Saturday, March 15, 2008

Essay on Criticism

I took Alexander Pope off the shelf off a few days ago, an edition of The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems that I picked up in the U.S. last summer. The first poem in the book is "Essay on Criticism," which surprised me, first of all, by being the source of three proverbial statements:

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

To err is human, to forgive divine.

For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

But the poem is, of course, much more than its quotable quotes. I was equally struck by Pope's sense of the interplay between rules and the breaking of rules:

If, where the rules not far enough extend,
(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
Some lucky licence answer to the full
The intent proposed, that licence is a rule.

By breaking the rules, then, one may "snatch a grace beyond the reach of art."

As a poet playing the critic of critics, Pope tends to defend the poets, where they deserve defense, in his eyes. The errors one may detect may well turn out to be one's own (in what I have since discovered is an allusion to Horace):

Those oft are stratagems which errors seem,
Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream.

Or, as I would put it, once a writer or artist has proven to be brilliantly successful in some significant number of works, one should assume that what looks like "nodding" was intentional. I'm not sure I would go as far as Pope to suggest that the problem is then always in the reader, but I am well aware of the role of my own "dreaming" in my response to works. But then, if I dream, perhaps it is not that I am not paying attention, but that the author is not holding my attention.

But perhaps Pope's point, in his reference to Homer, is one he reiterates later, one I wholeheartedly agree with:

A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ

All too often, critics condemn works for not living up to conventions or standards that the author of the work was simply not interested in. The work should be responded to on its own terms, and not on terms imposed by the critic.

Its didactic side is perhaps the most significant feature, then, of Pope's "Essay on Criticism": Pope wants to tell you how to be a critic. Some of the advice is worth sending to various contemporary critics, for example:

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do.

There is a lot to be said for the confidence of the strong critic, but Pope's points here (and in the whole passage starting in line 560) make clear that an arrogant approach and a self-styled bluntness end up saying less about the work in question than about the critic. For example, I do enjoy William Logan's critical skewerings, but not as commentaries on the poets and collections he addresses. Rather, they are simply performances in their own right—and they lack something truly good reviewing always has: the communication to each reader of the simple sense of whether he or she will like the work, independent of whether the reviewer likes the work. (In fact, it's only as I was thinking about this that I realized that that is lacking in Logan's criticism—I may know that he dislikes a particular collection, but after reading his criticism, I have no sense of whether I will like it or not.)

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