From An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

I’ve looked briefly at Pope before (internal link).

Here, Pope addresses the critics of his days, people who did not pen anything of quality themselves but felt free to judge their betters. We might call these trolls today but at least Pope’s critics could read and thus were probably well educated.

Trolls on the other hand are, well, I’ll say it, spiteful, malevolent idiots who go unnamed with their opinions unwanted. Destructive criticism is as easy as running downhill, whereas, being constructive and positive and affirming takes a little work. Tolstoi probably took years to write War and Peace but in three seconds a troll can rip it apart.

Criticism in the arts and letter by educated people today is, unfortunately, dead, as no one can criticize any writer of color, a particular gender, sexual orientation or race. No matter how warranted, any criticism is now an attack rooted in bigotry and racism and hate. All those dead white poets and writers are still fair game, however, to be criticized by people who probably can’t even write in cursive. Oh, well.

From An Essay on Criticism
by Alexander Pope (1688 – 1740

“If you can better these principles, tell me;
If you cannot, join me in following them.” Horace

PART 1

‘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.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic’s share;
Both must alike from Heav’n derive their light,
These born to judge, as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, ’tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?

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;
The lines, tho’ touch’d but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac’d,
Is by ill colouring but the more disgrac’d,
So by false learning is good sense defac’d;
Some are bewilder’d in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a rival’s, or an eunuch’s spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo’s spite,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write.

Some have at first for wits, then poets pass’d,
Turn’d critics next, and prov’d plain fools at last;
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those half-learn’d witlings, num’rous in our isle
As half-form’d insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish’d things, one knows not what to call,
Their generation’s so equivocal:
To tell ’em, would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wit’s, that might a hundred tire.

But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic’s noble name,
Be sure your self and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.

Nature to all things fix’d the limits fit,
And wisely curb’d proud man’s pretending wit:
As on the land while here the ocean gains,
In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains;
Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
The solid pow’r of understanding fails;
Where beams of warm imagination play,
The memory’s soft figures melt away.
One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit:
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those, confin’d to single parts.
Like kings we lose the conquests gain’d before,
By vain ambition still to make them more;
Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

First follow NATURE, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang’d, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of art.
Art from that fund each just supply provides,
Works without show, and without pomp presides:
In some fair body thus th’ informing soul
With spirits feeds, with vigour fills the whole,
Each motion guides, and ev’ry nerve sustains;
Itself unseen, but in th’ effects, remains.
Some, to whom Heav’n in wit has been profuse,
Want as much more, to turn it to its use;
For wit and judgment often are at strife,
Though meant each other’s aid, like man and wife.
‘Tis more to guide, than spur the Muse’s steed;
Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed;
The winged courser, like a gen’rous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.

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