Critical Essay Poem

This week's choice is an extract from Part Three of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism. The whole poem runs to 744 lines, but that shouldn't put you off! It's as readable as it was 300 years ago, and highly pertinent to many burning literary issues – writers' prizes and who judges them, for instance. Pope wrote it in 1709, the year his first work, four pastorals, appeared in print. He was barely 21. When it was published in 1711 it earned the young poet immediate acclaim.

Typically, Pope undertook the work in a competitive spirit. He was an ambitious, driven writer, largely self- and home-educated because of a painful spinal deformation, and because the repressive legislation against Catholics at the time denied him access to a university.

It was Nicholas Boileau's treatise, L'Art Poétique, which fired Pope to produce his own study of literary-critical principles. Like Boileau, he champions neoclassicism and its governing aesthetic of nature as the proper model for art. His pantheon of classical writers, the "happy few," as he calls them, includes Quintilian, Longinus and, most importantly, Horace.

Pope's ideals may be recycled, but there's no doubting his passionate belief in them. Deployed in his sparkling heroic couplets, the arguments and summaries are alive with wit, verbal agility and good sense. From his neoclassical scaffolding, he looks outwards to the literary marketplace of his own age. It was a noisy time, and sometimes the reader seems to hear the buzz of the coffee house, the banter, gossip and argument of the writers and booksellers, the jangle of carts and carriages.

Pope's wit is famously caustic, so it's surprising how often the essayist advocates charity and humility. In the chosen section, he begins by advising restraint in criticising dull and incompetent poets. His tongue is in his cheek, as it turns out: "For who can rail as long as they can write?" Although he takes the view that bad critics are more culpable than bad poets, Pope enjoys a sustained dig at the poet-bores who go on and on and on. The metaphor of the spinning-top implies that a whipping will simply keep them going. Tops "sleep" when they move so fast their movement is invisible – hence the faded cliché "to sleep like a tops". The metaphor shifts to "jades" – old horses urged to recover after a stumble and run on, as these desperate poets "run on", their sounds and syllables like the jingling reigns, their words "dull droppings".

From the "shameless bards" in their frenzy of forced inspiration, Pope turns his attention to the critics, and, with nice comic effect, tars them with the same brush. "There are as mad, abandoned critics too." The "blockhead" he conjures reads everything and blindly attacks everything, "From Dryden's fables down to Durfey's tales." Durfey is placed pointedly at the bottom of the pile. He was generally considered an inferior poet, although Pope's friend Addison had time for him. Samuel Garth, on the other hand, was well-regarded, by Pope and many others, for a poem, The Dispensary, denouncing apothecaries and their cohort physicians. There was a rumour current that Garth was not its real author.

Sychophancy is one of the Essay's prime targets. Pope's rhetoric rises to a pitch as he castigates the hypocrisy of the "fops" who always praise the latest play, and the loquacious ignorance of the preferment-seeking clergy. St Paul's Churchyard, the corrupt precinct of the booksellers, may be full of bores and fools, but there's no safer sanctuary at the cathedral's altar.

The Essay is rich in epigrams, still widely quoted. "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread" is among the best known and most borrowed (by Frank Sinatra, among others). Briefly allegorising, Pope goes on to contrast cautious "sense" and impetuous "nonsense", again evoking the rowdy traffic of 18th-century London with the onomatopoeic "rattling".

The flow has been angrily headlong: now, the pace becomes slower, the argument more rational. Antithesis implies balance, and the syntax itself enacts the critical virtues. Where, Pope asks, can you find the paradigm of wise judgement? It's not a rhetorical question. The poem goes on to provide the answer, enumerating the classical models, having a little chauvinistic nip at the rule-bound Boileau, and happily discovering two worthy inheritors of the critical Golden Age, Roscommon and Walsh.

Readers and writers today can't, of course, share Pope's certainties of taste. But we can apply some of his principles, the most important of which is, perhaps, that principles are necessary. And we might even take some tips from writers of the past.

From "An Essay on Criticism," Part Three

'Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
And charitably let the dull be vain:
Your silence there is better than your spite,
For who can rail so long as they can write?
Still humming on, their drowsy course they keep,
And lashed so long, like tops, are lashed asleep.
False steps but help them to renew the race,
As, after stumbling, jades will mend their pace.
What crowds of these, impenitently bold,
In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,
Still run on poets, in a raging vein,
Ev'n to the dregs and squeezings of the brain,
Strain out the last dull droppings of their sense,
And rhyme with all the rage of impotence.

  Such shameless bards we have, and yet 'tis true
There are as mad, abandoned critics too.
The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always listening to himself appears.
All books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden's fables down to Durfey's tales.
With him, most authors steal their works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new play, and he's the poet's friend,
Nay showed his faults – but when would poets mend?
No place so sacred from such fops is barred,
Nor is Paul's church more safe than Paul's church yard:
Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks,
It still looks home, and short excursions makes;
But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks.
And never shocked and never turned aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering tide.

