Alexander Pope – “The Rape of the Lock” (ctd.)

The Baron remains as unmoved by Belinda’s tears as Aeneas was unmoved by the pleas of Dido and her sister Anna. Another lady, Clarissa, delivers a moralizing speech about how beauty is fleeting and subject to the ravages of smallpox or old age. (As I mentioned in a previous post, Lord Petre, the model for the Baron, would have been dead of smallpox just one year after the first version of this poem was published.) Beauty passes away, but good humour remains and prevails where shrieks and tears don’t. But Thalestris doesn’t listen and calls to arms. What follows is a battle fought not with real weapons but with frowns, looks and smiles, which metaphorically “kill” and “revive” the participants, while Umbriel and other spirits observe from the sconces around the room, like Olympian gods did at Troy. Jove puts the hairs and the wits on his scales and after a long period of waiting the wits go up. Belinda throws a bit of snuff in the Baron’s direction, making him sneeze. Now she prepares to deal the final blow, drawing her bodkin (a hairpin) which is her family heirloom: it started as seal rings of her ancestor, and then after many remeltings, which turned him into a buckle and then a child’s toy, it became a bodkin worn by Belinda’s mother and now Belinda herself.

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Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Criticism” (the end)

Pope continues the list of the critics he values, using (as the Helpful Footnote says) phrases borrowed from their own writings to characterize them. Horace talked to his readers like a friend, convincing them about the correctness of his precepts which he fully realized in his own poetry. Dionysius of Halicarnassus found new beauties in every line of Homer. Petronius was learned and elegant. Quintilian gave us good methods arranged in good order, like the arms stored orderly in a magazine. Longinus’ own writings were the best example of what the sublime is. But after them, unfortunately, came the dark ages, when “the monks ended what the Goths began”. Pope here gives us a fairly standard view of the Middle Ages in his era, and I don’t need to add, very biased. Fortunately after that came Erasmus, “the glory of the priesthood and the shame”, because he was a priest who was persecuted for his views. Italy under Pope Leo X saw the revival of the arts, when “a Raphael painted, and a Vida sang.” Marco Girolamo Vida was apparently enough of a specialist interest even in Pope’s times, because he felt obliged to add a gloss explaining who he was, but apparently he valued him very highly as well, claiming that his home town of Cremona will become as famous for him as Mantua became for Virgil. After the sack of Rome the Muses dispersed in the north, “but critic-learning flourished most in France”, because the French were “born to serve” and obeyed their critics like Boileau. But Britons kept on fighting for their independence, like they used to in the times of the Romans (Pope here conveniently omitting the fact that in fact England did become a Roman colony in the end, just a few decades later than France). But there were a few native English critics who “less presumed and better knew”, and who taught the English what good poetry should be. These were Earl of Roscommon and the patrons of mentors of the very young Pope, Duke of Buckingham and William Walsh. The latter, who died just one year before Pope composed the poem, gets a touching eulogy about how he taught his Muse to fly, but now without her guide his Muse is just going to sing short numbers, not looking for fame and some similar expressions of rather faux modesty.

And so ends An Essay on Criticism, admittedly a rather dry reading, though enlivened by meeting all the old friends, i.e. the lines which started to function on their own as famous quotations. I understand why Pope has the second longest entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare. Some beautiful rhymes (who would rhyme “extreme” with “phlegm”?) and I guess Pope’s tight couplets must be also a mine for phoneticians for the words which used to rhyme in his times but don’t rhyme in ours (like “safe”/”laugh”).

Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Criticism” (ctd.)

