“So vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit”: Subordinating Part to Whole in An Essay on Criticism

  • G. Douglas Atkins


An Essay on Criticism (1711) is a poem (as well as an essay) and important critical commentary: poetry as criticism, criticism as poetry. It is also centrally concerned with the parts–whole problem, which Pope both discusses and embodies and whose incarnation he shows in a range of critical attitudes, judgments, and preferences. “Anti-sectarianism” functions as a major structuring device in this work. In particular, Pope exposes the various kinds of “part-iality” with which we go about reading and evaluating and rendering judgment concerning what we read. Here, Pope dramatizes the position he described later as being “Slave to no sect,” committed to neither one “part-y” nor another.


Ideal Critic Figurative Language Individual Talent Common Reader Ramistic Theory 
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  1. 1.
    Alexander Pope, Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope, ed. Aubrey Williams (Boston: Riverside-Houghton Mifflin, 1969). For the sake of convenience and accessibility, I use this edition wherever possible.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Aubrey Williams, Introduction, the Twickenham Edition of The Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol. 1, Pastoral Poetry and “An Essay on Criticism,” ed. E. Audra and Aubrey Williams (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1961), 197–235.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., 217.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., 218.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?” The Art of the Essay, ed. Lydia Fakundiny (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 222–30Google Scholar
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    C.S. Lewis, quoted in Clara Claiborne Park, Rejoining the Common Reader: Essays, 1962–1990 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1991), 138–39Google Scholar
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    T.S. Eliot, Foreword, Thoughts for Meditation: A Way to Recovery from Within, sel. and arr. N. Gangulee (London: Faber and Faber, 1951).Google Scholar
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    See my recent discussion of Dryden’s essay-poem in Literary Paths to Religious Understanding: Essays on Dryden, Pope, Keats, George Eliot, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and E.B. White (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 15–42.Google Scholar
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    William Empson, “Wit in the Essay on Criticism,” The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), 84–100.Google Scholar
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    See T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Lancelot Andrewes,” Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 281–91, 341–53.Google Scholar

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© G. Douglas Atkins 2013

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  • G. Douglas Atkins

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