Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing [April Poetry Month, Day 5]

All right, so I failed to put up any poetry yesterday -- but I'll make up for it later, and in the meantime, here's that frightfully ambitious post I mentioned a couple of days ago. (I suppose it would be fair to say that his post sets up the context for all the rest of my Poetry Month posts, and, heck, probably for every other literature post I've ever made.)

Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism is a very long poem, so I won't produce the text here in full; but have a link, and with it my most ardent encouragement to read it through. It's amazing how precisely Pope, three hundred years dead, can still find out all the flaws and stupidities of literature and literary criticism -- and how much aspiring writers (and critical readers) of the present day can still learn from him. His poem is a bit like The Elements of Style in verse, only broader, wittier, and more subjective. I've read it a number of times, always with the same amaze and delight, and basked in every damnably clever line of it. Really, I cannot possibly overstate how much I adore this poem. Yes, I know, it's an essay -- on criticism, of all prosaic things -- but nonetheless, I tell you, it is fucking beautiful.

Behind the cut: well, never mind, you're already here. On to the selections.

from An Essay on Criticism
Alexander Pope

'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dangerous is the 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 [1-6]
The opening lines of Pope's Essay are hardly his most impressive, but they set up nicely for the rest of the poem, introducing both the topic and Pope's stance, and hinting at the quippy, sardonic tone that much of the poem will take, beginning with the first lines of the next stanza: "'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none / Go just alike, yet each believes his own."

It should be kept in mind here that when Pope implies that bad writers are merely a nuisance, whereas bad critics are a veritable plague, he isn't only speaking of critics who censure what ought not to be censured; he's also speaking of those who applaud what should be censured. He's by no means suggesting that the world has no use for critics -- he's only telling us that the critic's job is a delicate one, and must be performed with due integrity and seriousness.

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 defense:
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 [26-33]
Of course, it's been said many times that it's always easier to stand back and pass judgments than it is to create something great, and this is one of the first points Pope brings up. But his purpose isn't really to rant about how many flailing, impotent critics there are in the world, but to define what a critic should be:

But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure yourself 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. [46-51]
So, first and foremost, a critic needs to recognize the power and responsibility of his position, and -- as anyone in such a position should do -- to understand and accept his own limitations, rather than proceeding in denial of them. Pope goes on:

One science only will one genius fit,
So vast is art, so narrow human wit:
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confined to single parts.
Like kings, we lose the conquests gained before,
By vain ambition still to make them more;
Each might his servile province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand. [60-67]
Accepting limitations, Pope reminds us, is no shame. What is shameful is pretending or believing, out of pride, that one's abilities are greater than they really are. The last four lines of that stanza above are some of my favorites from the whole poem: "Like kings, we lose the conquests gained before, / By vain ambition still to make them more" -- it simply could not be better said. And then, I can't begin to count the times I've wondered whether or not I, too, am caught in the grip of blind ambition, too vain to really stoop to what I understand...

For a moment, Pope now enters upon the question of what makes great poetry (that is, great literature). Of course, there's no formula for recognizing or judging genius, any more than there is a formula for producing it, as Pope readily admits:

Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master-hand alone can reach. [43-45]
In fact, in history it has sometimes happened that such a master-hand has broken the conventions of traditional poetry, and still produced something exceptional -- "Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend, / And rise to faults true critics dare not mend." That is, however, no excuse for everyone else to go breaking those conventions, unless they know what they're doing and have a damned good reason for doing it. The conventions, after all, have been established for a reason.

But though the ancients thus their rules invade,
(As kings dispense with laws themselves have made)
Moderns, beware! or if you must offend
Against the precept, ne'er transgress its end;
Let it be seldom, and compell'd by need,
And have at least their precedent to plead. [161-166]
Pope opens the second section of his Essay with a few warnings against pride:

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. [201-204]
This is something of an echo back to his earlier point about knowing your own reach, and not vainly and egotistically extending beyond it. "Whatever Nature has in worth denied, / She gives in large recruits of needful pride," he observes, epigrammatic as ever. And then he coins a phrase, one of several from this poem that so many people quote without knowing their origin:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again. [215-218]
In the next few lines, Pope is back to chiding critics, this time for their tendency to nitpick and quibble over trivialities. I suppose it's nice to know that people were just as petty and trifling three hundred years ago as we they we are today.

