Eighteenth Century

An essay on criticism

There were a lot interesting readings this week but the one I found the most interesting was An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope. It begins by talking about nature and a Judge. After reading through it carefully I began to realize that the judge he could be talking to or about is the person reading the essay. Almost laying out these guidelines about how someone should act. He even compares nature to liberty, stating that nature is like liberty and it is only restrained by the laws it governs. I thought this was particularly interesting in that a lot of the time when we as a species try and create something we want to change or alter the ways of nature. I think this is particularly true when building houses or other buildings. We expect that because we live there that nature and the surroundings should obey our rules. By this I mean never raining when we want to be outside, or having the wildlife leave our trash barrels alone simply because we are too lazy to put them out in the morning. Pope hints at the fact that as a species we are quick to judge and expect a favorable outcome. But he also seems to hint at the fact that without a little judgment how could we decide what is beautiful or tasteful in life? As the old saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder and with this power comes great responsibility.

Further on in the essay I found another passage I found particularly interesting; “Of all the Causes which conspire to blind Man’s erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind, What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules, Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools. Whatever Nature has in Worth deny’d, 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”(Pope, 200-214). Pope likes to hit on the fact that we have judgment proceeding our actions, and in order to be a good judge of life one must not allow our minds to be misguided by pride. Throughout our lives we are told to take pride in what we do, and some days we let this go to our heads. What I think he is trying to get across is the fact that we must remain humble in every action. He continues to tell us to use not only every friend but every foe we encounter. This goes with the idea of being humble, we may not like everyone we meet but at the end of the day they may know something we don’t and this knowledge could prove to be beneficial.

wc 393 (w/o quote)



7 thoughts on “An essay on criticism

    I really appreciate your focus on the issue of liberty in the beginning of your post. I was wondering if you might see intersections with the issues of liberty and judgment and governance that you point out and Neoclassicism. Do you think that Pope’s work might represent or refute the pillars of this type of philosophy?
    Also, in the passage you cite Pope mentions the importance of ‘defects’: “Trust not yourself; but your Defects to know, Make use of ev’ry Friend — and ev’ry Foe”. What do you make of his statement “trust not yourself, but your defects to know”? What are the implications of Pope’s statement? What do you take this line to mean?
    I look forward to reading your work!

    • I think his work may represent the pillars of this philosophy. He seems to talk a lot about the simple things in life, the ideas at the very base of life, the ones we build off of. I think neoclassicism is a great representation of simplistic, yet beautiful.
      When he says “trust not yourself but your defects to know” I think he is stating that we can’t always trust ourselves, we have wants and needs that cloud our judgements but our defects, flaws and shortcomings will always ground us. They are something we must acknowledge and work on.
      This is a very literal translation however, he could be using a play on words. We can’t always trust who we appear to be to others but our imperfections remind us of who we really are, and that is a person we should trust.

  2. I found it interesting that although we both chose the same article to write about, we picked up on different tones to the reading. I did like your observation that as species go we are very invasive and expect others to obey our rules. Pope did grasp a sense of problems that we are still facing in modern times with our culture and personalities. The quote you chose as well captured a large portion of the overall tone of the paper. Overall, I think you captured the essence of the paper very well. What do you think is something in Pope’s article that he speaks of that is not very found today? Is there something in Pope’s article that is not relevant today because the issue is resolved or is everything he speaks of still relevant? In addition, what other articles can relate to some of the issues discussed in Pope’s Essay On Criticism?

    • I think most of his work can be related to today. However, like most things written a long time ago there isn’t always a direct connection.
      Also I think this can be related to Addison, they both seem to hint on the idea of defects in personalities.

      • I agree! Addison’s take on imagination and how people perceive things based upon expectations is similar to Pope’s essay. I really appreciated towards the beginning how Addison mentions that few know how to be innocent and not be involved in anything criminal. His different Pleasure of the Imagination views, such as the Kinds of Beauty and the sights of what are great, uncommon, and beautiful can relate well to Pope. Pope speaks about how people look up at the elite in the community as if their life is perfect when they have problems too, just different problems. This can be used to understanding Addison’s beauty in the soul, that people see when they get to know them. They may have outer beauty and seem perfect from the outside, but once you get to know them they may have a lot of inner turmoil. The elite may look perfect when they actually have issues as well.

  3. I liked your comparison of Pope’s comments on nature to our use of it in society. Certainly, construction is an attempt to improve upon nature.

    I think my interpretation of his essay falls similar to mine. We are quick to judge as a society, but judgement is necessary. Pope, I believe, is theorizing that there is a necessary balance between these.

    The old saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is interesting to me. The underlying message of the statement is that there is no objectivity in taste, which I disagree with. However, man’s taste inevitably differs and the different “peaks” of art are worth pursuing. For example, I don’t care for Beethoven, and yet he is measurably and objectively one of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time. Man’s taste is most certainly fickle and dependent on one’s environment.

    I didn’t pick up on Pope’s advocation of humility, and I’m glad you brought it up. It certainly relates to the field of criticism. To properly criticize, one must understand and respect the emotional effort put into any piece of art – even if it winds up being garbage. The difference between good professional critics and bad ones can become fairly clear after looking at the way that they write. Roger Ebert for example is well regarded to be one of the finest critics of the last century, not only for his expertise, his writing ability, his candor, but also his humility and openness about his faults.

    Its often said that a critic is a failed artist, jaded and looking to disparage the work of others. In some cases I think this is certainly true, butI wholeheartedly support artistic criticism as a profession.

  4. I really like what you were able to pull out of Pope’s essay. Early on, you mention that he may be using the judge to reference us as readers, and I was wondering how you could expand some of your ideas into the realm of literary criticism and then maybe the idea of “Taste” in general. In the first paragraph, you talk a lot about judgement, which I think comes very close to the concept of Taste. You say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that the beholder’s judgement of beauty (or lack of) in a thing has implications for how that object will be viewed by others going forward. I feel like this has parallels into literary criticism in that one critic, if his opinions (his Tastes) do not agree with an author’s, can sink a book’s chances of success. In your second paragraph, you discuss pride and judgement, and I am wondering how pride might affect the judgement of a critic. Do they somehow feel insulted when something is not written to their Tastes? How might pride play a role when a critic does like something? I am not quite sure, but it is definitely something I will be thinking about.

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