This week’s choice is an extract from Part Three of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism. The whole poem runs to 744 lines, but that shouldn’t put you off! It’s as readable as it was 300 years ago, and highly pertinent to many burning literary issues – writers’ prizes and who judges them, for instance. Pope wrote it in 1709, the year his first work, four pastorals, appeared in print. He was barely 21. When it was published in 1711 it earned the young poet immediate acclaim.
Typically, Pope undertook the work in a competitive spirit. He was an ambitious, driven writer, largely self- and home-educated because of a painful spinal deformation, and because the repressive legislation against Catholics at the time denied him access to a university.
It was Nicholas Boileau’s treatise, L’Art Poétique, which fired Pope to produce his own study of literary-critical principles. Like Boileau, he champions neoclassicism and its governing aesthetic of nature as the proper model for art. His pantheon of classical writers, the “happy few,” as he calls them, includes Quintilian, Longinus and, most importantly, Horace.
Pope’s ideals may be recycled, but there’s no doubting his passionate belief in them. Deployed in his sparkling heroic couplets, the arguments and summaries are alive with wit, verbal agility and good sense. From his neoclassical scaffolding, he looks outwards to the literary marketplace of his own age. It was a noisy time, and sometimes the reader seems to hear the buzz of the coffee house, the banter, gossip and argument of the writers and booksellers, the jangle of carts and carriages.
Pope’s wit is famously caustic, so it’s surprising how often the essayist advocates charity and humility. In the chosen section, he begins by advising restraint in criticising dull and incompetent poets. His tongue is in his cheek, as it turns out: “For who can rail as long as they can write?” Although he takes the view that bad critics are more culpable than bad poets, Pope enjoys a sustained dig at the poet-bores who go on and on and on. The metaphor of the spinning-top implies that a whipping will simply keep them going. Tops “sleep” when they move so fast their movement is invisible – hence the faded cliché “to sleep like a tops”. The metaphor shifts to “jades” – old horses urged to recover after a stumble and run on, as these desperate poets “run on”, their sounds and syllables like the jingling reigns, their words “dull droppings”.
From the “shameless bards” in their frenzy of forced inspiration, Pope turns his attention to the critics, and, with nice comic effect, tars them with the same brush. “There are as mad, abandoned critics too.” The “blockhead” he conjures reads everything and blindly attacks everything, “From Dryden’s fables down to Durfey’s tales.” Durfey is placed pointedly at the bottom of the pile. He was generally considered an inferior poet, although Pope’s friend Addison had time for him. Samuel Garth, on the other hand, was well-regarded, by Pope and many others, for a poem, The Dispensary, denouncing apothecaries and their cohort physicians. There was a rumour current that Garth was not its real author.
Sychophancy is one of the Essay’s prime targets. Pope’s rhetoric rises to a pitch as he castigates the hypocrisy of the “fops” who always praise the latest play, and the loquacious ignorance of the preferment-seeking clergy. St Paul’s Churchyard, the corrupt precinct of the booksellers, may be full of bores and fools, but there’s no safer sanctuary at the cathedral’s altar.
The Essay is rich in epigrams, still widely quoted. “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is among the best known and most borrowed (by Frank Sinatra, among others). Briefly allegorising, Pope goes on to contrast cautious “sense” and impetuous “nonsense”, again evoking the rowdy traffic of 18th-century London with the onomatopoeic “rattling”.
The flow has been angrily headlong: now, the pace becomes slower, the argument more rational. Antithesis implies balance, and the syntax itself enacts the critical virtues. Where, Pope asks, can you find the paradigm of wise judgement? It’s not a rhetorical question. The poem goes on to provide the answer, enumerating the classical models, having a little chauvinistic nip at the rule-bound Boileau, and happily discovering two worthy inheritors of the critical Golden Age, Roscommon and Walsh.
Readers and writers today can’t, of course, share Pope’s certainties of taste. But we can apply some of his principles, the most important of which is, perhaps, that principles are necessary. And we might even take some tips from writers of the past.
From “An Essay on Criticism,” Part Three
‘Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
And charitably let the dull be vain:
Your silence there is better than your spite,
For who can rail so long as they can write?
Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep,
And lashed so long, like tops, are lashed asleep.
False steps but help them to renew the race,
As, after stumbling, jades will mend their pace.
What crowds of these, impenitently bold,
In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,
Still run on poets, in a raging vein,
Ev’n to the dregs and squeezings of the brain,
Strain out the last dull droppings of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of impotence.
Such shameless bards we have, and yet ’tis true
There are as mad, abandoned critics too.
The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always listening to himself appears.
All books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden’s fables down to Durfey’s tales.
With him, most authors steal their works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new play, and he’s the poet’s friend,
Nay showed his faults – but when would poets mend?
No place so sacred from such fops is barred,
Nor is Paul’s church more safe than Paul’s church yard:
Nay, fly to altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks,
It still looks home, and short excursions makes;
But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks.
And never shocked and never turned aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering tide.
But where’s the man who counsel can bestow,
Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiassed, or by favour, or by spite:
Not dully prepossessed, nor blindly right;
Though learned, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and humanly severe:
Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the merit of a foe?
Blessed with a taste exact, yet unconfined;
A knowledge both of books and human kind;
Generous converse; a soul exempt from pride;
And love to praise, with reason on his side?