E211 ALEXANDER POPE QUESTIONS
Assigned: "An Essay on Criticism" (Vol. F, 2713-21); The Rape of the Lock (Vol. F, 2686-2704); "Eloisa to Abelard" (Vol. F, 2705-13).
"An Essay on Criticism"
1. From lines 1-45, what problems does Pope identify with his era's literary critics -- what inherent problem besets the exercise of criticism, and what additional factor makes the difficulty worse than it really needs to be?
2. From lines 46-75, what does Pope suggest good critics must understand about their capacities? Moreover, to what standard should critics adjust their individual judgments, and why should they do so?
3. Define the terms "wit" and "judgment" in Pope's eighteenth-century context. From lines 76-87, how does Pope describe the proper relationship between wit and judgment? What classical metaphor does he employ to reinforce his argument?
4. From lines 88-91, Pope identifies "Nature" as the source of poetry's "rules" -- what does he apparently mean by this term, and how did Nature serve as the source of poetic convention?
5. From lines 92-117, how does Pope characterize the golden age of criticism that he says held for a time in ancient Greece -- what was the relationship between poet and critic in those times? What subsequently went wrong, and what were the consequences?
6. From lines 118-40, what task does Pope set for modern critics with respect to classical authors, and most particularly Homer? How is the work of Homer's successor Virgil a testament to proper execution of this task? Why should modern poet and critics hold ancient texts and conventions in such high regard -- what is to be learned from them?
7. From lines 141-80, how does Pope ward off an overly prescriptive or rigid understanding of what he has just written about adhering to "the rules"? Why were the ancients sometimes right to bend or even break the rules that governed their own works? What rights do modern poets and critics have in that regard?
8. From lines 181-200, in what spirit, according to Pope, should a modern critic or artist approach the ancients? Why so? In what sense is this verse passage, taken in context, more than a mere assertion of the ancients' superiority -- how does Pope assert the power of excellent literature in any age?
9. From lines 233-84, how does Pope follow up on the counsel against pride of individual or capricious judgment he has given in lines 201-32 -- how should a critic treat what seem to be a work's petty faults or its failures to adhere to rigorous theoretical demands? In what sense is excellence not to be confused with "perfection"?
10. From lines 285-383, Pope lays out some of the ways in which critics may be overly "fond of some subservient art" (263) -- what failings of perspective and taste does he mention in these lines?
11. From lines 285-319, a subset of the lines just mentioned, Pope offers excellent definitions of "true wit" and "true expression." What is the relationship between "true wit" and "nature"? And how does "true expression" perform a valuable service to the objects it describes -- in what sense, that is, do apt words honor the world they represent?
12. From lines 394-474, Pope weighs in on his era's quarrel over the respective merits of the ancients and the moderns, and censures critical pretensions. Where does Pope apparently come down with respect to the quarrel over the ancients and moderns? What critical fashions and affectations does he condemn? How does excellent art nonetheless triumph over such pettiness?
13. From lines 474-525, how does Pope characterize literary longevity in his own era? How does he turn this elegiac point into an argument in favor of a critic's duty to recognize excellence in his or her own time?
14. From lines 530-559, what tendencies in his era's poetry does Pope say should obtain no pardon from critics? Why -- what relationship between literary corruption and social / political corruption does he assert in these lines?
15. The first two parts of the "Essay" deal with the relationship between critics and literary texts. But from lines 560-642, what attitude does Pope suggest critics ought to take towards their own readers? What should readers expect from the critics they consult, in addition to sound judgments about the merits of a given work of art?
16. From lines 643-80, what examples of excellent criticism does Pope provide from his knowledge of the ancients?
17. From lines 681-744, what narrative does Pope offer for the development of criticism from the fall of Rome to his own day? What are Pope's wishes for the near future with respect to English criticism and literature?
The Rape of the Lock
18. What contemporary forms of entertainment or art take the place of a formal mock epic such as Pope's? How many current approaches to social satire can you identify, ranging from the rough to the more refined? List them and connect the types or genres to groups or individuals.
19. Satire is usually about very specific or "topical" subjects. What things do you think most deserve a good send-up today, and what satirical or otherwise humorous approaches have you found most effective in getting across serious criticisms on those issues? Explain your reasoning.
20. What would you say is the main thing or tendency that Pope's mock epic criticizes? Is Pope concerned to offer an alternative to the foolish ideas and pretensions he mocks, or is that not the point of his poem? Explain.
21. What might satire and comedy have as an advantage over more serious forms of art and direct criticism when it comes to making a point about politics or morals? And conversely, what risk do satirists take in employing their peculiar methods instead of criticizing things more directly?
22. What does the first canto suggest about the nature of the poem's subject matter, and what does it suggest about the concept of honor? What is the connection between honor and beauty here?
23. Belinda is given a warning by her guardian spirit Ariel. How specific is this warning? How does it compare to, say, the warnings that Adam and Eve get in Paradise lost? How well prepared is Belinda to face her ordeal? Does the ordeal itself have anything to do with morality, or is it about something else? Explain.
24. What drives the Baron to form his nefarious plot? Why is the extremely serious term "rape" used to describe such a ridiculous act? (Hint: look up the Latin verb from which this word derives -- rapio.) What classical stories about rape or abduction might lie behind Pope's description of Belinda's plight?
25. What echoes of Milton's Paradise Lost do you find in this canto regarding what the spirits say about their task? How does Pope's style in this canto deflate or confound the seriousness of the threat the heroine faces?
26. This section revolves around a card game called Ombre. Why is this game particularly appropriate to the poem's subject matter, and even more specially to the relations between men and women in Pope's time?
27. Why does the guardian spirit Ariel withdraw at the crucial moment when Belinda is about to lose her lock to the Baron? And what does the Baron apparently think he has accomplished by his deed?
28. What classical motif does Pope borrow to describe the kindling of Belinda's wrath? What does his handling of this episode suggest about "feminine nature"?
29. How does Pope mock the pretensions of masculine honor in the figure of Sir Plume? What significance attaches to the name "Plume"?
30. What does Belinda feel she has lost -- what does she believe will be the consequences of her having lost a lock of hair to the Baron?
31. What is Clarissa's counsel to Belinda? Why does Belinda reject this advice?
32. Why is it better that the lock of hair should be whisked up to heaven rather than restored to its rightful owner? What does Belinda gain thereby?
"Eloisa to Abelard"
33. Many readers have found that Pope conveys a genuine sense of Eloisa's passion for Abelard. Yet, this is a very formal poem consisting in rhymed couplets. If you find the formal approach effective, what makes it so? How might rhyme, in the hands of a master like Pope, actually work in his favor?
34. How do this poem's medieval sentiment and setting assist Pope in conveying a real sense of passion flowing from his heroine to her onetime lover?
35. Eloisa's intense concentration on Abelard entails serious danger to her faith. So how does she deal with the tension between her affection for God and for Abelard? Would you call her an heroic figure by the end of the poem? Why or why not?
36. While Eloisa's words have all the fire of speech, she is writing a reply to a letter Abelard wrote for another. How does Pope turn this circumstance into an advantage -- that is, why is focusing on the thoughts of a character writing such a letter an effective way to capture the role passion plays in even the most devout life?
Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen and Carol T. Christ. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th. edition. Package 1: Vols. A, B, C. Paperback. Norton: 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0393913002.