Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Complete Poetical Works. 1903.

An Essay on Criticism

Part III

  • Rules for the conduct and manners in a Critic. Candour. Modesty. Good breeding. Sincerity and freedom of advice. When one’s counsel is to be restrained. Character of an incorrigible poet. And of an impertinent critic. Character of a good critic. The history of criticism, and characters of the best critics; Aristotle. Horace. Dionysius. Petronius. Quintilian. Longinus. Of the decay of Criticism, and its revival. Erasmus. Vida. Boileau. Lord Roscommon, &c. Conclusion.

  • LEARN then what morals Critics ought to show,

    For ’t is but half a judge’s task to know.

    ’T is not enough Taste, Judgement, Learning join;

    In all you speak let Truth and Candour shine;

    That not alone what to your Sense is due

    All may allow, but seek your friendship too.

    Be silent always when you doubt your Sense,

    And speak, tho’ sure, with seeming diffidence.

    Some positive persisting fops we know,

    Who if once wrong will needs be always so;

    But you with pleasure own your errors past,

    And make each day a critique on the last.

    ’T is not enough your counsel still be true;

    Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do.

    Men must be taught as if you taught them not,

    And things unknown proposed as things forgot.

    Without good breeding truth is disapprov’d;

    That only makes superior Sense belov’d.

    Be niggards of advice on no pretence,

    For the worst avarice is that of Sense.

    With mean complacence ne’er betray your trust,

    Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.

    Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;

    Those best can bear reproof who merit praise.

    ’T were well might critics still this freedom take,

    But Appius reddens at each word you speak,

    And stares tremendous, with a threat’ning eye,

    Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry.

    Fear most to tax an honourable fool,

    Whose right it is, uncensured to be dull:

    Such without Wit, are poets when they please,

    As without Learning they can take degrees.

    Leave dangerous truths to unsuccessful satires,

    And flattery to fulsome dedicators;

    Whom, when they praise, the world believes no more

    Than when they promise to give scribbling o’er.

    ’T is best sometimes your censure to restrain,

    And charitably let the dull be vain;

    Your silence there is better than your spite,

    For who can rail so long as they can write?

    Still humming on their drowsy course they keep,

    And lash’d so long, like tops, are lash’d asleep.

    False steps but help them to renew the race,

    As, after stumbling, jades will mend their pace.

    What crowds of these, impenitently bold,

    In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,

    Still run on poets, in a raging vein,

    Ev’n to the dregs and squeezings of the brain,

    Strain out the last dull droppings of their sense,

    And rhyme with all the rage of impotence!

    Such shameless bards we have; and yet ’t is true

    There are as mad abandon’d critics too.

    The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,

    With loads of learned lumber in his head,

    With his own tongue still edifies his ears,

    And always list’ning to himself appears.

    All books he reads, and all he reads assails,

    From Dryden’s Fables down to Durfey’s Tales.

    With him most authors steal their works, or buy;

    Garth did not write his own Dispensary.

    Name a new play, and he ’s the poet’s friend;

    Nay, show’d his faults—but when would poets mend?

    No place so sacred from such fops is barr’d,

    Nor is Paul’s church more safe than Paul’s churchyard:

    Nay, fly to altars; there they ’ll talk you dead;

    For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

    Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks,

    It still looks home, and short excursions makes;

    But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks

    And never shock’d, and never turn’d aside,

    Bursts out, resistless, with a thund’ring tide.

    But where ’s the man who counsel can bestow,

    Still pleas’d to teach, and yet not proud to know?

    Unbiass’d or by favour or by spite;

    Not dully prepossess’d nor blindly right;

    Tho’ learn’d, well bred, and tho’ well bred sincere;

    Modestly bold, and humanly severe;

    Who to a friend his faults can freely show,

    And gladly praise the merit of a foe;

    Bless’d with a taste exact, yet unconfin’d,

    A knowledge both of books and humankind;

    Gen’rous converse; a soul exempt from pride;

    And love to praise, with reason on his side?

    Such once were critics; such the happy few

    Athens and Rome in better ages knew.

    The mighty Stagyrite first left the shore,

    Spread all his sails, and durst the deeps explore;

    He steer’d securely, and discover’d far,

    Led by the light of the Mæonian star.

