Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Alexander Pope and the…
  • 0:58 Overview of the Poem
  • 3:07 Analysis of the Poem
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore Alexander Pope's famous poem titled 'An Essay on Criticism.' In an attempt to understand the importance, influence and significance of the work, we'll look at the literary and philosophical context of the poem.

Alexander Pope and the Enlightenment

'A little learning is a dang'rous thing,' Alexander Pope famously writes in his poem 'An Essay on Criticism.' The poem is one of the most quoted in the English language and one that offers tremendous insight into Pope's beliefs and into the culture in which Pope was writing.

Pope lived from 1688 to 1744 and was one of the most popular and influential writers of his time. He was writing during what we now call the Enlightenment era, which lasted from about 1660 to around 1800. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the importance of science and reason and claimed that the world is knowable and testable. It was during the Enlightenment that modern science and many of the assumptions that govern our contemporary system of reason were developed. This context and the excitement that surrounded the changes brought to culture through the Enlightenment are central to 'An Essay on Criticism.'

Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope

Overview of the Poem

Pope's 'Essay on Criticism' is broken into three different parts. The first part opens by describing the ways literary critics can actually cause harm. Pope argues that critics must be both careful and humble when critiquing a piece of literature, for the writing of bad criticism actually hurts poetry more than the writing of bad poetry does. Pope points out that each critic has his or her own opinion, and, if applied incorrectly, a critic can actually censure a talented writer. However, Pope argues that if a critic is honest, doesn't fall prey to envy and listens to the seeds of understanding that are naturally a part of him or herself, one can become a wise critic. The Greeks came to understand poetry through following the rules of nature, argues Pope, and contemporary critics must do the same.

In the second part, Pope describes some of the ways that critics develop bad judgment, the chief of which is pride. The key to avoiding this is to know your own faults and limitations. Moreover, critics must study well and focus on conventions passed down from the masters of poetry. Pope warns, however, that critics must be careful of becoming slaves to the rules and convention that others have developed and to not let the popularity of an author misguide a critic's appreciation of an author's work. One of the products of adhering too closely to conventions is that critics become fascinated with extremes and forget the essential truth that beauty and good poetry are made up of the combination of all of their parts, rather than each part by itself.

In the third part of the poem, Pope offers some wisdom that critics should follow. Once again, Pope emphasizes the importance of humility and studying deeply, particularly studying those poets and critics who truly understand poetry and follow nature. Pope then reflects on the ups and downs of literature and literary critics since Greek culture, explaining how the understanding produced by the Greeks and Romans was lost and is only beginning to be appreciated again.

Analysis of the Poem

'An Essay on Criticism' is written in heroic couplets, which consist of two rhyming lines that are written in iambic pentameter. Lines written in iambic pentameter consist of five iambs, which are metrical feet that have two syllables, one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, as in 'belong' or 'along.' Heroic couplets are typically used when writing traditional and idealistic poetry, a quality that reiterates the serious tone of Pope's poem. Pope saw the poem less as an original composition and more as a collection of the insights of other writers. His goal was to combine the wisdom of others to help produce a sort of definitive guideline from which critics could learn.

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