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.
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.
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.
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.