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 [233-236]
He continues:

In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not the exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all. [243-246]
And he seals his point with some advice which, I confess, I have to continually remind myself to take, not merely in relation to literature, but to music, art, film, and really almost everything that can so easily be picked apart, but perhaps shouldn't be:

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In every 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. [253-258]
For his next segment, Pope enters into a discussion on some of the particular errors critics tend to make -- such as being attracted to shiny things:

Some to Conceit alone their taste confine,
And glittering thoughts struck out at every line;
Pleased with a work where nothing's just or fit;
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus, unskill'd to trace
The naked Nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art. [289-296]
Another succinct little couplet defines the ideal:

True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd;
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd [297-298]
Thoughts are not, of course, the only shiny things to be found in literature; and so Pope directs his next rebuke against urple-mongers, those who set all their stock in fancy language, caring nothing for substance:

Words are like leaves, and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colours spreads on every place;
The face of Nature we no more survey,
All glares alike, without distinction gay [309-314]
Yes, I believe Alexander Pope was indeed the first man to assert that purple prose is gay. He was truly ahead of his time.

Of course, Pope himself wasn't exactly the 18th century's answer to Hemingway; but he was fairly plainspoken for a writer of his period, and certainly didn't believe in dressing up poetry with unnecessary frills. He makes that clear here, in a very pretty example of genuine, non-frilly eloquence:

But true expression, like the unchanging sun,
Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon;
It gilds all objects, but it alters none. [315-318]
He also has some sound advice for literary faddists:
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside. [333-336]
I happen to disagree with him about being the first by whom new "fashions" are tried. After all, if everyone took that advice, there'd be nothing new in art or literature at all. Still, even if I can't agree with the idea, I must confess it is very well put.

Now, this next bit is pure genius, not because the sentiment itself is so extraordinary -- it's no surprise that he should take a moment to make his case against those critics for whom rhyme and meter are the only important points of literature -- but because of his deliciously scathing, mocking execution of it:

But most by numbers judge a poet's song;
These equal syllables alone require,
Though oft the ear the open vowels tire;
While expletives their feeble aid do join,
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;
Where'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 threaten'd (not in vain) with 'sleep:'
Then, at the last and only couplet fraught
With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the song
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. [337-357]
Sheer, unutterable genius, I tell you. Go on, read it again. (Whenever I come to this part of the Essay, I can't help picturing poor Pope taking notes at some corner coffee-shop on amateur poetry night.)

And there's more: but this time, instead of merely laughing at the shoddy endeavors of lesser poets -- which, as Pope has already pointed out, is only too easy to do whether you have any talent yourself or not -- he's going to show you how it should be done. Read it out loud.

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense;
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows:
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main. [362-373]
Bloody gorgeous.

But back to criticizing the critics. As an aside, here, Pope talks a bit about avoiding extremes, and not committing the fault of being either overly pleased or overly displeased, or taking offense at trifles, which "always shows great pride or little sense":

Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move,
For fools admire, but men of sense approve [392-393]
I concur his point, but alas, I'm not sure I can live up to Pope's standard here. Take a rather immediate example: at this very moment, I'm afraid it must be said that I admire -- I even went so far as to say adore, a moment ago -- this poem. To me it seems to deserve much better than my mere approval; but perhaps that is only, as Pope says, a proof of my unworthiness to comment at all: "As things seem large which we through mists descry, / Dullness is ever apt to magnify."

A return, however, to the particular faults of certain critics. Here Pope has a few words for those who practice any sort of literary discrimination based on time or place (another fault of which I, too, may be somewhat guilty):

Some, foreign writers, some, our own despise;
The ancients only, or the moderns prize.
Thus wit, like faith, by each man is applied
To one small sect, and all are damn'd beside.
Meanly they seek the blessing to confine,
And force that sun but on a part to shine,
Which not alone the southern wit sublimes,
But ripens spirits in cold northern climes;
Which from the first has shone on ages past,
Enlights the present, and shall warm the last [394-403]
Then there are the critics who merely say whatever is popular to say -- or approve whoever is popular to approve, and vise versa. (The majority of critical reviews in modern music magazines could, I daresay, take some advice from Pope on this point.)

Some ne'er advance a judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading notion of the town;
They reason and conclude by precedent,
And own stale nonsense which they ne'er invent.
Some judge of authors' names, not works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men. [408-413]
But there is also an opposite vice, which one sees almost equally often, especially among pretentious and independent folk: that of insisting upon holding a unique and different opinion from everyone else, no matter what everyone else is saying.

