July 22 Alexander Pope: True Ease in Writing Comes from Art, Not Chance

After brief consideration, and a re-reading of an earlier chapter, I decided to go back in the textbook (An Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed. Kennedy) to the chapter called “Sound” and speak briefly about the poems contained in it.

I did not want to speak on this subject, because it often does not play a role in prose fiction. Most readers reading a novel do not care what the words on the page sound like (and only in a few instances do the sounds as they are spoken by the text need to replicate the mood of the action currently taking place – except, perhaps, when a character is explaining how something sounded. e.g. “It made a chicka chicka, chicka chicka, click sound.”) Whereas in poetry it is an essential knowledge and poets often insist that their audiences read their poems aloud. They request this not only to hear the rhythm of the meter or the beauty of the language, but also the sounds that the words make; this supplements their meaning.

An example of this is Edwin Morgan’s “Siesta of a Hungarian Snake”

s  sz  sz  SZ  sz  SZ  sz  ZS  ZS  ZS  zs  zs  z

When you read it out loud you can hear the snake hissing as it snores and you can hear the rhythm of the snores. The “words” that are written are meant to convey sleep and convey snake.

I admit that this is the part of poetry (along with word stresses which I’ll delve into later) that I understand the least.

I understand that when the poet speaks about oceans (as in this poem) and the words when spoken are rhythmic and give a recurring sibilant s sound naturally as in: “But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,” then I get it. I’m being connected through the written word to  the noise of a physical object and the wording makes the same or similar noise as that physical object. In that former sentence the meter is a bit bumpy (implying a stormy ocean), but I’ve heard the same recurring sibilant sound recurs from ocean waves when they crash against a beach head (whoosh!.. hsss,Whosh!..hss,Whoosh.. hsss). Another example of poem sounds mimicking the thing that it is describing (but not getting it exactly right) is Tennyson’s “Come down, O maid”: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms.” The words “moan of doves” doesn’t quite sound like doves moaning, but it comes close to the rhythm and sound (Ooo, Ooo).

Where I get lost is when the sound of the words are supposed to describe a feeling or an idea; I just don’t hear it (but I try really hard). An example of this is from today’s poem: “When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast Weight to throw,/The Line too labors, and the Words move slow.” The textbook points out that the sentence is difficult to read, or rather is clunky and doesn’t just trip off of the tongue easily. The textbook also describes who Ajax was (a Greek figure of myth, as described in the Iliad, who was known for his strength like Superman is today, and specifically for an incident where he hurled a giant boulder up into the air and over a really tall gate) and that the clumsiness of the sentence is supposed to sound like Ajax straining to lift and swing the boulder over his body and into the air, thus the sound is saying what the words are saying. Like I said, I don’t hear it. But you can try reading it aloud yourself and see if it conjures in your mind the sound of a man lifting a rock and hurling it over a really tall fence.

[Author’s note: I don’t normally italicize, because I don’t know if other computers will be able to accurately translate the italics or just turn those words into garbled nonsense (they often do, so I leave them out for the sake of clarity) but italics are intrinsic to this poem, so I hope that the words can be read. But for those whose computers are not accurately translating the poem the words above are “Ajax”, “labors”, “slow”. I will put the other italics of the poem in a post script below it.]

The textbook also talks about how certain sounds resemble their words, “sl will often begin a word that conveys ideas of wetness and smoothness – slick, slimy, slippery, slush”, but this is not always the case, because sl also starts the word “sly” and “sledgehammer” not really wet words. So, sometimes the sounds are subjective (for instance, sl does not sound like a wet sound to me). But some word sounds are very objective as in an onomatopoeia. An onomatopoeia is a word for a sound like “click” or “buzz” or “zoom”. The word sounds like the sound that it is the word. So you don’t have to say, “it made a bzzz, bzzz noise” you can say, “it made a buzz” and the person you’re talking to will imagine the bzzz, bzzz sound, because you said the word “buzz”.

Anyhow, here is a poem by Alexander Pope that gives advice on how to write good poetry. It emphasizes the practice of using sound correctly and gives examples by sounding the poem out the way it a poem ought to sound. Thus when he describes cacophony, or sounds that aren’t smooth and rhythmic or beautiful to the ear, but are rather jarring and clashing, he uses sentences that are jarring and clashing (with sounds that are jarring and clashing). And when he describes (though doesn’t use the term) euphony, or rather smooth rhythmic and beautiful soothing sounds, his sentence are smooth rhythmic and soothing (ditto with the sounds in those lines).

When reading this poem, read it out loud to hear its sounds. Remember to put the heaviest stress on the italicized words, because that’s why they are there.

True Ease in Writing Comes from Art, Not Chance

by Alexander Pope

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse should like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast Weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the Words move slow;
No so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus‘ varied Lays surprise,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World’s Victor stood subdued by Sound!
The Pow’rs of Music all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

[an italics guide for computers that have garbled the italicized words, these words in order of usage: Sound (line 4), Zephyr, smooth Stream (line 6), smoother Numbers, hoarse, rough Verse (line 8), Torrent, Ajax, labors (line 10), slow, Camilla, Timotheus’, Lybian Jove (line 15), burns, melts, fierce Eyes (line 17), sparkling Fury, Sighs, Tears begin to flow (line 18), Turns of Nature, Worlds Victor, Sound (line 20), The Pow’rs of Music, Timotheus, Dryden (last line)]

Footnotes: Ajax is a Greek hero with Superman-like powers of strength. He was described in the Iliad as having hurled a boulder up and over the gates of Troy and flattened Hector.

Camilla is an Amazon-like warrior woman fabled to be so fast and agile that “she could have skimmed across an unmown grainfield/Without so much as bruising one tender blade;/She could have sped across an ocean’s surge/Without so much as wetting her quicksilver soles.” (Thanks to the textbook for quoting the Aeneid VII, 808-811).

Timotheus was Alexander the Great’s favorite musician. Timotheus’s skills are remembered in poet John Dryden’s poem “Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music” : “Timotheus, placed on high/Amid the tuneful choir,/With flying fingers touched the lyre:/The trembling notes ascend the sky,/And heavenly joys inspire.”

Alexander the Great was also known by his nickname Lybian Jove, because an oracle had predicted that he would be known as the son of the god Zeus Ammon.

I do believe that great works of literature come from art (or rather carefully considered construction, well-educated choices and an trained ear for the aesthetic) rather than from accident where the monkey with the typewriter could get lucky and write something beautiful and lasting (but it wouldn’t mean anything, because he didn’t mean to say it). None the less, I don’t believe that that sort of writing is done with ease. Alex Pope, I wholeheartedly disagree.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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