The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems
Part 3 out of 5
are something more than portraits. They are living people, acting and
speaking with admirable consistency. Even the little sketch of Sir Plume
is instinct with life.
Finally 'The Rape of the Lock', in its limitations and defects, no less
than in its excellencies, represents a whole period of English poetry,
the period which reaches with but few exceptions from Dryden to
Wordsworth. The creed which dominated poetic composition during this
period is discussed in the introduction to the Essay on Criticism, (see
p. 103) and is admirably illustrated in that poem itself. Its repression
of individuality, its insistence upon the necessity of following in the
footsteps of the classic poets, and of checking the outbursts of
imagination by the rules of common sense, simply incapacitated the poets
of the period from producing works of the highest order. And its
insistence upon man as he appeared in the conventional, urban society of
the day as the one true theme of poetry, its belief that the end of
poetry was to instruct and improve either by positive teaching or by
negative satire, still further limited its field. One must remember in
attempting an estimate of 'The Rape of the Lock' that it was composed
with an undoubting acceptance of this creed and within all these
narrowing limitations. And when this is borne in mind, it is hardly too
much to say that the poem attains the highest point possible. In its
treatment of the supernatural it is as original as a poem could be at
that day. The brilliancy of its picture of contemporary society could
not be heightened by a single stroke. Its satire is swift and keen, but
never ill natured. And the personality of Pope himself shines through
every line. Johnson advised authors who wished to attain a perfect style
to give their days and nights to a study of Addison. With equal justice
one might advise students who wish to catch the spirit of our so-called
Augustan age, and to realize at once the limitations and possibilities
of its poetry, to devote themselves to the study of 'The Rape of the
the title of Mrs. was still given in Pope's time to unmarried ladies as
soon as they were old enough to enter society.
'the Rosicrucian doctrine':
the first mention of the Rosicrucians is in a book published in Germany
in 1614, inviting all scholars to join the ranks of a secret society
said to have been founded two centuries before by a certain Christian
Rosenkreuz who had mastered the hidden wisdom of the East. It seems
probable that this book was an elaborate hoax, but it was taken
seriously at the time, and the seventeenth century saw the formation of
numerous groups of "Brothers of the Rosy Cross." They dabbled in
alchemy, spiritualism, and magic, and mingled modern science with
superstitions handed down from ancient times. Pope probably knew nothing
more of them than what he had read in 'Le Comte de Gabalis'.
This was the work of a French abbé, de Montfaucon Villars (1635-1673),
who was well known in his day both as a preacher and a man of letters.
It is really a satire upon the fashionable mystical studies, but treats
in a tone of pretended seriousness of secret sciences, of elemental
spirits, and of their intercourse with men. It was translated into
English in 1680 and again in 1714.
Pope opens his mock-epic with the usual epic formula, the statement of
the subject. Compare the first lines of the 'Iliad', the 'Æneid', and
'Paradise Lost'. In l. 7 he goes on to call upon the "goddess," i.e. the
muse, to relate the cause of the rape. This, too, is an epic formula.
Compare 'Æneid', I, 8, and 'Paradise Lost', I, 27-33.
see Introduction, p. 83. In accordance with his wish his name was not
printed in the editions of the poem that came out in Pope's lifetime,
appearing there only as C----or C----l.
a name used by Pope to denote Miss Fermor, the heroine of 'The Rape of
This line is almost a translation of a line in the 'Æneid' (I, 11),
where Virgil asks if it be possible that such fierce passions (as
Juno's) should exist in the minds of gods.
a good instance of the fondness which Pope shared with most poets of his
time for giving classical names to objects of nature. This trick was
supposed to adorn and elevate poetic diction. Try to find other
instances of this in 'The Rape of the Lock'.
Why is the sun's ray called "tim'rous"?
It was an old convention that lovers were so troubled by their passion
that they could not sleep. In the 'Prologue to the Canterbury Tales'
(ll. 97-98), Chaucer says of the young squire:
So hote he lovede, that by nightertale
He sleep namore than dooth a nightingale.
Pope, of course, is laughing at the easy-going lovers of his day who in
spite of their troubles sleep very comfortably till noon.
The lady on awaking rang a little hand-bell that stood on a table by her
bed to call her maid. Then as the maid did not appear at once she tapped
impatiently on the floor with the heel of her slipper. The watch in the
next line was a repeater.
All the rest of this canto was added in the second edition of the poem.
See pp. 84-86. Pope did not notice that he describes Belinda as waking
in I. 14 and still asleep and dreaming in ll. 19-116.
'20 guardian Sylph':
compare ll. 67-78.
'23 a Birth-night Beau':
a fine gentleman in his best clothes, such as he would wear at a ball on
the occasion of a royal birthday.
The nurse would have told Belinda the old tales of fairies who danced by
moonlight on rings in the greensward, and dropped silver coins into the
shoes of tidy little maids. The priest, on the other hand, would have
repeated to her the legend of St. Cecilia and her guardian angel who
once appeared in bodily form to her husband holding two rose garlands
gathered in Paradise, or of St. Dorothea, who sent an angel messenger
with a basket of heavenly fruits and flowers to convert the pagan
used here in the general sense of "soldiery."
'44 the box':
in the theater.
the drive in Hyde Park, where the ladies of society took the air.
'46 a chair':
a sedan chair in which ladies used to be carried about. Why is Belinda
told to scorn it?
What is the meaning of "vehicles" in this line?
the fashionable game of cards in Pope's day. See his account of a game
in Canto III and the notes on that passage.
See 'Introduction', p. 85.
Compare 'Paradise Lost', I, 423-431.
conscious of their face: proud of their beauty.
the gnomes who urge the vain beauties to disdain all offers of love and
play the part of prudes.
'85 garters, stars, and coronets':
the garter is the badge of the Knights of the Garter, an order founded
by Edward III, to which only noble princes and noblemen of the highest
rank were admitted. "Stars" are the jeweled decorations worn by members
of other noble orders. "Coronets" are the inferior crowns worn by
princes and nobles, not by sovereigns.
