This is a one stanza extract from the mammoth 49 stanza Essay on Criticism (you can read the rest here), which as a whole sets out to tell literary critics what they should and should not do.
Our extract is the second stanza of the second of three parts of the poem. In it, Pope advises against rash judgement from critics and that they should persevere with poets even if they make mistakes or break the rules from time to time. He argues that without critics being open to new approaches and ideas they will stifle the rise of great poets of their age.
However, if you look at this stanza alone, this message could be generalised beyond poetry and literature. This could be seen as a defence of innovation and progress in the world.
Pierian – this refers to a spring in the Pierian mountains in Macedonia which the Ancient Greeks believed was the source of scientific and literary knowledge;
Muse – Ancient Greeks’ goddesses of literature, science and the arts;
Alps – a mountain range in Western Europe.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts;
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way;
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
Pope is one of those rare poets who was actually very successful thanks to his writing. This could be down to the fact that as a Catholic at the time he was unable to hold public office; he had a hunchback so wasn’t very attractive to the other sex; and he had health problems that stunted his growth meaning he only ever reached 4″6. So with all that he had bugger all else to do, except become a kick ass poet.
He came from a middle class family and was educated only up until he was 12, but dragged himself up as an intellectual by binging on the classics of the Greek and Roman world as well as the big names of the time. From his early twenties his own work was being well received critically with his poetry and translations selling well.
This poem was completed in 1709 when Pope was 21 and published two years later. As this represents the beginning of his poetic career, the focus on telling critics to go a bit easy may have been based on his own personal hopes. It certainly acts as a challenge to the old, established order and their rules by suggesting that they may have a negative impact on poetry.
This turns the idea that wisdom is associated with age on its head. He suggests that age can bring a degree of cynicism and rigidity in thinking, which can prevent the bright lights of innovation and change from emerging and challenging our ideas of beauty or brilliance.
The stanza opens with a analogy comparing literary critics to thirsty hikers. Their knowledge of what good water taste like leads them to discount the water of the Pierian spring after a little sip, which leaves them in a drunken rage at how it doesn’t taste quite right. However, Pope encourages them to drink deeper to appreciate to expand their horizons and embrace brilliant innovation.
In the fifth line we move onto focusing on young poets. They are presented as being richer with inspiration as they are fresh and unburdened by a deep understanding of the rules so that they don’t fear making mistakes. Without this fear they try to achieve the heights, which implies those governed by rules are also limited by them. The critics on the other hand are bound by the rules and thus constricted from recognising innovative brilliance and achievement.
From the eleventh line we examine the state of the critic. Having come to understand and recognise the majesty of Classical poetry, represented by the first mountain of the Alps, they become content and complacent. They forget that their are many mountains to conquer and in our focus on appreciating the brilliance of the past, we fail to focus on the challenges and opportunities ahead for new achievement and majesty.
Language and techniques
This poem is one of the most quoted and it’s not hard to see why.
We begin with a belter. ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ is contrary to popular wisdom and suggests that knowledge in itself does not directly represent wisdom or understanding. As this is addressed to highly respected and learned individuals who become critics it is telling that their knowledge is represented as ‘little’. This immediately diminishes their education as it does not represent a significant chunk of what there is to be learned and thus they are not fully equipped to be absolute in terms of criticism and adherence to poetic rules.
‘Dangerous’ is also highly provocative here. I think it would be fair to say that critics can generally (quite rightly) be labelled as snobs, but to in what way are they dangerous? The implication here is that they are going to act as a stifling agent against the ‘fearless youth’ of innovative young poets.
Pope is a big one for Classical allusion and his comment about the critics taking ‘shallow draughts’ from ‘the Pierian spring’ suggests that they are making judgement based on only a tiny perception of the full knowledge of the arts. These sips ‘intoxicate’ as they give the illusion of understanding poetry, but in reality they only represent a small part of the whole. As the spring is classically the font of all knowledge the imperative ‘drink deep’ forcefully instructs them to broaden or ‘sober[s]’ their minds to allow for new techniques and approaches.
Contrast this censure of the critics with the romantic notion of the young poet. They are ‘fired at first sight’, which suggests they are inflamed with passion and the intensity of ‘fearless youth’ that is not yet stymied by knowledge of rules and failure to surpass or equal the greatness of others. This is a common idea now, that the young lack the knowledge to fear failure and thus are more likely to ‘tempt the heights’ than those who are older and have either seen their efforts fail or who have learned to respect the work of others too much.
Again contrary to common sense, the knowledge, rules and respect the critics have learned leaves them ‘bounded’ and imprisoned against change and innovation. The rules dictate that they can only have ‘short views’ and not appreciate the ‘new distant… rise’ of new ideas. The ‘endless science’ Pope refers to not only links to changes within poetry, but reflects the ideas of the European Enlightenment that took off at the beginning of the 18th century – where science made leaps and bounds, pushing our understanding forward dramatically.
Pope encourages critics to avoid the temptation to become self-satisfied with their Classical knowledge and poetic comprehension. He uses the image of a climber ‘so pleased at the first towering Alps’ that they ‘seem the last’ to mirror the critics sense of having reached the pinnacle of poetic understanding, while failing to recognise that the poetic discipline, much like a mountain range, has many peaks.
He suggests critics fixate on this achievement and rap it up in rules that become impediments to those who have to follow. Pope uses the phrase ‘tremble to survey’ to imply that they treat their knowledge and achievement as if it were divine and untouchable, they are afraid to look at things another way. Instead they wrap the art form in ‘growing labours’ that represent rules and requirements that are put in front of every poet and are presented as if they should never be deviated from.
It is as if critics cannot deal with increasing their knowledge or poetic appreciation as the thought ‘tires [their] wandering eyes’. However, Pope reminds them that ‘Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise’ suggesting that their are many different peaks and ways to achieving brilliance, not just those confined by Classical rules. He starts with ‘hills’ here as he is warning critics that, although a poet may begin with something not so majestic as the Classical greats, they may gradually improve and develop to achieve new heights. However, we should not crush them with our rules before they have a chance to ‘tempt the heights’.
A few things to comment on here.
The poem is written in heroic couplets, which just means that each line is written in iambic pentameter. The effect of this is to present the subject matter in a serious and steady tone, while adhering to the Classical ‘laws’ of poetry in order to gain the attention of the critics it addresses before basically telling them that he and other poets shouldn’t necessarily have to do this.
I’ve mentioned it above generally, but make sure you point out that the whole poem uses climbing mountains as analogy for creating powerful poetry. The association lifts poetry to being something of such magnitude and towering importance, but also serves to demonstrate that there are many different peaks and many different ways of reaching them.
Even the initial drinking from the spring can be interpreted directly as relating to mountaineering. Upon reaching new heights our minds are affected by the altitude and can sometimes symptoms can resemble being drunk. However, drinking deeply is a way of trying to tackle this sickness.
Pope also use alliteration quite frequently in the poem, particularly at the beginning of the stanza. Notice the hard ‘d’ sound that repeats in the opening four lines and represents the stubborn and immoveable attitude that Pope is addressing. Contrast this with the ‘f’ sounds in the fifth and sixth lines, which gives a ferocity and fire to the youthful poets trying to pioneer their route to greatness.
You could also mention the double repetition in the final line, which acts as a way of implying the endlessness of opportunity and poetic development.
Although this is somewhat critical of the critics, the tone is not one of brash anger or fire, but rather it is reasoned and serious. It is an argument that sets out why they should broaden their horizons rather than an instruction to bugger off. The peaks of emotion in the poem are when describe the potential of those new to the game, whose passion will hopefully inspire new heights of poetry.