Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Alexander Pope

Notes on Alexander Pope
Neoclassical Premises (ca. 1650-1789)
(a) Social commitment and desire for continuity in response to Civil War’s deep divisions (1642-1649).
(b) an inclination to categorize experience, nature, and literature into “kinds.”
(c) appreciation of satire; satire is a robust art form during the eighteenth century.
(d) importance of probability; thus the use of analogy as a literary figure: the two terms of the comparison both illuminate each other but remain distinct.
(e) the prevalence of moral categories—neoclassical art is often didactic.
(f) fondness for classical precedent.
(g) obedience to ordinary English grammar .
(h) categorizing the appropriate types of speech for appropriate subjects: epic for high subjects, lyric for love poetry, etc.
(i) importance of mirroring nature in art (mimesis): art should follow nature, not proclaim itself independent.
(j) skepticism about language—another reason for analogy: metaphor tends to collapse the two terms of comparison: man = pig, etc.   The worry is that language can hide truth and nature just as easily as it reveals or honors them.
(k) stress on art’s utility and capacity to give pleasure (the Horatian imperative that art should be utile et dulce, useful and pleasant).  Literature must both please and teach, with emphasis on the latter function.
Pope’s Era: The Neoclassical Age of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian Georges
Pope’s ideas about the value of art derive from Horace, a silver-age poet and urbane critic.  Horace’s era (he lived from 65-8 BCE, covering the reign of Augustus 27BC-14 CE following the Civil War and assassination of Julius Caesar) accords well with the reign of Queen Anne in Great Britain (1702-14) and then the Hanoverian Kings George I-III (1714-27, 1727-60, 1760-1820).  Alexander Pope lived from 1688-1744.  The perceived need was for continuity and calm after the turmoil of the English Civil War in the 1640’s and the Puritan Rule of Cromwell in the 1650’s.  Throughout the eighteenth century, that’s what many British citizens looked for in their rulers and in their literature.
This is an age in which the predominant theory of art is mimetic, meaning that readers and critics expect literature to offer them a judicious and ethically sound representation of life.  And the point of such mimetic art is to influence morals for the better: as Horace had said, good art is both utile and dulce, useful and delightful.  The point is that people respond emotionally to eloquence and beauty, and emotion can temper the severity and callousness of reason.  It would be a mistake to think of the eighteenth century as purely an “Age of Reason”—that’s taking a motivated exaggeration at face value.  After all, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume said that “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  Sentiment, properly directed and educated, was just as important as reason in this age, whatever contemporary critics claim the romantics said about their predecessors’ “overemphasis on reason” at the expense of the universal passions that bring humans together.
Eighteenth-century language theory tends towards classification—rather a scientific model of language, one distrustful of metaphor and flights of fancy.  Horace made fun of the furor poeticus, and the eighteenth century is similarly distrustful of placing too much value on poetic genius and originality for the sake of originality.  Imagination and language are wonderful things, but they need restraint and education to temper them into fine instruments that produce excellent works of art.  The Baconian distrust of “idols” (errors due to the peculiarities of the individual and to the needs of the collective, as well as the tendency of perception to slide from raw accuracy into the dull comfort of abstractions) reigns in eighteenth-century notions of language. 
Still, we need not think of this horizon of expectations as implying an insatiable appetite for pompous “poesy,” though second-rate poets may lapse into that kind of adherence to mere formal elegance.  Pope himself makes fun of anyone who lards on the elegance too thick.  In an era of refined art, taste and restraint are everything—one must know what to omit as well as what to include, and when an acceptable tendency becomes a travesty.  Calling fish “the finny tribe” is a ludicrous abuse of the tendency to categorize individual things, sacrificing whatever is “fickle, freckled, who knows how” (Hopkins) for the sake of dull comprehensibility.  The same goes for the “breeze” that “whistles through the trees” like clockwork.  What an abomination against nature and poetry!  In his “Essay on Criticism, Pope mocks both tendencies—abstractionism and hollow rhyming that imposes a false order on the beautiful variety of nature.
Epic Conventions and Mock Epic
When Samuel Johnson says, “nothing can please long except just representations of general nature” (nature here meaning both the environment and human nature), he speaks for a whole century’s worth of critics, readers, and audiences.  Well, we might think that in such a Silver Age where decorum, observation of refined rules, maintenance of tact and restraint, are nearly everything, something as rough and rude as, say, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or satire in general would be out of place, but that isn’t the case.  Satire was a favorite kind of literature during the eighteenth century, and that is where Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock comes into view.  A mock epic, of course, mocks the conventions and aims of epic by adhering to them, with a significant change in subject matter.  In order to understand mock epic better, we should consider what an epic is.  The genre is easy to define formally: “the epic is a long narrative poem involving heroic figures in the performance of heroic deeds, usually extended over a wide geographical area; it is written in a heroic or grandiose manner” (Norton and Rushton).  Here are its major conventions:
1. Hero: a mythical or historical figure, usually national.
2. Subject matter: heroic deeds, battles, long journeys.
3. Verse: elevated, lofty, “heroic”; the best known device is epic simile—see PL I.331-343, 351-355, 761-798.
4. Action: intermixture of supernatural elements/ figures with human characters.
5. Place: world-wide, even cosmic, scale.
6. “Comic,” not “tragic”: the hero is successful in his exploits.
7. “Objective” poet: but consider the “Miltonic aside.”

