BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

An Essay On CriticismAn Essay On Criticism by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This essay is a poem, i.e. heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, to be precise. It advises both poets and critics of some of the mistakes made in their respective pursuits (though at the outset he warns that bad criticism is a bigger sin than bad poetry.) To critics, Pope advises against nit-picking, as well as failure to recognize the tradeoffs inherent in poetry – i.e. sometimes the better sounding line is grammatically strained, or the wittier line may be less musical. To poets, he lays out a range of insights from stylistic to psychological, and it is an essay both about improving the product of writing as well as improving the relations between writers and critics.

Those unfamiliar with the essay will still be aware of a few of its lines, these include: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;” “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and anyone who’s learned to write iambic pentameter (and the sins, thereof) will remember: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

But those everyday aphorisms are by no means the full extent of this essay’s wise words and its clever phrasing. My favorite couplets of the poem include:

“Some neither can for wits nor critics pass, // As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.”

“Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, // Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.”

“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, // As bodies perish through excess of blood.”

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, // Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, // As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

“Some praise at morning what they blame at night; // But always think the last opinion right.”

“Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things, // Atones not for that envy which it brings.”

“All seems infected that th’ infected spy, // As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.”

“’Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain; // And charitably let the dull be vain:”

I delighted in this poem. It’s full of food-for-thought, and reads remarkably well for a piece from the year 1711.


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Quotations Stumbled Upon [Recently]

To survive in this world you have to be many times a coward but at least once a hero.

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s son

The metaphysical assumptions upon which you want to build your life cannot be an inherited duty.

Patrick levy, Sadhus

It is true that if there were no phenomena which were independent of all but a manageably small set of conditions, Physics would be impossible.

Eugene wigner, the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences

I feel about literature what Grant did about war. He hated it. I hate literature. I’m not a literary West Pointer; I do not love a literary man as a literary man, as a minister of the pulpit loves other ministers because they are ministers: it is a means to an end, that is all there is to it.

Walt whitman, as quoted in Yone Noguchi’s the spirit of japanese poetry

Know that all the sects in existence are a way to Hell.

Nichiren, as quoted by yone Noguchi in the spirit of japanese poetry

It is so easy to convert others. It is so difficult to convert oneself.

oscar wilde, the critic as artist

If you meet at a dinner a man who has spent his life in educating himself — a rare type in our time, I admit, but still one occasionally to be met with — you rise from the table richer, and conscious that a high ideal has for a moment touched and sanctified your days. But Oh! my dear Ernest, to sit next to a man who has spent his life trying to educate others! What a dreadful experience it is!

Oscar wilde, tHE CRITIC AS ARTIST

Enlightenment in Four Bits of Shakespearean Wisdom

If you’re looking to attain Enlightenment, you may have turned to someone like the Buddha or Epictetus for inspiration. But I’m here to tell you, if you can put these four pieces of Shakespearean wisdom into practice, you’ll have all you need to uplift your mind.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

william Shakespeare, Hamlet

Through Yoga, practitioners learn to cultivate their inner “dispassionate witness.” In our daily lives, we’re constantly attaching value judgements and labels to everything with which we come into contact (not to mention the things that we merely imagine.) As a result, we tend to see the world not as it is, but in an illusory form.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William shakespeare, julius caesar

In Psychology class, you may remember learning about the self-serving bias, a warped way of seeing the world in which one attributes difficulties and failures to external factors, while attributing successes and other positive outcomes to one’s own winning characteristics. Like Brutus, we need to learn to stop thinking of our experience of life as the sum of external events foisted upon us, and to realize that our experience is rooted in our minds and how we perceive and react to events.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

william shakespeare, as you like it

A quote from Hamlet also conveys the idea, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If you grasp this idea, you may become both humbler and more readily capable of discarding bad ideas in favor of good. It’s common to want to think of yourself as a master, but this leads only to arrogance and to being overly attached to ineffective ideas. Be like Socrates.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.

william shakespeare, julius caesar

Fears and anxieties lead people into lopsided calculations in which a risky decision is rated all downside. Those who see the world this way may end up living a milquetoast existence that’s loaded with regrets. No one is saying one should ignore all risks and always throw caution to the wind, but our emotions make better servants than masters. One needs to realize that giving into one’s anxieties has a cost, and that that cost should be weighed against what one will get out of an experience.

There it is: Enlightenment in four bits of Shakespearean wisdom.

