Pope’s Criticism

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

Pope’s Criticism

Sidney’s and Shelley’s defences are important texts in the history of literary criticism, not least because these two poets make claims about the value of poetry, in dialogue with older classical traditions of criticism and thinking about aesthetics.

Alexander Pope (1688—1744), who sits between Sidney’s Renaissance humanism* and Shelley’s early-19th-century Romanticism, also contributed to this dialogue with “An Essay on Criticism” (1711). Pope’s “Essay” in verse is written in the style of the Roman lyric poet Horace (65—8 BC), and offers advice to would-be critics:


But you who seek to give and merit Fame, And justly bear a Critick’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 …

Pope was concerned with neoclassical principles of balance, order and decorum.

For Pope, it was important that critics know their limits. We might think of Pope’s opposition between Nature and Wit as the opposition between external cosmic laws and human intelligence or cunning (also related to the “sin” of pride).

The truth of Nature can be observed by humans and expressed in clear, elegant, stylish language, but the fundamental laws are pre-given, not open to dispute.


Nature to all things fix’d the Limits fit,/ And wisely curb’d Man’s proud pretending Wit.

True wit is Nature to advantage dressed.

In contrast to Sidney and Shelley, who defended poetry by writing in prose, Pope’s critique of the contemporary critical milieu was written in poetic form, in heroic couplets*.

It is an essay on criticism which might also be regarded as an essay in criticism, as Pope sets out his own views of the rules of taste that direct the composition of poetry. He intervened in a debate about whether poetry should directly imitate nature or be written in accord with artificial rules determined by ancient, classical writers. Pope’s own position subtly reconciled these two positions, pointing out that the ancients themselves modelled their rules on close observation of nature.


I seek to reconcile these two viewpoints and see classical rules as “Nature Methodized”.