It took longer than I thought, but here’s the second in this series. Much of the delay came from looking for something that interested me and that I could fit in my increasingly busy schedule. In the end, I chickened out and picked a short work that I could finish in a couple of days: Alexander Pope’s An Essay On Criticism.
We’re back in the Enlightenment with this one, though a little farther into it than Areopagitica. The essay is really a poem, because Pope was, at heart, a poet. It’s written in a style typical of English verse at the time, rhyming couplets that wouldn’t be too outlandish to most school-aged readers. And this is already a hallmark of the era, because the Enlightenment was the last true poetic era. Since then, we’ve gone from poetry to prose as the mainstay of literature, and maybe we lost something along the way.
Pope’s verse, however, is not something that is lost. In fact, this essay, which totaled only about 30 virtual pages on my tablet, provides modern English with no fewer than three popular idioms that have stood the test of time. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” the author states, and we still know that to be all too true. “To err is human” and “fools rush in” both originated here; the second half of the latter, “where angels fear to tread,” is also popular in…certain genres of music.
Beyond these catchphrases, there’s not much to this “book” that makes it great. It is, as its title states, an essay on criticism. Specifically, Pope takes exception to those who are too quick to offer destructive criticism. (If only game journalists would heed his words!) The critics who pan a work because it either doesn’t follow the established rules of a genre or follows them slavishly, both find themselves in his crosshairs. And that’s basically all there is to it.
Okay, there’s a little more substance. The author tries to call back to Antiquity, which is a common theme for the period. The Enlightenment, in a way, was a counter to the Renaissance: where the 15th and 16th centuries were all about building—or discovering—a new world, the 17th and 18th did a lot to tie that world back into the half-forgotten times of the Greeks and Romans. The reemergence of secular philosophy and the advancement of the sciences pushed humanity forward, yet still gave it a familiar anchor.
But Pope treats that anchor as something closer to a life raft, clinging to it against the tide of progress. His insistence that poetry is only above criticism when it is in the style of Homer or Virgil is conservative in the extreme. It’s dogma, but for authors. Which is what you would expect from a Catholic in 1700s England, so you can’t fault him too much. Still, it’s disheartening to see someone held up as a leading light of an enlightened age acting so…dim.
The verse itself is nothing special, either. The idioms that have persisted did so because they had a nice ring to them. They were the advertising jingles of their time, is the way I read it, and that’s why they have such staying power. Beyond them, you have a fairly repetitive procession of rhymes—something Pope even complains about from other authors!—and a deluge of Classical references that, I have to assume, went over the heads of many readers in his own day. Yes, they were more well-read than kids these days, but how many of them knew where Aristotle was born?
I’ve tried writing poetry. It’s hard, and it’s very much an art form. Despite my shortcomings and Pope’s admonitions, I’ll still criticize his inability to get to the point. Verse should tell a story. Using it as an attack ad diminishes it and its creator. While the contortions he had to use to make even a semi-coherent argument out of these stanzas prove that he knew what he was doing, they also obscure the point he was trying to make. It’s a very salient point three centuries later, so it’s a shame that it’s so impenetrable. A lot of critics could do with the wakeup call.