Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From the ‘Essay on Criticism’
By Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
(See full text.)

’TIS hard to say if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But of the two, less dangerous is th’ offense
To tire our patience than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this;        5
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss.
A fool might once himself alone expose:
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
’Tis with our judgments as our watches,—none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.        10
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic’s share:
Both must alike from heaven derive their light,—
These born to judge as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,        15
And censure freely who have written well:
Authors are partial to their wit, ’tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?
  Yet if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind:        20
Nature affords at least a glimmering light;
The lines, though touched but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest sketch, if justly traced,
Is by ill coloring but the more disgraced,
So by false learning is good sense defaced:        25
Some are bewildered in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools;
In search of wit these lose their common-sense,
And then turn critics in their own defense;
Each burns alike, who can or cannot write,        30
Or with a rival’s or a eunuch’s spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo’s spite,
There are who judge still worse than he can write….        35
  Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride,—the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever nature has in worth denied        40
She gives in large recruits of needful pride.
For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
What wants in blood and spirits swelled with wind;
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defense,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense:        45
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day.
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of every friend—and every foe.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;        50
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,        55
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,        60
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labors of the lengthened way;        65
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
  A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ:
Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find        70
Where nature moves and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The generous pleasure to be charmed with wit.
But in such lays as neither ebb nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,        75
That shunning faults one quiet tenor keep,
We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep.
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th’ exactness of peculiar parts;
’Tis not a lip or eye we beauty call,        80
But the joint force and full result of all.
Thus when we view some well-proportioned dome,
(The world’s just wonder, and e’en thine, O Rome!)
No single parts unequally surprise,—
All comes united to th’ admiring eyes;        85
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length, appear:
The whole at once is bold and regular.
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
In every work regard the writer’s end,        90
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,
To avoid great errors must the less commit,—        95
Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays;
For not to know some trifles is a praise.
Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
Still make the whole depend upon a part;
They talk of principles, but notions prize,        100
And all to one loved folly sacrifice….
  Some to conceit alone their taste confine,
And glittering thoughts struck out at every line;
Pleased with a work where nothing’s just or fit,
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.        105
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,—        110
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit;        115
For works may have more wit than does them good,
As bodies perish through excess of blood.
  Others for language all their care express,
And value books, as women men, for dress:
Their praise is still, The style is excellent;        120
The sense they humbly take upon content.
Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colors spreads on every place;        125
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.        130
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable.
A vile conceit in pompous words expressed
Is like a clown in regal purple dressed:
For different styles with different subjects sort,        135
As several garbs with country, town, and court….
  But most by numbers judge a poet’s song,
And smooth or rough with them is right or wrong:
In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,
Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,        140
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,
Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,
Not for the doctrine, but the music there.
These equal syllables alone require,
Though oft the ear the open vowels tire;        145
While expletives their feeble aid do join,
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line;
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
With sure returns of still expected rhymes:
Where’er you find “the cooling western breeze,”        150
In the next line it “whispers through the trees”;
If crystal streams “with pleasing murmurs creep,”
The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with “sleep”;
Then, at the last and only couplet, fraught
With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,        155
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
*        *        *        *        *
  True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offense:        160
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.        165
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.
*        *        *        *        *
  Some ne’er advance a judgment of their own,        170
But catch the spreading notion of the town;
They reason and conclude by precedent,
And own stale nonsense which they ne’er invent.
Some judge of authors’ names, not works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men….        175
The vulgar thus through imitation err,
As oft the learned by being singular:
So much they scorn the crowd, that if the throng
By chance go right, they purposely go wrong.
So schismatics the plain believers quit,        180
And are but damned for having too much wit.
Some praise at morning what they blame at night,
But always think the last opinion right.
A Muse by these is like a mistress used,—
This hour she’s idolized, the next abused;        185
While their weak heads, like towns unfortified,
’Twixt sense and nonsense daily change their side….
  Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things,
Atones not for that envy which it brings:
In youth alone its empty praise we boast,        190
But soon the short-lived vanity is lost;
Like some fair flower the early spring supplies,
That gayly blooms, but e’en in blooming dies.
What is this wit, which must our cares employ?
The owner’s wife that other men enjoy:        195
Then most our trouble still when most admired,
And still the more we give, the more required;
Whose fame with pains we guard, but lose with ease,
Sure some to vex, but never all to please:
’Tis what the vicious fear, the virtuous shun;        200
By fools ’tis hated, and by knaves undone!
  If wit so much from ignorance undergo,
Ah, let not learning too commence its foe!
Of old those met rewards who could excel,
And such were praised who but endeavored well:        205
Though triumphs were to generals only due,
Crowns were reserved to grace the soldiers too.
Now they who reach Parnassus’s lofty crown
Employ their pains to spurn some others down;
And while self-love each jealous writer rules,        210
Contending wits become the sport of fools:
But still the worst with most regret commend,
For each ill author is as bad a friend.
To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urged through sacred lust of praise!        215
Ah, ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost!
Good-nature and good-sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive divine….
  ’Tis not enough your counsel still be true:        220
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapproved;
That only makes superior sense beloved….        225
  ’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,        230
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,        235
Still run on poets, in a raging vein,
E’en 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        240
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.        245
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;        250
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.        255

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