On the Death of Poetry Criticism + Poem of the Week #33 – An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s Duel by Ilya Repin

Should I have any regular reader on this website (and apart from a few personal acquaintances, I doubt whether there are any) he or she might have been able to divine my dubious attitude to the current state of poetry. To say that there has been a decline in its quality during the past six decades or so, even if there have been (and still are) poets of high quality writing during this period, seems to me to be incontrovertible.

On a broader scale, the withering of the art of verse is one that parallels the atrophy seen in the other, “traditional” art forms as well. I am not, and I doubt whether anyone is, capable of properly diagnosing it now, but there are many lamentable symptoms which I feel I can identify and which might also be at least a part of the cause of the problem. In this post I will be be singling out one of them: the death of poetry criticism.

The relationship between critic and artist has generally been framed as one of antagonism, and there are a number of examples of bitter clashes between the two. Incidentally, a post that I published on the 20th of July this year features a painting by James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, which was the origin of one such aesthetic stoush. Reflecting on it being listed for two hundred guineas back in 1877, (about 140000 US dollars today), the great Victorian critic John Ruskin commented that

I have have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

This led to a libel suit which ended in a loss for Ruskin, though he was only asked to compensate the plaintiff with a farthing (a quarter of a penny). Even if Ruskin’s comment here is taken as a misjudgment, there is something admirable in a critic being so firm in his opinions, particularly when they’re directed towards an artist as established as McNeill Whistler was at the time. Can anyone envision such confident causticity in a reviewer today? There are more literary reviews out there than ever before in history, with reviews of poetry collections being published every single day, and yet the quality of the criticism across the board–that fundamental knack of being able to distinguish between the good and the bad in a work and explain it, has almost disappeared entirely. At best, contemporary poetry reviewers tend to be some kind of oscillating fence-sitters, formulating vague opinions in such a nebulous waffle that they inform us very little about the poems that they have read.

What is particularly conspicuous is the lack of boldness–or, for lack of a better word, the balls–to be concretely negative about any aspect of the poetry at hand. A critic must be able to sense, for example, a lack of pathos, a presence of cliché, a clumsy prosody or an incongruousness between form and feeling when he or she reads a poem. While I am sure that some of these reviewers do pass these kinds of criticism in private (God forbid they actually happen at the universities though), they are few and far between in the places where they matter most: in the popular circulation of media such as literary journals, newspapers or even literary blogs like this. The presence of such honest criticism, as it has once existed, even when full of egregiously maligned judgments, is at least the sign of a readership and a society that takes poetry seriously.

One wonders when it all went wrong. Look at any poetry review from a hundred years ago and compare them with those that are published today. The following is an excerpt of the first contemporary review I found on the internet of T.S. Eliot’s, Prufrock and Other Observations, printed in the Times Literary Supplement in 1917:

Mr. Eliot’s notion of poetry–he calls the ‘observations’ poems–seems to be a purely analytical treatment, verging sometimes on the catalogue, of personal relations and environments, uninspired by any glimpse beyond them and untouched by any genuine rush of feeling. As, even on this basis, he remains frequently inarticulate, his ‘poems’ will hardly be read by many with enjoyment.

That’s scarcely aged well, but as much of a blunder as that comment is, it should earn some respect because it clearly communicates what its author didn’t like about Eliot’s verse. Compare that with this review that I found in The Guardian today. Now, before anyone accuses me of cherry-picking this, I will affirm this was the first review that popped up in my browser. And it doesn’t matter that it was this one I haphazardly chose, because almost all poetry reviews today read like this one does. The only reason why it comes The Guardian is simply because it is one of few periodcals that doesn’t have a paywall, so you can read it for yourselves and see. Anyway, the review starts like this:

Mark Pajak’s debut does not read like a debut: there is no fumbling beginner’s luck, no rough moments or threadbare patches – its polished craftsmanship throughout is striking. Slide suits the book’s atmosphere: these supple poems seem to be about to give you the slip but go on to prove tenacious and to linger pleasingly in the mind. Pajak is a Liverpudlian poet and his defining quality is the composure with which he encourages his readers into a false sense of security. He is a safe pair of hands writing about unsafe things.

There’s a whole lot to look at here. With the phrase “there is no fumbling beginner’s luck…” in the first sentence the reviewer is actually suggesting that good poetry can be written by accident. Does she really believe that? If so, what does that look like, then? Then there comes a contradiction between the first and second sentences: Pajak’s poetry is described as “striking” at the end of the first and then in the very next one is described as subtle and evasive (whose poems are “about to give you the slip”). The final sentence is a non-sequitur. It starts by informing us that Pajak is from Liverpool. The expectation from the rest of it therefore is that the poet’s background is reflected in his writing. Instead, it reads that “his defining quality is the composure with which he encourages his readers into a false sense of security”. I don’t know what that means, nor do I know what the connection between that and coming from Liverpool is. If you know, please inform me.