'86 "Your Grace"':
the title bestowed in England on a duchess--The idea in this passage,
ll. 83-86, is that the gnomes fill the girls' minds with hopes of a
splendid marriage and so induce them to "deny love."
'97-98 Florio ... Damon':
poetic names for fine gentlemen; no special individuals are meant.
'100' Why is a woman's heart called a "toy-shop"?
tassels worn at the hilts of swords. In Pope's day every gentleman
carried a sword, and these sword-knots were often very gay.
'105 who thy protection claim':
what is the exact meaning of his phrase?
'108 thy ruling Star':
the star that controls thy destinies, a reference to the old belief in
Belinda's pet dog. His name would seem to show that he was a
Does this line mean that Belinda had never seen a billet-doux before?
'119 Wounds, Charms, and Ardors':
the usual language of a love-letter at this time.
'124 the Cosmetic pow'rs':
the deities that preside over a lady's toilet. Note the playful satire
with which Pope describes Belinda's toilet as if it were a religious
ceremony. Who is "th' inferior priestess" in l. 127?
famous for its perfumes.
'145 set the head':
arrange the head-dress.
'26 the finny prey':
a characteristic instance of Pope's preference or circumlocution to a
A regular formula in classical epics. In Virgil (XI, 794-795) Phoebus
grants part of the prayer of Arruns; the other part he scatters to the
'38 vast French Romances':
these romances were the customary reading of society in Pope's day when
there were as yet no English novels. Some of them were of enormous
length. Addison found several of them in a typical lady's library, great
folio volumes, finely bound in gilt ('Spectator', 37).
'58 All but the Sylph':
so in Homer (1-25), while all the rest of the army is sleeping Agamemnon
is disturbed by fear of the doom impending over the Greeks at the hands
wave, or flutter.
'70 Superior by the head':
so in Homer ('Iliad', III, 225-227) Ajax is described as towering over
the other Greeks by head and shoulders.
a feminine form of "sylphs."
This formal opening of Ariel's address to his followers is a parody of a
passage in 'Paradise Lost', V, 600-601.
either "worlds" or in a more general sense "regions."
What are the "wandering orbs," and how do they differ from planets in l.
'97 a wash':
a lotion for the complexion.
Diana, the virgin huntress, was in a peculiar sense the goddess of
'106 China jar':
the taste for collecting old china was comparatively new in England at
this time. It had been introduced from Holland by Queen Anne's sister,
Queen Mary, and was eagerly caught up by fashionable society.
'113 The drops':
the diamond earrings.
'118 the Petticoat':
the huge hoop skirt which had recently become fashionable. Addison, in a
humorous paper in the 'Tatler' (No. 116), describes one as about
twenty-four yards in circumference.
a large needle.
an obsolete raiment of "obrivelled."
according to classical mythology Ixion was punished for his sins by
being bound forever upon a whirling wheel.
the mill in which cakes of chocolate were ground up preparatory to
making the beverage.
'138 orb in orb':
in concentric circles.
a variant form of "thread."
'3 a structure':
Hampton Court, a palace on the Thames, a few miles above London. It was
begun by Wolsey, and much enlarged by William III. Queen Anne visited it
occasionally, and cabinet meetings were sometimes held there. Pope
insinuates (l. 6) that the statesmen who met in these councils were as
interested in the conquest of English ladies as of foreign enemies.
Tea was still in Queen Anne's day a luxury confined to the rich. It
cost, in 1710, from twelve to twenty-eight shillings per pound.
'9 The heroes and the nymphs':
the boating party which started for Hampton Court in Canto II.
Snuff-taking had just become fashionable at this time. The practice is
said to date from 1702, when an English admiral brought back fifty tons
of snuff found on board some Spanish ships which he had captured in Vigo
In the 'Spectator' for August 8, 1711, a mock advertisement is inserted
professing to teach "the exercise of the snuff-box according to the most
fashionable airs and motions," and in the number for April 4, 1712,
Steele protests against "an impertinent custom the fine women have
lately fallen into of taking snuff."
the usual dinner hour in Queen Anne's reign was about 3 P.M. Fashionable
people dined at 4, or later. This allowed the fashionable lady who rose
at noon time to do a little shopping and perform "the long labours of
'26 two ... Knights':
one of these was the baron, see l. 66.
a game of cards invented in Spain. It takes its name from the Spanish
phrase originally used by the player who declared trumps: "Yo soy
l'hombre," 'i.e.' I am the man. It could be played by three, five, or
nine players, but the usual number was three as here. Each of these
received nine cards, and one of them named the trump and thus became the
"ombre," who played against the two others. If either of the ombre's
opponents took more tricks than the ombre, it was "codille" (l. 92).
This meant that the opponent took the stake and the ombre had to replace
it for the next hand.
A peculiar feature of ombre is the rank, or value, of the cards. The
three best cards were called "matadores," a Spanish word meaning
"killers." The first of these matadores was "Spadillio," the ace of
spades; the third was "Basto," the ace of clubs. The second, "Manillio,"
varied according to the suit. If a black suit were declared, Maniilio
was the two of trumps; if a red suit, Manillio was the seven of trumps.
It is worth noting also that the red aces were inferior to the face
cards of their suits except when a red suit was trump.
A brief analysis of the game played on this occasion will clear up the
passage and leave the reader free to admire the ingenuity with which
Pope has described the contest in terms of epic poetry.
Belinda declares spades trumps and so becomes the "ombre." She leads one
after the other the three matadores; and takes three tricks. She then
leads the next highest card, the king of spades, and wins a fourth
trick. Being out of trumps she now leads the king of clubs; but the
baron, who has actually held more spades than Belinda, trumps it with
the queen of spades. All the trumps are now exhausted and the baron's
long suit of diamonds is established. He takes the sixth, seventh, and
eighth tricks with the king, queen, and knave of diamonds, respectively.
