Alien Voices, Ancient Echoes: Bakhtin, Dialogism, and Pope's 'Essay on Criticism.' (Mikhail Bakhtin, Alexander Pope)

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Ajexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, first published in 1711, constituted a young poet's bold first foray into an often-acrimonious critical environment, a "learned world," Pope later wrote, that threatened authors with such a "dangerous fate" that they "must have the constancy of a martyr" (Twick. 6).(1) Based on this rhetorical context and on characteristics of the text, the Essay has often been treated as an attempt to reconcile or transcend opposing critical doctrines--Aristotelian decorum and Longinian sublimity, for example (Fairer 33), or extreme eighteenth-century notions of "authority" and "taste" (Morris, Alexander Pope 49-50). At the same time, the Essay as a poem has inspired many contradictory critical and aesthetic assessments. On the one hand, some critics have described it as a loose collection of aphorisms, a "potpourri of Augustan cliches" (Hooker 185), while on the other hand, David Morris calls the poem an "original and significant contribution" to literary theory (AP 48). DeQuincey dismissed the Essay for having "no natural order or logical dependency" (qtd. in Morris, AP47), but New Critics such as Arthur Fenner have noticed considerable unity achieved through, among other things, the theme of pride (236-37). Even Maynard Mack, in his admiration for Pope, admits that the Essay's argument is not completely "tidy" (175).

Recently, suspecting perhaps that a search for textual unity or rhetorical coherence may be beside the point, some scholars have questioned the usefulness of approaching Pope's Essay as a homogeneous, self-contained whole. Morris acknowledges generally that we "are beginning to recognize ... how much in Pope's life and art proves unreconciled, unresolved, implicitly resisting or disrupting the closed circle of harmony and synthesis" ("Bootstrap" 107). Ironically, some New Critical efforts to find unity in the Essay not only call attention to its very "looseness," also hint that the poem may be less the pronouncement of a clear, unchanged, and universal voice than discourse engaged in dialogue with itself and with other voices. Thus Fenner, for example, articulates the poem's inherent tensions as "a dialectical zig-zag across the golden mean" (232) and concludes that the poem is an "act of speech" by a "partisan, but conciliatory" voice (238). The terms speech and voice, as well as the very tension and struggle evident in the Essay's reputation, irresistibly suggest Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of dialogism as a way to elaborate on the poem's "loose," discursive quality in the framework of contemporary literary theory.

Of course, the conversational quality of much Augustan verse has not gone unnoticed, and some Pope scholarship actually anticipates Bakhtin's thinking and some of his terminology. In a study of what he designates Pope's "conversational poems," William Bowman Piper attributes those texts' conversational richness to such phenomena as "awareness" (511), "responsiveness" (513), and "sensitivity" (514), terms all suggestive of Bakhtinian dialogism. Bakhtin's work, by showing that these qualities are inherent in rather than incidental to language, can provide us with a theoretical vocabulary for examining them in An Essay on Criticism and other poems. For his part, Piper perceives a relative dearth of "conversational" qualities in An Essay on Criticism compared to Pope's later works, arguing that this poem is conversationally "timid" (508), merely "an elegant compendium of Augustan literary opinion rather than a living conversation about literature" (510). However, by carefully listening to the Essay on Bakhtin's wavelength we can fine-tune our sensitivity to the poem's dialogical signals and discern more resemblances to "living conversation" than are obvious on first hearing. A Bakhtinian approach, in other words, can, among other services, considerably amplify earlier work on Augustan conversational verse.

Reading Pope's poetry, or any poetry, as dialogical requires confrontation with Bakhtin's own reluctance to regard most poetry in this way. …