Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism is an attempt to balance theology and aesthetics. Pope in his essay follows the tradition of Horace’s Ars Poetica. His essay concerns with good literary criticism and poetry, and how they stay in harmony.
To harmonize them, he shows a relation between the classical notion of nature and wit, both being essential to poetry as well as criticism. He is of the view that both poetry and criticism are linked to nature and wit, and the best of both are divinely inspired.
Pope regards not only poetry but also criticism as an art. To him, both are based on the same literary principles. Though, there are some specific rules that he ascribes to criticism. The critic, he says, must examine an author as not being familiar with his own capacities but being aware of all aspects of the author.
In addition, he says that a critic has the advantage of knowing work in its totality; therefore, his criticism should not be based on few parts such as author’s use of devices, and ornamental language.
The critics must be biased because of the author’s reputation in critiquing his works. He further suggests that criticism must have a moral sensibility, modesty and caution. Pope warns critics that they avoid bookish knowledge as it results in extravagant language.
Pope’s idea of criticism is one not only to be applied to pieces of art but also it itself is an art. Poetry and criticism, he suggests, are two branches of art. He keeps them in moral and theological domain too.
He also suggests that a poet ought to have critical faculties too so that the creative process is carried out in a balanced and controlled way. His emphasis is on the following nature, the act that relates to wit and judgment which has an overlapping relation as do poetry and criticism.
His advice is that nature should be the standard to be followed before one makes a judgment. However, his idea of the following nature doesn’t connect with Romanticism (the physical appearance of nature) but with the medieval idea of order, and harmony.
He suggests, like all neo-classical critics and writers that nature should become the inspiration to create art. Pope further sets forth the tasks of a poet that’s to convey natural insight and universal truth. It is pride that causes subjectivity, leads to individualism, and mass balance of wit and judgment.
Pope, consequently, attempts to synthesize classical literary traditions with nature. He says that criticism in the ancient Greece one achieved a high status which now has declined. A critic task was then to judge the art meticulously, to appreciate, but now that has been replaced by attacks on poets.
He advises both critic and poet to refrain from any biases and to follow ancient rules. Pope praises Horace as a supreme critic in the literary tradition. Others who are praiseworthy to Pope are Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Petronius, Quintilian, and Longinus. He considers them true representatives of the classical tradition.
Referring to the historical processes that shaped art, Pope regards Renaissance as the “Golden Days” that helped the arts and criticism bloom in Europe. He himself sets forth his ideas as a descendant of Renaissance thinkers who looked back to the classical writers as their ideals.
What Pope, as a critic and poet, endeavours in his essay is to trace the background of true criticism, to show its overlapping relation with poetry, while both being based on the standard of nature and wit.