Read the poem analysis of the poem From An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope, where the speaker of the poem takes an impersonal tone as he communicates universal truths about the art to a general audience. The purpose of the extract above is to act as guidance for individuals to learn about how to educate themselves better and improve their creative practices, as well as discourage them from being overly egotistical or too ambitious in youth.



  • Pierian Spring – in Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring is the source of all knowledge – it’s a fountain of eternal inspiration that mortals use for creativity 
  • Drafts – drinks 
  • Intoxicate – to make drunk 
  • Sober – to recover from being intoxicated
  • The Muse – the Muses were Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration and creativity 
  • Impart – bestow/give 
  • Behold – look at 
  • O’er – over 
  • Vales – valleys 
  • Labours – work/difficulty 
  • Prospect – possibility 


It’s dangerous only to learn a little bit – you should drink deep from the fountain of knowledge, the Pierian Spring, or otherwise, your education will be worth nothing at all. Small drinks of it leave the brain drunk and confused, but when we drink deeply, we start to think clearly again. When we first see the Muse of creativity, the inspiration she provides fires us up when we are young and fearless, causing us to try and aim for the very height of the Arts in our work (to try and create the most ambitious and difficult pieces of art). When our minds are constrained like this, we can only see a short distance ahead of us, and we can’t understand the depth that lies behind the production of great art – but, when we’re older and more advanced, we notice with strange surprise that further off, distant scenes of endless knowledge rise up before us! We try and climb a mountain at first, like the towering Alps, and feel like we’re already almost touching the sky – the eternal snows on the mountain tops are already passed, and the first clouds we reach or mountains we climb seem like the last we’ll ever have to struggle to reach – but after we get to the top of the first difficult mountain, we tremble at the scene that arises before us – we notice that it’s going to be a lot more hard work again from this point on to continue the creative journey. This realisation tires our eyes, as we see so many more mountains behind the first one that we climbed, hills peeping over hills.


The speaker of the poem takes an impersonal tone as he communicates universal truths about art to a general audience – the purpose of the extract above is to act as guidance for individuals to learn about how to educate themselves better and improve their creative practises, as well as discouraging them from being overly egotistical or too ambitious in youth. 


Alliteration – ‘A little learning’ / ‘drink deep’ – Pope uses alliteration to accentuate the famous lines: ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring’. These stand out because they carry a very important message – don’t only educate yourself a little bit, or half-heartedly, because unless you spend your life learning deeply and continually growing, you will not be able to fully use the knowledge that you’ve acquired. This is an invocation to readers to learn not only one small area of knowledge but to develop a broad education that covers many different areas and fields – as well as delving deep into history, classics and ancient philosophy to learn about the past. 

Extended metaphor – landscape in the poem is used symbolically throughout; Pope likens the creative process to a journey or difficult pilgrimage, such as hiking up and down the mountains of the ‘Alps’. ‘Short views’ that are visible at the beginning of the journey demonstrate the limited insight that a young creative person may have at first when they approach their art. Once they scale a few ‘mountains’ (i.e. overcome some difficulties and attempt some ambitious projects), they will be ‘more advanced’ and rewarded with ‘new distance scenes’ that provide fresh and deeper inspiration. 

Collective pronoun – ‘we’ – the use of this collective pronoun makes it feel as though Pope aligns himself and his own poetry with that of all other writers and creative people, across the world and through time – the effect is to make us feel less isolated and alone with our creative practises, and also to encourage every individual to think of himself or herself as a creative person. 


Heroic couplets – Pope was famous for writing in heroic couplets, which are lines of iambic pentameter (five feet of unstressed-stressed syllables) that end in rhyming couplets. This metre is often used for epic or narrative poetry, as it creates an inspirational or idealistic mood; it was popularised in English by Chaucer and used commonly throughout the 17th and18th centuries. Baroque poets such as Pope and Dryden also used this form to translate classical works into English, such as the epic poems of Virgil and Homer. 

Horatian satire – Satirical writing was very popular in Pope’s time (the 18th century) as its main aim is to use humour to expose the flaws in strictly ruled societies. the Roman writer Horace developed a specific form of satire which is characterised by a witty, amused tone that seeks to expose the follies of humans through ridicule. Pope’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ is inherently satirical, and draws on the tradition of Horatian satire, because it is essentially a criticism of critics themselves, who judge writers too harshly and selfishly by their own low standards, instead of genuinely appreciating artistic merit. In the extract above, Pope also satirises the stereotype of the too-eager young artist, who thinks he or she has achieved greatness at a young age, instead of striving throughout their life to always improve and reach new heights with their work. 