    Poets, a race long unconfin’d and free,

    Still fond and proud of savage liberty,

    Receiv’d his laws, and stood convinc’d ’t was fit

    Who conquer’d Nature should preside o’er Wit.

    Horace still charms with graceful negligence,

    And without method talks us into sense;

    Will, like a friend, familiarly convey

    The truest notions in the easiest way.

    He who, supreme in judgement as in wit,

    Might boldly censure as he boldly writ,

    Yet judg’d with coolness, though he sung with fire;

    His precepts teach but what his works inspire.

    Our critics take a contrary extreme,

    They judge with fury, but they write with phlegm;

    Nor suffers Horace more in wrong translations

    By Wits, than Critics in as wrong quotations.

    See Dionysius Homer’s thoughts refine,

    And call new beauties forth from ev’ry line!

    Fancy and art in gay Petronius please,

    The Scholar’s learning with the courtier’s ease.

    In grave Quintilian’s copious work we find

    The justest rules and clearest method join’d.

    Thus useful arms in magazines we place,

    All ranged in order, and disposed with grace;

    But less to please the eye than arm the hand,

    Still fit for use, and ready at command.

    Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,

    And bless their critic with a poet’s fire:

    An ardent judge, who, zealous in his trust,

    With warmth gives sentence, yet is always just;

    Whose own example strengthens all his laws,

    And is himself that great sublime he draws.

    Thus long succeeding critics justly reign’d,

    License repress’d, and useful laws ordain’d:

    Learning and Rome alike in empire grew,

    And arts still follow’d where her eagles flew;

    From the same foes at last both felt their doom,

    And the same age saw learning fall and Rome.

    With tyranny then superstition join’d,

    As that the body, this enslaved the mind;

    Much was believ’d, but little understood,

    And to be dull was construed to be good;

    A second deluge learning thus o’errun,

    And the monks finish’d what the Goths begun.

    At length Erasmus, that great injur’d name,

    (The glory of the priesthood and the shame!)

    Stemm’d the wild torrent of a barb’rous age,

    And drove those holy Vandals off the stage.

    But see! each Muse in Leo’s golden days

    Starts from her trance, and trims her wither’d bays.

    Rome’s ancient genius, o’er its ruins spread,

    Shakes off the dust, and rears his rev’rend head.

    Then sculpture and her sister arts revive;

    Stones leap’d to form, and rocks began to live;

    With sweeter notes each rising temple rung;

    A Raphael painted and a Vida sung:

    Immortal Vida! on whose honour’d brow

    The poet’s bays and critic’s ivy grow:

    Cremona now shall ever boast thy name,

    As next in place to Mantua, next in fame!

    But soon by impious arms from Latium chased,

    Their ancient bounds the banish’d Muses pass’d;

    Thence arts o’er all the northern world advance,

    But critic learning flourish’d most in France;

    The rules a nation born to serve obeys,

    And Boileau still in right of Horace sways.

    But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despised,

    And kept unconquer’d and uncivilized;

    Fierce for the liberties of wit, and bold,

    We still defied the Romans, as of old.

    Yet some there were, among the sounder few

    Of those who less presumed and better knew,

    Who durst assert the juster ancient cause,

    And here restor’d Wit’s fundamental laws.

    Such was the Muse whose rules and practice tell

    ‘Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.’

    Such was Roscommon, not more learn’d than good,

    With manners gen’rous as his noble blood;

    To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known,

    And every author’s merit but his own.

    Such late was Walsh—the Muse’s judge and friend,

    Who justly knew to blame or to commend;

    To failings mild but zealous for desert,

    The clearest head, and the sincerest heart.

    This humble praise, lamented Shade! receive;

    This praise at least a grateful Muse may give:

    The Muse whose early voice you taught to sing,

    Prescribed her heights, and pruned her tender wing,

    (Her guide now lost), no more attempts to rise,

    But in low numbers short excursions tries;

    Content if hence th’ unlearn’d their wants may view,

    The learn’d reflect on what before they knew;

    Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame;

    Still pleas’d to praise, yet not afraid to blame;

    Averse alike to flatter or offend;

    Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.