“Roses are red….”

“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 mis-lead 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.”[1]

Every time I approach this poem there are several things I am confronted with. First, there is no other poem that so candidly (and complicatedly) encapsulates the notion of 18th century poetic/philosophic tendencies. Second, I cannot, for the life of me, understand the intellectual hierarchy that Pope presents – are artists the “culture makers,” or is it the critic? Third, Alexander Pope is a bit of a pompous a$$!

This pompousness is demonstrated time and time again in the  poetic conceits of the poem. Pope demonstrates a disdain for the ‘general’ artist – an artist, however, that is vastly outnumbered by bad critics. I often feel that this poem is the most conservative poem I have ever read: not politically (it’s shockingly radical politically…) but artistically. It’s as though Pope wants the reader to recognize that the biggest danger is overstepping one’s own boundaries of potential. As Pope writes,

“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.”

In knowing “your own reach,” Pope prompts us (the readers)to recognize his/her own “depth.” Intellectual depth, creative depth, perhaps even emotional depth – Pope encourages restraint in all of these realms in order to protect tradition and innovation. 

Clearly there is more to discuss, but there is a big part of me that wonders if Pope rolls over in his grave a bit every now and again when the line, “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing” is misquoted! I. for one, think that Pope had an entirely different notion in mind when he penned that line than the public has had a tendency to accept it.


[1] Pope, Essay on Criticism. Lines 1-8.


One thought on ““Roses are red….”

  1. I can’t help but wonder if Pope is purposefully being pompous. I say purposefully because it seems Pope is outwitting the general writers and critics he disdains for reducing art to the wit and for being proud and pompous themselves. It’s as if he’s just giving them a piece of their own medicine.

    An interesting way to interpret “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing” would be to apply some of the concepts found in Genesis (just for fun). In Genesis, Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened after they eat from the tree of knowledge. At that point, they gain conscious awareness and immediately notice they’re naked and cover themselves. Before that point, they did not possess knowledge yet they possessed what Pope would call a guiding light. But now they had freewill and could choose; they were no longer bound to that guiding light. Maybe for Pope, learning is what distracts us from this guiding light. By elevating learning over what amounts to the light of God, it could be considered very dangerous because you’re actively shunning God and the very principle that unites us.

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