Some of the minor conventions are as follows:

1. Invocation to the muse: PL I.1-26 and elsewhere.  “Hail, Muse!” &tc.
2. Starting in medias res, as when the Odyssey begins with Odysseus having almost finished his wandering.
3. Narratives of events that transpired before the poem: “flashbacks.”
4. Formal or “set” speeches like Satan’s to his fallen legions in Paradise Lost, Books 1-2.
5. Processions of characters, as in Paradise Lost 1.376-505; catalogs of events or things.  (Milton dwells on geography, etymology, and the origin of various human practices, including artistic genres.

In addition to all of the above, epic has a serious ethical purpose—it labors within the culture from which it comes, trying to affect that culture for the better: it has a cultural task.  Homer wrote about the exploits of Odysseus and the wrath of Achilles, probably hoping to infuse into his own difficult times the ancient heroic virtues and the resilience of an earlier age.  Virgil wrote about the sad but fortunate fall of Troy—the Trojan Aeneas had to see his city destroyed so he could sail to Italy and found a city, Lavinium, setting in motion the events that would lead to the establishment of the Roman Republic and then the Empire.  And Milton wrote Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men,” but perhaps most immediately to reassure dejected fellow Puritans that God had not abandoned them. 
Mock epic is similar to satire, and it, too, might be said to have a task.  One reason to satirize and mock is that the satirizer may be speaking for and to people who feel that they have little power, at least for the time being, to change things for the better.  (I suppose that’s the charge running through Jon Stewart’s mock-newscasts on Comedy Central, or Stephen Colbert’s deadpan imitation of a bloviating conservative pundit.  Such mockery may not exactly send people into the streets with French-Revolutionary fervor, but it’s powerful in its way because it encourages an alternative sensibility and way of understanding events alongside the official channels in the news and political realms, meaning not only politicians but those who cover them in the various “serious” media outlets.  (The fact that I’ve put quotation marks around the word “serious,” thereby calling it into question, is an effect of the kind of satire I am discussing: i.e., how seriously should we take supposedly serious or official accounts of why certain domestic and foreign policies are being pursued?)  But in Pope’s case, perhaps the poet is just responding to a need for his culture to examine its tendencies lest they become empty exaggerations.  Mock-epic may serve as a warding-off gesture, a warning that today’s happy conformity—a society with lots of “shiny happy people holding hands” and mostly accepting the same fundamental assumptions about themselves, their government, and the world at large—might well be tomorrow’s stale, real-life parody.  Perhaps conformity itself soon becomes morbid “me-too-ism” (a lame excuse for healthy existence), or generates excesses in the other direction (rebelliousness, that is), so it needs to be questioned frequently and searchingly.
That’s a serious social “task” to ascribe to mockery and satire.  I think it’s the one most appropriate to Pope: he speaks as a man of letters to those whose assumptions he mostly shares.  His Catholicism in a deeply Protestant country makes him something other than a simple adherent to neoclassical taste and political values.  His traditionalism is somewhat self-conscious, I should think—he’s not the kind of aristocratic brute who absorbs his “values” from the nice thick beefsteak he gnaws every evening and the good wine with which he washes it down.  As the Norton introduction says, Pope is the first man of letters to make a comfortable living by writing—his father was a prosperous merchant, and Pope lifted himself into even more polite society by means of literary skill.  Moreover, he belongs early in the tradition we may trace down to Wilde and then the Modernists—artists of great culture and learning who fear the effects of “mass culture” both upon society at large and, more narrowly, upon the arts.  But on the whole, Pope fits into the Horatian tradition that says art’s mission is to render in a decorous manner what the public already believes, and to influence and gently uplift the reading public’s manners and morals. 
Notes on The Rape of the Lock
What Pope does in The Rape of the Lock is reflect humorously on the elaborate quality of gender relations in his day.  He makes fun of the era’s assumptions about female virtue—in the poem, the language of commodification and ethics seem to go together, and the male superiority posited by the “honor code” is made to appear ridiculous.  A woman’s position in Pope’s time was complex—women were hemmed in by all sorts of constraints, yet they were very important in symbolic terms.  The image of the female was central to notions of domesticity and morals, her beauty bodying forth the goodness of the social order itself, rather like the courtier’s grace signifying the sovereign’s legitimacy and rightness in earlier times, in the Renaissance Courts of Europe and England.
Dedication to Mrs. Arabella Fermor
2514.  Pope makes fun of modern triviality, but as a critic he maintains a balance of view regarding the quarrel of the ancients and moderns.  Ancient epic, after all, sometimes makes trivial things seem important, deflating human pretensions.  Homer certainly does that.  As for the addition of Rosicrucian supernatural machinery, Pope’s use of such trappings is hardly dismissive; rather, I suppose he is emulating Milton’s angelic hosts and “devils to adore for deities” of Paradise Lost.
Canto 1
1-12: Prelude
13-26: Morning; Belinda asleep; Ariel; Belinda dreams of a young beau; Ariel speaks
27-114: Ariel’s address; the sylphs take charge of Belinda; picture of the beau monde; the game of sex
115-20: Belinda wakes
121-48: The toilet

