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Senseless

The form of Pope’s Essay on Criticism is an example of the “hybrid” nature of this class. The work is both a poem and an essay: a series of couplets aiming to revise and question the methods of literary critics. I found the aesthetics of the poem very interesting—many words are capitalized and italicized throughout the work, indicating an emphasis on their importance and meaning. There does not appear to be a specific pattern for when Pope does this. In some lines in the poem, the emphasized words are opposites of one another (“some few in that, but Numbers err in this,” false Learning is good sense,” “so vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit”), but in other parts, the words complement one another (“Kings/Conquests, Science/Genius, Man and Wife, Doctor’s Bills/Doctor’s Part). This contradiction makes the poem difficult to decode. These contradictions might mirror Pope’s critique of critiques: the critiques are proceeding in a manner that Pope feels opposes the correct methods of criticism.

Edmund Burke’s On Taste explores the nature of Taste and how it functions in the world. He argues that there is a universal standard of taste, a function of judgment and perception. I find it interesting that that he suggests there is good taste and bad taste—I imagine some people have found the implication that some people are “better” at tasting than others offensive, but I found it to be interesting, and a supposition based on the culture and perceptions at the time. The division of taste into three parts (sense, imagination, and judgment) allows Burke to expand his claim even further. He claims that other senses too can be understood in the same way as Taste—he suggests that no one could think a goose is more beautiful than a swan. If they did, they must be crazy. I disagree with this. Preferences and perceptions are subjective; there is generally not a hierarchy among them. If someone thinks a goose is more beautiful than a swan, they are not crazy, but rather, have different (not better or worse) perceptions and preferences than someone else who disagrees. But, there are some hierarchies that seem to exist among preferences. Gourmet food made at an expensive restaurant might be valued more than a convenience store-bought beef jerky. A child that doesn’t use drugs or get into trouble at school is thought of as a “good” child, and the latter is thought of as a “bad” child. The taste of plain Crisco is generally inferior to that of a warm cookie. But, there are still some people that could disagree with these claims.

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2 thoughts on “Senseless

  1. I also noticed the capitalized words and the dichotomies Pope presented. I agree that with you in that the contradictions made the precise meaning of the work hard to ascertain. I felt that in forcing us to view these dichotomies that he was trying to prove his point. For example, I took the line “For Wit and Judgment often are at strife, Tho’ meant each other’s Aid, like Man and Wife” to mean that even though Wit and Judgment are at odds at times they should go hand and hand with each other like man and wife. However, I am probably way off base and could be “losing my common Sense in search of Wit.” Let me know what you think.
    I agree with your assessment of Burke that preferences and tastes are subjective, yet completely culturally constructed. I really enjoyed your examples. They are spot on.

  2. Laura,
    Good gracious!! I cannot believe I haven’t capitalized on the parallels between the hybrid genre and the course. You. Are. Brilliant!

    That said:
    I agree, the genre of this essay is of crucial importance, and I am eagerly looking forward to discussing this! Why is it that an “essay” on the criticism on literature takes the shape of a poem! A markedly Neoclassical poem at that (we’ll discuss this more on Wednesday).

    I would let you know that capitalization wasn’t standardized during this period. What this means is that typesetters, in addition to authors, could (and would) alter the first letter or the entire word into uppercase (majuscule) lettering. It would probably be bit erroneous to consider the capitalization as intentional emphasis.

    That said I think your analysis on dichotomies is really sound. I can’t wait to chat through this on Wednesday!

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