Everything now depends on the last trick, since Belinda and the baron
each have taken four. The baron leads the ace of hearts and Belinda
takes it with the king, thus escaping "codille" and winning the stake.
'30 the sacred nine':
the nine Muses.
'54 one Plebeian card':
one of Belinda's opponents is now out of trumps and discards a low card
on her lead.
a term applied to the knave of clubs which was always the highest card
in Lu, another popular game of that day.
'74 the globe':
the jeweled ball which forms one of the regalia of a monarch. The aspect
of playing cards has changed not a little since Pope's day, but the
globe is still to be seen on the king of clubs.
'79 Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts':
these are the losing cards played by Belinda and the third player on the
baron's winning diamonds.
Pope's old enemy, Dennis, objected to the impropriety of Belinda's
filling the sky with exulting shouts, and some modern critics have been
foolish enough to echo his objection. The whole scene is a masterpiece
of the mock-heroic. The game is a battle, the cards are warriors, and
Belinda's exclamations of pleasure at winning are in the same fashion
magnified into the cheers of a victorious army.
'100 long canals':
the canals which run through the splendid gardens of Hampton Court, laid
out by William III in the Dutch fashion.
'106 The berries crackle':
it would seem from this phrase that coffee was at that time roasted as
well as ground in the drawing-room. In a letter written shortly after
the date of this poem Pope describes Swift as roasting coffee "with his
own hands in an engine made for that purpose."
Coffee had been introduced into England about the middle of the
seventeenth century. In 1657 a barber who had opened one of the first
coffeehouses in London was indicted for "making and selling a sort of
liquor called coffee, as a great nuisance and prejudice of the
neighborhood." In Pope's time there were nearly three thousand
coffee-houses in London.
'107 Altars of Japan':
japanned stands for the lamps.
The parenthesis in these lines contains a hit at the would-be omniscient
politicians who haunted the coffee-houses of Queen Anne's day, and who
professed their ability to see through all problems of state with their
eyes half-shut. Pope jestingly attributes their wisdom to the inspiring
power of coffee.
the daughter of King Nisus in Grecian legends. Nisus had a purple hair
and so long as it was untouched he was unconquerable. Scylla fell in
love with one of his enemies and pulled out the hair while Nisus slept.
For this crime she was turned into a bird. The story is told in full in
Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', Bk. VIII.
it does not appear that Pope had any individual lady in mind. We do not
know, at least, that any lady instigated or aided Lord Petre to cut off
'144 An earthly Lover':
we know nothing of any love affair of Miss Fermor's. Pope mentions the
"earthly lover" here to account for Ariel's desertion of Belinda, for he
could only protect her so long as she "rejected mankind"; compare Canto
I, ll. 67-68.
a Latin word meaning scissors.
Pope borrowed this idea from Milton, who represents the wound inflicted
on Satan, by the Archangel Michael as healing immediately--
Th' ethereal substance closed
Not long divisible.
--'Paradise Lost', VI, 330-331.
'165 Atalantis': 'The New Atalantis',
a four-volume "cornucopia of scandal" involving almost every public
character of the day, was published by a Mrs. Manley in 1709. It was
very widely read. The Spectator found it, along with a key which
revealed the identities of its characters, in the lady's library already
mentioned ('Spectator', No. 37).
'166 the small pillow':
a richly decorated pillow which fashionable ladies used to prop them up
in bed when they received morning visits from gentlemen. Addison gives
an account of such a visit in the 'Spectator', No. 45.
'167 solemn days':
days of marriage or mourning, on which at this time formal calls were
'173 the labour of the gods':
the walls of Troy built by Apollo and Neptune for King Laomedon.
a fanciful name for any fashionable lady. No individual is meant.
a loose upper garment for women.
the word is used here as a personification of melancholy, or low
spirits. It was not an uncommon affectation in England at this time. A
letter to the 'Spectator', No. 53, calls it "the distemper of the great
and the polite."
'17 the Gnome':
Umbriel, who in accordance with his nature now proceeds to stir up
trouble. Compare Canto I, ll. 63-64.
The bitter east wind which put every one into a bad humor was supposed
to be one of the main causes of the spleen.
the goddess of the spleen. Compare l. 79.
a large supply.
the modern dressing-gown. The line means that whenever a fashionable
beauty bought a new dressing-gown she pretended to be ill in order to
show her new possession to sympathetic friends who called on her.
these are the visions, dreadful or delightful, of the disordered
imagination produced by spleen.
'43 snakes on rolling spires':
like the serpent which Milton describes in 'Paradise Lost', IX, 501-502,
"erect amidst his circling spires."
'46 angels in machines':
angels coming to help their votaries. The word "machine" here has an
old-fashioned technical sense. It was first used to describe the
apparatus by which a god was let down upon the stage of the Greek
theater. Since a god was only introduced at a critical moment to help
the distressed hero, the phrase, "deus ex machina," came to mean a god
who rendered aid. Pope transfers it here to angels.
Pope now describes the mad fancies of people so affected by spleen as to
imagine themselves transformed to inanimate objects.
a little jar. Homer ('Iliad', XVIII, 373-377) tells how Vulcan had made
twenty wonderful tripods on living wheels that moved from place to place
of their own accord.
Pope in a note to this poem says that a lady of his time actually
imagined herself to be a goose-pie.
'56 A branch':
so Æneas bore a magic branch to protect him when he descended to the
infernal regions ('Æneid', VI, 136-143).
a sort of fern which was once supposed to be a remedy against the spleen.
'58 the sex':
a form of spleen to which women were supposed to be peculiarly liable,
something like our modern hysteria. It seems to have taken its name from
the fogs of England which were thought to cause it.
'65 a nymph':
Belinda, who had always been so light-hearted that she had never been a
victim of the spleen.
a liqueur made by distilling brandy with the rind of citrons. It was a
fashionable drink for ladies at this time.
Made men suspicious of their wives.
