Essayon Criticism, published in 1711, in the words of David Daiches, is “essentiallya turning into polished epigrammatic couplets of the main critical ideas of thetime” (626). The poem reveals the influence of legendary figures likeQuintilian and Aristotle, Horace and Boileau. Written in heroic couplets, thework is an attempt to sum up the ideas of Horace, Boileau and the eighteenthcentury 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 Popeconsiders the ‘true taste’ (or the lack of it) and ‘relation between Art andNature’ (Daiches 626). Pope is sometimes scathing in his criticism of thecritics who, he feels, lack this very essence of true taste:’Tiswith our Judgments as our Watches, noneGojust alike, yet each believes his own.InPoets as true Genius is but rare,TrueTaste as seldom is the Critick’s Share;Bothmust alike from Heav’n derive their Light,Theseborn to Judge, as well as those to Write.Letsuch teach others who themselves excell,Andcensure freely who have written well.Authorsare partial to their Wit, ’tis true,Butare not Criticks to their Judgment too?Naturefor Pope was nothing more than common sense and throughout the first part heharps on the value of this common sense. There is also a sustainedglorification of the ancient critics (like Aristotle) and poets (like Homer andVirgil) who show how ‘nature can best be followed’ (Daiches, 627).
InPart-II, Pope shows that imperfect learning and wrong, immature understandingof the text(s) would ultimately lead to faulty and prejudiced criticism. Thefollowing lines reveal how Pope feels about such short-sighted criticalapproaches:Alittle learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierianspring: There shallow draughts intoxicatethe brain, And drinking largely sobers usagain.InPart-III, Pope goes on to lay down some fundamental rules that must be followedby a critic in order to provide balanced and worthy criticism of a text. Whiledoing so, he again praises the ancients and glorifies them as models to befollowed:Suchonce were critics; such the happy few,Athensand Rome in better ages knew. The mighty Stagirite first left theshore, Spread all his sails, and durst thedeeps exploreHesteer’d securely, and discover’d far,Ledby the light of the M?onian Star.
Poets, a race long unconfin’d andfree, Still fond and proud of savageliberty, Receiv’d his laws; and stoodconvinc’d ’twas fit,Whoconquer’d nature, should preside o’er wit.The’mighty stagirite’ here is Aristotle whose critical works should be emulated bycontemporary critics as he “presents a thumbnail history of criticism” (Daiches628). The poem ends with a eulogy of hisfriend, William Walsh, who died recently. The poem, however, as pointed outearlier, is known more for its brilliant use of maxims; and some of these haveentered the parlance of the English language. Some examples are– “For foolsrush in where angels fear to tread”, “To err is human, to forgive divine”, “Alittle 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 ofthe author, whenever we need an apt quotation” (266), must be taken intoconsideration. 24.5 The Rape of the Lock: Thoughthe translations of Homer would bring Pope financial success later, it was thepublication of The Rape of the Lock (1712)that truly marked the birth of agenius. The Rape of the Lock, though written when Pope was merely 24,is widelyconsidered to be one of Pope’s greatest achievements. When the first edition ofthis poem was published, Pope was living at Binfield in Windsor forest.
Theyoung Pope became friendly with a neighboring Catholic family, the Blounts ofMapledurham. The family had two young sisters: Martha, nineteen, and Patty,seventeen. One of the cousins of this Blount family was a lively woman calledArabella Fermor (Belinda). One of the distant relatives of the family was LordPetre (Baron) whose family and the Fermors had a good relationship until LordPetre stole a lock of hair from Arabella’s head sometime in the year 1711. Thiscreated a gulf between the families.
Pope, after being requested by JohnCaryll, a catholic friend of Pope and also the godfather of Martha, decided towrite a poem that would reconcile these families. Inan ‘Introduction’ to the the poem, Harriet Raghunathan writes: “He wrote thepoem very quickly, in two weeks, and presumably gave manuscript copies of thepoem to Arabella’s family and some of his own friends” (xviii). Althoughwritten in a hasty manner, this mock-heroic poem on the event narrated above isa work of “delicate imagination, subtly ironic wit, mock-heroic extravagance,the most perfect control over cunningly manipulated verse…” (Daiches 628). Tomake 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 pointsout: “The Rape of the Lock is more than a jest; it is, in Arnold’s phrase, acriticism of life” (629). The poem is probably the most polished example of themock-heroic poetic tradition surpassing its predecessors such as Dryden’sMacflecknoe (1678), Boileau’s Le Lutrin (1674), and Garth’s The Dispensary.
Itis Pope’s brilliant use of language that makes the poem stand out from thecrowd. The subject is introduced through an invocation just like epic poetry.Whatdire offence from am’rous causes springs,Whatmighty contests rise from trivial things,Ising—This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:This,ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:Slightis the subject, but not so the praise,Ifshe inspire, and he approve my lays.
Saywhat strange motive, Goddess! could compelAwell-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle?Osay what stranger cause, yet unexplor’d,Couldmake a gentle belle reject a lord?Intasks so bold, can little men engage,Andin soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?Themock-heroic tone is established from the fifth line itself: “Slight is thesubject, but not so the praise”. Then the description moves to Belinda’s toiletas 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: Andnow, unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d,Eachsilver vase in mystic order laid.First,rob’d in white, the nymph intent adoresWithhead uncover’d, the cosmetic pow’rsAheav’nly image in the glass appears,Tothat she bends, to that her eyes she rears;Th’inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,Trembling,begins the sacred rites of pride.Unnumber’dtreasures ope at once, and hereThevarious off’rings of the world appear;Fromeach she nicely culls with curious toil,And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil