The Meaning Within the Meter: Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism”

by Alexandre Crepeaux

In the first section of Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (lines 1-200), he instructs critics who insist on rigid, outdated rules for poetry to “admire superior sense, and doubt their own!” (line 200). If they were to doubt their previously-established assumptions about poetry, they would be more open to poetry that experiments with form. He also sets practical new rules for critics of poetry (such as, in line 165, the appreciation of breaking poetic rules, as long as there is a defined purpose). In the second section, he adds a new layer to his argument by taking aim at the those who fiercely judge every individual choice in a poem, without bothering to ascertain the overall meaning. In lines 253 to 266, he packs several such meanings into one stanza of seven couplets. To make the messages of the stanza more viscerally evident, he weaves them into the intricacies of the meter and rhythm. In doing so, he makes his argument against rigid poetic rules even more convincing, because he demonstrates the complexity that can manifest when a poet seeks to purposefully bend the rules.

In line 253, the first line of the stanza, he uses a perfect example of iambic pentameter to introduce the idea of “a faultless piece”, a perfect poem. By using iambic pentameter, the most commonly used rhyme scheme, he lulls the reader into the stanza. He puts the reader in the mindset of a critic who just wants to be entranced by the simplest, “correct” rhyme scheme. Then, the next line starts immediately with a stress, on the word “Thinks”. This makes the first stress pattern of the line a trochee, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Using a trochee instead of the standard iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) immediately jerks the reader out of the lull created by the first line and focuses attention on the gravity of line 254. His point would not have been as effective if he had made it using the standard rhyme scheme, because he is insisting that perfect iambic pentameter is not the only way to write good poetry. He uses the rhythm of the trochee to reinforce his assertion that a perfect poem has never existed, and it will never exist. Pope puts a firm period at the end of the couplet, insisting he has made his point, and has supported it with the evidence in the meter.

Next, the poet encourages the reader to look for the writer’s “end” in every work, the overall meaning they are attempting to convey. Lines 255 and 256 are both in rigid iambic pentameter, but the word “encompass” is here shortened to “compass”. This serves the purpose of fitting the line into the meter, but it also reflects Pope’s point that no work can encompass “more than they intend”. By shortening the word, Pope creates a line that truly couldn’t hold more than was absolutely necessary. The word “compass” also adds an extra layer of meaning, since it is a tool used for finding one’s way. The poet is giving the reader tools with which to navigate the treacherous terrain of criticism. With the semicolon ending line 256, and the word “and” introducing the next line, Pope explicitly connects his next idea to the previous one. When he says “if the means be just, the conduct true”, he is describing poetry that is written with intent in both form and content. The stresses are on “just” and “true”, in order to emphasize their importance: if the content of the poem is good and carefully considered by the poet, then critics should be able to overlook what they see as small mistakes. Then, the next line begins with “Applause”, which is a spondee (two stresses in a row). The power of this spondee reinforces the magnitude of the applause that should be given to those who write “just” and “true” poetry. If their poetry contains “trivial faults” (as exemplified by the spondee), these faults are outweighed by the just and true purpose.

The next couplet (lines 259-260) is incredibly dense in its sentence structure, and unraveling this complex sentence structure helps reveal its argument: “As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit, / T’avoid great errors, must the less commit.” Both lines are in iambic pentameter, with the exception of the first two syllables of the second line. He turns the first foot of the line into a trochee by collapsing “to” into a contraction with “avoid”, and in doing so, he once again forces emphasis onto the beginning of the line. This could be the “great error” Pope hints at, or it could be something deeper, hidden in the knottiness of the sentence. If the sentence were arranged without the contortion necessary for iambic pentameter, it would look something like this: “As men of breeding (or wit) must commit the lesser error to avoid great errors.” Once the sentence is untangled, it becomes clear that the “sometimes men of wit” parenthetical and the reversal of the clauses in the second line are used by Pope to hide the sentence’s true nature; it is not a complete sentence. The “as” at the beginning of the sentence turns the whole sentence into a subordinate clause with no main clause. The phrase “sometimes men of wit” is used to cover up this deficiency, as it causes the reader to place “sometimes men of wit” as the subject clause, in place of the real subject clause. Of course, this incomplete sentence isn’t actually deficient; it demonstrates the kind of great error Pope wishes more poets and critics would attempt. Poetry becomes rote and predictable when it only uses flowery language and an even rhyme scheme, as he explicitly demonstrates in lines 352-353: “If crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep,’ / The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with ‘sleep’”. It needs errors like Pope’s trochee at the beginning of the line in order to force the reader to consider new ideas and feel new emotions. The idea that poets are avoiding taking risks by embracing smaller, boring errors is presented as a negative, and it becomes a call to the reader to embrace the trivial faults that arise alongside innovation in poetry.

