An Essay on Criticism was published when Pope was relatively young. The work remains, however, one of the best-known commentaries on literary criticism. Although the work treats literary criticism in particular and thus relies heavily upon ancient authors as type masters, Pope still extends this criticism to general judgment about all walks of life. He demonstrates that true genius and judgment are innate gifts of heaven; at the same time, he argues, many possess the seeds of these gifts, such that with proper training they can be developed. His organization takes on a very simple structure: the general qualities of a critic; the particular laws by which he judges a work; and the ideal character of a critic.
Part 1 begins with Pope’s heavy indictment of false critics. In doing so, he suggests that critics often are partial to their own judgment, judgment deriving, of course, from nature, like that of the poet’s genius. Nature provides everyone with some taste, which may in the end help the critic to judge properly. Therefore, the first job of the critic is to know himself or herself, his or her own judgments, his or her own tastes and abilities.
The second task of the critic is to know nature. Nature, to Pope, is a universal force, an ideal sought by critic and poet alike, an ideal that must be discovered by the critic through a careful balance of wit and judgment, of imaginative invention and deliberate reason. The rules of literary criticism may best be located in those works that have stood the test of time and universal acceptance: namely, the works of antiquity. Pope points out that, in times past, critics restricted themselves to discovering rules in classical literature, whereas in his contemporary scene critics are straying from such principles. Moderns, he declares, seem to make their own rules, which are pedantic,...
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Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711) marks a contentious point where the history of literary criticism and the politics of 1688 meet. Critics are divided about whether the poem dictates the laws of criticism and monarchical sovereignty or promotes the formation of rational-critical debate in a public sphere. A line of thinking from Maynard Mack to Lee Morrisey argues for the poem’s “pervasive concern for corporateness” and invocation of rigorous “Rules” of criticism designed to contain “democratized reading” by disavowing the irrational, passionate, and figurative elements of language (Mack 171; Morrissey 117). Emphasizing the poem’s concern with unity, such interpretations align it with Ronald Paulson’s claim that Pope rejects the “Whig idea” of aesthetics by returning to a Jacobite “poetics, focusing on the poet,” a move analogous to a “a return from an oligarchy to a monarchy” (130).1
On the other hand, celebrations of An Essay on Criticism for its commitment to polite sociability and the formation of a public sphere resist claims about the poem’s totalizing aesthetics and absolutist politics. Offering the most sophisticated version of this Habermasian approach, Sarah Eron argues that the poem is structured by “didactic and dialogic exchange” because its modern muse is not a divine addressee or the imagination but always a “social other” (25-6, 3).2 Insofar as such readings insist on the poem’s commitment to the intersubjective determination of aesthetic judgment, they sit easily with analyses that situate it within the framework of Ernst Cassirer’s influential account of aesthetic thinking in the Enlightenment as “a striving for totality” that also allows for the “finite to assert its own character” (352-3). David Morris, for example, argues that the poem’s conception of criticism espouses “universal, certain, permanent, theoretical values” while also taking into account “the particular, variable, practical aspects of critical activity” (55). Yet if both Eron and Morris find in the poem versions of Enlightenment reason that [End Page 101] preserve the particular from subsumption by the universal, they anchor it differently in either communicative or probabilistic reasoning, respectively. Neither form of rationality, however, fully captures the poem’s own efforts to theorize the relationship between the the production of art and the practice of criticism. Although it insists on an openness to the social other, Habermasian communicative rationality cuts reason off from the rhetorical and poetic resources that Pope’s poem and understanding of criticism rely upon: it is closed to the other of language.3 Likewise, Pope argues that because writing poetry is intimately bound up in the fecundity of the poem’s material elements and irrational poetic devices—because it requires a “Happiness as well as Care”—the “Rules” that govern criticial judgment must be subject to critical reflection and ongoing transformation (142). This openness to the irrational limits the light that Lockean probabilistic reasoning can shed on the poem’s conceptions of rationality, selfhood, and community.
The poem’s understanding of the rules of criticism, genius, and political sovereignty are more heteronomous than the opposing accounts of Pope as monarch manqué or Habermasian avatar suggest.4 It is more open to both the otherness of individuals and of language. This openness takes at least two forms. First, if the poem extols the “whole,” it also rejects bad forms of unity. It resists the subsumption of the individual into an unthinking mass. Like The Dunciad, it is concerned with how meaningful language can collapse into meaningless noise, how a whole can undifferentiate and assimilate: “All glares alike, without Distinction gay” (314). An Essay on Criticism understands authentic individuality and community in terms of the linguistic interplay of sameness and difference, a mutual dependency that Fredric Bogel identifies in The Dunciad as a “double relation, in which…energies of unification and division, coexist, a relation that immediately dissolves when either element is lost” (“Dulness Unbound” 845). Similarly, efforts in An Essay on Criticism to write or criticize based on communal repetition or individualistic singularity fail—as does the selfhood and community of such would-be writers and critics. By figuring individuality and community through...