In ‘To a Captious Critic,’ Dunbar expresses his dislike for critics, literary criticism, and for those who claim to know more about poetry or prose writing than those who engage with it directly. The poem speaks on themes of literature and writing.
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The poem begins with the speaker addressing the critic, telling him that he’s a boring prince ruling over a “dull” world. It’s clear Dunbar feels disdain for the profession, but at the same time, he tells this person that he could do their job far better than they can.
In the last line, he calls for the critic to step down from his throne and allow other, smarter people, to take his place.
‘To a Captious Critic’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a four-line poem that’s contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow the simple rhyme scheme of AABB. Dunbar also chose to make use of a straightforward metrical pattern. Each line contains two sets of five beats, totaling ten syllables.
There are also moments in ‘To a Captious Critic’ in which Dunbar makes use of half-rhyme. This is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “my,” “lightness,” “Right,” and “wise,” all of which make use of the long “i” vowel sound. There is an example of consonance in “dull,” “till” and “rule” with the repetition of the “l” consonant sound. There are also examples of full rhyme within the text itself, such as “light” in the first line and “Right” in the third.
Despite the brevity of the poem, Dunbar makes use of several poetic techniques. These include apostrophe, metaphor, and allusion. The first, apostrophe, is an arrangement of words addressing someone who does not exist or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. In this case, the utilization is clear. The whole poem is addressed to the “captious,” or overly critical, “critic”. This is someone who would’ve read Dunbar’s works and reacted poorly to them, writing a review that cast his writing in a bad light.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things in which one thing is said to be another, not “like” or “as” another. In this poem, Dunbar uses a metaphor to say that he too could be “prince of bores,” meaning, a literary critic like the one he is addressing. Then, in line three he refers to “that dull estate,” or the domain over which the critic presides. Meaning–his position of importance in the world of literary criticism. Dunbar states that he could rule that “estate” more wisely.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. Dunbar uses allusion to refer, obliquely to his disappointment with this critic’s review, as well as to his general dislike of the profession.
Dear critic, who my lightness so deplores,
Would I might study to be prince of bores,
In the first lines of ‘To a Captious Critic’ the speaker, who is very likely Dunbar himself, uses apostrophe to address a “critic,” or a reviewer of literary works. This address might be specified to one person, to it might be broader, intended to include all critics who have reviewed his written works.
He begins by describing this person as someone who “deplores” his “lightness”. In this line “lightness” refers to some attributes of Dunbar’s writing. It could be his style, subject matter or a general feel the poet attributes to his written works. This creates an immediate juxtaposition between the two sides of this argument. The word “deplore” is dark and hateful while “lightness” is the exact opposite.
Continuing on, Dunbar begins his extended metaphor comparing the critic to a prince who rules unwisely over his domain. Dunbar tells the critic that if he wanted to, he too could study and become “prince of bores”. The poet is at once showing his own ability, but also degrading the critic’s profession. If one becomes a critic, which Dunbar says is easy enough to do, one will only end up a “prince of bores”. A learned person, incapable of engaging in the profession they claim to know so much about, writing poetry.
Right wisely would I rule that dull estate—
But, sir, I may not, till you abdicate.
In the next lines of ‘To a Captious Critic’ Dunbar tells the critic that if he chose to, he could “Right wisely…rule that dull estate”. The use of anastrophe in these lines makes them slightly harder to interpret but the meaning is clear enough. He could become a critic and do the same job this person does. But, that would mean he’d end up ruling over a “dull” world, something he doesn’t really want to do.
The last line calls for the critic to step down from his role as “prince”. He must “abdicate” his position so that others, like Dunbar (theoretically), could take his place. At once Dunbar mocks the critic’s profession and informs him that he could do a much better job.