2515-16.  From line 67 and following, honor is a wispy thing, a tactical affair rather than a sacred virtue.  We can’t escape the “war between the sexes,” the poem seems to be telling us, and women, it’s suggested, tend to be flighty and vain when it comes to love matters.
2517.  Belinda is warned of a “dread event” (109) by Ariel, her guardian Sylph.  But her thoughts flow to material things lying around her, a glittering and reflective environment.  At lines 125-26, there’s a hint of Eve’s innocent narcissism in Paradise Lost: “A heavenly image in the glass appears; / To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.”
Canto 2
001-018: Belinda rises from her toilet:  her beauty
019-028: Belinda’s locks
029-046: The Baron desires Belinda’s beauty
047-052: Belinda secure
053-072: Ariel gloomy and anxious, summons his battalions
073-136:               Ariel’s speech
137-142: The sylphs await events
2520.  The Rosicrucian spirits take their stations.  At lines 90-92, Pope echoes Milton’s invocation in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, redefining the proper subject of epic, suiting the subject to the form.  At lines 106-09, the narrator equates honor with a china jar, and these lines offer a series of disjunctive references.  It’s hard to take honor too seriously when we see it placed adjacent to such trivial objects, and the verse form reinforces the conflation-effect: “Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade, / Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball”  The stopping-points in these lines, the caesuras, drive home the point.
Canto 3
001-018: The setting of Hampton Court
019-104:               The “Battle” of Ombre
105-124: Taking coffee:  the Baron gets an idea
155-160: Belinda’s horror
161-178: The Baron’s triumph; the glories of steel

