The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope

By Paul Baines | Go to book overview

(a)

AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM (1711) [TE I:195-326]

The Essay on Criticism was Pope's first independent work, published anonymously through an obscure bookseller [12-13]. Its implicit claim to authority is not based on a lifetime's creative work or a prestigious commission but, riskily, on the skill and argument of the poem alone. It offers a sort of master-class not only in doing criticism but in being a critic: addressed to those-it could be anyone-who would rise above scandal, envy, politics and pride to true judgement, it leads the reader through a qualifying course. At the end, one does not become a professional critic-the association with hired writing would have been a contaminating one for Pope-but an educated judge of important critical matters.

Much of the poem is delivered as a series of instructions, but the opening is tentative, presenting a problem to be solved: ''Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill/Appear in Writing or in Judging ill' (EC, 1-2). The next six lines ring the changes on the differences to be weighed in deciding the question:

But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,

To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:

Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,

Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;

A Fool might once himself alone expose,

Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

(EC, 3-8)

The simple opposition we began with develops into a more complex suggestion that more unqualified people are likely to set up for critic than for poet, and that such a proliferation is serious. Pope's typographically-emphasised oppositions between poetry and criticism, verse and prose, patience and sense, develop through the passage into a wider account of the problem than first proposed: the even-handed balance of the couplets extends beyond a simple contrast. Nonetheless, though Pope's oppositions divide, they also keep within a single framework different categories of writing: Pope often seems to be addressing poets as much as critics. The critical function may well depend on a poetic function: this is after all an essay on criticism delivered in verse, and thus acting also as poetry and offering itself for criticism. Its blurring of categories which might otherwise be seen as fundamentally distinct,

-49-

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