An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711), written when he was only 20, laid the foundations for many of the artistic and critical hierarchies that have remained constant since in the literary world.
The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in London saw the growing mechanisation of print publishing, and a concurrent boom in both literary production and criticism. Equally, new sales and distribution models increasingly enabled writers to make a living independent of the aristocratic patronage that had been their commonest means of support in earlier times.
The glut of writing, and divorce of that writing from the values and aesthetics associated with the ruling classes, prompted a vigorous tussle for critical supremacy among those who believed themselves qualified to pronounce on literature. A widely influential – and hotly contested – intervention in this tussle, Pope’s Essay on Criticism seeks to antedate his creative activities in the Greek and Roman past, by replacing the overt eulogising of aristocratic values with an insistence on the primacy of the classical canon. Pope aims to draw from this composite ancient and modern canon a set of precepts from which his contemporary literature and criticism can be judged.
The age of the blogosphere has seen an equivalent explosion in writing, criticism and debate. While few now read Homer, Pope’s essay addresses questions of authority, quality and cultural legitimacy that, online, are as vigorously contested as ever.
Sebastian Mary Harrington
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is one of the most acclaimed English poets of the early eighteenth century. Amongst his well known works are The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, Essay on Man and his translations of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.
First Published in London 1711
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