2521-23.  To Hampton Court we go, as if the place were heaven or Olympus.  At lines 19-22, Pope’s epigrammatic style sums up the truth of a fifty-page sociology paper on the justice system: “wretches hang that jurymen may dine.”  At lines 25 and following, the epic battle for Belinda’s heart: a game of Ombre (http://webpages.shepherd.edu/maustin/ombre/ombre.htm).  Such games are, like chess, bound up with strategy, and are a surrogate form of chivalric containment of violence.  Perhaps there’s an implicit criticism of modern love here, but it could also be that Pope aims at something more uplifting.  It is human to “methodize” nature, to set up rules and conventions, and so long as they remain rooted in human nature, all is well.  We live in societies so that we may be “to advantage dressed.”  These are phrases from Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”  Love is civil, elaborate, and involves strategy and deferral of desire.  So in this sense, a game like Ombre, with its complex rules and competitive spirit, is a good figure for erotic pursuits. 
2523-24.  Belinda’s scissors give the Baron his chance.  The chivalric references in the passage introduce ambivalence about the event that will soon transpire.  Ariel’s power dissipates because he knows Belinda isn’t, perhaps, so dead-set against the Baron as she professes herself.  So the trappings of deferral and civility must give way.  For the moment, however, they give way to high wrath, almost Achilles-like wrath.  But that too, it’s fair to suggest, is just another kind of delay.
Canto 4
001-010: Belinda’s sorrow
011-088: Umbriel visits the Cave of Spleen; obtains the bag and vial from the Goddess
089-094: Belinda in the arms of Thalestris
095-120: Thalestris’ speech
121-130: Sir Plume:  demands the Baron return the lock
131-140: The Baron refuses
141-146: Belinda renews her grief
147-176: Belinda’s speech

2525.  The lock has now been seized, and Umbriel goes to the underworld, or here the Cave of Spleen.  Just as Odysseus and Aeneas had to communicate with the underworld to complete their journeys, so Belinda’s love can only be accomplished or won with a journey to the bottom of it all: melancholy, stormy passion.  Umbriel makes sure that she will be afflicted with Ill Humour.

2528.  Sir Plume the beau plays the role of Collatinus, the injured husband of Lucretia.  But his stake in the action is rather general, a matter of principle, as signified by a rap on the snuffbox.
Canto 5
001-008: Belinda’s speech has no effect; Clarissa prepares to speak
009-034: Clarissa’s speech
035-074: The beaux and the ladies fight
075-102: Belinda and the Baron fight:  Belinda’s victory
103-112:               Belinda demands the lock, but it is missing
113-150:               The apotheosis of the lock
2529-30.  Clarissa’s grave lesson is “she who scorns a man must die a maid.”  But fierce Thalestris wins out against this privileging of merit over looks and manners.  Clarissa speaks around line 30 to the “hemmed in” status of eighteenth-century women, their power came from manipulating men within a complex set of fules.  Women were expected to give in and yet maintain the important ideal of chastity.
2531-32.  No way will Belinda recover her lost lock of hair, which symbolizes female honor.  But neither will the Baron keep it as a trophy to gloat over.  So there has to be an apotheosis, where the material lock becomes a poetic symbol of feminine honor.  Art here helps to maintain civility in the necessary “war” between desire’s deferral and its satisfaction. 
Notes on Eloisa to Abelard
The poem is genuinely medieval in sentiment—strong passions are constrained by convent walls and barbarous guards of honor.  Eloisa and Abelard have become disembodied voices, confined to what they can write at long distance.  They have no direct contact.  Eloisa remains defiant, refusing fully to sublimate her erotic passion for Abelard into spiritual adoration of Christ.  Her defiance is risky since she won’t give up an inappropriate love interest, one that the situation would seem to demand she put behind her.  And she is quite self-conscious on this dilemma.  What’s striking about the poem is how it manages, thanks to Pope’s virtuosity, to be both elegant and genuinely emotional: it isn’t easy to write love poetry in heroic couplets, but Pope has done it.
General Notes on Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”

Nature: nature is structured like the human mind, and it operates in a rational and stable way. The ancients based their works upon nature, so studying Homer is like going back to nature, both in the sense of “human nature” and the physical environment.  Literary and social rules are not merely prescriptive; they are instead based on the close observation of nature—that’s why we should follow them, and why we should value the ancients. Not to hold them in high regard merely shows that we have gone astray from what Dr. Johnson will later call “just representations of general nature.”