Homer ('Odyssey', X, 1-25) tells how Æolus, the god of the winds, gave
Ulysses a wallet of oxhide in which all the winds that might oppose his
journey homeward were closely bound up.
the name of a warlike queen of the Amazons. Pope uses it here for a
friend of Belinda's, who excites her to revenge herself for the rape of
her lock. It is said that this friend was a certain Mrs. Morley.
'102 loads of lead':
curl papers used to be fastened with strips of lead.
a slang term in Pope's day for a reigning beauty whose health was
regularly drunk by her admirers. Steele ('Tatler', No. 24) says that the
term had its rise from an accident that happened at Bath in the reign of
Charles II. A famous beauty was bathing there in public, and one of her
admirers filled a glass with the water in which she stood and drank her
"There was in the place," says Steele "a gay fellow, half-fuddled, who
offered to jump in, and swore though he liked not the liquor, he would
have the Toast. He was opposed in his resolution; yet this whim gave
foundation to the present honor which is done to the lady we mention
in our liquors, who has ever since been called a TOAST."
To understand the point of the story one must know that it was an old
custom to put a bit of toast in hot drinks.
In this line in the poem Thalestris insinuates that if Belinda submits
tamely to the rape of the lock, her position as a toast will be
Thalestris supposes that the baron will have the lock set in a ring
under a bit of crystal. Old-fashioned hair-rings of this kind are still
to be seen.
'117 Hyde-park Circus':
the Ring of Canto I, l. 44. Grass was not likely to grow there so long
as it remained the fashionable place to drive.
'118 in the sound of Bow':
within hearing of the bells of the church of St. Mary le Bow in
Cheapside. So far back as Ben Jonson's time (Eastward Ho, I, ii, 36) it
was the mark of the unfashionable middle-class citizen to live in this
quarter. A "wit" in Queen Anne's day would have scorned to lodge there.
'121 Sir Plume':
this was Sir George Brown, brother of Mrs. Morley (Thalestris). He was
not unnaturally offended at the picture drawn of him in this poem. Pope
told a friend many years later that
"nobody was angry but Sir George Brown, and he was a good deal so, and
for a long time. He could not bear that Sir Plume should talk nothing
'124 a clouded cane':
a cane of polished wood with cloudlike markings. In the 'Tatler', Mr.
Bickerstaff sits in judgment on canes, and takes away a cane, "curiously
clouded, with a transparent amber head, and a blue ribband to hang upon
his wrist," from a young gentleman as a piece of idle foppery. There are
some amusing remarks on the "conduct" of canes in the same essay.
The baron's oath is a parody of the oath of Achilles ('Iliad', I, 234).
The breaking of the bottle of sorrows, etc., is the cause of Belinda's
change of mood from wrath as in l. 93 to tears, 143-144.
'155 the gilt Chariot':
the painted and gilded coach in which ladies took the air in London.
tea, the name comes from a range of hills in China where a certain kind
of tea was grown.
'162 the patch-box:'
the box which held the little bits of black sticking-plaster with which
ladies used to adorn their faces. According to Addison ('Spectator', No.
81), ladies even went so far in this fad as to patch on one side of the
face or the other, according to their politics.
'5 the Trojan:'
Æneas, who left Carthage in spite of the wrath of Dido and the
entreaties of her sister Anna.
Pope inserted these lines in a late revision in 1717, in order, as he
said, to open more clearly the moral of the poem. The speech of Clarissa
is a parody of a famous speech by Sarpedon in the 'Iliad', XII, 310-328.
At this time the gentlemen always sat in the side boxes of the theater;
the ladies in the front boxes.
As vaccination had not yet been introduced, small-pox was at this time a
terribly dreaded scourge.
In the 'Spectator', No. 23, there is inserted a mock advertisement,
professing to teach the whole art of ogling, the church ogle, the
playhouse ogle, a flying ogle fit for the ring, etc.
Painting the face was a common practice of the belles of this time. 'The
Spectator', No. 41, contains a bitter attack on the painted ladies whom
it calls the "Picts."
a fierce, masculine woman, here used for Thalestris.
In the 'Iliad' (Bk. XX) the gods are represented as taking sides for the
Greeks and Trojans and fighting among themselves. Pallas opposes Ares,
or Mars; and Hermes, Latona.
the hill on whose summit the gods were supposed to dwell, often used for
used here for the sea over which Neptune presided.
'53 a sconce's height:'
the top of an ornamental bracket for holding candles.
Explain the metaphor in this line.
The quotation is from a song in an opera called 'Camilla'.
The Mæander is a river in Asia Minor. Ovid ('Heroides', VII, 1-2)
represents the swan as singing his death-song on its banks.
Chloe: a fanciful name. No real person is meant.
The figure of Jove weighing the issue of a battle in his scales is found
in the 'Iliad', VIII, 69-73. Milton imitated it in 'Paradise Lost', IX,
996-1004. When the men's wits mounted it showed that they were lighter,
less important, than the lady's hair, and so were destined to lose the
This pedigree of Belinda's bodkin is a parody of Homer's account of
Agamemnon's scepter ('Iliad', II, 100-108).
In Shakespeare's play Othello fiercely demands to see a handkerchief
which he has given his wife, and takes her inability to show it to him
as a proof of her infidelity.
the lunar sphere: it was an old superstition that everything lost on
earth went to the moon. An Italian poet, Ariosto, uses this notion in a
poem with which Pope was familiar ('Orlando Furioso', Canto XXXIV), and
from which he borrowed some of his ideas for the cave of Spleen.
Why does Pope include "tomes of casuistry" in this collection?
There was a legend that Romulus never died, but had been caught up to
the skies in a storm. Proculus, a Roman senator, said that Romulus had
descended from heaven and spoken to him and then ascended again (Livy,
'129' Berenice's Locks:
Berenice was an Egyptian queen who dedicated a lock of hair for her
husband's safe return from war. It was said afterward to have become a
constellation, and a Greek poet wrote some verses on the marvel.
Why were the Sylphs pleased?
'133' the Mall:
the upper side of St. James's park in London, a favorite place at this
time for promenades.
