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Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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Discussion Guide Price: $7.00
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The first thing you’ll notice about Alexander Pope’s poem “Essay on Criticism” is that you already knew several lines from it. Besides William Shakespeare, Pope is the most quoted English author—something you might have guessed, when you consider that this one poem contains the famous lines “a little learning is a dangerous thing” and “to err is human, to forgive, divine” and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

But Pope is more than just a producer of catchy sound-bites. “Essay on Criticism” is a scathing attack on bad literary criticism, which makes it especially relevant to us today.

Pope begins by asking whether it takes less skill to be a bad writer or a bad critic, and although he cannot answer that, he says he knows which is more dangerous: the bad literary critic. Bad writing, according to Pope, only tries the patience of the reader—but bad criticism can actually lead a person’s judgment astray. The critic has a responsibility to guide his readers in the right direction—an obvious shortcoming of many modern literary critics, be they obsessed with feminist readings or Freudian interpretations.

In short, this essay should spark a lively discussion about what makes good criticism, and what exactly can be meant by Pope’s phrase “true taste.” Christian students will be ready to accept the assertion that there is an absolute standard for truth, but will they also accept an absolute standard for aesthetics?

by Jeff Baldwin