Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea

An Age of Criticism – Dryden and Pope: Raw Talent or Learned Skill

Fig. 1, Alexander Pope circa 1727.  “For Pope, the authentic poet and critic are honest and circumspect, capable of elasticity in his judgment but constrained by nature and common sense” (3064)

Fig. 1, Alexander Pope circa 1727. “For Pope, the authentic poet and critic are honest and circumspect, capable of elasticity in his judgment but constrained by nature and common sense” (3064)

On Criticism and Genius

Alexander Pope developed an appreciation for the art of criticism from an early age. It was his father who, “would assign verses to the little boy and then criticize them unsparingly” (Padgett, 333), showing him how criticism can be used to make a work better. Conversely, Pope’s Catholicism prevented him from receiving the extensive education that literary leaders such as Dryden experienced. Despite this, both Pope and Dryden show a similarity in their genius, but with key differences in behavior and personality that are reflected in their respective works. Pope admired Dryden greatly and drew inspiration from him. Pope and Dryden both believed that it takes more than just pure learning to make the ideal critic.

Writing and criticism were not Pope’s only passions, he was also skilled in the art of landscaping. He made the principle of “genius loci” important in garden and landscaping design when he wrote to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington in his 4th Epistle:

“Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.”

(Pope, Alexander. “Epistle IV.” Epistles to Several Persons. 1731. Lines 57-64)

Fig. 2, 18th century landscape garden created by Bath entrepreneur Ralph Allen with advice from poet Alexander Pope.

This verse would lay the foundation for one of the most widely agreed principles of landscape architecture: Landscape designs should always be adapted to the context in which they are located. In other words, landscape design should be changed if necessary if the environment has changed in order to reflect the change; in contemporary usage the term “genius loci” usually refers to the location’s distinctive atmosphere. Pope applied this way of thinking to his views on criticism as well.

Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” was anonymously published in 1711, early in his career and a few years before he would build the famous grotto, that “for many represents the idea of art imitating nature and is seen as a symbol reflecting Pope’s life and development as a poet.” After investigating the role of poets and the faults of critics Pope offers the qualities and virtues of the ideal critic and man:

• Integrity – “In all you speak, let Truth and Candor shine” (563)
• Modesty – “But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past” (570)
• Tact – “Men must be taught as if you taught them not” (574)
• Courage – “Fear not the Anger of the Wise to raise” (582)

Pope reminds the reader that tactless honesty is not always the best policy, as it does not take into consideration the untrustworthy human intuition. Instead he advises the critic to be civil and wise when criticizing a piece of literature, as that is the only way there will be redemption in criticism. For Pope the critic should be there to help the poet towards improvement and not be focused on simply tearing them down for the critic’s pleasure or as a vehicle for displaying the critic’s book learning.

Fig. 3, Portrait of John Dryden

Fig. 3, Portrait of John Dryden 1631-1700 – Sir Godfrey Kneller

On Criticism and Wit

John Dryden summed up his opinion on what qualities make a good writer, and thus a good critic, in his work An Essay of Dramatic Poesy:

“He is one of those who, having had some advantage of education and converse, knows better than the other what a poet should be, but puts it into practice more unluckily than any man: his style and matter are everywhere alike: he is the most calm, peaceable writer you ever read:… he doubly starves all his verses, first for want of thought, and then of expression; his poetry neither has wit in it, nor seems to have it”

Both Pope and Dryden valued the same thing in a critic, though Dryden worried himself much less with the requirements of tact and modesty than Pope did [“Sh- alone, of all my sons, is he who stands confirmed in full stupidity” ( “Mac Flecknoe” 17-18)]. Instead, he focused on the ability to recognize natural talent over book learning. For Dryden, a critics should be willing to teach what they themselves know. They should adhere to the truth, even if it is harsh, and if there is no evidence to support the truth the critic should not speak. Both critics and poets should see criticism as a learning tool and do not worry about making all people happy. The traits which Pope felt would make the ideal critic cannot be learned, “Such, without wit, are poets when they please, As without learning they can take degrees”, but must come from human nature. If a critic tries to fake such qualities their criticism will fail to achieve its intended purpose.


  • “Alexander Pope’s Grotto.”: Twickenham: The Twickenham Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2013.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.
  • Jason, Philip K. Critical Survey of Poetry. Pasadena, CA: Salem, 2003. Print.
  • Padgett, Ron. World Poets. 1st ed. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000. Print.
  • “The Victorian Web: An Overview.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2013.
  • “Prior Park Landscape Garden.” Prior Park Landscape Garden. N.p., 2013. Web. 26 Sept. 2013.

Post by:   Wilson Billingsley,  Wanda Luttrell,  Victoria Vener

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2013 by in Alexander Pope, Criticism, Dryden, Neoclassical, Restoration, Wit.
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