Part 2 begins with the question why fools are the most presumptuous ones. The answer is one of my favourite lines by Pope: “Whatever Nature has in worth denied/She gives in large recruits of needful pride”. So there is a balance in nature and stupid people are usually very self-assured about their intelligence. That is why one should always listen to the opinions of others, friend and foe alike, to cure pride. “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, says Pope in another of his famous lines, because just knowing a little about poetry makes you presumptuous, but the more you know, the humbler you become, like a traveller who climbed over the first few hills and then realized the Alps are still ahead of him. A perfect critic should judge the work as a whole, because the beauty of a woman does not consist in her beautiful eyes or lips, but in the whole package. Similarly, St Peter’s dome in Rome is not beautiful because of its individual details, but because it is a harmonious whole. The critic also should not expect the work to be faultless because the author who never takes any risks may be perfect but also dull. But unfortunately, most critics focus on one favourite aspect, like Don Quixote (here Pope refers not to the original book by Cervantes but to one of the many fake “sequels”). Don Quixote once talked with a playwright and he expressed an opinion that every play should follow perfectly Aristotle’s precepts. Pleased with it, the author gave him to read his play, which met all these requirements. But when Don Quixote realized that a battle scene had to be omitted to meet Aristotelian unities, and anyway no theatre was large enough to stage it, he still demanded that it should be absolutely included, and the company should just build a bigger stage or produce it on a plain. Similarly, some critics hang on for dear life to one favourite feature of theirs, not noticing how it affects the whole. For instance some love the conceit, without noticing how overusing it overpowers the whole piece. “True wit is… what but ne’er so well expressed”, and too much wit for a poem is as deadly as too much blood for human body.
Pope uses as an example of criticism ancient Greece (of course), which set its greatest poets as the models to which everyone should aspire. The best education for a critic is to study ancient poets thoroughly, including the historical/biographical knowledge. I’m not quite sure how different it is from preying “on the leaves of ancient authors”, which Pope names a few lines above as an example of bad criticism. Anyway, Homer is always the best, as Virgil discovered when he started writing his epic poem: he only wanted to follow Nature, but then he realized Nature and Homer are one and the same. Pope admits that sometimes true beauty cannot be prescribed and ancients did violate their own rules, but modern poets can be allowed to do it only seldom and only when ancients already did so. The book ends with paean to Homer who is never wrong: contrary to Horace’s famous quip, he never nods, it’s only us, the readers, who are asleep, i.e. we cannot properly appreciate him.
In contrast to the essays from The Spectator, this is actually a poem, written in heroic couplets (rhyming (rhyming iambic pentameters). Pope begins by arguing that it takes actually more to be a good critic than a good writer, because bad critics are more numerous than bad writers. The important thing as a critic is to know one’s own limitations, because Nature does not distribute its gifts equally among all people, so one person can have more imagination and less memory, while somebody else the other way round. In criticism one should “first follow Nature”, which is always harmonious. Similarly, critical texts should be harmonious and wit should be curbed by judgement.
In the last essay in the selection Addison muses on the wide variety of living beings on earth. Quoting de Fontenelle, he argues that since on earth you can hardly find a piece of matter which is not full of animals, bigger or smaller, it is quite possible that other planets support life too, because he believes God didn’t create matter just to let it lie waste. He is also amazed by how gradually animals progress in their capacity for perception and intellect from the lowest mussels to man. He argues, using a long quote from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that since all the steps between lowest animals and man are filled with all sorts of creatures, similarly all the space between man and God, which is far bigger than that between man and the lowest insect, must be filled in the similar manner. I assume he means some kind of angels, but he really doesn’t specify.
This is a rather bland essay about the pleasures of the imagination. Addison starts by stating that our sight is the most important of senses and it gives fuel for the imagination, because we cannot imagine anything we haven’t seen before (or what is a variation on the things we’ve seen). He clarifies that there is a difference between the fancy and the imagination, and by the imagination he mean “such pleasures as arise originally from sight”, but unfortunately he doesn’t explain what he means by fancy. The rest of the essay is the praise of the pleasures of the imagination which are neither so gross as purely sensual ones nor as refined as the pleasures of intellect. As opposed to sensual pleasures, the imagination is always innocent, but Addison doesn’t address the question of imagining sinful things. The imagination is more accessible to anyone than the intellectual pursuits, it is not as taxing on the brain and may be even beneficial for our mind and body, as Addison claims, quoting Francis Bacon. And then Addison wrote ten papers more on the imagination, which, however, I’m in no hurry to read.
Addison continues his argument about Paradise Lost. In poetry not only the whole should be great but also its parts. He says he won’t presume to criticise Virgil for things like the whole book about games in the Aeneid, or a flippant comparison of an angry queen to a spinning top, but in fact in a sense he does just by mentioning these things and saying that in contrast, Milton’s work is all great. It is also of exactly the right size. He quotes Aristotle who used the example with animals: the mite is too small to appreciate and an imaginary animal which would be ten thousand furlongs (2,000 km) in length would be too big. The memory of the reader is like the eye: the text needs to be of such length that it can hold everything in. Milton, in fact, had a more difficult job, because the material from Genesis is much more sparse than the mythology on which Homer and Virgil drew, and when he added things, he had to do so with care so as not to cause offense. It’s also impossible to calculate the time frame of his poem, as opposed to the Iliad or Aeneid, because so much of it takes time in the regions where there is no day and night. The essay ends with a remark that it is going to be continued in the Saturday issue. As the Helpful Footnote informs us, there were eighteen parts in fact, but we can be pretty clear at this point that Addison thinks Milton is the best.
In this essay Addison discusses Paradise Lost, going point by point through the list of the requirements an epic poem should meet (based largely on Rene Le Bossu’s treatise on epic poetry, which in turn was largely a systematization of the Aristotelian theory, as the Helpful Footnote informs us). He starts by dismissing the question, apparently current in his times, whether Paradise Lost is an heroic poem by saying that if you don’t want to call it so, you may call it “a divine poem”. An epic poem should describe one action, which should be 1. one 2. entire and 3. great. This is why Homer and Aeneas begin their poems in medias res, because if they went back to the founding of Troy, it wouldn’t be one action anymore, and they provide all the relevant information in flashbacks. So does Milton, and he may be even better than both ancient poets, because Aristotle himself points out there are some digressions in the Iliad, and one could make a similar charge against the Aeneid, but not against Paradise Lost. He also manages to do the primary plot and the secondary plot (the Fall of Man and the fall of Angels), just like Virgil wrote both about the founding of Rome and the founding of Carthage. The second requirement is that it should be the entire action, for instance like in the Iliad from the anger of Achilles to its results, and Milton satisfies it as well. Finally the greatness of the described action – of course, what could be greater from the viewpoint of a pious Christian than the creation of the world and the Fall?