An Essay on Criticism is one of the first major poems written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1688–1744). It is the source of the famous quotations "To err is human, to forgive divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (frequently misquoted as "A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing"), and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." It first appeared in 1711 after having been written in 1709, and it is clear from Pope's correspondence that many of the poem's ideas had existed in prose form since at least 1706. Composed in heroic couplets (pairs of adjacent rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) and written in the Horatian mode of satire, it is a verse essay primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in the new literary commerce of Pope's contemporary age. The poem covers a range of good criticism and advice, and represents many of the chief literary ideals of Pope's age.
Pope contends in the poem's opening couplets that bad criticism does greater harm than bad writing:
- '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 mis-lead 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. ... (1–8)
Despite the harmful effects of bad criticism, literature requires worthy criticism.
Pope delineates common faults of poets, e.g., settling for easy and cliché rhymes:
- And ten low words oft creep in one dull line:
- While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
- With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
- Wher'er you find "the cooling western breeze",
- In the next line, it "whispers through the trees";
- If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep",
- The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep" ... (347–353)
Throughout the poem, Pope refers to ancient writers such as Virgil, Homer, Aristotle, Horace and Longinus. This is a testament to his belief that the "Imitation of the ancients" is the ultimate standard for taste. Pope also says, "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance" (362–363), meaning poets are made, not born.
As is usual in Pope's poems, the Essay concludes with a reference to Pope himself. Walsh, the last of the critics mentioned, was a mentor and friend of Pope who had died in 1710.
An Essay on Criticism was famously and fiercely attacked by John Dennis, who is mentioned mockingly in the work. Consequently, Dennis also appears in Pope's later satire, The Dunciad.
Part II of An Essay on Criticism includes a famous couplet:
- A little learning is a dangerous thing;
- Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
This is in reference to the spring in the Pierian Mountains in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses. The first line of this couplet is often misquoted as "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".
The Essay also gives this famous line (towards the end of Part II):
- To err is human, to forgive divine.
The phrase "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" from Part III has become part of the popular lexicon, and has been used for and in various works.
- Dunning–Kruger effect, the empirically observed pattern that individuals possessing a nonzero but low degree of competence in a field tend to overestimate their competence whereas individuals possessing high competence in that field tend to accurately assess or even underestimate their competence relative to others'
- ^An Essay on Criticism (1 ed.). London: Printed for W.Lewis in Russel Street, Covent Garden; and Sold by W.Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, T.Osborn near the Walks, and J. Graves in St. James Street. 1711. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^22 October 1706: Correspondence, i.23–24.
An Essay on Criticism, didactic poem in heroic couplets by Alexander Pope, first published anonymously in 1711 when the author was 22 years old. Although inspired by Horace’s Ars poetica, this work of literary criticism borrowed from the writers of the Augustan Age. In it Pope set out poetic rules, a Neoclassical compendium of maxims, with a combination of ambitious argument and great stylistic assurance. The poem received much attention and brought Pope a wider circle of friends, notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who were then collaborating on The Spectator.
The first of the poem’s three sections opens with the argument that good taste derives from Nature and that critics should imitate the ancient rules established by classical writers. The second section lists the many ways in which critics have deviated from these rules. In this part Pope stressed the importance of onomatopoeia in prosody, suggesting that the movement of sound and metre should represent the actions they carry:
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an Echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.
The final section, which discusses the characteristics of a good critic, concludes with a short history of literary criticism and a catalog of famous critics.
The work’s brilliantly polished epigrams (e.g., “A little learning is a dang’rous thing,” “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”), while not original, have become part of the proverbial heritage of the English language.