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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