'136' Rosamonda's lake:
a pond near one of the gates of St. James's park, a favorite rendezvous
an almanac maker of Pope's day who was given to prophesying future
events. Shortly before this poem was written Swift had issued a mock
almanac foretelling that Partridge would die on a certain day. When that
day came Swift got out a pamphlet giving a full account of Partridge's
death. In spite of the poor man's protests, Swift and his friends kept
on insisting that he was dead. He was still living, however, when Pope
wrote this poem. Why does Pope call him "th' egregious wizard"?
'138' Galileo's eyes:
the telescope, first used by the Italian astronomer Galileo.
'140' Louis XIV of France,
the great enemy of England at this time
here used to denote the Roman Catholic Church.
'143 the shining sphere:'
an allusion to the old notion that all the stars were set in one sphere
in the sky. Belinda's lost lock, now a star, is said to add a new light
to this sphere.
147 What are the "fair suns"?
* * * * *
AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM
The 'Essay on Criticism' was the first really important work that Pope
gave to the world. He had been composing verses from early boyhood, and
had actually published a set of 'Pastorals' which had attracted some
attention. He was already known to the literary set of London
coffeehouses as a young man of keen wit and high promise, but to the
reading public at large he was as yet an unknown quantity. With the
appearance of the 'Essay', Pope not only sprang at once into the full
light of publicity, but seized almost undisputed that position as the
first of living English poets which he was to retain unchallenged till
his death. Even after his death down to the Romantic revival, in fact,
Pope's supremacy was an article of critical faith, and this supremacy
was in no small measure founded upon the acknowledged merits of the
'Essay on Criticism.' Johnson, the last great representative of Pope's
own school of thought in matters literary, held that the poet had never
excelled this early work and gave it as his deliberate opinion that if
Pope had written nothing else, the 'Essay' would have placed him among
the first poets and the first critics. The 'Essay on Criticism' is
hardly an epoch-making poem, but it certainly "made" Alexander Pope.
The poem was published anonymously in the spring of 1711, when Pope was
twenty-three years old. There has been considerable dispute as to the
date of its composition; but the facts seem to be that it was begun in
1707 and finished in 1709 when Pope had it printed, not for publication,
but for purposes of further correction. As it stands, therefore, it
represents a work planned at the close of Pope's precocious youth, and
executed and polished in the first flush of his manhood. And it is quite
fair to say that considering the age of its author the 'Essay on
Criticism' is one of the most remarkable works in English.
Not that there is anything particularly original about the 'Essay.' On
the contrary, it is one of the most conventional of all Pope's works. It
has nothing of the lively fancy of 'The Rape of the Lock', little or
nothing of the personal note which stamps the later satires and epistles
as so peculiarly Pope's own. Apart from its brilliant epigrammatic
expression the 'Essay on Criticism' might have been written by almost
any man of letters in Queen Anne's day who took the trouble to think a
little about the laws of literature, and who thought about those laws
strictly in accordance with the accepted conventions of his time. Pope
is not in the least to be blamed for this lack of originality. Profound
original criticism is perhaps the very last thing to be expected of a
brilliant boy, and Pope was little more when he planned this work. But
boy as he was, he had already accomplished an immense amount of
desultory reading, not only in literature proper, but in literary
criticism as well. He told Spence in later years that in his youth he
had gone through all the best critics, naming especially Quintilian,
Rapin, and Bossu. A mere cursory reading of the Essay shows that he had
also studied Horace, Vida, and Boileau. Before he began to write he had,
so he told Spence, "digested all the matter of the poem into prose." In
other words, then, the 'Essay on Criticism' is at once the result of
Pope's early studies, the embodiment of the received literary doctrines
of his age, and, as a consecutive study of his poems shows, the
programme in accordance with which, making due allowance for certain
exceptions and inconsistencies, he evolved the main body of his work.
It would, however, be a mistake to treat, as did Pope's first editor,
the 'Essay on Criticism' as a methodical, elaborate, and systematic
treatise. Pope, indeed, was flattered to have a scholar of such
recognized authority as Warburton to interpret his works, and permitted
him to print a commentary upon the 'Essay', which is quite as long and
infinitely duller than the original. But the true nature of the poem is
indicated by its title. It is not an 'Art of Poetry' such as Boileau
composed, but an 'Essay'. And by the word "essay," Pope meant exactly
what Bacon did,--a tentative sketch, a series of detached thoughts upon
a subject, not a complete study or a methodical treatise. All that we
know of Pope's method of study, habit of thought, and practice of
composition goes to support this opinion. He read widely but
desultorily; thought swiftly and brilliantly, but illogically and
inconsistently; and composed in minute sections, on the backs of letters
and scraps of waste paper, fragments which he afterward united, rather
than blended, to make a complete poem, a mosaic, rather than a picture.
Yet the 'Essay' is by no means the "collection of independent maxims
tied together by the printer, but having no natural order," which De
Quincey pronounced it to be. It falls naturally into three parts. The
first deals with the rules derived by classic critics from the practice
of great poets, and ever since of binding force both in the composition
and in the criticism of poetry. The second analyzes with admirable
sagacity the causes of faulty criticism as pride, imperfect learning,
prejudice, and so on. The third part discusses the qualities which a
true critic should possess, good taste, learning, modesty, frankness,
and tact, and concludes with a brief sketch of the history of criticism
from Aristotle to Walsh. This is the general outline of the poem,
sufficient, I think, to show that it is not a mere bundle of poetic
formulae. But within these broad limits the thought of the poem wanders
freely, and is quite rambling, inconsistent, and illogical enough to
show that Pope is not formulating an exact and definitely determined
system of thought.
Such indeed was, I fancy, hardly his purpose. It was rather to give
clear, vivid, and convincing expression to certain ideas which were at
that time generally accepted as orthodox in the realm of literary
criticism. No better expression of these ideas can be found anywhere
than in the 'Essay' itself, but a brief statement in simple prose of
some of the most important may serve as a guide to the young student of
In the first place, the ultimate source alike of poetry and criticism is
a certain intuitive faculty, common to all men, though more highly
developed in some than others, called Reason, or, sometimes, Good Sense.