The vulgar thus through imitation err;
As oft the learn'd by being singular:
So much they scorn the crowd, that if the throng
By chance go right, they purposely go wrong:
So schismatics the plain believers quit,
And are but damn'd for having too much wit. [424-429]
There are the fickle critics, with their changeable opinions:

Some praise at morning what they blame at night,
But always think the last opinion right.
Ask them the cause; they're wiser still, they say;
And still to-morrow's wiser than to-day.
We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so. [430-439]
And finally there are, of course, the critics who simply praise whatever most resembles and reflects their own beliefs:

Some valuing those of their own side or mind,
Still make themselves the measure of mankind:
Fondly we think we honour merit then,
When we but praise ourselves in other men. [452-455]
Pope's next topic is introduced with encouragement rather than rebuke, though it ties into the warnings against trend-following that he gave above. His advice is, as before, to be sincere and just in your criticism, and to stand up for it even if no one else agrees with you:

Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend. [474-475]
Elegantly put.

We have, then, another of Pope's famous phrases, in a context which might surprise those people who use it nowadays without knowing its origin. Pope seems to suggest that one of the strongest motives among critics for condemning works of literature is vanity; and he asks them to show some mercy. (A curious request, from a man in the midst of penning such a scathing criticism against criticism!)

To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urged through sacred lust of praise!
Ah, ne'er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost.
Good-nature and good-sense must ever join;
To err is human -- to forgive, divine. [521-526]
Finally, we reach the third and last section of Pope's Essay, which opens thus, with a discussion of the morality -- as we said before, the responsibility -- entailed in the position of being a critic.

Learn, then, what MORALS critics ought to show,
For 'tis but half a judge's task to know. [561-562]
That is, to be correct is not everything. There is the matter of being just, and even being merciful; and there is an art to the handing out of judgments.

And, perhaps most importantly, there is the virtue of being man enough to recognize one's own mistakes and own up to them, rather than denying and thus perpetuating them:

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 critique on the last. [569-572]
Plenty of us could use a lesson in how to curb that smug, self-congratulating tendency to gloat or sneer whenever we find ourselves proved right and the other fellow wrong; and Pope has some fantastic advice on that topic. A little tact is, contrary to the common view, a great asset to a critic -- at least, if he has any intention of actually improving the world's literature, rather than simply laughing at it.

'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. [573-576]
This is by no means to say that one should refrain from criticisms, even harsh and brutal criticisms, if they are deserved. Tact is not the same thing as silence. In fact, Pope seems very much of the opinion that silence is worse:

Be niggards of advice on no pretence;
For the worst avarice is that of sense.
With mean complaisance 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. [577-584]
That is, of course, unless one has to contend with the sort of work that simply can't be improved except by blotting it out entirely, or the sort of writer who baldly refuses to hear reason -- in which case, even mockery is a waste of the critic's time.

'Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
And charitably let the dull be vain:
Your silence there is better than your spite,
For who can rail so long as they can write? [597-600]
Pope can't resist painting us a picture of just the sort of hopeless case he has in mind, who can't be taught a thing, no matter how the critic may approach him:

The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always listening to himself appears. [613-617]
And look -- he coins yet another idiom!

Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead:
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread. [625-626]
But now we've reached the end, and Pope returns to his theme, his most important point: to establish an ideal for literary criticism, or at least the subjective foundations of an ideal. What should a critic be -- what are his responsibilities, what is his purpose, why is he necessary, and how can he accomplish the most good and the least mischief by his art?

But where's the man, who counsel can bestow,
Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiass'd, or by favour, or by spite;
Not dully prepossess'd, nor blindly right;
Though learn'd, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and humanly severe:
Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the merit of a foe? [632-639]
The fervor of his tone shows plainly enough that this is the climax, the culmination of everything Pope has desired to say or ask throughout his poem; if one can understand this, can believe and espouse and aspire to practice it -- then and only then does one deserve "to justly bear a critic's noble name." He is even ready to invoke the Muses to his purpose:

Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,
And bless their critic with a poet's fire.
An ardent judge, who, zealous in his trust,
With warmth gives sentence, yet is always just;
Whose own example strengthens all his laws;
And is himself that Great Sublime he draws. [676-681]
And here, at last, he ends the poem, with a final summarization of the virtues of great critics -- a nice strong concluding paragraph for an Essay; perhaps just a little redundant, but still elegant and final.

The learn'd reflect on what before they knew:
Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame;
Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame;
Averse alike to flatter, or offend;
Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend. [741-745]
And there you have it. Alexander Pope's doctrine on literary criticism -- which may, I believe, be applied to most kinds of criticism, and indeed to many other things besides. Teaching, for one.

It's sure as hell not an easy ideal to reach. But I think it's worth aiming for.

(...Whew. Can you believe this is the sort of thing I look forward to doing with my spare time? o_O)
Tags: alexander pope, april poetry month, literary criticism, poetry, squee
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