Canto 3 of the poem is about the ethics and behaviour of the ideal critic. They should appear rather diffident and not too didactic (even pretending they just remind their audience what the readers have forgotten rather than teaching them the things they have not known. That does not mean that they should not express their opinion honestly: really good poets can take criticism, and it’s not worth one’s time to try to placate the bad ones. But who can do it when “Appius reddens at each word you speak”? Pope in a rather disingenuous gloss claims he has no idea why a poet and critic John Dennis meant it to be the portrait of himself. Perhaps it was because his tragedy Appius and Virginia, produced just in the year of the poem’s composition, was such a notable flop. Pope also advises against criticising the poets who are people of high rank, because it’s not going to bring any results: they are going to produce their dull poems and it can just bring trouble upon the critic. On the other hand, the critic also should not be too trigger-happy, criticising everything without exception. Some of them even criticise clergymen “for fools rush in, where angels fear to tread”. So where can one find the ideal critic? Of course among the ancients. Pope starts his list, inevitably, with Aristotle, comparing him to a traveller who arrived at an island of savages (“savages” meaning here “poets”) and civilised them by making them accept his law. The poets accepted it, because it seemed logical that the man who conquered nature should also be the judge on poetic matters.

Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Criticism” (ctd.)

As if to comment upon the previous lines about how Dryden is going to become incomprehensible, now Pope writes a few lines which I don’t quite get. He writes about “unhappy wit”, which does not atone for the trouble it brings and is generally only enjoyed when young, but I am not quite sure which part of the critic’s work it should apply to. He also seems to exhort critics not to be too severe, even for the authors who are second-best: “to err is human, to forgive divine”. But if they have to vent their spleen on something, he suggests they should criticise obscenity and irreligiosity, attributing the former to the reign of Charles II and the latter to the reign of William III, whose too tolerant a rule apparently gave anybody leave to preach all sorts of heresies.

Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Criticism” (ctd.)

Pope criticizes the critics who repeat other people’s views and especially those who make up to the writers who happen to be high-ranking nobles. But he also criticizes those who are just contrarian and those who change their views constantly just to follow the changing fashions. He condemns those who praise the writers who share their own views and again quotes Dryden as an example of a poet who was unjustly criticised. If he or Homer were alive today, they would be criticised again, but sometimes the amount of criticism motivated by envy is just the measure of the poet’s greatness. He exhorts critics not to delay praise where it is due, because in this crazy fast-moving eighteenth-century world you cannot hope for more than sixty years of fame (talk about fifteen minutes!) and in three hundred years Dryden will be as incomprehensible as Chaucer was to Pope’s contemporaries. I don’t think this last prophecy is true, as I didn’t find Dryden that difficult to understand.

Alexander Poper – “An Essay on Criticism” (ctd.)

Pope proceeds with his list of bad critics. Some care only about language, like the women who value men only for their dress. They are wrong, because words are like leaves: where they are most abundant, there is least chance of finding fruit, i.e. sense. False eloquence is like the colours of the prism, which cover the true colours of Nature, says Pope, making a reference to Newton’s findings, which were published only five years before he wrote this poem, so he shows he was up to date with his science. Equally wrong are those poets whose style is mismatched with their theme, or who fetishize old words. The poet should be neither the first nor the last to use the particular word, warns Pope.

Most critics pay attention only to the metre, and this is wrong as well: they are like people who go to church only for the sake of nice music, not for prayer. The main sins of poets are listed by Pope in the lines which are at the same the illustration of these sins: abusing vowels (described in a line full of vowels), overusing monosyllables (which is written about in a line consisting only of monosyllables), uninventive rhymes such as “breeze/trees” and ending the poem with an alexandrine (a twelve-syllable line) “that, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along”. The paragons of good rhythm, as Pope claims repeating Dryden’s views, are John Denham and Edmund Waller. A good poem should reflect in its metre its subject, so swift actions require swift rhythm, and the other way round. The best example here is Timotheus in Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast”.

A critic should avoid extremes, be neither too quick to condemn every trifle (because he is then like the person with too delicate a stomach, who is made nauseous by every food) nor too easily impressed: “for fools admire, but men of sense approve”. It’s also wrong to admire solely one group of writers: only the ancients, only the moderns, or only those from southern Europe, because then you are like those sectarians who claim they are the only ones who are going to be saved. The sun shines on everybody and you can come across true poetry everywhere. Since this is the World Poetry Day, it’s a good sentiment to end this post on.

Alexander Pope – “An Essay on Criticism” (ctd.)

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.