The first rule for the budding poet or critic is "Follow Nature." This,
by the way, sounds rather modern, and might be accepted by any romantic
poet. But by "Nature" was meant not at all the natural impulses of the
individual, but those rules founded upon the natural and common reason
of mankind which the ancient critics had extracted and codified from the
practice of the ancient poets. Pope says explicitly "to follow nature is
to follow them;" and he praises Virgil for turning aside from his own
original conceptions to imitate Homer, for:
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
Certain exceptions to these rules were, indeed, allowable,--severer
critics than Pope, by the way, absolutely denied this,--but only to the
ancient poets. The moderns must not dare to make use of them, or at the
very best moderns must only venture upon such exceptions to the rules as
classic precedents would justify. Inasmuch as all these rules were
discovered and illustrated in ancient times, it followed logically that
the great breach with antiquity, which is called the Middle Ages, was a
period of hopeless and unredeemed barbarism, incapable of bringing forth
any good thing. The light of literature began to dawn again with the
revival of learning at the Renaissance, but the great poets of the
Renaissance, Spenser and Shakespeare, for example, were "irregular,"
that is, they trusted too much to their individual powers and did not
accept with sufficient humility the orthodox rules of poetry. This
dogma, by the way, is hardly touched upon in the 'Essay', but is
elaborated with great emphasis in Pope's later utterance on the
principles of literature, the well-known 'Epistle to Augustus'. Finally
with the establishment of the reign of Reason in France under Louis XIV,
and in England a little later, the full day had come, and literary sins
of omission and commission that might be winked at in such an untutored
genius as Shakespeare were now unpardonable. This last dogma explains
the fact that in the brief sketch of the history of criticism which
concludes the 'Essay', Pope does not condescend to name an English poet
or critic prior to the reign of Charles II.
It would be beside the purpose to discuss these ideas to-day or to
attempt an elaborate refutation of their claims to acceptance. Time has
done its work upon them, and the literary creed of the wits of Queen
Anne's day is as antiquated as their periwigs and knee-breeches. Except
for purposes of historical investigation it is quite absurd to take the
'Essay on Criticism' seriously.
And yet it has even for us of to-day a real value. Our age absolutely
lacks a standard of literary criticism; and of all standards the one
least likely to be accepted is that of Pope and his fellow-believers.
Individual taste reigns supreme in this democratic age, and one man's
judgment is as good as, perhaps a little better than, another's. But
even this democratic and individual age may profit by turning back for a
time to consider some of the general truths, as valid to-day as ever, to
which Pope gave such inimitable expression, or to study the outlines of
that noble picture of the true critic which St. Beuve declared every
professed critic should frame and hang up in his study. An age which
seems at times upon the point of throwing classical studies overboard as
useless lumber might do far worse than listen to the eloquent tribute
which the poet pays to the great writers of antiquity. And finally
nothing could be more salutary for an age in which literature itself has
caught something of the taint of the prevailing commercialism than to
bathe itself again in that spirit of sincere and disinterested love of
letters which breathes throughout the 'Essay' and which, in spite of all
his errors, and jealousies, and petty vices, was the master-passion of
the word has here its original meaning of "judge," not its modern "judge
severely" or "blame."
Because each foolish poem provokes a host of foolish commentators and
This assertion that only a good writer can be a fair critic is not to be
accepted without reservation.
The word "wit" has a number of different meanings in this poem, and the
student should be careful to discriminate between them. It means
1) mind, intellect, l. 61;
2) learning, culture, l 727;
3) imagination, genius, l. 82;
4) the power to discover amusing analogies, or the apt expression of
such an analogy, ll. 449, 297;
5) a man possessed of wit in its various significations, l. 45;
this last form usually occurs in the plural, ll. 104, 539.
'26 the maze of schools:'
the labyrinth of conflicting systems of thought, especially of criticism.
'21 coxcombs ... fools:'
what is the difference in meaning between these words in this passage?
In this couplet Pope hits off the spiteful envy of conceited critics
toward successful writers. If the critic can write himself, he hates the
author as a rival; if he cannot, he entertains against him the deep
grudge an incapable man so often cherishes toward an effective worker.
a poetaster whose name has been handed down by Virgil and Horace. His
name, like that of his associate, Bavius, has become a by-word for a
here thought of as the god of poetry. The true poet was inspired by
Apollo; but a poetaster like Mævius wrote without inspiration, as it
were, in spite of the god.
Pope here compares "half-learned" critics to the animals which old
writers reported were bred from the Nile mud. In 'Antony and Cleopatra',
for example, Lepidus says, "Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your
mud by the operation of your sun; so is your crocodile." Pope thinks of
these animals as in the unformed stage, part "kindled into life, part a
lump of mud." So these critics are unfinished things for which no proper
name can be found. "Equivocal generation" is the old term used to denote
spontaneous generation of this sort. Pope applies it here to critics
without proper training who spring spontaneously from the mire of
The idea is that a vain wit's tongue could out-talk a hundred ordinary
'53 pretending wit:'
presuming, or ambitious mind.
'56-58 memory ... understanding imagination.'
This is the old threefold division of the human mind. Pope means that
where one of these faculties is above the average in any individual,
another of them is sure to fall below. Is this always the case?
'63 peculiar arts:'
special branches of knowledge.
In what sense can nature be called the source, the end, and the test of
'76 th' informing soul:'
the soul which not only dwells in, but animates
and molds the body.
What two meanings are attached to "wit" in this couplet?
'84 'Tis more:'
it is more important.
'the Muse's steed:'
Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, was supposed to be the
horse of the Muses and came to be considered a symbol of poetic genius.
What is the difference between "discovered" and "devised"?
'94 Parnassus' top:'
the Muses were supposed to dwell on the top of Parnassus, a mountain in
Greece. Great poets are here thought of as having climbed the mountain
to dwell with the Muses.
