Pope's "Essay on Criticism" tackles not only the problems of poor criticism but also the problems of poor writing. As he writes in the first stanza of Part I, "Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/Appear in writing or in judging ill." In other words, he asks which is worse--writing poorly or criticizing poorly? He feels that poor criticism is worse, as a poor writer bores his or her audience, while a poor critic misleads his or her audience. He goes on to say that good writing and good critical skills are both rare, as "Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light." In other words, there's a touch of the divine in both pursuits.
Critics, he feels, can go awry by relying on too much didacticism. He says in the third stanza, "So by false learning is good sense defac'd." In other words, critics' desire to seem witty can ruin their common sense. He urges critics and writers not to try to surpass their own talents. As he says, "Be sure your self and your own reach to know,/How far your genius, taste, and learning go." In other words, if they are not wits, they shouldn't try to be too clever. Instead, he advises them to follow nature. As he writes, "Nature to all things fix'd the limits fit." He tells critics and writers that they shouldn't indulge in too much pomp but should write naturally and restrain themselves. Much of the last part of Part I is dedicated to praising the ancients, such as the Greeks, who understood the importance of restraint and following nature in creating art.
In Part II, Pope says that the main cause of people's poor judgment is pride. As he writes in the first stanza of Part II, "Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defense,/And fills up all the mighty void of sense!" He writes that a little bit of learning can cause people's downfall in writing and in criticism.
He also writes that a critic should look over the entire work of writing and not judge it based on one part. As he writes, "survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find." He believes that perfection in writing does not exist and that the critic can praise a piece with merits even if that piece has small faults. He also believes that it's acceptable to break Aristotle's rules of drama and that an overly narrow adherence to classical drama does not always help writers.
In addition, he takes issue with writers using too many fancy devices to cover what is truly not very good. As he writes, these types of writers "hide with ornaments their want of art." In other words, these writers cover up their poor writing with ornamentation. Others use too many words or disguise the emptiness of their writing with supposed eloquence. He also criticizes the arbitrary nature of critics, who "praise at morning what they blame at night;/But always think the last opinion right." In other words, they constantly change their minds but regard themselves as " the measure of mankind."
In Part 3, he urges critics to be humble and practice restraint: "Be silent always when you doubt your sense; /And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence." He regards the ancients, such as Horace and Erasmus, as the greatest critics and writers because they followed sense and conveyed "The truest notions in the easiest way." He finds modern critics wanting in the sense shown by the ancients.
'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.