Pope Moral Essays

or if you must offend/ Against the precept ne’er transgress its end.” As Pope argues at the opening of Part 2 of .

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Individual taste is evaluated from the perspective of this light-giving word, which is identified in the poem as “Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,/ One clear, unchanged, and universal light.” Though individual judgments may differ, they may and should be regulated—as watches by the sun—in accordance with objective standards of value and taste.

Thus, the rules that govern the composition of poetry are not arbitrary inventions, but expressions of the natural law of measure and restraint: “Those Rules of old discovered, not devised/ Are nature still, but Nature methodized;/ Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained/ By the same laws which first herself ordained.” The first duty of a poet and a critic, then, is to recognize the law of human limit, and to balance individual judgments by constant and circumspect reference to a hierarchy of inherited values.

, poetry is overheard,” seems entirely contradicted by the public and topical voice that characterizes the epistles, satires, and philosophic exordiums of Pope.

The language of introspective reverie that poets, from the nineteenth century on, cultivate in lonely self-communion among the bowers of a refined aestheticism could not be further removed from the racy, tough, and contentious idiom of Pope.

These attacks diverted Pope from the musings of , and obliged him, to paraphrase a Nobel laureate, “to grab his century by the throat.” After 1719, Pope’s career is notable for the increasing venom of his pen and the sustained brilliance of his polemic.

An Essay on Criticism Pope’s first important utterance gives us direct access to the critical values of the Augustans and remains the best and most compendious statement of a poetic tradition that extends from Horace to Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux.The lines sing, strain, limp, or lilt in accordance with the action described: Here, as so often, the restraint of the couplet inspires Pope to rhythmic feats that make a game of art and bear witness to his own adage: “The winged courser, like the generous horse/ Shows most true mettle when you check his force.” After attacking the patronage system and the proclivity of critics to celebrate poets of superior social rank while denigrating those genuine talents who arouse jealousy and spite, Pope goes on to affirm that, in their ultimate issues, literary, social, and moral values are mutually interdependent.A vacillating and fickle critic inconstant in his service to the muse is thus compared to a degenerate amorist who abandons the lawful embraces of his wife for the specious thrills of a strumpet.Like Vergil, Pope began as a writer of pastorals; his first poems, composed when he was sixteen, are delicate evocations of an idyllic world of shepherds and shepherdesses poised among settings reminiscent of François Boucher and Jean Fragonard.These highly stylized exercises won for him the accolades of contemporary critics and gave him the confidence to essay the next task that tradition prescribed for the developing poet: the epic.Indeed, as a distillation of neoclassical attitudes, Pope’s is without a peer.The critical assumptions on which the poem is based could not be further removed from the splintered aesthetics and boneless relativism of the present: As a statement of poetic intention and practice, it provides a necessary corrective to the farrago of contradictions that characterize the contemporary critical scene.Its sophisticated humor and virtuoso technique are unsurpassed.In this genial spoof of a society abandoned to the pursuit of spurious values, Pope avoids the extreme indignation of his later satires.Pope does not recommend the self-abnegation of the poet in the face of his predecessors, but rather his need to adapt to his own time those values that inform ancients and moderns alike and are of continued relevance because their source is eternal and their origin beyond the vagaries of individual taste.Still, Pope maintains that the success of a composition must be estimated by the value and significance of the poet’s purpose and the artistic integrity with which that purpose is fulfilled, rather than by arbitrary and invidious comparisons between works of antithetical spirit and intention.


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