What is (cf. text) "the immortal prize"?
i.e. learned Greece, especially Greek criticism, which obtained the
rules of poetry from the practice of great poets, and, as it were,
systematized their inspiration.
'104 following wits':
What is meant by "the mistress" and "the maid" in this line?
'109 Doctor's bills:'
These are the prosy commentators on great poets, whose dreary notes
often disgust readers with the original.
What is the difference between "cavil" and "criticise"?
'129 the Mantuan Muse:'
the poetry of Virgil, which Pope thinks the best commentary on Homer. In
what sense is this to be understood?
Virgil, whose full name was Publius Vergilius Maro, Pope here praises
Virgil's well-known imitation of Homer. Since "nature and Homer were the
same," a young poet like Virgil could do nothing better than copy Homer.
'138 the Stagirite:'
Aristotle, a native of Stagyra, was the first and one of the greatest of
literary critics. His "rules" were drawn from the practice of great
poets, and so, according to Pope, to imitate Homer was to obey the
There are some beauties in poetry which cannot be explained by criticism.
used here to express the peculiar charm of spontaneous poetic expression
as contrasted with "care," 'i.e.' the art of revising and improving,
which can be taught.
'152 vulgar bounds:'
the limitations imposed upon ordinary writers.
'157 out of ... rise:'
surpass the ordinary scenes of nature.
'159 Great wits:'
poets of real genius.
here used in the sense of irregularities, exceptions to the rules of
poetry. When these are justified by the poet's genius, true critics do
not presume to correct them. In many editions this couplet comes after
l. 151. This was Pope's first arrangement, but he later shifted it to
its present position.
'162 As Kings:'
the Stuart kings claimed the right to "dispense with laws," that is, to
set them aside in special instances. In 1686 eleven out of twelve
English judges decided in a test case that "it is a privilege
inseparably connected with the sovereignty of the king to dispense with
penal laws, and that according to his own judgment." The English people
very naturally felt that such a privilege opened the door to absolute
monarchy, and after the fall of James II, Parliament declared in 1689
that "the pretended power of suspending of laws ... without the consent
of Parliament, is illegal."
'164 its End:'
the purpose of every law of poetry, namely, to please the reader. This
purpose must not be "transgressed," 'i.e.' forgotten by those who wish
to make exceptions to these laws.
'166 their precedent:'
the example of classic poets.
'179 stratagems ... error:'
things in the classic poets which to carping critics seem faults are
often clever devices to make a deeper impression on the reader.
'180 Homer nods:'
Horace in his 'Art of Poetry' used this figure to imply that even the
greatest poet sometimes made mistakes. Pope very neatly suggests that it
may be the critic rather than the poet who is asleep.
'181 each ancient Altar:'
used here to denote the works of the great classic writers. The whole
passage down to l. 200 is a noble outburst of enthusiasm for the poets
whom Pope had read so eagerly in early youth.
'186 consenting Pæans:'
unanimous hymns of praise.
'194 must ... found:'
are not destined to be discovered till some future time.
Who is "the last, the meanest of your sons"?
mental bent, or inclination.
This line is based upon physiological theories which are now obsolete.
According to these wind or air supplied the lack of blood or of animal
spirits in imperfectly constituted bodies. To such bodies Pope compares
those ill-regulated minds where a deficiency of learning and natural
ability is supplied by self-conceit.
'216' The Pierian spring:
the spring of the Muses, who were called Pierides in Greek mythology. It
is used here as a symbol for learning, particularly for the study of
'222' the lengths behind:
the great spaces of learning that lie behind the first objects of our
This fine simile is one of the best expressions in English verse of the
modesty of the true scholar, due to his realization of the boundless
extent of knowledge. It was such a feeling that led Sir Isaac Newton to
say after all his wonderful discoveries,
"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to
have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself
in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than
ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all the time undiscovered
'244' peculiar parts:
'248 ev'n thine, O Rome:'
there are so many splendid churches in Rome that an inhabitant of this
city would be less inclined than a stranger to wonder at the perfect
proportions of any of them. But there are two, at least, the Pantheon
and St. Peter's, which might justly evoke the admiration even of a
Roman. It was probably of one of these that Pope was thinking.
What is the difference between "principles" and "notions" in this line?
'265 La Mancha's Knight:'
Don Quixote. The anecdote that follows is not taken from Cervantes'
novel, but from a continuation of it by an author calling himself
Avellanada. The story is that Don Quixote once fell in with a scholar
who had written a play about a persecuted queen of Bohemia. Her
innocence in the original story was established by a combat in the
lists, but this the poet proposed to omit as contrary to the rules of
Aristotle. The Don, although professing great respect for Aristotle,
insisted that the combat was the best part of the story and must be
acted, even if a special theater had to be built for the purpose, or the
play given in the open fields. Pope quotes this anecdote to show how
some critics in spite of their professed acceptance of general rules are
so prejudiced in favor of a minor point as to judge a whole work of art
from one standpoint only.
John Dennis, a playwright and critic of Pope's time. Pope and he were
engaged in frequent quarrels, but this first reference to him in Pope's
works is distinctly complimentary. The line probably refers to some
remarks by Dennis on the Grecian stage in his 'Impartial Critic', a
pamphlet published in 1693.
discriminating; in l. 286 the meaning is "over-scrupulous, finicky."
according to the laws of dramatic composition generally accepted in
Pope's day, a play must observe the unities of subject, place, and time.
That is, it must have one main theme, not a number of diverse stories,
for its plot; all the scenes must be laid in one place, or as nearly so
as possible; and the action must be begun and finished within the space
of twenty-four hours.
'288 by a love to parts:'
by too diligent attention to particular parts of a work of art, which
hinders them from forming a true judgment of the work as a whole.
an uncommon or fantastic expression of thought. "Conceits" had been much
sought after by the poets who wrote in the first half of the seventeenth
'297 True Wit:'
here opposed to the "conceit" of which Pope has been speaking. It is
defined as a natural idea expressed in fit words.
'299 whose truth ... find:'
of whose truth we find ourselves at once convinced.
