintilian extensively, especially in his notes to the Essay on Criticism. Back to Line
675] Longinus: refers to Longinus on the Sublime, a Greek rhetorical work of unknown date and authorship. This work translated in French by Boileau in the seventeenth century, became a major critical influence in eighteenth-century England. Back to Line
680] sublime: the art of great writing, as viewed by Pope (not merely exalted writing), "belonging to the highest regions of thought, reality or human activity." Back to Line
693] Erasmus: Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), theologian, educator, and humanist, who wrote various works on literature, politics, and theology. Pope had said: "My religion is the religion of Erasmus" referring to the mediate position Erasmus tried to occupy in the Catholic-Protestant controversy. Back to Line
694] the shame. Erasmus was the priesthood's glory because of his liberalism and learning; the shame because (1) he exposed church abuses, (2) was persecuted by the church, and (3) was inconsistent in his obligations to his vocation. Back to Line
697] Leo's golden days: Leo X (1513-1521), a patron of scholars, poets, and artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo. Back to Line
704] Vida: Vida (1490?-1566), poet associated with Leo X, who wrote didactic poems including an important Poetica. Back to Line
707] Cremona ... Mantua: Vida was born in Cremona; Virgil in Mantua. Back to Line
709] Impious arms. In 1527, the French army of Emperor Charles V sacked Rome. Back to Line
712] critic ... France: refers to the French critics of the reign of Louis XIV: Boileau, Rapin, Bouhors, Le Bossu, and Dacier. Back to Line
714] Boileau: Nicolas Despreaux Boileau (1636-1711), leading French neoclassical poet and critic, whose L'Art Poétique (1674) was a major expression of the "neo-classical" doctrines. His Lutrin was a mock epic like Pope's Rape of the Lock and he also wrote a series of satires in the manner of Horace; see also above, note to line 675. Back to Line
724] "[Pope] Essay on Poetry, by the Duke of Buckingham. Our poet is not the only one of his time who complimented this Essay and its noble author." John Sheffield (1648-1721), first Duke of Buckingham, an edition of whose works was published by Pope in 1723. Dryden dedicated Aureng-Zebe to him. Back to Line
725] Roscommon: Wentworth Dillon (1633?-1685), fourth earl of Roscommon, poet and critic, whose Essay on Translated Verse was published in 1684. He was one of the first critics to publicly praise Milton. Back to Line
729] Walsh: William Walsh (1663-1708), poet and critic, one of Pope's earliest friends, of whom Dryden had said: "without flattery he is the best critic of our nation." Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
D. F. Theall
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.1561.