An Essay on Criticism is one of the first major poems written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1688–1744). It is the source of the famous quotations "To err is human, to forgive divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (frequently misquoted as "A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing"), and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." It first appeared in 1711 after having been written in 1709, and it is clear from Pope's correspondence that many of the poem's ideas had existed in prose form since at least 1706. Composed in heroic couplets (pairs of adjacent rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) and written in the Horatian mode of satire, it is a verse essay primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in the new literary commerce of Pope's contemporary age. The poem covers a range of good criticism and advice, and represents many of the chief literary ideals of Pope's age.
Pope contends in the poem's opening couplets that bad criticism does greater harm than bad writing:
- 'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
- Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
- But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
- To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense
- Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
- Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
- A Fool might once himself alone expose,
- Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose. ... (1–8)
Despite the harmful effects of bad criticism, literature requires worthy criticism.
Pope delineates common faults of poets, e.g., settling for easy and cliché rhymes:
- And ten low words oft creep in one dull line:
- While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
- With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
- Wher'er you find "the cooling western breeze",
- In the next line, it "whispers through the trees";
- If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep",
- The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep" ... (347–353)
Throughout the poem, Pope refers to ancient writers such as Virgil, Homer, Aristotle, Horace and Longinus. This is a testament to his belief that the "Imitation of the ancients" is the ultimate standard for taste. Pope also says, "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance" (362–363), meaning poets are made, not born.
As is usual in Pope's poems, the Essay concludes with a reference to Pope himself. Walsh, the last of the critics mentioned, was a mentor and friend of Pope who had died in 1710.
An Essay on Criticism was famously and fiercely attacked by John Dennis, who is mentioned mockingly in the work. Consequently, Dennis also appears in Pope's later satire, The Dunciad.
Part II of An Essay on Criticism includes a famous couplet:
- A little learning is a dangerous thing;
- Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
This is in reference to the spring in the Pierian Mountains in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses. The first line of this couplet is often misquoted as "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".
The Essay also gives this famous line (towards the end of Part II):
- To err is human, to forgive divine.
The phrase "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" from Part III has become part of the popular lexicon, and has been used for and in various works.
- Dunning–Kruger effect, the empirically observed pattern that individuals possessing a nonzero but low degree of competence in a field tend to overestimate their competence whereas individuals possessing high competence in that field tend to accurately assess or even underestimate their competence relative to others'
- ^An Essay on Criticism (1 ed.). London: Printed for W.Lewis in Russel Street, Covent Garden; and Sold by W.Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, T.Osborn near the Walks, and J. Graves in St. James Street. 1711. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^22 October 1706: Correspondence, i.23–24.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)
Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familiarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.
He, who Supream in Judgment, as in Wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg'd with Coolness tho' he sung with Fire;
His Precepts teach but what his Works inspire.
Our Criticks take a contrary Extream,
They judge with Fury, but they write with Fle'me:
Nor suffers Horace more in wrong Translations
By Wits, than Criticks in as wrong Quotations. (An Essay on Criticism, ll. 653-664)
Basic set up:
In this section of Pope's poem (yeah, it's a poem, but it's also an essay), he praises the ancient Roman poet Horace.
The Augustans' love for the classics is reflected in these lines. Here, Pope is waxing lyrical about what a wonderful writer the ancient poet Horace was.
According to Pope, Horace is great at talking us "into Sense." He conveys to us "the truest Notions in the easiest way." Basically, if you ask Pope, Horace is so much better than all those hacks writing during Pope's own time, who "judge with Fury, but… write with Fle'me."
That's phlegm, folks. Tasty image.
Pope doesn't just praise Horace in this excerpt; he also tries to emulate Horace's wit and style. Look at how neat and graceful those heroic couplets are: "Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,/ And without Method talks us into Sense, / Will like a Friend familiarly convey/ The truest Notions in the easiest way."
Like Horace, Pope is also trying to talk us into sense here. He's trying to convey "Notions" to us in the "easiest way," that is, by employing a style and language that's graceful, convincing, and witty all at once.