'308 take upon content:'
take for granted.
Show how Pope uses the simile of the "prismatic glass" to distinguish
between "false eloquence" and "true expression."
a character in Ben Jonson's 'Every Man out of his Humour'. He is the son
of a miserly farmer, and tries hard, though all in vain, to imitate the
dress and manners of a fine gentleman.
'329 These sparks:'
these would-be dandies.
'341 haunt Parnassus:
read poetry.--ear:' note that in Pope's day this word rhymed with
"repair" and "there."
critics who care for the meter only in poetry insist on the proper
number of syllables in a line, no matter what sort of sound or sense
results. For instance, they do not object to a series of "open vowels,"
'i.e.' hiatuses caused by the juxtaposition of such words as "tho" and
"oft," "the" and "ear." Line 345 is composed especially to show how
feeble a rhythm results from such a succession of "open vowels." They do
not object to bolstering up a line with "expletives," such as "do" in l.
346, nor to using ten "low words," 'i.e.' short, monosyllabic words to
make up a line.
With this line Pope passes unconsciously from speaking of bad critics to
denouncing some of the errors of bad poets, who keep on using hackneyed
phrases and worn-out metrical devices.
a line of six iambic feet, such as l. 357, written especially to
illustrate this form. Why does Pope use the adjective "needless" here?
'361 Denham's strength ... Waller's sweetness:'
Waller and Denham were poets of the century before Pope; they are almost
forgotten to-day, but were extravagantly admired in his time. Waller
began and Denham continued the fashion of writing in "closed" heroic
couplets, 'i.e.' in verses where the sense is for the most part
contained within one couplet and does not run over into the next as had
been the fashion in earlier verse. Dryden said that "the excellence and
dignity of rhyme were never fully known till Mr. Waller taught it," and
the same critic spoke of Denham's poetry as "majestic and correct."
one of the heroes of the 'Iliad'. He is represented more than once as
hurling huge stones at his enemies. Note that Pope has endeavored in
this and the following line to convey the sense of effort and struggle.
What means does he employ? Do you think he succeeds?
a heroine who appears in the latter part of the 'Æneid' fighting against
the Trojan invaders of Italy. Virgil says that she was so swift of foot
that she might have run over a field of wheat without breaking the
stalks, or across the sea without wetting her feet. Pope attempts in l.
373 to reproduce in the sound and movement of his verse the sense of
a Greek poet and singer who was said to have played and sung before
Alexander the Great. The reference in this passage is to Dryden's famous
poem, 'Alexander's Feast'.
'376 the son of Libyan Jove:'
Alexander the Great, who boasted that he was the son of Jupiter. The
famous oracle of Jupiter Ammon situated in the Libyan desert was visited
by Alexander, who was said to have learned there the secret of his
this fine compliment is paid to a poet whom Pope was proud to
acknowledge as his master. "I learned versification wholly from Dryden's
works," he once said. Pope's admiration for Dryden dated from early
youth, and while still a boy he induced a friend to take him to see the
old poet in his favorite coffee-house.
not used in our modern sense, but in its original meaning, "to wonder
at." According to Pope, it is only fools who are lost in wonder at the
beauties of a poem; wise men "approve," 'i.e.' test and pronounce them
Pope acknowledged that in these lines he was alluding to the
uncharitable belief of his fellow-Catholics that all outside the fold of
the Catholic church were sure to be damned.
'415 joins with Quality:'
takes sides with "the quality," 'i.e.' people of rank.
Are so clever that they refuse to accept the common and true belief, and
so forfeit their salvation.
the reference is to a mediaeval treatise on Theology, by Peter Lombard,
called the 'Book of Sentences'. It was long used as a university
'444 Scotists and Thomists:'
mediaeval scholars, followers respectively of Duns Scotus and Thomas
Aquinas. A long dispute raged between their disciples. In this couplet
Pope points out that the dispute is now forgotten, and the books of the
old disputants lie covered with cobwebs in Duck-lane, a street in London
where second-hand books were sold in Pope's day. He calls the cobwebs
"kindred," because the arguments of Thomists and Scotists were as fine
spun as a spider's web.
"The latest fashionable folly is the test, or the proof, of a quick,
up-to-date wit." In other words, to be generally accepted an author must
accept the current fashion, foolish though it may be.
This was especially true in Pope's day when literature was so closely
connected with politics that an author's work was praised or blamed not
upon its merits, but according to his, and the critic's, politics.
'459 Parsons, Critics, Beaus':
Dryden, the head of English letters in the generation before Pope, had
been bitterly assailed on various charges by parsons, like Jeremy
Collier, critics like Milbourn, and fine gentlemen like the Duke of
Buckingham. But his works remained when the jests that were made against
them were forgotten.
Sir Richard Blackmore, a famous doctor in Dryden's day, was also a very
dull and voluminous writer. He attacked Dryden in a poem called 'A
Satire against Wit'. Luke Milbourn was a clergyman of the same period,
who abused Dryden's translation of Virgil.
a Greek critic who attacked Homer.
The English language and the public taste had changed very rapidly
during the century preceding Pope. He imagined that these changes would
continue so that no poet's reputation would last longer than a man's
life, "bare threescore," and Dryden's poetry would come to be as hard to
understand and as little read as Chaucer's at that time. It is worth
noting that both Dryden and Pope rewrote parts of Chaucer in modern
Explain why "wit" is feared by wicked men and shunned by the virtuous,
hated by fools, and "undone" or ruined by knaves.
accursed, like the Latin 'sacer'.
'534 the fat age':
the reign of Charles II, as ll. 536-537 show, when literature became
'538 Jilts ... statesmen':
loose women like Lady Castlemaine and the Duchess of Portsmouth had
great influence on the politics of Charles II's time, and statesmen of
that day like Buckingham and Etheredge wrote comedies.
it was not uncommon in Restoration times for ladies to wear a mask in
public, especially at the theater. Here the word is used to denote the
woman who wore a mask.
'544 a Foreign reign':
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