In the Essay on Criticism (1711), written in 1709 when he was hardly twenty-one, Pope was trying to write a poetical essay which would hold the same important place in English that Boileau's Art Poétique (1674) was holding in French criticism. If it did not quite attain this position, the reason is not that Pope's essay is inferior to Boileau's. It is simply that English writers of any period, including the age of Pope, have a way of refusing to form schools and follow manifestoes. Still, Pope's Essay on Criticism is not only the last but perhaps the most rewarding of the important critical essays in verse modeled on Horace's Art of Poetry. It draws upon the previous verse-essays of Horace, Vida, and Boileau, as well as those of two minor Restoration writers, the Earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon. It also draws upon precepts from the Roman Quintilian and the French critics, Rapin and Le Bossu. Above all, its general tone is kept comparatively liberal and flexible by the influence of Dryden, and, to some extent, of Longinus. The background is broad. This may partly explain why the Essay on Criticism is more comprehensive in what it covers than any of the other Horatian verse-essays, including that of Boileau. It also quite equals Boileau in edge of style, and it surpasses him in compactness.
The Essay on Criticism is more profitably introduced by a topical summary of its themes than by an analysis of its premises. For its premises and aims are those of the entire neoclassic tradition. And the poem itself is a statement or summary of them rather than an individual argument or analysis. The essay may be described as falling into three parts, with the following subdivisions:
The intention of this outline is simply to clarify the topics discussed by Pope. It is by no means intended to attribute an argumentative or reasoned order to the poem. For as Johnson said of Warburton's attempt to discover the order or design of the Essay on Criticism:
Almost every poem, consisting of precepts, is so far arbitrary and immethodical, that many of the paragraphs may change place with no apparent inconvenience; for of two and more positions, depending upon some remote or general principle, there is seldom any cogent reason