Imitation: Notice the predominance in the eighteenth century of certain mimetic figures: mirror, speech as dress, ornament. What is to be dressed and finely decked out with words is “nature,” human nature, or the social and political hierarchy. These are already solid and “there.”  The point is to make them memorable and attractive. In this way, poetry is a species of elegant rhetoric, whose point is to reaffirm the belief that our ways and understandings are right. “Whatever is, is right,” as Pope says.  Neoclassical critics generally support the principle of hierarchy underlying the social order, so they can conceive of a genial, erudite critic who does justice to the work itself and helps a broader public (gentlefolk, not Dickensian kitchen scullions and street-sweepers) understand the work’s complexities to as great an extent as possible. Such a critic serves the text and the public.  Some modern cultural theories, by contrast, betray an anxiety that culture is either a top-down ideological control mechanism or an exercise in commercial vulgarianism: bread and circuses, “infotainment,” etc.

Analyzing the relationship between author/work/public and criticism demands consideration of art’s cultural value: does literature reflect an already held value system and merely dress or adorn it? Or is it a shaping force, a creator of culture, rather than a passive storehouse of normative ideas and aesthetic images? We can see art as establishing and maintaining consensus, or as tearing it down in favor of something new. It seems reasonable to say that it has done all these things and that critics, depending on their political and social leanings, have responded in very diverse ways.  Some critics see themselves as guardians of culture—highbrow watchdogs, one might say—while others see themselves as unmasking texts’ claims to normative status with regard to social and political ideals, and still others claim they’re more or less operating in a politics-free zone where they should strive to “see the object as in itself it really is” (to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase) or work with a literary text entirely on its own terms (the New Critics of the 1930s-50’s in America).  But even staking out a claim for the legitimacy of “apolitical” or “formalist” analysis is itself a political gesture since it means the critic is consciously refraining from or arguing against certain kinds of interpretation of a more political bent—today’s “cultural studies,” for example, would hardly be sympathetic to the notion that works of art exist in an autonomous realm independent of life’s other dimensions.

From the eighteenth century onwards, the notion of a “public” and even of several levels of public readership, from the low to the high, becomes an issue. We see the rise and fall of the man of letters and the advent of what George Gissing describes in New Grub Street as hack journalists and critics churning out pablum for a quarter-educated public. Pope isn’t facing this crass commercialization of art to the lowest common denominator. But you can see in his admonitions that critics should “know their limits” a flicker of anxiety that criticism may be starting to pander to a paying public that has its own not-so-well-considered ideas about what is worth reading.  (Samuel Johnson, too, will later betrays much the same anxiety: who is going to be reading all those newly published novels?  Mostly young and impressionable ordinary people, he fears.)  Modern artists have sometimes tried to turn this relationship to a powerful public into a positive thing, but to varying degrees the attempt can require ceding ground on old claims surrounding art’s power to change individuals and even entire societies.  Some further questions and observations:

1.  Are literary authors superior to critics, and if so, on what grounds should we say that they are?

2.  Is critics’ task to explain the text, or might they be best advised to add to, supplement, or go beyond it, perhaps using it as a springboard for their own observations?  Or are all of those things good in their own way?  Moreover, many contemporary theorists assert an independent right to do what they do, and don’t see themselves as simply serving as assistants to artists or explicating “primary texts.”  What does that assertion imply about criticism’s role, and about the traditional notions that art exists innocently as an autonomous realm or that it merely adorns a culture’s values?

3.  To what extent should literary authors and artists be familiar with criticism about their own work, or, more broadly, with the critical tradition as a whole?  Is an artist likely to be better for being a critic, or would that just get in the way of artistic creation?  What examples can you think of to illustrate both tendencies?  Name a few literary or other kind of artists who seem not to have been interested in criticism, and a few who have doubled as critics in their own right.

4.  Rejecting the responsibility of the explicator-critic to make texts accessible to a broad public narrows the critical function more or less to academic circles.  Is that an entirely bad thing?  Why or why not?  Might it not be said that there is much of value that the public can’t appreciate that nonetheless shouldn’t be hounded out of existence, or that sometimes authors or entire schools of art become popular only long after their own time, and go nearly unregarded while they are still “in the making”?  But what about the counter-charge that the arts (and criticism) shouldn’t be so distant from the needs and sensibilities of “ordinary people” that they lose all social impact?  What happens to art if it becomes thought of as the product of marginalized, specialized labor rather than as something vital in which everyone has an interest?  Is that where we are now in terms of how we think about art, or is the situation less bleak than that?

