An Essay on Criticism

By Alexander Pope


An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope is not just a poem—it’s a monumental work in the world of literary criticism, offering a keen insight into the nature of criticism itself. Written in 1709 and published in 1711 when Pope was only 23 years old, this work showcases his precocious command of the English language and his understanding of the classical poets.

Alexander Pope is one of the most quoted English poets, second only to Shakespeare. Known for his brilliant use of the heroic couplet, Pope’s works are characterized by their sharp wit and insightful commentary. An Essay on Criticism is considered part of the didactic poetry genre, aiming to instruct and enlighten readers about the dos and don’ts of criticism and poetry. 📚✨

In this poem, Pope discusses the rules of literary criticism and the qualities of a good critic, advocating for rules based on a broad understanding of nature and humanity. His famous line, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” is a cornerstone quote that emphasizes the human aspect behind the critical enterprise.

Meaning of An Essay on Criticism

Opening section In the first part of the poem, Pope touches on the human tendencies to rush to judgment and the importance of knowing one’s own limits as a critic. He advises critics to be patient and to seek comprehensive knowledge before making judgments:

“Tis with our judgments as our watches, none / Go just alike, yet each believes his own.”

Mid section The middle part of the poem delves deeper into the practical aspects of being a critic. Pope stresses the importance of understanding the context, the historical background, and the intentions of the poet before criticizing a piece of work. This section is rich with advice on how critics should temper their personal biases:

“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.”

Concluding section Towards the end, Pope discusses the moral qualities and the responsibility that comes with being a critic. He emphasizes the need for humility and teachability, suggesting that critics should not be harsh, but corrective and instructive:

“To learn, for ancient rules a just esteem; / To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

In-depth Analysis

  • Syntax and Diction
    • Pope’s choice of words is precise and impactful, making every line both a lesson in criticism and a demonstration of poetic technique.
    • His use of heroic couplets adds a rhythmic and melodious quality to his didactic statements, enhancing their memorability.
  • Figurative Language
    • Pope uses metaphors extensively, such as equating criticism to a dangerous dragon that one must learn to tame.
    • Similes, like critics being like watches that “go just alike, yet each believes his own,” vividly illustrate his points about subjectivity and judgment.
  • Literary Techniques
    • Alliteration: Enhances the musical quality of his verses, e.g., “Men must be taught as if you taught them not.”
    • Antithesis: Frequent use of antithetical structures emphasizes contrasts, e.g., “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

Poetic Devices used in An Essay on Criticism

Alliteration“Men must be taught as if you taught them not.”
AnaphoraRepeated use of “Some” at the beginning of lines.
Antithesis“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
ApostropheAddressing abstract qualities or the muses.
AssonanceRepeated vowel sounds in “know” and “own”
Chiasmus“Critics not to write, but judge.”
HyperboleExaggerations of the challenges critics face.
IronyCritiquing bad critics while discussing criticism.
MetaphorComparing critics to animals or machines.
PersonificationGiving human qualities to abstract concepts.

An Essay on Criticism – FAQs

What is the main theme of An Essay on Criticism? The main theme revolves around the ideal qualities of a critic and the principles of good criticism.

Who should read An Essay on Criticism? Students, critics, and anyone interested in understanding literary theory and criticism.

How does Pope view the role of tradition in criticism? Pope values tradition highly, seeing it as a foundational element that informs and stabilizes criticism.

What does Pope say about the use of precedent in criticism? He advocates for critics to rely on historical precedent and established rules as guides, but also to use their judgment and creativity.

What poetic form is used in An Essay on Criticism? Alexander Pope wrote this essay in heroic couplets, which consist of pairs of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter.

What advice does Pope give to aspiring poets? Pope advises aspiring poets to learn from the masters of the past, to practice extensively, and to temper their spirit with critical advice.

Why is An Essay on Criticism still relevant today? Its insights into human nature, criticism, and the creative process remain pertinent, offering valuable lessons in any field where judgment and aesthetics play a role.

How does Pope propose critics approach their craft? He advocates for a balanced approach that respects ancient wisdom while encouraging a judicious use of one’s own reason and taste.

An Essay on Criticism Study Guide

Exercise: Analyze the following verse for rhetorical devices and their impact on the poem’s message:

“If Faith itself has different dresses worn, / What wonder modes in wit should take their turn?”


  • Allusion: Refers to the changing nature of religious faith as a metaphor for changes in literary styles.
  • Rhetorical Question: Used to provoke thought about the inevitability of change in literary trends.
  • Antithesis: Contrasts ‘faith’ and ‘wit’ to highlight the universality of change across different aspects of life.

This exercise encourages students to look deeper into the text, discovering how Pope’s use of rhetorical and poetic devices serves to reinforce his arguments about criticism and art.