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An Essay on Criticism
by [?]

[WRITTEN IN THE YEAR 1709]

PART I.

‘Tis hard to say if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill,
But of the two less dangerous is the offense
To tire our patience than mislead our sense
Some few in that but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss,
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own
In poets as true genius is but rare
True taste as seldom is the critic share
Both must alike from Heaven derive their light,
These born to judge as well as those to write
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely, who have written well
Authors are partial to their wit, ’tis true [17]
But are not critics to their judgment too?

Yet if we look more closely we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind
Nature affords at least a glimmering light
The lines though touched but faintly are drawn right,
But as the slightest sketch if justly traced
Is by ill coloring but the more disgraced
So by false learning is good sense defaced
Some are bewildered in the maze of schools [26]
And some made coxcombs nature meant but fools
In search of wit these lose their common sense
And then turn critics in their own defense
Each burns alike who can or cannot write
Or with a rival’s or an eunuch’s spite
All fools have still an itching to deride
And fain would be upon the laughing side
If Maevius scribble in Apollo’s spite [34]
There are who judge still worse than he can write.

Some have at first for wits then poets passed
Turned critics next and proved plain fools at last
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those half-learned witlings, numerous in our isle,
As half-formed insects on the banks of Nile
Unfinished things one knows not what to call
Their generation is so equivocal
To tell them would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wits that might a hundred tire.

But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic’s noble name,
Be sure yourself and your own reach to know
How far your genius taste and learning go.
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet
And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.

Nature to all things fixed the limits fit
And wisely curbed proud man’s pretending wit.
As on the land while here the ocean gains.
In other parts it leaves wide sandy plains
Thus in the soul while memory prevails,
The solid power of understanding fails
Where beams of warm imagination play,
The memory’s soft figures melt away
One science only will one genius fit,
So vast is art, so narrow human wit
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confined to single parts
Like kings, we lose the conquests gained before,
By vain ambition still to make them more
Each might his several province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

First follow nature and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.
Unerring nature still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged and universal light,
Life force and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source and end and test of art
Art from that fund each just supply provides,
Works without show and without pomp presides
In some fair body thus the informing soul
With spirits feeds, with vigor fills the whole,
Each motion guides and every nerve sustains,
Itself unseen, but in the effects remains.
Some, to whom Heaven in wit has been profuse, [80]
Want as much more, to turn it to its use;
For wit and judgment often are at strife,
Though meant each other’s aid, like man and wife.
‘Tis more to guide, than spur the muse’s steed,
Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed,
The winged courser, like a generous horse, [86]
Shows most true mettle when you check his course.