Literary Shelf

The Educational Pen

One of the primary instructions to mastering the technique of writing is the ability to read other works and learn from them. In The Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope, the speaker states that a great danger lies in judging other works carelessly. He believes that the practice of judging incorrectly leads to poor writing because the principles of both are closely related. After the introduction to the essay and comments on the lack of taste and judgment of many critics, the speaker specifically depicts the problems of criticism and writing in part two of the poem. Some of the vices that the speaker points out in his argument include pride, imperfect learning, and partiality. These obstructions to good critiquing lead to inferior writing. Since writers are in a position to teach their audience and shed light on new ideas, inferior writing will have a significant damaging impact on the people. 

As part two of Pope's essay begins, the speaker says that pride is one of the most damaging "never-failing vice of fools" among all those that "conspire to blind… and misguide the mind." (ln.201-204) By including pride with all other vices that negatively affect writing and criticism, the poet has deliberately chosen his diction to suggest a deviation from improvement. 

Since vision is one of the primary tools used to learn about the world, the blind have a difficult time learning. The speaker deliberately associates pride to blindness to show that pride makes growth and knowledge harder to attain just as blindness does. The speaker uses this comparison to also suggest that blindness may be a permanent situation but pride can be cast aside. When pride is removed, the writer is more apt to absorb knowledge and the critic is more open to opposing points of view. Therefore, eliminating pride will help both the critic and the writer improve their skills and keep their public well informed. In a similar notion, misguiding the mind is a dangerous thing because it leads to confusion. If an individual is misguided, then the path they seek will be more difficult to find. The speaker specifically uses this diction to suggest that pride "misguides" writers and critics and leads them away from their desired route of public education. Misguiding the mind clouds thought and disables the poet or critics ability to carry out duties. The speaker asks the critic to stay away from pride and "make use of every friend and every foe." (ln.214) A critic who can learn and capitalize on his enemies becomes a better writer. Getting rid of pride will make better writers and critics and keep the society at a well-educated level. 

When pride is removed, the writer is more apt to absorb knowledge and the critic is more open to opposing points of view. Therefore, eliminating pride will help both the critic and the writer improve their skills and keep their public well informed. 

As the reproach of critics and writers continues, the speaker says that the lack of adequate knowledge is also a great deterrent from successful writing. Since obtaining knowledge plays a key role in the writing process, "a little learning is a dangerous thing." (ln.215) A lack of knowledge is dangerous because the people who read the work will also adopt these inferior beliefs. Since the poet is situated in a place of influence and his audience will suffer from his ignorance. An individual in a position of authority must try to learn as much as he can before conveying his thoughts to others. If he has not been properly trained, his work will lack validity and reality and create a generation of these same principles. The same line of thinking follows for critics who have not been properly schooled. Those who are apt to follow the general bandwagon will adopt the opinions critics give wholeheartedly. If these opinions are not founded on a steady base of knowledge, the critic could be responsible for spreading uneducated ideas and in turn creating biases in societies. Thus, the speaker warns the writers and critics that little knowledge is a scary thing because of the damaging effects it has on their audience. 

Another thing to avoid according to the speaker is the act of judging certain parts of something and not considering the whole picture. A critic who bases his opinions on certain parts of a work has more than likely missed the essential underlying message of the entire piece. The speaker shows that it is "the joint force and full result" of beauty that we value and not just "the exactness of peculiar parts [of]… a lip or eye." (ln.245-246) The poet suggests that a certain force is associated with looking at the whole that does not exist in the sum of its parts. Although pieces of the underlying message may appear in the parts, the entire meaning will not be clear until the work is considered in its entirety. Just as the complete face of a person reveals more than just a concentration on the lips, the themes of a whole work carry more meaning than one specific section. Looking at the entire picture helps the critic get a better understanding of the ideas trying to be conveyed in the piece. When the critic does not consider the entire work, he may miss parts of contradiction and meaning to the piece. Learning to be objective in the sense of the big picture helps prospective writers create in similar fashion. By understanding the value of the entire piece, poets will write in a manner that also demands the consideration of their entire work. Thus, better critiquing of past works, leads to better authorship. 

As the poem continues, the speaker warns his audience of the comparison to perfection. The speaker tells the reader that when a person thinks of finding a "faultless piece to see", he thinks of something that "ne'er was, nor is, nor ever shall be." (ln. 253-254) The comparison of a piece to perfection is a pointless task because there has never been nor shall there ever be something that holds the idea of pure perfection. A critique based on perfection will be without foundation. Thus, perfection is the wrong basis on which to critique because nothing will ever compare to something that does not exist. This creates a slight problem for the critic because it brings forth the question of fair comparison. If there is no common basis on which to critique a work, how can you differentiate between pieces? If there is a basis, it will be imperfect and therefore not a good basis of comparison. The critic has the difficult task of working with these opposing situations and coming up with a fair and reliable way of analyzing works. However, the author correctly states that perfection does not exist and anyone who tries to find it will fail in his or her attempts. Thus, the same logic applies to writers who attempt to reach a utopia that does not exist. A writer then shall not try to perfect his work, he should write to best of his ability. Without the need to perfect a piece, the writer can create without limitations and inform his audience of his true ideas. There will always be critics who find faults with a poet's work, but this criticism shall lead to improvements in technique and consequently superior writing. 

To be a good writer is to know good work. To know good work is to have read a variety and appreciated it for its literary value. Adding to the list of vices, the speaker notes that people who are partial to one type of work miss out on other types that may be able to teach them and broaden their horizons. Partiality "force[s] that sun but on a part to shine" and neglects all that needs its resources. (ln.399) The speaker suggests that shining the sun on a portion of the world is as ludicrous as studying only one era of literature. The biases and stereotypes of that period will keep the critic close-minded and disrupt his growth and respect. Any argument increases in validity when both sides have been equally considered and a consensus has been reached after looking at all the evidence. Partiality hinders critics from improvement because they are not willing to learn about other points of view that may teach them the value of debate. 

The speaker illustrates the problems of many past critics and tells the reader that critiquing poorly leads to bad writing. Since literature was one of the primary sources of information and entertainment, the audiences of these writers were very much influenced by what they read. They believed and acted as their mentors instructed. Thus, the speaker warns against writing poorly because the society becomes incorrectly educated if the critiquing and writing are not done properly. 


More by :  Tanvi Patel

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