An Essay on Criticism is one of the first major poems written by the English writer Alexander Pope (1688–1744). It is the source of the famous quotations "To err is human, to forgive divine," "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" (frequently misquoted as "A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing"), and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." It first appeared in 1711 after having been written in 1709, and it is clear from Pope's correspondence that many of the poem's ideas had existed in prose form since at least 1706. Composed in heroic couplets (pairs of adjacent rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) and written in the Horatian mode of satire, it is a verse essay primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in the new literary commerce of Pope's contemporary age. The poem covers a range of good criticism and advice, and represents many of the chief literary ideals of Pope's age.
Pope contends in the poem's opening couplets that bad criticism does greater harm than bad writing:
- 'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
- Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
- But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
- To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense
- Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
- Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
- A Fool might once himself alone expose,
- Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose. ... (1–8)
Despite the harmful effects of bad criticism, literature requires worthy criticism.
Pope delineates common faults of poets, e.g., settling for easy and cliché rhymes:
- And ten low words oft creep in one dull line:
- While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
- With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
- Wher'er you find "the cooling western breeze",
- In the next line, it "whispers through the trees";
- If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep",
- The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep" ... (347–353)
Throughout the poem, Pope refers to ancient writers such as Virgil, Homer, Aristotle, Horace and Longinus. This is a testament to his belief that the "Imitation of the ancients" is the ultimate standard for taste. Pope also says, "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance" (362–363), meaning poets are made, not born.
As is usual in Pope's poems, the Essay concludes with a reference to Pope himself. Walsh, the last of the critics mentioned, was a mentor and friend of Pope who had died in 1710.
An Essay on Criticism was famously and fiercely attacked by John Dennis, who is mentioned mockingly in the work. Consequently, Dennis also appears in Pope's later satire, The Dunciad.
Part II of An Essay on Criticism includes a famous couplet:
- A little learning is a dangerous thing;
- Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
This is in reference to the spring in the Pierian Mountains in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses. The first line of this couplet is often misquoted as "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".
The Essay also gives this famous line (towards the end of Part II):
- To err is human, to forgive divine.
The phrase "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" from Part III has become part of the popular lexicon, and has been used for and in various works.
- Dunning–Kruger effect, the empirically observed pattern that individuals possessing a nonzero but low degree of competence in a field tend to overestimate their competence whereas individuals possessing high competence in that field tend to accurately assess or even underestimate their competence relative to others'
- ^An Essay on Criticism (1 ed.). London: Printed for W.Lewis in Russel Street, Covent Garden; and Sold by W.Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, T.Osborn near the Walks, and J. Graves in St. James Street. 1711. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^22 October 1706: Correspondence, i.23–24.
'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic's share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
These born to judge, as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?
Yet if we look more closely we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring light;
The lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false learning is good sense defac'd;
Some are bewilder'd in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a rival's, or an eunuch's spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo's spite,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write.
Some have at first for wits, then poets pass'd,
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last;
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those half-learn'd witlings, num'rous in our isle
As half-form'd insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish'd things, one knows not what to call,
Their generation's so equivocal:
To tell 'em, would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.
But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure your self and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
She gives in large recruits of needful pride;
For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
What wants in blood and spirits, swell'd with wind;
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry friend—and ev'ry foe.
A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ,
Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find,
Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The gen'rous pleasure to be charm'd with wit.
But in such lays as neither ebb, nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning faults, one quiet tenour keep;
We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep.
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th' exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
Thus when we view some well-proportion'd dome,
(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine, O Rome!'
No single parts unequally surprise;
All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In ev'ry work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,
T' avoid great errors, must the less commit:
Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays,
For not to know such trifles, is a praise.
Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
Still make the whole depend upon a part:
They talk of principles, but notions prize,
And all to one lov'd folly sacrifice.
Learn then what morals critics ought to show,
For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.
'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;
In all you speak, let truth and candour shine:
That not alone what to your sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your friendship too.
Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.
'Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapprov'd;
That only makes superior sense belov'd.
Be niggards of advice on no pretence;
For the worst avarice is that of sense.
With mean complacence ne'er betray your trust,
Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.
Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;
Those best can bear reproof, who merit praise.