Exclamatory sentence – ‘New distant scenes of endless science rise!’ – Pope uses the word ‘science’ in its original sense here, to mean all ‘knowledge’, not just the discipline of science. The exclamation creates an emphatic and energetic tone to the line, showing that if the artist can overcome his or her own arrogance, many new pathways and creative inspirations will become accessible. 

Shift in tone – ‘The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,’ – Pope acknowledges that once we realise how far there is left to go, we are likely to feel tired and exhausted by the infinite potential of our own creativity – though the tone becomes less confident here, it is also intended to be reassuring because it encourages all readers to understand that creativity is something which ebbs and flows, rather than remaining constant. 


The divine world is present in nature, and the artist must access the divine to produce great art  – In the poem, (written in 1709) Pope uses the natural landscape of the world as an extended metaphor for the way in which an artist must traverse different terrains and aspire to view new territories, like an explorer or pioneer whose job it is to seek out new experiences and new ways of being. 

Creativity is variable – the metaphorical landscape that an artist must traverse is used symbolically to represent the journey of creativity, with its peaks and troughs which feel easy and inspirational at some times, and very difficult at others. Pope encourages readers not to be put off by the difficulties, and equally not to assume that the journey to being a great artist or writer will be easy or simple. This message can equally be applied to any creative pursuits in life, whether imagination features in our lives on a large or small scale. 

To be truly creative, one must be humble and learn constantly – often in the modern world, we think of artists as ‘geniuses’ who just possess natural talent and gifts – Pope demonstrates that this is not at all true – true artists and creatives are visionaries who can change and progress society; however, in order to achieve their full potential they must educate themselves deeply and constantly learn from a variety of sources, talent does not make great art – insight, depth of knowledge and sensitivity to beauty does, and all of these are gained from providing oneself with a broad education. Pope was mostly self-educated, so this sentiment reflects in his own hard work and drives to succeed. 


 Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was a famous poet and translator, known for his satirical works which humorously poked fun at the strict society of his time. When he was young, he contracted tuberculosis, which affected his health for the rest of his life and also caused him to have stunted growth – in adulthood, he was said to be only 4’6’’ tall. His family home was in Windsor Forest, and he spent his childhood there in nature, reading and providing himself with a classical education (he was unable to attend university, due to his family being Catholic). He moved to his own villa in Twickenham in 1719, where he spent his time redesigning the grounds and gardens – building an underground grotto, which turned into a camera obscura when the door was shut – projecting images of nature onto the internal walls. 

Pope wrote ‘An Essay on Criticism’ when he was only 23 years old – the poem above is an extract from this long poem. The main purpose of the poem is to express issues with literary and artistic criticism. Critics are people who review and assess the quality and merits of artistic works – often, they gain a reputation for being brutal and also selfish or egotistical – a critic, for instance, has the power to make or break a writer’s career. The genius of Pope’s poem lies in the fact that he uses the form of poetry to turn himself into a critic – one whose job it is to criticise the unfairness of critics themselves! This creates a satirical tone which humorously ridicules the seriousness of critics, whilst making a very valid point about art and taste. Simultaneously, the poem educates readers on what good critics are capable of doing – namely creating a sense of true taste in culture, illuminating the beauty and complexity of artworks and enabling the general public to find deeper meaning and pleasure in the art they experience. It also makes valuable comments on the works of artists and writers themselves, suggesting what good poets should do to make their poetry more powerful and meaningful – his advice in the poem includes the idea that artists should acknowledge their own flaws and limitations, as well as always staying humble and continuing to learn throughout their lives. 


TASK: Pick two of the themes below, make a mind map and add four separate quotations that relate to them. Make short notes of analysis, explaining how and why each one relates to your theme. What, in your opinion, is the poet’s final message or statement about each theme that you chose? 

  • Journeys 
  • Art 
  • Criticism 
  • Education 
  • Creativity 
  • Beauty 
  • Nature 


  1. Discuss Pope’s approach to creativity in the poem. 
  2. In what ways does Pope show the importance of education in the poem? 
  3. Examine the ways in which Pope uses nature to explore the creative process in the poem.

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