Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
Extract from The Essay on Criticism
By Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
 
(See full text.)

SOME to Conceit alone their taste confine,
And glitt’ring thoughts struck out at ev’ry line;
Pleas’d with a work where nothing ’s just or fit;
One glaring Chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus, unskill’d to trace        5
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover ev’ry part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dress’d;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d;        10
Something, whose truth convinc’d at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit.
For works may have more wit than does ’em good,        15
As bodies perish through excess of blood.
  Others for Language all their care express,
And value books, as women men, for dress:
Their praise is still,—the style is excellent;
The sense, they humbly take upon content.        20
Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found:
False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colours spreads on ev’ry place;
The face of nature we no more survey,        25
All glares alike, without distinction gay:
But true expression, like th’ unchanging sun,
Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon;
It gilds all objects, but it alters none.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still        30
Appears more decent, as more suitable;
A vile conceit in pompous words expressed
Is like a clown in regal purple dressed:
For diff’rent styles with diff’rent subjects sort,
As sev’ral garbs with country, town, and court.        35
Some by old words to fame have made pretence,
Ancients in phrase, mere moderns in their sense;
Such labour’d nothings, in so strange a style,
Amaze th’ unlearn’d, and make the learn’d smile,
Unlucky, as Fungoso in the play,        40
These sparks with awkward vanity display
What the fine gentleman wore yesterday;
And but so mimic ancient wits at best,
As apes our grandsires, in their doublets drest.
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;        45
Alike fantastic, if too new or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are try’d,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
  But most by numbers judge a poet’s song,
And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong:        50
In the bright muse, tho’ thousand charms conspire,
Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire;
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,
Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,
Not for the doctrine, but the music there.        55
These equal syllables alone require,
Tho’ oft the ear the open vowels tire;
While expletives their feeble aid do join;
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line:
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,        60
With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’
In the next line, it ‘whispers through the trees’:
If crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep,’
The reader ’s threaten’d (not in vain) with ‘sleep’:        65
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.
Leave such to tune their own dull rhymes, and know        70
What ’s roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the easy vigour of a line,
Where Denham’s strength and Waller’s sweetness join.
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.        75
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,        80
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:
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.        85
Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
While at each change, the son of Libyan Jove
Now burns with glory, and then melts with love;
Now his fierce eyes with sparkling fury glow,        90
Now sighs steal out, and tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like turns of nature found,
And the world’s victor stood subdu’d by sound!
The power of music all our hearts allow,
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.        95
  Avoid extremes; and shun the fault of such,
Who still are pleas’d too little or too much.
At ev’ry trifle scorn to take offence,
That always shows great pride, or little sense:
Those heads, as stomachs, are not sure the best,        100
Which nauseate all, and nothing can digest.
Yet let not each gay turn thy rapture move;
For fools admire, but men of sense approve:
As things seem large which we through mists descry,
Dulness is ever apt to magnify.        105
  Some foreign writers, some our own despise;
The ancients only, or the moderns prize.
Thus wit, like faith, by each man is apply’d
To one small sect, and all are damn’d beside.
Meanly they seek the blessing to confine,        110
And force that sun but on a part to shine,
Which not alone the southern wit sublimes,
But ripens spirits in cold northern climes;
Which from the first has shone on ages past,
Enlights the present, and shall warm the last;        115
Tho’ each may feel increases and decays,
And see now clearer and now darker days.
Regard not, then, if wit be old or new,
But blame the false, and value still the true.
  Some ne’er advance a judgment of their own,        120
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 author’s names, not works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.        125
Of all this servile herd, the worst is he
That in proud dulness joins with Quality.
A constant critic at the great man’s board,
To fetch and carry nonsense for my Lord.
What woful stuff this madrigal would be,        130
In some starv’d hackney sonneteer, or me?
But let a Lord once own the happy lines,
How the wit brightens! how the stile refines!
Before his sacred name flies ev’ry fault,
And each exalted stanza teems with thought!        135
 
 
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