  But where's the man who counsel can bestow,
Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiassed, or by favour, or by spite:
Not dully prepossessed, nor blindly right;
Though learned, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and humanly severe:
Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the merit of a foe?
Blessed with a taste exact, yet unconfined;
A knowledge both of books and human kind;
Generous converse; a soul exempt from pride;
And love to praise, with reason on his side?

The word "critical" has positive as well as negative meanings. You can write a critical essay that agrees entirely with the reading. The word "critical" describes your attitude when you read the article. This attitude is best described as "detached evaluation," meaning that you weigh the coherence of the reading, the completeness of its data, and so on, before you accept or reject it.

A critical essay or review begins with an analysis or exposition of the reading, article-by-article, book by book. Each analysis should include the following points:

1. A summary of the author's point of view, including
a brief statement of the author's main idea (i.e., thesis or theme)
an outline of the important "facts" and lines of reasoning the author used to support the main idea
a summary of the author's explicit or implied values
a presentation of the author's conclusion or suggestions for action
2. An evaluation of the author's work, including
an assessment of the "facts" presented on the basis of correctness, relevance, and whether or not pertinent facts were omitted
an evaluation or judgment of the logical consistency of the author's argument
an appraisal of the author's values in terms of how you feel or by an accepted standard

Once the analysis is completed, check your work! Ask yourself, "Have I read all the relevant (or assigned) material?" "Do I have complete citations?" If not, complete the work! The following steps are how this is done.

Now you can start to write the first draft of your expository essay/literature review. Outline the conflicting arguments, if any; this will be part of the body of your expository essay/literature review.

Ask yourself, "Are there other possible positions on this matter?" If so, briefly outline them. Decide on your own position (it may agree with one of the competing arguments) and state explicitly the reason(s) why you hold that position by outlining the consistent facts and showing the relative insignificance of contrary facts. Coherently state your position by integrating your evaluations of the works you read. This becomes your conclusions section.

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Briefly state your position, state why the problem you are working on is important, and indicate the important questions that need to be answered; this is your "Introduction." Push quickly through this draft--don't worry about spelling, don't search for exactly the right word, don't hassle yourself with grammar, don't worry overmuch about sequence--that's why this is called a "rough draft." Deal with these during your revisions. The point of a rough draft is to get your ideas on paper. Once they are there, you can deal with the superficial (though very important) problems.

Consider this while writing:

  • The critical essay is informative; it emphasizes the literary work being studied rather than the feelings and opinions of the person writing about the literary work; in this kind of writing, all claims made about the work need to be backed up with evidence.
  • The difference between feelings and facts is simple--it does not matter what you believe about a book or play or poem; what matters is what you can prove about it, drawing upon evidence found in the text itself, in biographies of the author, in critical discussions of the literary work, etc.
  • Criticism does not mean you have to attack the work or the author; it simply means you are thinking critically about it, exploring it and discussing your findings.
  • In many cases, you are teaching your audience something new about the text.
  • The literary essay usually employs a serious and objective tone. (Sometimes, depending on your audience, it is all right to use a lighter or even humorous tone, but this is not usually the case).
  • Use a "claims and evidence" approach. Be specific about the points you are making about the novel, play, poem, or essay you are discussing and back up those points with evidence that your audience will find credible and appropriate. If you want to say, "The War of the Worlds is a novel about how men and women react in the face of annihilation, and most of them do not behave in a particularly courageous or noble manner," say it, and then find evidence that supports your claim.
  • Using evidence from the text itself is often your best option. If you want to argue, "isolation drives Frankenstein's creature to become evil," back it up with events and speeches from the novel itself.
  • Another form of evidence you can rely on is criticism, what other writers have claimed about the work of literature you are examining. You may treat these critics as "expert witnesses," whose ideas provide support for claims you are making about the book. In most cases, you should not simply provide a summary of what critics have said about the literary work.
  • In fact, one starting point might be to look at what a critic has said about one book or poem or story and then a) ask if the same thing is true of another book or poem or story and 2) ask what it means that it is or is not true.
  • Do not try to do everything. Try to do one thing well. And beware of subjects that are too broad; focus your discussion on a particular aspect of a work rather than trying to say everything that could possibly be said about it.
  • Be sure your discussion is well organized. Each section should support the main idea. Each section should logically follow and lead into the sections that come before it and after it. Within each paragraph, sentences should be logically connected to one another.
  • Remember that in most cases you want to keep your tone serious and objective.
  • Be sure your essay is free of mechanical and stylistic errors.
  • If you quote or summarize (and you will probably have to do this) be sure you follow an appropriate format (MLA format is the most common one when examining literature) and be sure you provide a properly formatted list of works cited at the end of your essay.

It is easy to choose the topics for critical essay type. For example, you can choose a novel or a movie to discuss. It is important to choose the topic you are interested and familiar with. Here are the examples of popular critical essay topics:

  • The Politics of Obama
  • The Educational System of US
  • My Favorite Movie
  • Home Scholl
  • “The Match Point” by Woody Allen
  • Shakespeare “The Merchant of Venice”

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