Satire in the Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope is considered one of the greatest English poets and an outstanding poet of the early 18th century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive poems. In England, at the time of Alexander’s birth, there were still quite strict laws against Catholics. They could not hold public office, receive a university education, and they even had to settle at a distance no closer than ten miles from London. The Catholic faith was one of the reasons that limited young Pope’s communication with other people.
His personality and work constantly attracted his contemporaries’ and readers’ attention, as well as critics of subsequent generations. His Essay on Criticism was also ambiguously evaluated, which, according to the general recognition of researchers, was a landmark work of English enlightenment classicism. In this sense, its analysis helps to identify the role of the work in the creative formation of the poet and the specific features of English enlightenment classicism. Pope’s main lyrical text, the poetic Essay on Criticism, immediately provoked an enthusiastic reaction (Pope 34). The young 23-year-old poet decided to formulate the rules of poetic creativity and literary criticism in his way, not at all embarrassed by the fact that Aristotle, Horace, and Boileau had already done it before him.
Admiring ancient literature and being influenced by the aesthetics of classicism, Pope still could not stay within its boundaries. To establish new connections with classicist aesthetics, which would be more in line with his creative aspirations, he creates the Essay on Criticism. Like the classicists, he urges the authors to follow nature, but his interpretation of the concept of ‘nature’ is very vague. Pope sees it as a kind of order and harmony laid down by God on the basis of the universe (Richards 26). A person is able to intuitively comprehend this order and harmony and express them through the laws of creativity.
An important place in the Essay on Criticism is occupied by the doctrine of decorum, the foundations of which were laid back in Greco-Roman rhetoric and an integral part of the classicist poetics. In Pope’s understanding, the concept of decorum has three aspects: decorum presupposes the correspondence of style to the subject and genre (Pope 36). Thus, it includes the proportionality of the parts, their proportionality to the artistic whole; and, the purity and clarity of poetic language.
In the minds of the British, satire was equated with wit. Wits loved malicious mockery, and for opponents of wit, satirical mockery was close to slander. Gradually, a tendency to soften satire took shape. The role model was Horace and his moderate satire. An important moral component of such satire was the absence of allusions to real persons. The main principle was typification, which perfectly corresponded to the aesthetics of classicism and also allowed to judge impartially. Thus, in an essay on criticism, A. Pope formed his idea of satire, its main goals, and techniques under the influence of ancient satirists, whose texts give an idea of the genre, its main varieties.
In conclusion, in the Essay on Criticism, Pope summarized and developed classicist principles satirical in an enlightening spirit. He considered ‘imitation of nature’ as an imitation of an ancient model. Adhering to the concepts of ‘measure’, ‘appropriateness’, ‘plausibility’, he, as an educational humanist, called for a reasonable, ‘natural’ life. Pope considered taste innate but becoming ‘right’ under the influence of education and, therefore, inherent in a person from any class.
Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. Prabhat Prakashan, 2021.
Richards, Ivor Armstrong. Principles of Literary Criticism. Routledge, 2017.