An Essay on Criticism



Alexander Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism shortly after turning 21 years old in 1711. While remaining the speaker within his own poem Pope is able to present his true viewpoints on writing styles both as they are and how he feels they should be. While his poetic essay, written in heroic couplets, may not have obtained the same status as others of his time, it was certainly not because his writing was inferior (Bate). In fact, the broad background and comprehensive coverage within Pope’s work made it it one of the most influential critical essays yet to be written (Bate). It appears that through his writing Pope was reaching out not to the average reader, but instead to those who intend to be writers themselves as he represents himself as a critical perfectionist insisting on particular styles. Overall, his essay appears to best be understood by breaking it into three parts.

mark2.jpgSubdivisions of An Essay on Criticism

The scholar Walter Jackson Bate has explained the structure of the essay in the following way:

I. General qualities needed by the critic (1-200):

1. Awareness of his own limitations (46-67).
2. Knowledge of Nature in its general forms (68-87).

  • Nature defined (70-79).
  • Need of both wit and judgment to conceive it (80-87).

3. Imitation of the Ancients, and the use of rules (88-200).

  • Value of ancient poetry and criticism as models (88-103).
  • Censure of slavish imitation and codified rules (104-117).
  • Need to study the general aims and qualities of the Ancients (118-140).
  • Exceptions to the rules (141-168).

II. Particular laws for the critic (201-559): Digression on the need for humility (201-232):

1. Consider the work as a total unit (233-252).
2. Seek the author’s aim (253-266).
3. Examples of false critics who mistake the part for the whole (267-383).

  • The pedant who forgets the end and judges by rules (267-288).
  • The critic who judges by imagery and metaphor alone (289-304).
  • The rhetorician who judges by the pomp and colour of the diction (305-336).
  • Critics who judge by versification only (337-343).

Pope’s digression to exemplify “representative meter” (344-383).
4. Need for tolerance and for aloofness from extremes of fashion and personal mood (384-559).The fashionable critic: the cults, as ends in themselves, of the foreign (398-405), the new (406-423), and the esoteric (424-451).

  • Personal subjectivity and its pitfalls (452-559).

III. The ideal character of the critic (560-744):

1. Qualities needed: integrity (562-565), modesty (566-571), tact (572-577), courage (578-583).
2. Their opposites (584-630).
3. Concluding eulogy of ancient critics as models (643-744).

mark2.jpgClose Reading of a Key Passage from 3 parts of An Essay on Criticism

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mark2.jpgView An Essay on Criticism

A copy of the first edition of 1711 (From Google Books)
As a Web page (From Rutgers Univ. website)

mark2.jpgWorks Cited
Bate, Walter. “Alexander Pope.” 20 April 2010 <>.

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