Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope

By Bertrand A. Goldgar | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE OCCASION OF POPE'S CRITICISM

"Critics," Pope declares in an early letter to the playwright Wycherley, "as they are birds of prey, have ever a natural inclination to carrion." 1. This declaration is hardly surprising. As an aspiring poet and man of letters in Augustan England, Pope expresses a very natural scorn of the professional critic like John Dennis. His is the perennial contempt of the creative artist for his potential enemy; and that breed of man whom Swift defined as a "discoverer and collector of writers' faults" was to remain an occasional object of ridicule for Pope, as for the other satirists of his day. But despite such rather affected disparagement, Pope as a young poet was actually very much concerned with critical theory and practice. One of his earliest appearances in the literary world was with the Essay on Criticism, as much an art of poetry as an art of criticism, and the same letter to Wycherley which scoffs at critics also suggests a tentative solution to a vexing critical problem, the definition of wit. Throughout his career, in fact, Pope himself produced a body of literary criticism substantial enough—and perceptive enough—to place him in the first ranks of eighteenth-century critics.

His discussions of literary matters with Wycherley and other early correspondents, like the "great reading period" of his youth when he "went through all the best critics," were very much a matter of a young poet experimenting with critical ideas and creative practice, feeling his way toward an individual style and habit of mind. As Pope's reputation became more firmly established, the tentative and experimental character of his critical pronouncements disappeared; recognized achievement, it appears, gave him confidence in his own set of literary values. Nor was

____________________
1.
The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), I, 2. Cited hereafter as Corr.

-ix-

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