Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism

Alexander Pope’s five tenets of neoclassicism are essentially in his preparation for his most famous work, his Essay on Criticism. For example, “One science only will one genius fit, so vast is art, so narrow human wit…” (Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism part I, l. 60). Alexander Pope used a couple of tenets of Classicism in this quote, but he uses all five throughout his poem, Essay on Criticism. In Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope incorporates the neoclassicism principles such as nature, wit, and genius.

Alexander Pope amalgamates nature throughout his Essay on Criticism in various lines to express neoclassicism. According to Albert C. Baugh, Baugh says the in Essay on Criticism pt. 1, “Pope starts with the view that as poets must by natural endowment have genius, so critics must have taste; that most men ‘have the seeds of judgment in their mind,’ and that this natural taste must be developed by a study of Nature (that is, of the moral system of the universe together with its manifestations) and a study of the ancients and of ancients rules…” (843). That means that Pope has that taste that many critics wish they had in their mind. Nature is expressed by Pope as the best guide of judgment, in his Essay on Criticism, in this following stanza, “First follow Nature, and your judgment frame by her just standard, which is still the same; Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, one clear, unchanged, universal light…” (lines 68-71). So, Pope is saying that Nature is this unchangeable source that people should follow to walk in the right path. Alexander Pope says “Those rules of old discovered, not devised, are Nature still, but Nature methodized; Nature, like liberty, is but restrained by the same laws which first herself ordained…” (lines 88-91). Pope uses this simile to describe how Nature is very similar to liberty. Harold Bloom explains that “Everything in the Essay turns on this fundamental idea of Nature, and three main principles underlie Pope’s reasoning: (1) That all sound judgment and true ‘wit’ is founded on the observation of Nature; (2) That false ‘wit’ arises from a disregard of Nature and an excessive affection for the conception of the mind; (3) That the true standard for determining what is ‘natural’ in poetry is to be found in the best works of the ancients…” (1417).

According to Edward Niles Hooker, “A critic must understand wit if he is to talk of literature” (227). The way that Alexander Pope coalesce wit into his work displays that Pope is indeed a poet and also a critic. Harold Bloom explains wit as “…the practice of finding resemblances in objects apparently dissimilar, as it was cultivated throughout the seventeenth century by poets like Donne, Crashaw, Quarles, and Cowley…Wit, as we see from the Essay on Criticism, was regarded in the early part of the century as a power object in poetry…” (1417). Pope explains how authors and critics are somewhat alike in this stanza, “Authors are partial to their wit, ‘tis true, but are not critics to their judgment too?” (lines 17-18). But unlike the last reference, Pope uses this stanza to explicate how searching for wit could lead to more problems, “In search of wit these lose their common sense, and then turn critics in their own defense…” (lines 28-29).

Alexander Pope elucidates genius within several lines in his Essay of Criticism. Pope explains in the following stanza that a true taste is hard to find, and that is the same for a true genius, “’Tis with out judgment as our watches, none go just alike, yet each believes his own. In poets as true genius is bur rare, true taste as seldom is the critic’s share…” (lines 9-12). In the next selected stanza, Pope explains that if you just look for fame then you just be another name, but if you reach your goal or limit its no telling how far you will go, “But you who seek to give and merit fame, and justly bear a critic’s noble name, be sure yourself and your own reach to know, how far your genius, taste, and learning go…” (lines 46-49). Alexander Pope justifies in this next stanza that only one person with the right wit and imagination can understand what is going on, “One Where beam of warm imagination play, the memory’s soft figures melt away. One science only will one genius fit, so vast is art, so narrow human wit…” (lines 58-61).

In conclusion, Alexander Pope vindicates how these principles, nature, wit, and genius, were used to express neoclassicism throughout his Essay on Criticism.