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Alexander Pope’s poetry

Alexander Pope 

Important aspects of Alexander Pope’s poetry

Alexander Pope was the high priest of the Age of Reason and Common-sense, English, classicism reached its perfection in the poetry of Pope. Pope preached and practised the typical classical qualities – balance, exactness, restraint, polish. ‘Pope was the undisputed master in satirical and didactic verse.’ In stead of poetry of emotion and imagination he preferred the poetry of reason and common sense. He was thus the opposite of such poets as Spenser and Shakespeare whose poetry was dominated by romantic qualities.

Pope as a confirmed classicist

Both in subject-matter and style he broke with the romantic tradition. He followed the ancient (Greek and Roman poets). He also followed “Nature” which according to him was synonymous with ‘Reason.” In his poem Essay on Criticism” he laid down principles of literary tastes and style. Obviously these tastes and style were to be classical rather than Romantic. He laid a great emphasis on “Authority”. The poet had to abide by certain rules and standards that were followed by the Ancients. Thus he said in his “Essay on Criticism.”

Those rules of old discovered not devised

Are Nature still but Nature methodiz’d


First follow, Nature, and your judgment frame

By her just standard, which is still the same.

Pope and the Heroic Couplets

The Heroic couplet (name of a verse form) which has introduced by Denham and Waller and popularised by Dryden, was perfected by Pope. Pope was indisputably the greatest master of this verse form (i.e., the heroic couplet). Indeed, he owed his greatness to the mastery of the heroic couplet.

Pope introduced a number of innovations in the heroic couplet.

For example:

  • He confined the sense of the lines of the couplet. In other words he dis-allowed the overflow of sense from one line to the other.
  • He fixed the position of the “pasue” in the middle of the line.
  • Unlike Dryden he seldom or never used an Alexandrine (a line containing six iambic feet).
  • He never used a triplet i.e. three lines rhyming together).

Thus Pope favoured the ‘stopped” or self-contained couplets, his formula may be stated thus, the lines are strictly iambic; the rhymes fall preferably on monosyllabic words, which thus receive the full terminal stress; one of the rhyming words is, where possible,a verb, so that thee is a sense-ending as well as sound-ending.”

Commenting on Pope’s heroic couplets Professor Elton says; “He avoided “needless Alexandrines” as well as triplet rhymes. He liked to limit the position of the pause, keeping it usually after the fourth, fifth or sixth syllable (i.e. approximately in the middle of the line); he isolated couplet and line from line; above all he balanced the parts of the line against each other:

Poets themselves must fall, like those they sung,

Deaf the prised ear, and mute the tuneful tongue,

Professor Legouis remarks, “Pope pruned everything which seemed to him irregular, he filed down what was still rough and rugged and he ended by giving the couplet its greatest possible finish and brilliancy.”

The couplet thus became a bright and sharp-edged tool, excellent for satire or turning aphorisms (short pithy saying) but less suitable for description or narration. This resulted in a certain monotony.”

The poet Cowper referred to this “montony” when he said that Pope,

Made poetry a work mechanic art

And every warbler has his tune by heart,

Poetry of the town

Pope’s poetry was mainly the poetry of the town. He excelled in dealing with artificial Urban manners. His mock-heroic epic. “The Rape of the Lock” describes in graphic details the artificial customs and manners of town-bred men the women. It refers to “tea-drinking, snuff-taking, lapdogs, Cards parties and toilette.”

A. Pope as a Representative poet

Pope is the most representative poet of the eighteenth century Three of his greatest poems. The Dunciad, The Rape of the Lock, and Essay on Man reflect the literary, the social and the philosophical trends of his times. The Dunciad, which is a satire on dull poets, reveals he literary scene. The “Rape of the Lock” depicts the social scene whereas “Essay on Man” is steeped in that type of optimism which was so fashionable in Pope’s times. The basic idea in this poem, namely, “Whatever is, is right” was the key-note of popular philosophy. Pope represents his age as thoroughly and faithfully as Spenser represents the Elizabethan times.

Alexander Pope as a Satirist

Like Dryden Pope excelled as a Satirist. He possessed a keen and sharp wit and a stinging irony. He lacked the breadth and humanity of Dryden’s satire, but was more evirulent and biting. He was sometimes very mean, personal and revengeful in his satire. At places he did not mind descending to coarse abuse. His most ambitious satirical poem “The Dunciad” lashed mercilessly a score of contemporary poets. He paid off old scores in almost all his satirical poems. His most brilliant satire, Epistle to Dr. Azbuthnot, contained an unfair attack on Addison (in the guise of Attricus).

According to a critic, “Dryden attacked parties and sects. Pope attacked persons (enemies and rivals, and Swift, all mankind)”

Pope certainly surpassed Dryden in the keen ness and polish of his satire.

Besides “The Dunciad” Pope wrote a social satire named “The Rape of the Lock”. In this mock-heroic epic he satirised the artificial manners and customs of his times.

Pope as a Lyricist

Obviously Pope was no lyricist. He had no gift for song. He wrote only three lyrics in all his life. Of these two “Ode for Music on St. Cecilla’s Day” and Eloisato Aberlard” lack genuine lyrical feeling. “They contain not a single; superb or even good lyrical line.” The third named. “The Elegy to the memory of a unfortunate lady, though spoilt by melodramatic emotion, does contain true lyrical feeling. According to Professor Cazamin. “This is the most romantic poem that Pope has written. By the subject, the setting, the sentiment and the note of a personal emotion, it is a sketch of that type of elegiac meditation in which the eighteenth century was to discover a vein of sentimental indulgence. There is here something of the love of tears”. The form remains mediocre, the language conventional, despite fine poetic lines.

Limitations of Alexander Pope

Pope was neither a great thinker nor a great lyricist. He was a craftsman (artist) rather than a poet. The merits of his poem were largely those of the style. He lacked depth of feeling, imaginative sensibility, lyrical ardour, and warmth of emotion.

He was singularly deficient in constructive power. Except the “Rape of the Lock” none of his longer poems. (The Dunciad, Essay on Man) attains unity of structure. He was more often rhetorical rather than poetical. He possessed little or no dramatic sense. Lastly, he deplorably lacked originality of thought. Most of his poems (Essay on criticism, Essay on Man) are strings of borrowed thoughts.

Merits of Alexander Pope

Pope’s diction (style) was amazingly polished and brilliant. He was the greatest master of the “heroic couplet” As a satirist he ranked with the greatest. His choice of the right word in the right place was un-erring (sure). He possessed an astonishing knack for turning aphorisms and epigrams (short pithy savings). He had few equals as a stylist. The lucidity of his style could not be easily surpassed. His cool wit and pungent irony were the envy of many poets.

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