Pope's An Essay on Criticism is the only significant critical treatise in English
written in verse; it is a famous for its polished lines, many of which have become proverbial ('A little learning is a dangerous thing';
'For fools rush in where angels fear to tread'; 'To err is human, to forgive, divine') but it cannot lay claim to great distinction as a contribution
to critical thought.
The key term in Pope's Essay's is 'Nature':
- First follow Nature, and your judgement frame
- By her just standard, which is still[that is, always] the same.
This is not Nature as the Romantics were to understand it, wild and mysterious, but is
something reflecting deep order, moderation, universal laws; it places due limits on men's taste
and writting, dictating that they should avoid excesses of enthusiasm and freakish originality.
Look at Virgil(The founders of Artistic Epic), he says, inspired
with great ambition and boundless talent:
- 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.
Pope seem to be addressing poets and critics equally in spelling out the
criteria of good taste; past precept and past example are to be respected not simply for their antiquity but because
they enshrine Nature's law. This is a recipe for restraint, moderation ('avoid extremes') and common sense which, he argues,
calls for precisely the kind of poetry he himself writes.
Pope's polished herioc couplets reveal much about the taste of the age and about his own
aspirations as a poet, but he never has occasion to consider a particular author or text in detail; as a result, his advice is too
generalised to be of any practical value, and perhaps too confident for its own good.