Pope’s art of versification

Ans. Alexander Pope’s art of versification, Pope’s chosen measure was the heroic couplet. The heroic couplet consists of two iambic pentameters; i.e., two lines of five iambic feet. It is called ‘heroic’ because it was the typical measure used in English epic and heroic poetry.

Pope was both a master and innovator in this field. He chose it for literary criticism, moral preaching, satire, and burlesque. John Dennis observes: “He was able to play only upon one instrument, the heroic couplet.

When he attempted another form of verse, the result, if not a total failure, was mediocrity.” For example, ‘when he chose lyric measure in The Ode to St. Cecilia, the outcome was a miserable failure.

Pope's art of versification
Pope’s art of versification

The heroic couplet by the pope

The heroic couplet was used by Chaucer with great mastery and skill. The Elizabethans too used it, but they used it loosely in the manner of blank verse. Dryden, of course, used it with great force and freedom, and flexibility.

He developed Drayton’s colloquial principle, and made the couplet an instrument ‘fittest for discourse.’ Dryden’s handling of it has a characteristic sweep, and he makes frequent use of triplets and Alexandrines. Pope, on the other hand, regards the heroic couplets as if they were stanzas, self-contained.

Pope’s couplets are closed; there is no ‘enjambment’ in them. The sense is complete, nearly or fully, with each couplet. Each couplet, therefore, is a separate entity.

Alexander Pope

The continuity, the splitting, and the flexibility of Dryden are lacking in Pope. In each couplet, the ‘caesura’ is placed exactly in the middle i.e., after the fourth syllable and before the sixth. And the result is often monotony. For instance:

The courtier’s promises, and sick many’s prayers,

The smiles of Harlots, and the tears of heirs,

stain her honor or her new brocade,

Forget her prayers or miss a masquerade.

In Pope’s couplets, there is a pause at the end of the first line, indicated by a comma, signifying partial completion of the sense. There is a pause at the end of the couplet, indicated by a full stop, signifying the completion of the sense. Pope’s art of versification

The couplet is thus closed and does not require the aid of a preceding couplet. The rhyming is single, the rhyming parts of each line grow and are single-syllabled.

Pope's art of versification
Pope’s art of versification

In this manner “Pope’s use of the heroic couplet marks a great, change from that of Dryden. The couplet is tighter and more compressed, and there are few of the Alexandrines or triplets which help to give ‘Dryden’s poetry its typical sweep. Ins, tea, d we have ‘correctness’ and ‘finish’.” (Albert).

Pope’s Versification skill in The Rape of the Lock

Pope’s versification, nonetheless, has been a subject of much detraction as well. Edith Sitwell, Prof. Bensley, and De Quincey are fierce critics. In their opinion, Pope lacks variety. He is mechanical, and as Hazlitt says, “he turned Pegasus into a rócking horse.”

The discontinuity of his style and the strict rules which he adopted tend to disintegrate his poems. He also lacks an ear for rhyme. There are in his couplets a large number of unsatisfactory rhymes, frequent repetitions of the same rhyme, and a variety of vocabulary.

Moreover, his views about the uniformity of sense and sound are often crude, and therefore, he hardly equals the music of great poets. Pope’s art of versification

Such a criticism probably has arisen out of it wat of romantic qualities of poetry, which he certainly lacks. This lack, however, should not be assigned to the poet but to the age in which he was writing for the ears who were demanding a reason, correctness, and wit.

The variety he introduces by varying the depth of the caesura, by accent variation, and by the skillful manipulation of liquid consonants and alliteration:

Some to the sun their insect, wings unfold,

Waft on the breeze, or sink in Clouds of gold

Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal sight

Their fluid bodies half-dissolved in light.

Or as in The Dunciad

The mighty mother and her son, who brings

The Smithfield muse the ears of kings.


Fate their dotage, this fair idiot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother gave.

Discontinuity of the sense in no way is the discontinuity of thought. The. unity of action is maintained throughout. Pope’s epigrammatic pungency, Often the result of wilful use of antithetical balance, shows us Pope’s couplet in all its strength, clearness, and point.

Pope's art of versification
Pope’s art of versification

His range as a versifier is no doubt limited. With Jane Austen, we must grant him the ‘two inches of ivory,’ and within these limitations, there is no more skillful artist. Using the Drydenean couplet, he imparted to it a gossamerlike delicacy of touch, that more than compensated for the Jack of strength.

If at times the glitter and sparkle fade into dullness, the occasions are comparatively rare, and the amazing thing is that he sustained his mercurial smartness and aptness for so. long…No. one can dress up a commonplace sentiment or humdrum thought in finer clothes than he ” (Compton-Rickett)

“Pope’s heroics”, says Edmund Gosse, isn’t only the best in the language, but they are so perfect that it has been impossible since his day, to use that form of the iambic without scheming intentionally to compete with Pope.”

Or as Dr. Johnson observes. “Ah, thousand years may elapse before there shall appear another man with a power of versification equal to that of Pope.”

Read more from The Rape of the Lock (click)


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