The Traveler’s Worldview in 14 [More] Quotations

SEE PART I HERE
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
-William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well


Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. 
-Albert Einstein 


Some beautiful paths can't be discovered without getting lost.
-Erol Ozan


Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live for ever.
-Mahatma Gandhi


There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
-Albert Einstein


The journey itself is my home.
-Matsuo Bashō


No matter where you are, you're always a bit on your own, always an outsider. 
-Banana Yoshimoto


There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
-Robert Louis Stevenson


One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
-Henry Miller


I don't want to die without any scars.
-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club


Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver


Do not chase after what is true, only cease to cherish opinions.
-unnamed Zen master


If any man be unhappy let him know that it is by reason of himself alone.
-Epictetus



BONUS QUOTATION:

Respect the Gods and Buddha, but don't expect their help.
-Miyamoto Musashi

5 Insightful Sentences from Literature


It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane. 

Philip K. Dick in VALIS

 

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

John Steinbeck in East of Eden

 

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.

Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms

 

There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences.

Wallace Stegner in All the Little Live Things

 

There are some things that are so unforgivable they make other things easily forgivable. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half a Yellow Sun

Aaaannd Buddha’d

“This is going on your permanent record, young man!”

“All is impermanent.”


“I want you to get up there and clean your room.”

“Desire is the root of all suffering.”


“There’s a big spider in the corner, kill it!”

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts.”


“My left sock has static cling.”

“You only lose what you cling to.”


“HELP! My sleeve got caught in this threshing machine.”

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and…[cringes]”


“I wonder where the Professor is, he’s usually not late.”

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”


“I’m feeling like a jelly doughnut.”

“What we feel, we attract.”


“I’m thinking a jelly doughnut would be good, too.”

“What we think, we become.”


“I’m furious with you.”

“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”


“Well, speak up. Explain yourself!”

“He who doesn’t understand one’s silence will probably not understand one’s words.”


“HELP! My sleeve got caught in this threshing machine.”

“Be patient. Everything comes to you in the… [cringes]”


“It’s time to take the trash out.”

“If anything is worth doing, do it with all YOUR heart.”


“No. I’m sorry, I can’t go to your Solar eclipse gala bash. I have to take my grandmother to chemotherapy.”

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

STORY: The Most Inaccessible Place of All

I ran across this little story quoted in an academic paper while I was doing research for a writing project. It was written by Dorothy Gilman in a book called A Nun in the Closet. At any rate, I found it clever and thought you might as well. [I’m assuming that Gilman made this story up, rather than borrowing an old folktale–but that–as with all assumptions–could be wrong. Please feel free to correct me if you know otherwise. If she did come up with it from scratch, she perfectly captured the folktale.]

 

brain



“Once upon a time, [Bhanjan Singh, a guru-like character in the book] said, when God had finished making the world, he wanted to leave behind Him for man a piece of His own divinity, a spark of His essence, a promise to man of what he could become, with effort. He looked for a place to hide this Godhead because, he explained, what man could find too easily would never be valued by him.



“Then you must hide the Godhead on the highest mountain peak on earth,” said one of His councilors.



God shook His head. “No, for man is an adventuresome creature and he will soon enough learn to climb the highest mountain peaks.”



“Hide it then, O Great One, in the depths of the earth!”



“I think not,” said God, “for man will one day discover that he can dig into the deepest parts of the earth.”



“In the middle of the ocean then, Master?”



God shook His head. “I’ve given man a brain, you see, and one day he’ll learn to build ships and cross the mightiest oceans.”



“Where then, Master?” cried His councilors.



God smiled. “I’ll hide it in the most inaccessible place of all, and the one place that man will never think to look for it. I’ll hide it deep inside of man himself.”

10 of My Favorite Quotes on Writing

Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. –Kurt Vonnegut

 

Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for. –Mark Twain

 

The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.  –Ray Bradbury

 

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. –Elmore Leonard

 

The first draft of anything is shit.—Ernest Hemingway.

 

Omit needless words. –William Strunk

 

The only rule for writing I have is to leave it while I’m still hot… –William Faulkner

 

Whoever wants to tell a story of a sainted grandmother, unless you can find some old love letters, and get a new grandfather?  –Robert Penn Warren

 

When you write the thing through once, you find out what the end is. Then you can go back to the first chapter and put in a lot of those foreshadowings. –Flannery O’Connor

 

As far as I’m concerned the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.  –Neil Gaiman

Wisdom in 5 Simple Lessons

Confucius statue at the Confucian Temple, Beijing

Confucius statue at the Confucian Temple, Beijing

1.) Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle –Plato

2.) If you choose, you are free; if you choose, you need blame no man.  –Epictetus

3.) …the greatest carver does the least cutting.  –Lao Tzu

4.) If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures.  –Martin Luther King Jr

5.) A gentleman wishes to be slow to speak and quick to do.  –Confucius