This week's choice is an extract from Part Three of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism. The whole poem runs to 744 lines, but that shouldn't put you off! It's as readable as it was 300 years ago, and highly pertinent to many burning literary issues – writers' prizes and who judges them, for instance. Pope wrote it in 1709, the year his first work, four pastorals, appeared in print. He was barely 21. When it was published in 1711 it earned the young poet immediate acclaim.
Typically, Pope undertook the work in a competitive spirit. He was an ambitious, driven writer, largely self- and home-educated because of a painful spinal deformation, and because the repressive legislation against Catholics at the time denied him access to a university.
It was Nicholas Boileau's treatise, L'Art Poétique, which fired Pope to produce his own study of literary-critical principles. Like Boileau, he champions neoclassicism and its governing aesthetic of nature as the proper model for art. His pantheon of classical writers, the "happy few," as he calls them, includes Quintilian, Longinus and, most importantly, Horace.
Pope's ideals may be recycled, but there's no doubting his passionate belief in them. Deployed in his sparkling heroic couplets, the arguments and summaries are alive with wit, verbal agility and good sense. From his neoclassical scaffolding, he looks outwards to the literary marketplace of his own age. It was a noisy time, and sometimes the reader seems to hear the buzz of the coffee house, the banter, gossip and argument of the writers and booksellers, the jangle of carts and carriages.
Pope's wit is famously caustic, so it's surprising how often the essayist advocates charity and humility. In the chosen section, he begins by advising restraint in criticising dull and incompetent poets. His tongue is in his cheek, as it turns out: "For who can rail as long as they can write?" Although he takes the view that bad critics are more culpable than bad poets, Pope enjoys a sustained dig at the poet-bores who go on and on and on. The metaphor of the spinning-top implies that a whipping will simply keep them going. Tops "sleep" when they move so fast their movement is invisible – hence the faded cliché "to sleep like a tops". The metaphor shifts to "jades" – old horses urged to recover after a stumble and run on, as these desperate poets "run on", their sounds and syllables like the jingling reigns, their words "dull droppings".
From the "shameless bards" in their frenzy of forced inspiration, Pope turns his attention to the critics, and, with nice comic effect, tars them with the same brush. "There are as mad, abandoned critics too." The "blockhead" he conjures reads everything and blindly attacks everything, "From Dryden's fables down to Durfey's tales." Durfey is placed pointedly at the bottom of the pile. He was generally considered an inferior poet, although Pope's friend Addison had time for him. Samuel Garth, on the other hand, was well-regarded, by Pope and many others, for a poem, The Dispensary, denouncing apothecaries and their cohort physicians. There was a rumour current that Garth was not its real author.
Sychophancy is one of the Essay's prime targets. Pope's rhetoric rises to a pitch as he castigates the hypocrisy of the "fops" who always praise the latest play, and the loquacious ignorance of the preferment-seeking clergy. St Paul's Churchyard, the corrupt precinct of the booksellers, may be full of bores and fools, but there's no safer sanctuary at the cathedral's altar.
The Essay is rich in epigrams, still widely quoted. "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread" is among the best known and most borrowed (by Frank Sinatra, among others). Briefly allegorising, Pope goes on to contrast cautious "sense" and impetuous "nonsense", again evoking the rowdy traffic of 18th-century London with the onomatopoeic "rattling".
The flow has been angrily headlong: now, the pace becomes slower, the argument more rational. Antithesis implies balance, and the syntax itself enacts the critical virtues. Where, Pope asks, can you find the paradigm of wise judgement? It's not a rhetorical question. The poem goes on to provide the answer, enumerating the classical models, having a little chauvinistic nip at the rule-bound Boileau, and happily discovering two worthy inheritors of the critical Golden Age, Roscommon and Walsh.
Readers and writers today can't, of course, share Pope's certainties of taste. But we can apply some of his principles, the most important of which is, perhaps, that principles are necessary. And we might even take some tips from writers of the past.
From "An Essay on Criticism," Part Three
'Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
And charitably let the dull be vain:
Your silence there is better than your spite,
For who can rail so long as they can write?
Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep,
And lashed so long, like tops, are lashed asleep.
False steps but help them to renew the race,
As, after stumbling, jades will mend their pace.
What crowds of these, impenitently bold,
In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,
Still run on poets, in a raging vein,
Ev'n to the dregs and squeezings of the brain,
Strain out the last dull droppings of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of impotence.
Such shameless bards we have, and yet 'tis true
There are as mad, abandoned critics too.
The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always listening to himself appears.
All books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden's fables down to Durfey's tales.
With him, most authors steal their works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new play, and he's the poet's friend,
Nay showed his faults – but when would poets mend?
No place so sacred from such fops is barred,
Nor is Paul's church more safe than Paul's church yard:
Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks,
It still looks home, and short excursions makes;
But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks.
And never shocked and never turned aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering tide.
But where's the man who counsel can bestow,
Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiassed, or by favour, or by spite:
Not dully prepossessed, nor blindly right;
Though learned, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and humanly severe:
Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the merit of a foe?
Blessed with a taste exact, yet unconfined;
A knowledge both of books and human kind;
Generous converse; a soul exempt from pride;
And love to praise, with reason on his side?
'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 mislead 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.
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic'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 excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?
Yet if we look more closely we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring light;
The lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false learning is good sense defac'd;
Some are bewilder'd in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a rival's, or an eunuch's spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo's spite,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write.
Some have at first for wits, then poets pass'd,
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last;
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those half-learn'd witlings, num'rous in our isle
As half-form'd insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish'd things, one knows not what to call,
Their generation's so equivocal:
To tell 'em, would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.
But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure your self and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
She gives in large recruits of needful pride;
For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
What wants in blood and spirits, swell'd with wind;
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry friend—and ev'ry foe.
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.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ,
Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find,
Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The gen'rous pleasure to be charm'd with wit.
But in such lays as neither ebb, nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning faults, one quiet tenour keep;
We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep.
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th' exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
Thus when we view some well-proportion'd dome,
(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine, O Rome!'
No single parts unequally surprise;
All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In ev'ry work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,
T' avoid great errors, must the less commit:
Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays,
For not to know such trifles, is a praise.
Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
Still make the whole depend upon a part:
They talk of principles, but notions prize,
And all to one lov'd folly sacrifice.
Learn then what morals critics ought to show,
For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.
'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;
In all you speak, let truth and candour shine:
That not alone what to your sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your friendship too.
Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.
'Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapprov'd;
That only makes superior sense belov'd.
Be niggards of advice on no pretence;
For the worst avarice is that of sense.
With mean complacence ne'er betray your trust,
Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.
Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;
Those best can bear reproof, who merit praise.