Page-by-Page Notes on “An Essay on Criticism,” Part 1

2497/441.  “Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss” (6) and “In poets as true genius is but rare, / True taste as seldom is the critic’s share” (11-12).  Pope values criticism for the same reason Horace does—the tasteful critic takes note of the best work (work possessed of genius) and makes it available for public appreciation and emulation by contemporary authors. But criticism quickly becomes a self-referential, self-perpetuating industry, one almost detached from its object.  Bad critics pander to a vulgar public—Pope himself make his living as a writer, so he must have understood why other critics might be tempted to do that.

2498/442. “Be sure yourself and your own reach to know, / How far your genius, taste, and learning go” (48-49).  As Pope writes at the beginning of the second epistle of his “Essay on Man,” “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, / The proper study of mankind is Man.”  Here at lines 46-49 is the lesson adapted for critics, who can’t just spin literary rules from their own heads, or presume to be experts in what they really don’t understand. The great author of classical times isn’t to be condemned because he does something the critic can’t process. Homer and Virgil constitute an external, transhistorical, universal set of standards to which critics must conform their sensibilities: taste is intricately tied to education.  Even the erudite person has limits, a “point where sense and dullness meet,” and must begin with frank acknowledgment of those limits, lest the public be misled by vain obscurantists about the true value of a given work.  This line of thinking seems reminiscent of Socrates’ distrust of squirrelly rhapsodes like Ion who suppose they are the masters of every craft because they can talk about them fluently.  But unlike Plato, Pope seems to think the practice of criticism can rise to the live of a genuine craft; it need not be considered mere dilettantish twaddle about “copies of copies of copies.”

2298/442-43. “Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, / One clear, unchanged, and universal light…” (70-71).  Nature is “the source, and end, and test in art” (73). Mind and nature work analogously; the world follows Reason, and is an intelligential order, so that to study the world around us is to study something that operates in accordance with principles we should be able to grasp.  The artist and critic help us appreciate the intelligibility of the natural order, the compatibility between mind and nature. 

2499/443. “Those rules of old, discovered, not devised, / Are Nature still, but Nature methodized…” (88-89).  Neoclassical authors such as Pope are careful to insist on selection from nature: Nature must be “methodized” in the sense that we must intelligently derive appropriate rules for human conduct from it.  Pope does not suggest that authors should “copy” nature in the lowest sense. This carefulness is partly due to the moral (pragmatic) demand of neoclassical criticism: art should teach by delighting. But it is also an Aristotelian requirement to derive the universal significance from the particular instance.  The rules are themselves rooted in nature, so conventions are natural to humanity, not mere extrinsic ornaments or ungrounded artifice.  (Another way to gloss the term “artifice” is to say that it’s fine so long as it is rooted in nature, not totally independent of it.)  Pope points to ancient Greece as a time when critics, artists, and the people had forged the right relationship

2500/445.  “When first young Maro in his boundless mind / A work to outlast immortal Rome designed, / Perhaps he seemed above the critic’s law, / And but from Nature’s fountains scorned to draw; / But when to examine every part he came, / Nature and Homer were, he found, the same . . .” (130-35).  Homer was a great observer of human nature and of the natural environment and its processes, so to derive the rules for epic from him is to derive them from nature itself.  Virgil, in essence, went to Homer as a critic and was inspired by that artist’s universal, transhistorical excellence to write his own excellent epic, one appropriate to his own time and place, which was Augustan Rome. 

2500-01/445.  “Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend, / And rise to faults that critics dare not mend. . .” (152).  Such a great wit or artist, says Pope, may “snatch a grace beyond the reach of art, / Which, without passing through the judgment, gains / The heart . . .” (155-57).  He’s probably alluding to Shakespeare above all: when Shakespeare seems to violate the rules of good drama, we should most often credit him with the genius it takes to make new rules based on seeing something in human or physical nature that nobody has ever seen before.  A person with such a gift must be granted wide latitude, and “rules” must never be applied so prescriptively that they keep us from appreciating a work of genius.  Moreover, sometimes what may appear to be a flaw shows its true virtue when viewed from a distance, from a different perspective; this is something we must watch out for in reading Homer, who, Pope famously says, is never mistaken: “Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream” (180).

