Monday, 30 October 2017

Papal Decree

It is chastening to realise that one of the earliest
attempts to describe the function of the critic is also one of the most comprehensive. Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) ponders the purpose of pondering, before offering advice that goes beyond 'make sure that you spell all the actors' names correctly'.

After a little throat clearing on the difference between the poet and the critic, Pope emphasises the importance of style:

Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.

And while recognising the faith that most people have in their opinions, he is clear that learning and intelligence are no substitute for self-awareness. 

Some have at first for wits, then poets passed,
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last.

The theme of the critic as self-critical is maintained throughout the poem, and in his final couplet, Pope pushes home the message.

He, who Supream in judgment as in wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to flatter, or offend,
Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend. 

Pope's vision of the critic is not as a mere addition to the creative process, nor as a member of the theatre's marketing team, nor a writer of consumer guides. Rather, the critic is a type of person who embodies strong social values and is willing to express them in public.

Not that Pope dismisses learning: he imagines the critic to be eclectic in their reading ('All books he reads', 614) and aware of the rules designed by 'the Ancients' (Aristotle, Horace and the Athenian playwrights) without rejecting those artists who go against them (161 - 180). His construction of the critical personality is, itself, founded on the Christian virtues of his time ('Pride, the never-failing vice of fools' 204) and the rising enthusiasm for rationality ('Reason drives that cloud away' 211) and a rejection of the kind of limited education that encourages ill-considered click-bait headlines.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking largely sobers us again.

While Pope's survey is caught up in the debates of his time - the classical references reveal a working knowledge of Greek and Latin that surpasses that of most contemporary scholars - his advice on specifics is strangely topical. 

A perfect Judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ

Here's the first rule of criticism: be generous to a production and engage with it on its own terms. In 1711, this was a bold statement. Previously in critical theory, a play was assessed on its ability to follow the terms set out in Aristotle's Poetics - this stricture had led to the creation in France of an academic body to enforce conformity. Pope goes for a more open approach, that allows the artist more freedom. He follows this up with 'Survey the whole' (235), a statement that rejects petty complaints about slight missteps. 'Critics of less judgment... offend in Arts... by a Love to Parts' (285 - 289)

He goes on to draw out the importance of the matching of form and content: 

A vile conceit in pompous words exprest
Is like a clown in regal purple drest (320-1)

Leaving aside the swipe at the noble art of clowning - he didn't have a chance to see Red Bastard - Pope isn't fooled by the surface. He wants to look deeper. He adds in an enthusiasm for innovation - noting how the English language is in a constant state of evolution.

Nevertheless, the essay is filled with epigrams that have entered popular culture - mainly as catchphrases for self-help manuals. The rhyme helps to make the epigrams ear-worms: Pope was making memes without accompanying pictures of cats. These moral demands cut to the heart of his belief in the critic as pursuing an almost spiritual path.

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