Essay
on Criticism, published in 1711, in the words of David Daiches, is “essentially
a turning into polished epigrammatic couplets of the main critical ideas of the
time” (626). The poem reveals the influence of legendary figures like
Quintilian and Aristotle, Horace and Boileau. Written in heroic couplets, the
work is an attempt to sum up the ideas of Horace, Boileau and the eighteenth
century classicists. However, the work is often regarded not as a poem but as a
“storehouse of critical maxims” (Long 266). Part-I deals with what Pope
considers the ‘true taste’ (or the lack of it) and ‘relation between Art and
Nature’ (Daiches 626). Pope is sometimes scathing in his criticism of the
critics who, he feels, lack this very essence of true taste:

‘Tis
with our Judgments as our Watches, none

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just alike, yet each believes his own.

In
Poets as true Genius is but rare,

True
Taste as seldom is the Critick’s Share;

Both
must alike from Heav’n derive their Light,

These
born to Judge, as well as those to Write.

Let
such teach others who themselves excell,

And
censure freely who have written well.

Authors
are partial to their Wit, ’tis true,

But
are not Criticks to their Judgment too?

Nature
for Pope was nothing more than common sense and throughout the first part he
harps on the value of this common sense. There is also a sustained
glorification of the ancient critics (like Aristotle) and poets (like Homer and
Virgil) who show how ‘nature can best be followed’ (Daiches, 627).

In
Part-II, Pope shows that imperfect learning and wrong, immature understanding
of the text(s) would ultimately lead to faulty and prejudiced criticism. The
following lines reveal how Pope feels about such short-sighted critical
approaches:

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.

In
Part-III, Pope goes on to lay down some fundamental rules that must be followed
by a critic in order to provide balanced and worthy criticism of a text. While
doing so, he again praises the ancients and glorifies them as models to be
followed:

Such
once were critics; such the happy few,

Athens
and Rome in better ages knew.

            The mighty Stagirite first left the
shore,

            Spread all his sails, and durst the
deeps explore

He
steer’d securely, and discover’d far,

Led
by the light of the M?onian Star.

            Poets, a race long unconfin’d and
free,

            Still fond and proud of savage
liberty,

            Receiv’d his laws; and stood
convinc’d ’twas fit,

Who
conquer’d nature, should preside o’er wit.

The
‘mighty stagirite’ here is Aristotle whose critical works should be emulated by
contemporary critics as he “presents a thumbnail history of criticism” (Daiches
628). The poem ends with a eulogy of  his
friend, William Walsh, who died recently.

            The poem, however, as pointed out
earlier, is known more for its brilliant use of maxims; and some of these have
entered the parlance of the English language. Some examples are– “For fools
rush in where angels fear to tread”, “To err is human, to forgive divine”, “A
little learning is a dangerous thing”. Regarding the brilliant use of maxims,
Long’s observation, “these lines and many more like them from the same source,
have found their way into our common speech, and are used, without thinking of
the author, whenever we need an apt quotation” (266), must be taken into
consideration.

 

 

24.5 The Rape of the Lock:

Though
the translations of Homer would bring Pope financial success later, it was the
publication of The Rape of the Lock (1712)that truly marked the birth of a
genius. The Rape of the Lock, though written when Pope was merely 24,is widely
considered to be one of Pope’s greatest achievements. When the first edition of
this poem was published, Pope was living at Binfield in Windsor forest. The
young Pope became friendly with a neighboring Catholic family, the Blounts of
Mapledurham. The family had two young sisters: Martha, nineteen, and Patty,
seventeen. One of the cousins of this Blount family was a lively woman called
Arabella Fermor (Belinda). One of the distant relatives of the family was Lord
Petre (Baron) whose family and the Fermors had a good relationship until Lord
Petre stole a lock of hair from Arabella’s head sometime in the year 1711. This
created a gulf between the families. Pope, after being requested by John
Caryll, a catholic friend of Pope and also the godfather of Martha, decided to
write a poem that would reconcile these families.

In
an ‘Introduction’ to the the poem, Harriet Raghunathan writes: “He wrote the
poem very quickly, in two weeks, and presumably gave manuscript copies of the
poem to Arabella’s family and some of his own friends” (xviii). Although
written in a hasty manner, this mock-heroic poem on the event narrated above is
a work of “delicate imagination, subtly ironic wit, mock-heroic extravagance,
the most perfect control over cunningly manipulated verse…” (Daiches 628). To
make a drawing room fiasco a poem of (mock) epic proportion requires genius;
and that Pope was able to deliver reveal his skills; as David Daiches points
out: “The Rape of the Lock is more than a jest; it is, in Arnold’s phrase, a
criticism of life” (629). The poem is probably the most polished example of the
mock-heroic poetic tradition surpassing its predecessors such as Dryden’s
Macflecknoe (1678), Boileau’s Le Lutrin (1674), and Garth’s The Dispensary. It
is Pope’s brilliant use of language that makes the poem stand out from the
crowd. The subject is introduced through an invocation just like  epic poetry.

What
dire offence from am’rous causes springs,

What
mighty contests rise from trivial things,

I
sing—This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:

This,
ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:

Slight
is the subject, but not so the praise,

If
she inspire, and he approve my lays.

Say
what strange motive, Goddess! could compel

A
well-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle?

O
say what stranger cause, yet unexplor’d,

Could
make a gentle belle reject a lord?

In
tasks so bold, can little men engage,

And
in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?

The
mock-heroic tone is established from the fifth line itself: “Slight is the
subject, but not so the praise”. Then the description moves to Belinda’s toilet
as she dresses up, or rather arms herself, to face the world. The imagery,
drawn straight out of the cupboard of epic poetry, must be noted:

And
now, unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d,

Each
silver vase in mystic order laid.

First,
rob’d in white, the nymph intent adores

With
head uncover’d, the cosmetic pow’rs

A
heav’nly image in the glass appears,

To
that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;

Th’
inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,

Trembling,
begins the sacred rites of pride.

Unnumber’d
treasures ope at once, and here

The
various off’rings of the world appear;

From
each she nicely culls with curious toil,

And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil

x

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