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Literature: History of Theory and Criticism

The place of Alexander’s Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in English literature is that of Boileaur’s Art Poetique in French criticism. Keeping in line with the neoclassical tradition, Pope gives a detailed account of his views on literary writing and the art of criticism. His essay has been seriously studied by students of literature, treating him in line with eminent classical critics. A brief analysis of Essay on Criticism and Pope’s response to the principles developed by Horace and Longinus form the thrust of this paper. For convenience, the three critics under scrutiny here are examined separately before assessing how Pope responded to Horace and Longius.

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The entire verse essay of Pope is divided into three parts. The first part carries the general qualities which a critic should possess. The second part gives certain laws which should govern criticism, and the third part provides a sketch of the ideal qualities which form the character of a good critic. A critic, according to Pope, should be aware of his limitations: “Be sure yourself and your own reach to know” (Pope, 208), says Pope. He advises his contemporary critics not to go beyond their depth of knowledge and awareness. One should realize that art is very vast, whereas human wit is very narrow. “First follow Nature” and then try to form one’s judgment of a work of art. Pope defines what is Nature before proceeding further in his essay, and asserts that it is “the source, and end, and test of art” (210). Wit and judgment are supposed to go together, aiding each other like husband and wife, but they are often seen as strife. The rules laid down by the ancients are valuable and they should be followed. They are, in a way, “Nature methodiz’d”. Therefore, a thorough knowledge of the proper qualities of criticism given by the ancient masters is very essential. Pope writes in his essay that “To copy Nature is to copy them” (211).

Since “rules were made to promote their end”, Pope says, there is no harm in taking a small license. However, he warns modern writers and critics not to transgress the end of art. He warns that “A little learning is a dang’rous thing” (213). As far as possible, the value of ancient poetry and criticism should be taken as models. Mere imitation of them, at the same time, deserves censure. To reach a balance, the critics should study the general aims and qualities of the ancients.

Pope also gives some guidelines to the critics in his verse essay. “A perfect judge will read each work of unit/ With the same spirit that its author writ” (214). He adds that a proper survey of the whole work under scrutiny is essential to discover where “Nature moves”. The parts may strike beautifully, but, like “some well-proportioned dome”, the whole, “the joint force and full result of all” is what is admirable. A critic should try to know the writer’s aim, and, like a faulty critic, one should not get stuck into the parts. The critics can be classified according to their weaknesses. Some forget their end, some merely see imagery and metaphor, and some get moved away by the pomp and shine of diction, or judge the work by versification alone. The critics must be cautious in several ways. They must possess a good sense of tolerance. Their mood should not make it difficult for them to make sound criticism. A book should not be valued by its external appearance as it is unfair to judge a woman by her dress. “Words are like leaves”, says Pope. There may not be “much fruits of sense beneath them”.

The third part of Pope’s essay lays stress on the ideal qualities of a critic, particularly his moral qualities. “No pardon vile obscenity should find”, remarks Pope in his essay. Apart from possessing taste, judgment, and learning, a critic should seek to carry truth and candor. If he is doubtful about his sense, it is better to remain silent. Integrity is a very important quality for a critic, and “Fear, not the anger of wise to raise” (223). There are, feels Pope, many “shameless bards” and “abandoned critics, and it is better to remember that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” (224). At the end of his essay, Pope refers to the great critics from the past, like Horace and Longinus, to the modern ones to show where English criticism stands. “But critic-learning flourished most in France” (226). When “Boileaur still in thought sways”, Pope says, “We, brave Britons” remain “unconquered and uncivilized”.

According to Horace, most of the critics are led astray as they fail to understand the right way to go to work. One should choose a subject, he tells, only if one is sure about it, and only if it suits him. If he is unaware of the art of moving in the right direction, one small fault may lead to great imperfection. “Choose a subject that is suited to your abilities, you who aspire to be writers; give long thought to what you are capable of undertaking, and what is beyond you” (Horace). He, like Longinus, is very particular about the use of words: “words die out with old age; and the newly born ones thrive and prosper just like human beings in the vigour of youth”. Therefore, maximum care should be taken while choosing a word, do it with proper discretion, he advises.

The critics should not be easily carried away by the beauty of a poem. It must possess, he should ensure, enough charm as well. The theme may be good, but the writer makes it sometimes unpalatable to the readers by wasting their precious time on hackneyed treatment” of it. The writer must be a man of good knowledge and he must be able to carry in him all the great characters of the past and their behavior, belonging to different ages. “The foundation and fountain-head of good composition is a sound understanding though you have been trained by your father to form sound judgments and have natural good sense”, writes Horace.

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Longinus, on the other hand, advocates the elevation of style. What is Sublime for him is a style of writing “that elevates itself above the ordinary” (Longinus). He gives the readers five sources as the secret of sublime writing. They are great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thoughts and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement. The effect of such sublime writing is the loss of rationality. A fine example of such writing, notes Longinus, is Sappho’s “Ode to Jealousy”, a “sublime ode”. The quality of being sublime helps a work to take the readers to their ecstasy, and it does not persuade them. At the same time, such sublimity creates a kind of evasion from reality. Longinus says that a sublime work can come only from a great soul. It is a “mechanism of recognition, of the greatness of a spirit, of the depth of an idea, of the power of speech (Longinus). The desire for greatness is rooted in human nature. It is a “positive canalizement” of a genius, he says.

Longinus goes beyond the rigid rules of literary criticism of his contemporary period. He, therefore, encourages the boldness of a writer to break the convention. He takes into consideration the arguments of great writers and critics like Homer, Sappho, and Plato. The real success of a written work, according to him, is its ability to create bewilderment, or surprise. Noble tone, apt precepts, and judicious attitudes are the qualities which his line of criticism promotes in a writer. He always takes all kinds of historical interest while judging a work of art.

In fact, Pope takes ideas from Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, and even from some of his immediate predecessors to frame his views about literary criticism. Since only Horace and Longinus are being considered here, it is easy to trace their influence on him. Longinus is for sublimity and for giving importance to the elevation of style. Pope, being, an ardent follower of neoclassicism does of believe in any kind of freedom which goes against the laid out rules. The fact that his essay is written in heroic couplet itself speaks volumes about it. He is for a good sense of tolerance. Moreover, the entire essay stresses the need for judging a work of art as a whole, giving importance to both content and theme. Horace is also of the view that the content should suit the writer. It shows that Pope is greatly influenced by Horace.

The most important point in Pope’s essay is his emphasis on following “Nature”. In a way, this includes the essence of all what the classical writers had to say:

Those rules of old discovered, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodis’d,
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same laws which first herself ordain’d.

Here, for Pope, Nature seems to be what Horace and Longinus say in different ways, aiming at the end of art, that it should give pleasure or ecstasy to the readers by choosing the right subject in an elegant style. However, the visible difference in Pope is that he never uses the word emotion, but repeats words like good sense and thoughts.

On the other hand, Longinus is for emotion, thoughts, and word arrangement.

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Horace. The Art of Poetry. Web.

Longinus on the Sublime, translated by W.Rhys Roberts. Web.

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism”, ed. By Edmund D. Jones. English Critical Essays, Surjeet Publcations: New Delhi, 1996.

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