An Essay on Criticism

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An Essay on Criticism was the first major poem written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1688–1744). However, despite the title, the poem is not as much an original analysis as it is a compilation of Pope's various literary opinions. A reading of the poem makes it clear that he is addressing not so much the ingenuous reader as the intending writer. It is written in a type of rhyming verse called heroic couplets.

The poem first appeared in 1711, but was written in 1709. It is clear from Pope's correspondence that many of the poem's ideas had existed in prose form since at least 1706. It is a verse essay written in the Horatian mode and is primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in the new literary commerce of Pope's contemporary age. The poem covers a range of good criticism and advice. It also represents many of the chief literary ideals of Pope's age.



Part I

  • Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss.
    • Line 6.
  • 'Tis with our judgements as our watches, none
    Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
    • Line 9. Compare: "But as when an authentic watch is shown, Each man winds up and rectifies his own, So in our very judgments", John Suckling, Aglaura, Epilogue.
  • Let such teach others who themselves excel,
    And censure freely who have written well.
    • Line 15.
  • Some are bewildered in the maze of schools,
    And some made coxcombs nature meant but fools.
    • Line 26.
  • One science only will one genius fit:
    So vast is art, so narrow human wit.
    • Line 60.
  • Wit and judgment often are at strife,
    Though meant each other's aid, like man and wife.
    • Line 82.
  • From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,
    And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.
    • Line 152.
  • Some Figures monstrous and mis-shap'd appear,
    Consider'd singly, or beheld too near,
    Which, but proportion'd to their Light, or Place,
    Due Distance reconciles to Form and Grace.
    • Line 171 - 174.
  • A prudent Chief not always must display
    His Pow'rs in equal Ranks, and fair Array,
    But with th' Occasion and the Place comply,
    Conceal his Force, nay seem sometimes to Fly.

    Those oft are Stratagems which Errors seem,
    Nor is it Homer Nods, but We that Dream.
    • Line 175 - 179. Compare: "Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus" (translated: "Even the worthy Homer some times nods"), Horace, De Arte Poetica, 359.

Part II

  • Of all the causes which conspire to blind
    Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind;
    What the weak head with strongest bias rules, —
    Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
    • Line 1.
  • Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
    Make use of ev'ry Friend — and ev'ry Foe.
    • Lines 13-14.
  • A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
    There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.
    • Commonly misquoted as a proverb, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," which ironically illustrates the point.
    • Lines 15-18. Compare: "Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. He that travelleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel", Francis Bacon, Of Travel.
  • Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
    • Line 32.
  • 'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
    But the joint force and full result of all.
    • Line 45.
  • Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
    Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
    • Line 53. Compare: "'High characters', cries one, and he would see / Things that ne’er were, nor are, nor e'er will be", John Suckling, The Goblins, Epilogue.
  • True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
    What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
    • Line 97.
  • Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
    Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
    • Line 109.
  • Such labored nothings, in so strange a style,
    Amaze th' unlearned, and make the learned smile.
    • Line 126.
  • In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
    Alike fantastic if too new or old:
    Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
    Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
    • Line 133.
  • As some to church repair,
    Not for the doctrine, but the music there.
    These equal syllables alone require,
    Though oft the ear the open vowels tire;
    While expletives their feeble aid do join,
    And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.
    • Line 142.
  • Then, at the last and only couplet fraught
    With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
    A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
    That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
    • Line 156.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense;
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows.
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.
  • True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
    As those move easiest who have learned to dance
    'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense;
    The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
    Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
    And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
    But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
    The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.
    When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
    The line too labours, and the words move slow:
    Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
    Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.
    • Line 162.
  • At ev'ry Trifle scorn to take Offence,
    That always shows Great Pride, or Little Sense.
    • Line 186.
  • Yet not let each gay turn thy rapture move;
    For fools admire, but men of sense approve.
    • Line 190.
  • Some judge of authors' names, not works, and then
    Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.
    • Line 212.
  • What woeful stuff this madrigal would be,
    In some starved hackney sonneteer, or me!
    But let a lord once own the happy lines,
    How the wit brightens! how the style refines!
    • Line 218.
  • But let a lord once own the happy lines,
    How the wit brightens! how the style refines!
    • Part ii. Line 220.
  • Some praise at morning what they blame at night,
    But always think the last opinion right.
    • Line 230.
  • We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
    Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.
  • Fondly we think we honour Merit then,
    When we but praise Our selves in Other Men.
    • Lines 254-255.
  • Envy will merit as its shade pursue,
    But like a shadow proves the substance true.
    • Part ii. Line 266.
  • Be thou the first true Merit to befriend;
    His praise is lost, who stays till All commend.
    • Lines 274-275.
To err is human, to forgive divine.
  • Ah ne'er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
    Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
    Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
    To err is human, to forgive divine.
    • Lines 322-325. Compare: "To step aside is human ", Robert Burns, Address to the Unco Guid.
  • All seems Infected that th' Infected spy,
    As all looks yellow to the Jaundic'd Eye.
    • Line 358.

Part III

For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
  • Learn then what morals critics ought to show,
    For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.
    • Line 1.
  • Be silent always when you doubt your sense.
    • Line 6.
  • And make each day a critic on the last.
    • Line 12.
  • 'Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
    Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do;
    Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
    And Things unknown propos'd as Things forgot.
    • Lines 13-16.
  • The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
    With loads of learned lumber in his head,
    With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
    And always list'ning to himself appears.
    All books he reads, and all he reads assails.
    • Line 53.
  • Most authors steal their works, or buy;
    Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
    • Line 59.
  • No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr'd,
    Nor is Paul's Church more safe than Paul's Church-yard:
    Nay, fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
    For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
    • Lines 63 to 66. Compare: "Wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch", William Shakespeare, King Richard III, Act I, Sc. 3.
  • But where's the man who counsel can bestow,
    Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?
    • Line 72.
  • Led by the light of the Mæonian star.
    • Line 89.
  • Content if hence th' unlearn'd their wants may view,
    The learn'd reflect on what before they knew.
    • Line 180. Compare: "Indocti discant et ament meminisse periti" (translated: "Let the unlearned learn, and the learned delight in remembering"). This Latin hexameter, which is commonly ascribed to Horace, appeared for the first time as an epigraph to President Hénault's Abrégé Chronologique, and in the preface to the third edition of this work Hénault acknowledges that he had given it as a translation of this couplet.
  • Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame,
    Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
    Averse alike to flatter or offend,
    Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.
    • Line 182.


  • The Essay on Criticism...displays such extent of comprehension, such nicety of distinction, such acquaintance with mankind, and such knowledge both of ancient and modern learning as are not often attained by the maturest age and longest experience.
  • One of [Pope's] greatest though of his earliest works is the Essay on Criticism, which if he had written nothing else would have placed him among the first criticks and the first poets, as it exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactick composition, selection of matter, novelty of arrangement, justness of precept, splendour of illustration, and propriety of digression. I know not whether it be pleasing to consider that he produced this piece at twenty, and never afterwards excelled it: he that delights himself with observing that such powers may be so soon attained, cannot but grieve to think that life was ever after at a stand.
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