In the world of seventeenth century poetry, no poet exists in isolation. Not simply by being part of a club, such as Pope’s membership of the Scriblerus Club, but as being members of a particular class, a particular religion or a particular political outlook. Born into a Catholic family at a time when being Catholic meant being denied educational and political opportunities, may not have significantly influenced Pope worldview, but neither can such a fact be completely ignored. In this essay I shall argue that An Essay on Criticism is not a straight-forward treatise of writing poetry or indeed criticism, but rather a strong political and religious polemic.
In a time of societal and political flux the intelligentsias of an age are often heavily influenced by the events which surround them. With the beginnings, albeit faltering beginnings of the industrial age, with many swapping traditional rural lifestyles to more urban settings, not least due to the ‘enclosure’ laws (a prohibition for rural dwellers from use of common acreage fodder (1), and the ever growing demand for workers in cities, coupled with new religious philosophies emerging from Europe from Luther and Calvin, in turn affecting political philosophies, the poets of the day could not remain immune to this change of landscape.
That self same ‘landscape’ lay at the heart of early seventeenth century poets concerns expressed in poetry referred to a ‘pastorals’. But the approach to these poems, which attempted to define the new landscape and man’s role in it, could not have been more different. Two distinct factions emerged, one led by Ambrose Philip, the other by Alexander Pope. The former an adherent of the view of man as an individual, the latter, of the view that man’s role is primarily as a societal being, rather than an individual being. And what lay at the center of these views was no less than the future of mankind, at least as far as these two protagonists were concerned.
Pope had already distinguished himself with the publication of Pastorals in 1709 before writing An Essay on Criticism at the relatively young age of twenty three. In this poem, which follows the Epic form, albeit in apparently less somber fashion than the Golden Age of Homer, Virgil and Ovid which influenced it, Pope offers his opinion on what exactly is or is not the essence and significance of poetry. Or at least, it may seem so at first glance. His opening four lines from part one:
Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense. (3)
offers in many ways a synopsis of his entire treatise. That is, it’s one thing to read or write bad or annoying poetry, it’s an entirely different affair to ‘mislead our sense’. Immediately what’s at stake is presented. An Essay on Criticism is not simply a dig at bad poets or bad poetry, but a real concern of what thinking, or what ‘sense’ may result from such work if left unchallenged. His lines 7 & 8, reiterate what is at stake:
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose
In other words, the ‘fool’ in question, that is, the ‘bad’ poet, may well leave others astray. It is significant that these others write ‘in prose’, as Pope here may well be referring to political texts. However all is not lost as in lines 19-21:
Yet if we look more closely we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm’ring light;
Pope has faith in humanities inherent ability – the ‘seeds’ of judgment. But this inherent
ability is Nature given. He further states in lines 52-53;
Nature to all things fix’d the limits fit,
And wisely curb’d proud man’s pretending wit:
The nature here is at the beginning of the sentence and hence a capital letter, Pope’s nature my well be divine rather than a reference to the nature itself. In essence, the ‘Nature’ of man is divinely given. This in itself may well be a common usage in seventeenth century poetry, but perhaps it takes on a more significant use if one is to examine Pope’s attachment to the Tories of his time and their support of the absolutist future king James II of England, then the Duke of York, hence possibly referencing the ‘Devine Right of Kings’ doctrine (2). This is perhaps further emphasized by line 68-70;
First follow NATURE, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright
A stronger statement is made in lines 88 -91;
Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodis’d;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same laws which first herself ordain’d.
The calls from Ambrose Philips and others of the Whig party for a constitutional monarchy, one which heeds the voices of the plebiscite, in other words a call to ‘liberty’, must in fact be restrained. ‘Liberty’ is a construct of man. But nature follows the rules of old – rules which were discovered, that is, they were always there, not devised by the hand of man. If nature herself, with capital letter or no, must be restrained by the ‘ordain’d’, then how much more so, must ideas of ‘liberty’? Again ordained is a privilege of the priesthood and of kings, kings ordained by divine will. Pope goes further in lines 130-135;
When first young Maro in his boundless mind
work t’ outlast immortal Rome design’d,
Perhaps he seem’d above the critic’s law,
And but from Nature’s fountains scorn’d to draw:
But when t’ examine ev’ry part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
Maro, a metaphor for those who set themselves up above the divine and therefore above the Devine Right of Kings, thought he was above the ‘critic’s law. But the critic law here is not the ordinary individual’s law nor the law of literary criticism, but rather the absolute law of nature and in turn of the divine. Pope then stamps his views more clearly. The work of the great Homer, a poet from the blessed Golden Age is in tune with the divine and the divine order of things – ‘Nature and Homer were, he found, the same’.
The lines 253-4 can be viewed as a reinforcement of the significance of adhering to the divine rules, rules which never change, rules which existed for all time, rules ‘discover’d, not devis’d’
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
As can the lines 294-296
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover ev’ry part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
The ‘ornaments’ here deny the grace of nature, the divine, the ‘art’. The earlier lines, ‘Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see, Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be’, already hint at the divine nature of art – an art beyond man’s comprehension as suggested by the following lines 255-6;
In ev’ry work regard the writer’s end,
Since none can compass more than they intend
Pope argues time and time again that poets and mankind do not reject the true order of things, either personally or politically. With these excerpts from Pope’s epic poem I have argued that the raison d’etre of this piece is more a statement of religious and socio-political beliefs, than simply a swipe at poetical mediocrity or style. It is the reason I believe why the poem drew such strong reaction, both for and against. And it is the reason why it will probably continue to do so.