Eighteenth Century

Pope & the Dawn of the Theory of Genius


During the eighteenth century, philosophers began to ponder whether exceptional art was a product of methodology and learning or a product springing from the natural character of an individual.  In short, they asked themselves whether art was a skill learned through conventions, such as from sources as Aristotle’s Poetics, or whether it was an innate skill (genius).  It is interesting to think that we still ponder this question today.  The dominant paradigm before the eighteenth century was that exceptional art was a product of a learned and finely executed methodology.  Pope recognizes this point when he mockingly asks “Who durst depart from Aristotle’s Rules” (line 272).   In Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” he is clearly arguing that exceptional art is produced through genius—through an innate skill governed by nature.  We see this idea in the first few pages where Pope describes nature’s “Lines” as being “drawn right” and nature as a “just Standard” and “Unerring” (line 22, 69-70).  These descriptions suggest that nature is ordered and, as a part of nature, that the character of humans is naturally ordained.  This is why Pope suggests that we follow our “Judgment frame” (line 68).  What’s more is that nature produces “One clear, unchang’d and Universal Light” which is the “Source, and End, and Test of Art” (line 71, 73).  What is this Universal Light?  It is intuitive knowledge, or knowledge that springs from within.  Contrast this notion of intuitive knowledge with the notion of wit and you have the crux of Pope’s contempt for critics and writers.  What is wit?  It is experiential knowledge, or knowledge that is derived from sources outside of us—from people, books, etc.  For Pope, a critic doesn’t learn to be a critic nor a poet a poet; nature guides suitable individuals to these occupations.  Pope’s problem is that unsuitable individuals become critics and poets because learnedness is the dominant paradigm, and wit ultimately makes the writer and critic stray from the true intention of art.    The critic, for example, no longer serves as the handmaiden to the poet and muse, but “call[s] their masters fools” (line 111).


One thought on “Pope & the Dawn of the Theory of Genius

  1. I do have to agree with Pope to some extent. I believe that in today’s society especially, the abilities of exceptional artists, whether it be musicians, writers, or painters, are mostly innate. Sure you can take instruction classes to better refine these abilities, but I think that there is only so much that an individual can do. Everyone has different talents, and I believe that most of them are natural. This does not mean that hard work can never yield art of the same caliber, because it can. I just think that is rare, and the true talent and expertise in the field of art is for the most part, innate.

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