Besides being bad writing, this is bad criticism–not because it is a misjudgment but because it doesn’t say anything of worth about the poems that have been read. Can anybody reasonably say that the author has enlightened us about Pajak’s work? The contradictory descriptions and the vague explanations make that very hard.

What ought to follow in a poetry review is some kind of thematic and formal description of the book as a whole. Let’s see if the reviewer can redeem themselves here. No, they do not. Instead, without any meaningful context, the reviewer goes right into quoting an extract from the opening poem:

She chafes a flame from the lighter,
listens to its gush of butane. (…)
She holds her breath and plugs in
the hot lighter. Her lips clench white,
eyes into walnuts, the metal cap
fizzing into skin and fat and this
is how she deletes herself.

The reviewer says they like this. Well, then they should also care to explain why, but they don’t, and even admit their inability of explaining what is good about it:

Why is it that the walnuts are so good and surprising? Is it that they turn the girl into an older sufferer, eyes wrinkled in pain? Whatever the answer, the violence is mitigated by the compassion with which Pajak concludes…

One of the most irking things however is the almost fawning level of praise that the reviewer heaps on the poet. There is not a single negative comment here, and while it might be possible that there is not a single bad thing about Pajak’s verse, I cannot imagine that this is on such a level of literary greatness. Rather, the reticence in being critical is just the standard thoroughfare of contemporary poetry reviews. Just look at some of the examples of vague laudation from the rest of the text:

His elegant, unflinchingly controlled imagination;

(H)e uses his lyric gift to deliver endings that make unifying sense;

This conceit, gently underworked, comes off perfectly.

Does this convince you? Does this really make you feel like running to the closest bookshop to buy Pajak’s work? Does this make you feel, as these descriptions at least suggest to me, that we have discovered a new poetic genius? Each of the statements above ought to be exemplified and expanded upon in order for them to be credible, but once again, they aren’t and all their potential weight has therefore been all but sapped.

Before closing this introduction and going on to Pope’s poem, I want to partially refute the description (partially accentuated by the choice of painting) that I earlier mentioned of the relationship between critic and artist as being antagonistic. The critic’s sting might very well be painful, but proper criticism should at the same time be of benefit to the production of art. The good critic points to an ideal and so ought to help shape the art that is produced in that direction. Sometimes I like to think of the critic as a bit of a gardener who disturbs and occasionally hurts his plants when weeding their beds and pruning their branches but in doing so also provokes better yields. Unforunately, the one responsible for the tending of the magnificent garden that is English poetry has seemingly stopped showing up for the job and let the garden run to seed. It is certainly not just possessed by things rank and gross in nature, but it is becoming hard for its visitors to distinguish the fruits from the weeds.

Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism

The introductory text to this poem that you have just read above became significantly longer than I first thought. Originally I considered posting it separately but since it very much related to the poem at hand I decided against it. In the text above I have perhaps been a bit vague as to what good criticism is supposed to look like. I will accept that critique but will let Alexander Pope do the answering to that question since I don’t think there is any summary of the critic’s method that is as succinctly laid out as it is in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism.

This is incidentally the poem by Pope that I like the best. While I have great admiration–a real awe, even–for his almost unparalleled wit and wisdom, a lot of his other works are so grounded in the petty quarrels of his day that without consulting footnotes on every third line they are rather difficult to get through. This work was written very early in Pope’s poetic career (early drafts suggest he started it before he turned eighteen) and before he became embroiled in the spectacles of the 18th-century literary world. Perhaps this is the reason why it is easier for us to read it today.

The poem is too long to quote in its entirety, but it can be read by clicking here. I will briefly just outline what principles Pope outlines in this poem, all the while quoting from it, of course.


Squeaky-clean iambic pentameter (the only exception being a one-line alexandrine used to prove a point about it’s inappropriacy in English). The whole lot is, of course, in rhyming couplets.


The poem is divided into three parts. These shall be examined respectively.


Pope sees the critic as possessing a greater level of responsibility than the artist with regards to artistic taste since the critic is the one who more directly influences our sense of judgment. A bad critic is therefore more pernicious than a bad artist because whereas the latter will only go unnoticed the former nonetheless has a capacity to corrupt. Throughout the poem Pope tries to distinguish the characteristics of a bad and good critic. Besides an incorrect judgment, more often than not as the result of a poor education, the bad critic is characteristed as being resentful and overly proud of his own knowledge. The good and therefore honest critic is instead one that knows his own limitations:

But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a Critic’s noble name,
Be sure yourself and your own reach to know,
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go,
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where Sense and Dulness meet.

The good critic bases his judgment on the standard of “Nature”. Pope doesn’t define what this means, but he probably means an unalloyed truth–of stating things as they are:

First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same;
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of Art.

