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.