Ethical Theory and Pope’s Essay on Criticism

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Ethical Theory and Pope’s Essay on Criticism
1. The state of Pope criticism

- David Fairer: Pope’s Imagination (1984);

- theoretically based interpretations: focus on how Pope’s texts undermine the ideology that they seemingly endorse (e.g. Leopold Damrosh Jr.);

- a reaction against these tendencies in traditional Pope scholarship (e.g. Howard Erskine-Hill): image of Pope as an embattled humanist fighting against cultural mediocrity;

- new direction(?): Philip Smallwood: Reconstructing Criticism: Pope's Essay on Criticism and the Logic of Definition (2003); reading Pope’s Essay as relevant to our modern problems; he points out the unity of the poem beyond the surface fragmentation: this unity is to be found primarily in the imagery
2. My project: searching for a deeper-lying unity in Pope’s use of imagery and metaphor to point out the text’s relevance to our modern experience;

- the principle of the underlying unity in Pope’s genuine response to the experience of creativity; the surface contradictions of the poem arise from Pope’s ethical commitment in the sense in which Derek Attridge uses this term

3. Summary of Attridge’s argument:

- the experience of creation is a paradoxical one: both an act and an event;

- this experience can best be described as relation to the other: conscious action in the sphere of the same (repeatable, reproducible, rule-governed), but the event is the coming of the other;

- the other which comes in the experience of creation is never an entity, never present: it is always just projected (forward or retrospectively): it only exists in the demand to refashion the same and in the successful refashioning of the same

- ethics: relating to the other is doing justice to it, assuming responsibility for it.
4. Pope’s Essay on Criticism
4.1. Nature to all things fix’d the Limits fit,

And wisely curb’d proud Man’s pretending Wit: (ll. 52-52)

First follow Nature, and your Judgment frame

By her just Standard, which is still the same:

Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,

One clear, unchang’d, and Universal Light,

Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,

At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art. (68-73)

4.2. False Eloquence, like the Prismatic Glass,

Its gawdy Colours spreads on ev’ry place;

The Face of Nature we no more Survey,

All glares alike, without Distinction gay:

But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,

Clears, and improves whate’er it shines upon,

It gilds all Objects, but it alters none. (311-7)

4.3. True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,

What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,

Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find,

That gives us back the Image of our Mind: (297-300)

4.4. Aaron Hill: “the idea must have been shape (not dress) of thought; dress, however an ornament, being a concealment, or covering; whereas expression is manifestation and exposure.”
4.5. Of all the Causes which conspire to blind

Man’s erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind

What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,

Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.


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; (201-12)
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. (ll. 215-218)

4.6. Derek Attridge: “While generalizable norms are involved from the start, …, it is only retrospectively that we can extract them as norms (and thus objectify the transition from the other to the same), although even this hypostatization remains revisable.”
4.7. Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d,

Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz’d; (ll. 88-89)

Hear how learn’d Greece her useful Rules indites,

When to repress, and when indulge our Flights:

High on Parnassus’ Top her Sons she show’d,

And pointed out those arduous Paths they trod,

Held from afar, aloft, th’ Immortal Prize,

And urg’d the rest by equal Steps to rise;

Just Precepts thus from great Examples giv’n,

She drew from them what they deriv’d from Heav’n. (ll. 92-99)

    1. Some dryly plain, without Invention’s Aid,

Write dull Receipts how Poems may be made: (ll. 115-116)
Neglect the Rules each Verbal Critick lays,

For not to know some Trifles, is a Praise. (ll. 261-262)

4.9. If, where the Rules not far enough extend,

(Since Rules were made but to promote their End)

Some Lucky LICENCE answers to the full

Th’ Intent propos’d, that Licence is a Rule. (ll. 145-148)

4.10. True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,

As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance. (ll. 362-363)

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