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Pope Essay Criticism

PART 1

'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead 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.

       'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic's share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
These born to judge, as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?

       Yet if we look more closely we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring light;
The lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false learning is good sense defac'd;
Some are bewilder'd in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a rival's, or an eunuch's spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo's spite,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write.

       Some have at first for wits, then poets pass'd,
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last;
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those half-learn'd witlings, num'rous in our isle
As half-form'd insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish'd things, one knows not what to call,
Their generation's so equivocal:
To tell 'em, would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.

       But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure your self and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.

Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
She gives in large recruits of needful pride;
For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
What wants in blood and spirits, swell'd with wind;
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry friend—and ev'ry foe.

       A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

       A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ,
Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find,
Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The gen'rous pleasure to be charm'd with wit.
But in such lays as neither ebb, nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning faults, one quiet tenour keep;
We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep.
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th' exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
Thus when we view some well-proportion'd dome,
(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine, O Rome!'
No single parts unequally surprise;
All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.

       Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In ev'ry work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,
T' avoid great errors, must the less commit:
Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays,
For not to know such trifles, is a praise.
Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
Still make the whole depend upon a part:
They talk of principles, but notions prize,
And all to one lov'd folly sacrifice.

Part 3

Learn then what morals critics ought to show,
For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.
'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;
In all you speak, let truth and candour shine:
That not alone what to your sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your friendship too.

       Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.

       'Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapprov'd;
That only makes superior sense belov'd.

       Be niggards of advice on no pretence;
For the worst avarice is that of sense.
With mean complacence ne'er betray your trust,
Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.
Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;
Those best can bear reproof, who merit praise.

Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711) marks a contentious point where the history of literary criticism and the politics of 1688 meet. Critics are divided about whether the poem dictates the laws of criticism and monarchical sovereignty or promotes the formation of rational-critical debate in a public sphere. A line of thinking from Maynard Mack to Lee Morrisey argues for the poem’s “pervasive concern for corporateness” and invocation of rigorous “Rules” of criticism designed to contain “democratized reading” by disavowing the irrational, passionate, and figurative elements of language (Mack 171; Morrissey 117). Emphasizing the poem’s concern with unity, such interpretations align it with Ronald Paulson’s claim that Pope rejects the “Whig idea” of aesthetics by returning to a Jacobite “poetics, focusing on the poet,” a move analogous to a “a return from an oligarchy to a monarchy” (130).1

On the other hand, celebrations of An Essay on Criticism for its commitment to polite sociability and the formation of a public sphere resist claims about the poem’s totalizing aesthetics and absolutist politics. Offering the most sophisticated version of this Habermasian approach, Sarah Eron argues that the poem is structured by “didactic and dialogic exchange” because its modern muse is not a divine addressee or the imagination but always a “social other” (25-6, 3).2 Insofar as such readings insist on the poem’s commitment to the intersubjective determination of aesthetic judgment, they sit easily with analyses that situate it within the framework of Ernst Cassirer’s influential account of aesthetic thinking in the Enlightenment as “a striving for totality” that also allows for the “finite to assert its own character” (352-3). David Morris, for example, argues that the poem’s conception of criticism espouses “universal, certain, permanent, theoretical values” while also taking into account “the particular, variable, practical aspects of critical activity” (55). Yet if both Eron and Morris find in the poem versions of Enlightenment reason that [End Page 101] preserve the particular from subsumption by the universal, they anchor it differently in either communicative or probabilistic reasoning, respectively. Neither form of rationality, however, fully captures the poem’s own efforts to theorize the relationship between the the production of art and the practice of criticism. Although it insists on an openness to the social other, Habermasian communicative rationality cuts reason off from the rhetorical and poetic resources that Pope’s poem and understanding of criticism rely upon: it is closed to the other of language.3 Likewise, Pope argues that because writing poetry is intimately bound up in the fecundity of the poem’s material elements and irrational poetic devices—because it requires a “Happiness as well as Care”—the “Rules” that govern criticial judgment must be subject to critical reflection and ongoing transformation (142). This openness to the irrational limits the light that Lockean probabilistic reasoning can shed on the poem’s conceptions of rationality, selfhood, and community.

The poem’s understanding of the rules of criticism, genius, and political sovereignty are more heteronomous than the opposing accounts of Pope as monarch manqué or Habermasian avatar suggest.4 It is more open to both the otherness of individuals and of language. This openness takes at least two forms. First, if the poem extols the “whole,” it also rejects bad forms of unity. It resists the subsumption of the individual into an unthinking mass. Like The Dunciad, it is concerned with how meaningful language can collapse into meaningless noise, how a whole can undifferentiate and assimilate: “All glares alike, without Distinction gay” (314). An Essay on Criticism understands authentic individuality and community in terms of the linguistic interplay of sameness and difference, a mutual dependency that Fredric Bogel identifies in The Dunciad as a “double relation, in which…energies of unification and division, coexist, a relation that immediately dissolves when either element is lost” (“Dulness Unbound” 845). Similarly, efforts in An Essay on Criticism to write or criticize based on communal repetition or individualistic singularity fail—as does the selfhood and community of such would-be writers and critics. By figuring individuality and community through...

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