In line 261, Pope states plainly to “neglect the rules each verbal critic lays”, playing on the meaning of the word verbal; it means these critics, specifically, are poetry critics, but it also means they talk far too much. Next, the comma in the line “For not to know some trifles, is a praise.” feels strange when read aloud, as the meaning of the line would be just as clear without it. Since everything Pope writes has clearly been shown to have purpose, the reason for this unnecessary comma is that it intentionally causes a little trifle for the reader. The poet adds an awkward pause right after the word “trifles” just to show what that kind of trifle looks like, and how, ultimately, such a small inconsistency won’t damage the overall value of a poem. Clearly, this trifle hasn’t made An Essay on Criticism any less insightful.

In the final quatrain, a theme of dependency arises. Pope addresses that upon which both poetry and criticism are dependent, respectively. By calling criticism a “subservient art”, the poet clearly believes criticism is dependent upon the preservation of poetry, making criticism inherently lower than (and subservient to) poetry. Again, Pope rebuts critics who don’t accept and analyze a work as a whole, but instead “still make the whole depend upon a part”. For the poet, this is an imagined dependency, an outdated rule. He contrasts this imagined dependency of the whole upon a part with the earlier dependency of criticism on poetry. He puts the real dependency on top, literally, by making it the first line of the quatrain, and the imagined dependency second. Then, he ends the second line with a colon, making the final couplet of the quatrain dependent upon the two previous lines.

When Pope says critics “talk of principles, but notions prize”, he offers two words to define the rules that poetry critics have attempted to enforce. Each of these words has a distinct perspective. Critics might think they are principles, but Pope calls them notions, or prejudices: these critics have predetermined rules which are not based on an actual desire to make poetry better. Pope’s choice of the word “prize” is also notable, as it implies that critics feel some kind of intellectual or social reward when they enforce a poetic rule and make themselves feel superior. Finally, the last line changes the target of Pope’s judgment from the earlier “most critics” to “all to one”, meaning every critic, down to the very last one. Since he changes this target, it seems the meaning of the line (critics “lov’d folly sacrifice”) must be distinctly different than the previous complaints he had about critics. Because it is addressed to “all to one” critics, it must be a comment that can be applied to any and all critics, regardless of their methodology. If this is the case, then “folly sacrifice” must mean the inherent sacrifice required to be a critic. After all, on some level, critics are all failed poets, as evidenced in line 105: “Who could not woo the mistress [poetry], wooed the maid”. Therefore, being a critic is inherently foolish, as critics will be chasing after a kind of validation they can never truly find. This is punctuated by the only instance in the stanza where the couplet doesn’t rhyme: the last two lines end with “prize” and “sacrifice”. The last syllable of each of those two words sound so close to a rhyme, which is intended to be frustrating for the reader, but this lack of rhyme serves Pope’s point about critics as failed poets. They might get very close to becoming successful poets, but if they fail and resort to criticism, they’ll never be fully satisfied.

The first two lines of the stanza seem, at first, to be a rebuttal to critics who are too lenient in judging, who are too eager to call a piece of art flawless. However, there’s no significant transition between the first couplet and the rest of the poem, and the Critics talked about in the rest of the stanza are clearly the ones with rigid rules. It becomes clear these lines must be aimed at the same critics who are targeted in the rest of the stanza, those critics who stick too rigidly to their preconceived notions of poetry. This context reveals that the first two lines are actually still a rebuttal to the rule-following critics: when they find a poem they think faultless, it is the result of too much rule-following. The poem might be ‘properly’ structured, but it will be dull and full of the “trivial faults” that result from a lack of ambition. Throughout the stanza, Pope is encouraging poets to make new discoveries and play with the poetic form (as he consistently does), and is encouraging critics to step back and look at the big picture.

Although this stanza is complex and worthwhile to close read, Pope seems to think close reading is the wrong approach to it. Critics who close read are the most likely to “make the whole depend upon the part” and miss the broader ideas. However, the fact that he has stuffed the entire essay with double meanings and variations in rhyme and meter feels like a contradiction to this goal, since it begs for a close analysis. Pope reconciles this contradiction in line 214: “Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.” One of Pope’s foes is the picking apart of small details in a text, which is exemplified by the practice of close reading. Pope knows his piece will be looked at closely whether he likes it or not, so he uses it to his advantage. He fills his lines and meters with little variations and “trifles”, which consistently reflect the meaning of each line. If critics are open to this experimentation, to this little breaking of rules, it’s permissible to look at the individual parts of a text, so long as we do not forsake the whole.

Works Cited –

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism.” London, 1711.