Alexander Pope Questions for English 256 Intro to Theory, Chapman University Fall 2012



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Assigned: Alexander Pope. "An Essay on Criticism" (349-62).

"An Essay on Criticism" (1711)

Part 1

1. From lines 1-45, what problems does Pope identify with his era's literary critics -- what inherent problem besets the exercise of criticism, and what additional factor makes the difficulty worse than it really needs to be?

2. From lines 46-75, what does Pope suggest good critics must understand about their capacities? Moreover, to what standard should critics adjust their individual judgments, and why should they do so?

3. Define the terms "wit" and "judgment" in Pope's eighteenth-century context. From lines 76-87, how does Pope describe the proper relationship between wit and judgment? What classical metaphor does he employ to reinforce his argument?

4. From lines 88-91, Pope identifies "Nature" as the source of poetry's "rules" -- what does he apparently mean by this term, and how did Nature serve as the source of poetic convention?

5. From lines 92-117, how does Pope characterize the golden age of criticism that he says held for a time in ancient Greece -- what was the relationship between poet and critic in those times? What subsequently went wrong, and what were the consequences?

6. From lines 118-40, what task does Pope set for modern critics with respect to classical authors, and most particularly Homer? How is the work of Homer's successor Virgil a testament to proper execution of this task? Why should modern poet and critics hold ancient texts and conventions in such high regard -- what is to be learned from them?

7. From lines 141-80, how does Pope ward off an overly prescriptive or rigid understanding of what he has just written about adhering to "the rules"? Why were the ancients sometimes right to bend or even break the rules that governed their own works? What rights do modern poets and critics have in that regard?

8. From lines 181-200, in what spirit, according to Pope, should a modern critic or artist approach the ancients? Why so? In what sense is this verse passage, taken in context, more than a mere assertion of the ancients' superiority -- how does Pope assert the power of excellent literature in any age?

Part 2

9. From lines 233-84, how does Pope follow up on the counsel against pride of individual or capricious judgment he has given in lines 201-32 -- how should a critic treat what seem to be a work's petty faults or its failures to adhere to rigorous theoretical demands? In what sense is excellence not to be confused with "perfection"?

10. From lines 285-383, Pope lays out some of the ways in which critics may be overly "fond of some subservient art" (263) -- what failings of perspective and taste does he mention in these lines?

11. From lines 285-319, a subset of the lines just mentioned, Pope offers excellent definitions of "true wit" and "true expression." What is the relationship between "true wit" and "nature"? And how does "true expression" perform a valuable service to the objects it describes -- in what sense, that is, do apt words honor the world they represent?

12. From lines 394-474, Pope weighs in on his era's quarrel over the respective merits of the ancients and the moderns, and censures critical pretensions. Where does Pope apparently come down with respect to the quarrel over the ancients and moderns? What critical fashions and affectations does he condemn? How does excellent art nonetheless triumph over such pettiness?

13. From lines 474-525, how does Pope characterize literary longevity in his own era? How does he turn this elegiac point into an argument in favor of a critic's duty to recognize excellence in his or her own time?

14. From lines 530-559, what tendencies in his era's poetry does Pope say should obtain no pardon from critics? Why -- what relationship between literary corruption and social / political corruption does he assert in these lines?

Part 3

15. The first two parts of the "Essay" deal with the relationship between critics and literary texts. But from lines 560-642, what attitude does Pope suggest critics ought to take towards their own readers? What should readers expect from the critics they consult, in addition to sound judgments about the merits of a given work of art?

16. From lines 643-80, what examples of excellent criticism does Pope provide from his knowledge of the ancients?

17. From lines 681-744, what narrative does Pope offer for the development of criticism from the fall of Rome to his own day? What are Pope's wishes for the near future with respect to English criticism and literature?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.