Page-by-Page Notes on “An Essay on Criticism,” Part 2

2501-02/446. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” (215).  Pope is against mediocrity for the same reason as Horace: art should reflect our society and values to us elegantly; that is the meaning of decorum. Otherwise, we end up with Plato’s demagogues and critics and artists pandering to the lowest common denominator. In that case, art would not exert any shaping power, and we would be on a degenerative arc with respect to the ancients. At the bottom of 2502, Pope insists we must know the whole work, not just the parts; we should note “the joint force and full result of all” (246).

2505/447. “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed; / Something whose truth convinced at sight we find, / That gives us back the image of our mind” (297-300).  True wit does not get itself a raised podium or become its own order of things; the intellect’s glory doesn’t consist in departing radically from what common humanity thinks but rather in expressing something common in a fine, appropriate manner. Some eighteenth-century authors distrust words and wittiness because they tend to get in the way of truth and “things as they are,” but judiciously crafted language dresses or adorns nature to advantage.  Just as fashion succeeds only when it knows the body well, so art must accord with human nature and with the order of things. Moreover, the notion that words clothe thought implies that thought itself refers to a stable order of things prior to language. The emphasis is on coherence, on building and maintaining consensus. True wit is like nature in that both give us back a proper image of our minds.  The term “wit” is an important one in eighteenth-century literature; in faculty psychology, the “inner wits” are imagination, fantasy, and memory, which process and recall sensory data, and judgment and common sense or sensus communis.  But more broadly, as the OED explains, the term means “The seat of consciousness or thought, the mind,” and in the plural, “intellectual powers.”  The last-mentioned is the meaning that best fits Pope’s usage in line 297: true intelligence or right-thinking.

2504/448. “But true expression, like the unchanging sun, / Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon; / It gilds all objects, but it alters none. / Expression is the dress of thought…” (315-18).  Language should clarify things and “gild them,” but it should not change the object or lead us away from just appreciation of it. Felicity lies in apprehending the order of things, and in expressing that order attractively. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold would later call for critics to “see the object as in itself it really is”—a statement that seems neoclassical in its reassertion of human values as solid, factual, and real. 

2504-05/450.  “But most by numbers judge a poet’s song, / And smooth or rough with them is right or wrong” (337-38).  Pope, though a great employer of the heroic couplet and the elegant phrase, doesn’t reduce poetry to rhyme or smooth meter; as he says, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense” (365).  Milton, too,  in his preface to Paradise Lost, had rejected the notion that rhyme and such devices were essential to poetry; rhyme, he said, was “no necessary Adjunct to true Ornament” in a poem—especially a long one with a complex subject to develop.  Pope also writes that “Some foreign writers, some our own despise; / the ancients only, or the moderns prize…” (394-95) and that a fine critic will “At every trifle scorn to take offense” (386).  Pope does not simply say the ancient authors are better: the category true-false does not reduce to old-new in this regard, and neither is carping and nitpicking an appropriate way to proceed.  Such behavior merely shows the critic to be petty and inhumane.  Conversely, what’s needed is not blind partisan advocacy of an author’s merits but instead judicious, constructive remarks: “For fools admire, but men of sense approve” (391).

2508/454.  “Nor in the critic let the man be lost! / Good nature and good sense must ever join; / To err is human, to forgive divine” (523-25).  The goal for criticism generally is to improve public taste and promote an intelligent consensus in social and moral affairs, in so far as art touches upon them.  The phrase “the public” implies a degree of democracy—it’s starting to matter in Pope’s day what an increasingly broad public thinks about various issues, even if democratic reforms will have to wait until the nineteenth century.  Since the function of the critic is to inform the public’s taste and morals, the critic must behave in a civil manner. Later, in Part 3 (lines 631-32), Pope says that pride is the main fault of intellectuals, thus continuing a thought that he had voiced earlier: “But where’s the man, who counsel can bestow, / Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?”  Sir Philip Sidney had described the way to move people towards virtuous action along similar lines: they must have enough humility to see that it’s their job to please the public and move its members towards virtuous action.  Art shouldn’t be about self-aggrandizement, and neither should criticism. That is a typical 18th-century notion, too—literature is said to better than philosophy because it has broader appeal. If critics are authorities, they are benevolent ones, not tyrants because genuine consensus cannot be achieved by tyrannical or destructive means.

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