Alexander Pope
by Walter Jackson Bate

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:

  1. General qualities needed by the critic (1-200):
    1. Awareness of his own limitations (46-67).
    2. Knowledge of Nature in its general forms (68-87).
      1. Nature defined (70-79).
      2. Need of both wit and judgment to conceive it (80-87).
    3. Imitation of the Ancients, and the use of rules (88-200).
      1. Value of ancient poetry and criticism as models (88-103).
      2. Censure of slavish imitation and codified rules (104-117).
      3. Need to study the general aims and qualities of the Ancients (118-140).
      4. Exceptions to the rules (141-168).
  2. Particular laws for the critic (201-559)
    Digression on the need for humility(201-232)
    1. Consider the work as a total unit (233-252).
    2. Seek the author's aim (253-266).
    3. Examples of false critics who mistake the part for the whole (267-383).
      1. The pedant who forgets the end and judges by rules (267-288).
      2. The critic who judges by imagery and metaphor alone (289-304).
      3. The rhetorician who judges by the pomp and colour of the diction (305-336).
      4. Critics who judge by versification only (337-343).
      Pope's digression to exemplify "representative meter" (344-383).
    4. Need for tolerance and for aloofness from extremes of fashion and personal mood (384-559).
      1. The fashionable critic: the cults, as ends in themselves, of the foreign (398-405), the new (406-423), and the esoteric (424-451).
      2. Personal subjectivity and its pitfalls (452-559).
  3. The ideal character of the critic (560-744):
    1. Qualities needed: integrity (562-565), modesty (566-571), tact (572-577), courage (578-583).
    2. Their opposites (584-630).
    3. Concluding eulogy of ancient critics as models (643-744).

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