‘(from) An Essay on Criticism’ by Alexander Pope – Analysis

Background of the Poet

  • 18th century English poet
  • The poem was said to be a response to an ongoing debate on the question of whether poetry should be natural, or written according to predetermined artificial rules inherited from the classical past.

Structure and Rhyme Scheme

  • Heroic couplets
  • This extract is of 18 lines (9 couplets)
  • Organised and definitive, thus Pope has a strong voice in expressing his views in an almost proverbial way to support or emphasis his point of seeking to learn large amounts of poetry

Title

  • Focuses on criticism (i.e. disapproval of something or someone) — so Pope’s main argument is expressed in the first line ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ and guides us on our pursuit of knowledge
  • Very formal title thus could emphasis the legitimate nature of Pope’s arguments
  • An attempt to guide critics of the 18th century who assume they have a comprehensive knowledge of poetry and what it should consist of
  • Pope advocates for diversity and innovation in poetic forms and structures

Themes

  • Wisdom
  • Pursuit of knowledge
  • Innovation

Language Analysis and Critical Appreciation

  • “little learning” — Alliteration. Acoustic effect, perhaps to indicate something that is superficially attractive but is not actually attractive. Almost suggesting something lousy and miniature. From the beginning of the extract Pope begins warning us. He has a somewhat objective and strong manner in his writing to develop respect and credibility to his writing, therefore we are more obliged to listen to him as readers.
  • “Drink deep” — Alliteration again. This contrasts with the ‘little learning’. This is also a metaphor, whereby we ‘Drink’ knowledge of poetry (or can be expanded to generally knowledge about anything). The reason why Pope could be using this particular metaphor may be to indicate the ease with which it takes to consume knowledge, but could gradually grow more difficult as our thirst for knowledge subsides and we begin to believe we have ‘dr[a]nk’ or learnt enough knowledge.
  • In Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring of Macedonia was sacred to the Muses. As the metaphorical source of knowledge of art and science, it was popularized by a couplet in Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Criticism” (1711): “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
  • The Muses (/ˈmjuːzɪz/; Ancient Greek: Μοῦσαι, Moũsai) are the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology. They were considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, lyric songs, and myths that were related orally for centuries in these ancient cultures. They were later adopted by the Romans as a part of their pantheon.
  • “Pierian spring” — Reference to Greek mythology and is a metaphor. Pope uses this metaphor because Greek mythology formed many of the symbols relevant to literature, therefore during his time critics could acknowledge the point he was trying to put across.
  • intoxicate” — Could be a reference to alcoholism, however here the abstract idea of knowledge contrasts with alcohol, which is a tangible liquid. Drinking in excess intoxicates, however drinking little or not at all allow individuals to become sober. Pope argues a reverse process for the pursuit of knowledge of poetry.
  • “sobers” — This is in the following line of ‘intoxicate’, thus contrasting with it.
  • “fearless youth” — youth is characterised as a period where individuals are emotionally liberated in chasing knowledge and being adventurous. This contrasts with old age.
  • “heights of Arts” — Literature as an art is seen as something to metaphorically climb, therefore emphasising the necessity of perseverance in chasing innovative knowledge and the growing difficulty in doing so because individuals eventually will tire (“growing labours”)
  • “But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise” — the use of commas (punctuation) doubles the initial word, from one word “But”, to eventually four words, in order to emphasise the way we are exposed to more and more knowledge as we venture further into new territory. Alliteration is used by Pope to emphasise the unfamiliarity of such knowledge, and sibilance to almost showcase how people may be intimidated by concepts and theories they are unfamiliar with.
  • “endless science rise!” — The extract usually uses punctuation at the end of each line in the form of commas, colons or semi-colons, however the line before this one does not use any punctuation mark in order to momentarily show the way knowledge is in great quantity. The use of an exclamation mark highlights excitement in Pope’s tone in order to compare the enthralling way one may adventure in the wilderness to that of pursuing knowledge, learning more and being innovative.
  • “Alps” — Mountainous region in Europe, used as a symbol because of its familiarity and is a metaphor for knowledge.
  • “o’er” — The ‘v’ in the word is foregone in order to show the way knowledge overflows. This is the only word in the extract which becomes flexible and is manipulated by Pope, presumably to emphasise the almost manner which knowledge is tapped, tipped over and accessed by those interested.
  • “tremble to survey / The growing labours” — Enjambment here to emphasise the “growing” plight in chasing knowledge. This is because the words seep into the following line and a punctuation mark at the end of the previous line is foregone to indicate this.
  • “Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!” — There is double repetition here of ‘hills’ and then ‘Alps’. There is an exclamation mark at the end of this extract, possibly to conclude with a promising tone of the future endeavours of academics in chasing knowledge. It is interesting to note the initial vague word ‘hills’ used (which could be in reference to any environmental region in the world), but then transfers into the specific reference to “Alps”. Pope could be doing this to show the way knowledge and specific ideas eventually come into grasp as we venture further. The two notions are also separated by a comma, which acts as a device to keep vague knowledge characterised by ‘hills’ separate from specific and directed knowledge of ‘Alps’.

3 Comments

  1. Sheunopa says:

    You’re amazing

    Like

  2. Sheunopa says:

    Thank you so much

    Like

  3. david says:

    great job

    Like

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