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An Essay on Criticism,
an excerpt and notes

Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism, published anonymously in 1711, two years after its writing, is one of the most famous – and most quoted – works of literature in history. The following excerpt should put into perspective the origin of a popular phrase that has been often quoted for nearly three centuries.

And while self-love each jealous writer rules,
Contending wits become the sport of fools: 
But still the worst with most regret commend, 
For each ill author is as bad a friend. 
To what base ends, and by what abject ways, 
Are mortals urg'd through sacred lust of praise!
Ah ne'er so dire a thirst of glory boast, 
Nor in the critic let the man be lost! 
Good nature and good sense must ever join; 
To err is human; to forgive, divine. 
An Essay on Criticism is a didactic and satirical treatise in verse written by Pope to illustrate the proper means and methods of criticizing works of art and literature. At its publication it was met with both praise and scorn.

Those who criticized the work primarily were those on whom Pope showed no mercy in his own critique of their works. For example, Pope ridiculed John Dennis, a contemporary and well-known critic, in the poem. In return, Dennis attacked Pope for his religious faith (Catholicism), his character and his ailing body (he had Potts Disease).

The poem is written in heroic couplets throughout, which makes it a rather unique work of literature. One of Pope’s primary theses is that bad criticism is worse than bad writing. However, despite the reputation given to criticism by bad critics, he opined, some enlightened individuals need to become critics.

Much of the poem, as well, speaks to ancient writers and critics as the ideal to emulate and Pope cites the work of such ancients as Aristotle, Virgil, Homer, Horace and Longinus, all poets Pope himself borrowed from in his use of poetics.

It is easy to see why Pope has become one of the most quoted authors in history. Next to Shakespeare, he is the most quoted figure of all. His wit and the craft with which he approached his art is unmatched in English literature.

An Essay on Criticism, the work which catapulted him to stardom and set his path in history contains a few phrases that have been repeated so often they are now a part of English culture anywhere you go in the world.

“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” “A little learning is a dang’rous thing” and “To err is human; to forgive, divine” are three examples of such popular phrases.
The poem is 744 lines in length and divided into three parts:

The first part generally addresses the necessary qualities of an individual who desires to be a critic. A knowledge of nature and the imitation of the ancients are the two focal points for Pope.

Part II of An Essay establishes the rules or boundaries of criticism, giving special consideration to humility, seeking to understand the author’s intent and considering the entire work rather than judging an entire work on the basis of one part.

Finally, An Essay on Criticism’s third part explains the moral nature of the critic and emphasizes the ideal qualities of integrity, modesty, tact and courage.

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Other works by Alexander Pope include:

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