The ideas of literary theory are
very basic ways of thinking and they are used by critics when they talk about
and view art, culture and literature. The different schools of literary
criticism allow critics to concentrate on particular aspects of a piece of work
that they consider significant. Biographical criticism is one of the schools of
literary criticism that can be applied to just about any author and their work.
Biographical criticism starts with the main idea that literature is written by
real people. Sometimes knowing a single fact about an author’s life can enrich
the readers perspective on the piece of literature and the author (Brizee,
Allen, et al). Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” is a great example of
literary theory and moral philosophy. This poem also delves into Pope’s beliefs
as a critic and a poet.
Pope was born an only child on May 21, 1688 in London, England and died in 1774
(biography.com). He grew up with his father in Windsor Forest, Benfield.
Growing up, Pope was an avid reader and he often read outside where he gained
an appreciation for the natural world. As a child, he suffered from spinal
tuberculosis which unfortunately left him with permanent physical disabilities
that caused him to never grow any taller than four and a half feet
(poetryfoundation.org). His physical appearance made him an easy target for
many of his literary enemies in his later years. They often referred to him as
a “humpbacked toad” (poets.org).
remained ill throughout the rest of his life. However, he was able to support
himself as a full-time writer and translator (poetryfoundation.org). He was a
bright and determined individual and his efforts led him to later be known as
the first full-time professional English writer. At this time in Britain there
was anti-Catholic legislation that prevented him from attending public schools
or a university, and running for public office. Since his religion prohibited
him from a formal education, Pope was mostly self-educated. He was also tutored
by Catholic priests for a brief period of time and he attended Catholic schools
at Hyde Park Corner, London and Twyford, Winchester. “He taught himself French,
Italian, Latin and Greek, and read widely, discovering Homer at the age of six”
(Butt, John Everett). He was rather unpopular with the press because of his
physical disabilities, his involvement in a religious minority, and his
exclusion from public education. However, he did not let this stop him from
the age of sixteen, Pope wrote some of his earliest poems that were published
in Jacob Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies of 1710” (poets.org). This is what
first brought recognition to his name. Not long after this occurred, he wrote “An
Essay on Criticism” when he was just twenty-three years old. The success from “An
Essay on Criticism” introduced Pope to a wider group of friends including John
Gay, and Johnathan Swift, who later became lifelong friends (Butt, John Everett).
‘”Alexander Pope was most notable for his epic poem”The Rape of the Lock” and
his translations of Homer’s “Iliad”‘ (biography.com). These and many others of
his writings made him a central character in the Neoclassical movement of the
early 18th century (poetryfoundation.com).
Pope believes that the value of literary work depends on its truth to nature
and not whether it is modern or ancient. ‘”Pope’s, “An Essay on Criticism”
draws inspiration from the previous verse-essays of Horace, Vida and Boileau,
as well as those of two minor Restoration writers, the Earls of Mulgrave and
Roscommon. It also draws upon precepts from the Roman Quintilian and the French
critics, Rapin and Le Bossu”‘ (Bate, W.J.). The viewpoints of “An Essay on
Criticism” are centered around the neoclassic tradition. Pope emphasizes the
importance of humility and studying deeply, particularly studying those poets
and critics who truly understand poetry and follow Nature. In this poem, Pope
gives his point of view on the question that if poetry should be written based
on a set of rules created by artists from the classical period or it be
natural. ‘”This essay by Pope is neoclassical in its premises; in the tradition
of Horace and Boileau. Pope believes that the value of literary work depends
not on its being ancient or modern, but on its being true to Nature… When the
poet is asked to follow Nature, he is actually asked to “stick to the usual,
the ordinary, and the commonplace.”‘ He is to portray the world as he sees it. Pope
explains that by taking the ideas of artists from the classical period, a
critic has to judge the text (bachelorandmaster).”‘ In order to be a good
critic, the person must have honesty, courage, and modesty. The poem is divided
into three sections that cover general qualities needed by the critic,
particular laws for the critic, and the ideal character of the critic (poetryfoundation.org).
This poem was an attempt to identify and define Pope’s own role as a poet and a
critic. His main concern for this piece of literature is his advice for critics,
poets, and artists.
Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” opened up many opportunities for his career as a
full time professional English writer.