A theme that shines through the entire work is Pope’s classicism. The ancient ideal is one that should be pursued as it was a society in which critic and poet worked for mutual benefit:

Still green with bays each ancient altar stands
Above the reach of sacrilegious hands,
Secure from flames, from Envy’s fiercer rage,
Destructive war, and all-involving Age.
See from each clime the learn’d their incense bring!
Hear in all tongues consenting Paeans ring!
In praise so just let ev’ry voice be join’d,
And fill the gen’ral chorus of mankind.
Hail, Bards triumphant! born in happier days,
Immortal heirs of universal praise!
Whose honours with increase of ages grow,
As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow;
Nations unborn your mighty names shall sound,
And worlds applaud that must not yet be found!


Part II reads a bit like a practical manifesto. It starts by detailing the characteristics of a good critic. Once again, Pope stresses the need for humility as pride is the main vice that impairs our judgment. Besides this, the critic ought to be someone who is learned:

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.

He then warns against falling into the bad critic’s habit of not appreciating a work as a whole, but letting minor imperfections, which there will always be, be a sort lynchpin on which the whole also collapses:

In Wit, as Nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th’exactness of peculiar parts;
‘Tis not a lip or eye we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.

In what follows one gets the feeling that Pope is not turning towards the critic as much as he is towards the poet. Here he lays out some principles on good and bad practice when writing poetry. The first thing that he takes aim at is pretention: a lofty eloquence devoid of feeling:

False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colours spreads on every place;
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;

Then Pope goes into the technicalities of metre, prosody and rhyme. The poet should avoid clichéd rhymes and any lines of verse that are longer than a pentameter:

While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
Where’er you find ”the cooling western breeze,”
In the next line, it ”whispers thro’ the trees;”
If crystal streams ”with pleasing murmurs creep,”
The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with ”sleep;”
Then, at the last and only couplet, fraught
With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

Besides this, the form and sound of the verse should capture the nature of the imagery that they contain:

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.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line, too, labours, and the words move slow:

After laying forth these criteria on poetry he once again turns to the critic. He lambasts judgment that is partial to a certain school and cautions qualifying a work based on anything outside the work itself, such as the individual who created it:

Some ne’er advance a judgment of their own,
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.

Pope says that bad critics will always exist and this explains why all great artists have always been subjected to critical attacks in their lifetime. If nothing else, Pope suggests that it is because of envy:

Nay, should great Homer lift his awful head,
Zoilus again would start up from the dead.
Envy will Merit as its shade pursue,
But like a shadow proves the substance true;

Then we return to the theme of the supremacy of the ancients. He even suggests that in comparison, the best of his contemporaries’ poetry will not survive much beyond their lifetimes:

No longer now that Golden Age appears,
When partiarch wits survived a thousand years:
Now length of fame (our second life) is lost,
And bare threescore is all ev’n that can boast:
Our sons their fathers’ failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be.

He ends Part II by returning to the old principle: a good critic should be humble- and not be too harsh with artistic shortcomings since these will innocuously pass by. One of the main things that he admonishes the critic from stooping to is vulgarity and in this alone does he give them license to be ruthless in their task:

These monsters, Critics! with your darts engage,
Here point your thunder, and exhaust your rage!
Yet shun their fault, who, scandalously nice,
Will needs mistake an author into vice:
All seems infected that th’infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.

Part III

We follow on directly from Part II. Pope has portrayed the ideal critic now and it is this kind of critic that existed in ancient times:

But where’s the man who counsel can bestow,
Still pleas’d to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiass’d or by favour or by spite;
Not dully prepossess’d nor blindly right;
Tho’ learn’d, well bred, and tho’ 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;
Bless’d with a taste exact, yet unconfin’d,
A knowledge both of books and humankind;
Gen’rous converse; a soul exempt from pride;
And love to praise, with reason on his side?
Such once were critics; such the happy few
Athens and Rome in better ages knew.

Examples of such critics are Horace, Longinus, Quintillian and Aristotle (The Stagyrite).

Although we might never live up to the greatness of the ancients, the poem ends on a somewhat optimistic note, however–indicating that the spirit that gave impetus to the learning and the artistic sense of the ancient world is rising from its ashes and spreading itself north of the Mediterranean. Pope, however, does not treat The British isles particularly well in this, charging them, with some small exceptions, with still being particularly hostile the ideals of the ancient world:

But soon by impious arms from Latium chased,
Their ancient bounds the banish’d Muses pass’d;
Thence arts o’er all the northern world advance,
But critic learning flourish’d most in France;
The rules a nation born to serve obeys,
And Boileau still in right of Horace sways.
But we, brave Britons, foreign laws despised,
And kept unconquer’d and uncivilized;
Fierce for the liberties of wit, and bold,
We still defied the Romans, as of old.

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