Good Critical Thinking On Alexander Pope And His Contemporaries
In English literary history, a large part of the 18th century has been termed as the Augustan Age, a name echoing the brilliant literary period under the Roman emperor, Augustus. Soon after the restoration, English poetic conventions were governed by the classical writers- Juvenal for satire, Virgil for epics and pastoral, and Horace for general literary taste. The leading writers shrank from emotionalism and replaced it with the spirit of reason. Poetic language was classical, infused with a satirical tone and artificial diction. Poetry was mainly urban in theme and content. The heroic couplet raised as the best medium to fulfil the potential of the major poetic forms- the satire and the epic. Some of the best satires were written by Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, Mac Flecknoe, The Hind and the Panther. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is unequalled in the genre of mock- epic. The age is remarkable with the writings of famous personalities like Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, La Rochefoucauld, and other well- known writers.
Essay on Criticism is a didactic poem by Alexander Pope in heroic couplets published anonymously in 1711. The poem initiates with an elucidation of the canons of choice and the authority to be endorsed with the ancient writers on the discipline. G. Douglas Atkins comments:
Pope's use of the parts-whole problem in An Essay on Criticism thus appears judicious and efficient. For it not unifies a diverse series of critical follies, but it also embodies the poem's central moral concerns as it allows Pope to, exhibit the wit and judgment he insists on. Without denying that problems remain in this section, we can applaud Pope's considerable achievements.
The rules by which a critic ought to be directed are then conversed, and the illustrations are given of critics who have digressed from them. The work is splendid and remarkable as Pope writes it at the early age of 21. Edward Albert discusses in A History of English Literature that:
The poem professes to set forth the gospel of wit and nature as it applies to the literature of the age. There is no attempt at originality of thought, Pope’s aim being merely to restate the code of the ancients. This he does with a conciseness and epigrammatic neatness which have given his remarks the permanence of proverbs (206).
Pope excellently conveys his attitudes towards literature in the poem and clearly displays the virtues and confines of the Eighteenth Century School of poetry in the poem. Essay on Criticism marks a vital shift away from the often topical poetry of the Restoration and towards the typical and conventional claims associated with the enlightenment. The poem describes what is essential for a good literary criticism and points out the fact that finest critics will be the elite writers and vice versa. Pope offers a vision of criticism that is coherent with his sense of the rapport between nature, tenets and normalization. Patricia Meyer Spacks points out:
The conjunctions of imagery in the Essay on Criticism lend density to the poetry and deepen its philosophic and emotional implications. Even an individual image can participate in such a process. Such an image is Pope's figure of the "good man," which emerges gradually through the Essay. It demonstrates wit's controlling power by giving reality and substance to abstract ideas. The poem's central abstractions- wit, nature, sense, judgment- achieve solidity through a variety of imagery, but much of its general moral doctrine depends on a single group of human images to generate the emotional energy that makes it real to the reader (101).
Pope explains in the first part of the poem that the critics must take every care while critiquing a piece of art as unhealthy and bad criticism brings negative effect to the entire reading community. In the next part he stresses the need for the critic to be humble and brings out the necessity to recognise personal faults and limitations. The third part echoes the ups and downs of writings and literary reviewers since Greek culture, clarifying how the interpretation constructed by the Greeks and Romans was gone and is only instigating to be cherished yet again. The poem becomes outstandingly insightful when located in the milieu of enlightenment. Pope’s poem acclaims logic and encloses a modesty towards logic, more explicitly, the text highlights the requisite to audaciously voice your own verity but to do so with cognizing and veneration for the reality that others have located by means of proper lucidity and consistency. Throughout and erstwhile Pope’s life time, England’s administration had faced common and often brutal havoc.
The poem has many proverbial quotes. The lines carry immense power and meanings that prove his excellence to compress the truest and factual thoughts in a handful of words: “A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring: / There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,/ And drinking largely sobers us again” (Essay on Criticism).These are oft quoted lines that throw light on the comprehended truth that a little amount of information can deceive people into supposing that they are more proficient than they actually are. Greek myths supported the belief that drinking from the Pierian Spring certainly brings great knowledge and revelation. Therefore, Pope explains that learning only a little persuades you to feel in such a way that forces you to have an impression that you know more. Nonetheless, "drinking largely sobers" makes you realize that you know only very little.
Samuel Johnson too makes wise statesmen like “The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove.” These sayings openly outline and mark the age as remarkable. La Rochefoucauld is always remembered as the renowned French author of proverbs and chronicles. His writings clearly depict the worldly view of human behaviour that treasures neither denunciation nor idealization. Similar to Pope, Swift and Johnson he invariably portrayed human nature and behaviour through his works that mostly comprises of maxims and memorials. His opinions on human disposition relate various topics like vanity, self-interest, arrogance, the desires and the sentiments, passion, honesty, argument, and philosophies. There are innumerable wise sayings to his credit like this “Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.” These writers succeed in making the era fruitful with their powerful words. The human nature and eccentricities are clearly illustrated in the works of all these eminent personalities. Their works are so powerful that they remain timeless.
Albert, Edward, and J. A. Stone. History of English Literature. 5th ed. London: Harrap, 1979. Print.
G. Atkins, Douglas. "Poetic Strategies in "An Essay on Criticism," Lines 201-559." JSTOR. South Atlantic Modern Language Association, 1 Nov. 1979. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3198983>.
Meyer Spacks, Patricia. "Imagery and Method in "An Essay on Criticism"" JSTOR. Modern Language Association, 1 Jan. 1970. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1261435>.
Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism Written in the Year MDCCIX. By Alexander Pope Esq. Halle: Printed by J.J. Gebauer, 1758. Print.