Correctness of Alexander Pope's Classical Poetry

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     "English classical poetry", says Cazamian, "formed itself upon scrupulous searching for perfection." This perfection refers not to ideas or thoughts or emotions, but to form and style, whatever, maybe the thought - its nature and quality do not matter - it must be expressed clearly, logically and rationally. It does not matter what the subject matter is, nor whether it is deficient in emotion; in fact, Pope never cared for emotion and there is very little emotion in Pope's poetry. He was always endeavoring to eschew all enthusiasm and exuberance. Whatever he had to express - and mostly he expressed commonplace thoughts - he expressed in an orderly manner and with perfect intellectual clearness.

      The Elizabethan and the Metaphysical poets had taken all sorts of liberties with their language, and indulged in all kinds of excesses; their style was full of vagueness, obscurity and extravagant imagery. These faults needed correction, and Pope with his orderly and rational mind endeavored to rid poetry of the extravagant conceits and romantic excesses, which had corrupted it. Pope purged it of all genuine poetic substance. Pope's correctness means "orderly and lucid expression and eschewing extravagance, he called for a return to nature." Poetry; according to Pope, must be clear and lucid, and should get rid of all vagueness, obscurity and looseness. This is the first and most important feature of Pope's correct poetry.

      The second point of Pope's correctness is his correct conformity to the rules of the ancients. The ancient classics provided models of composition, to follow which was to write correct poetry. Pope himself followed the methods of the ancients, but in doing so he lost their spirit. His work is no doubt marked by balance and moderation, but it is lacking in that fine glad rapture, which is the mark of true poetry. There is nothing loose or disorderly in Pope. He was a conscientious artist, and weighed every word before using it. He was never a solvently writer, and examined the right and sound substance of every single word in order to test its suitability in the place in which he was using it. His perpetual endeavor was thought. This required infinite labor, immense knowledge, constant practice, revision and rewriting. For Pope, poetry was not spontaneous or careless writing; it was the product of a painful endeavor. This was his ideal of "correctness" or perfection. But this attainment for correctness or faultlessness was both Pope's virtue and fault. It was a virtue because it gave lucidity and force to his poetry. It was a fault because he polished too much, so that in the end often the polish remained, and the glow of poetry wore away.

      Lastly, his correctness is shown in his composition of the heroic couplet. Before Pope, Dryden had been the unchallenged master of the heroic couplet; and in his hands, it had acquired great force.

      It had a sweep and freedom, which it subsequently lost in the hands of Pope and his followers. It is said that Pope perfected the heroic couplet, but the perfection it attained in the hands of Pope was mechanical perfection, not real excellence. To Pope expression was more than thought, and he clipped his thought to the measure of two lines which formed the couplet. The result was that the heroic couplet lost that flexibility and sweep, which it had in Dryden. Pope gave to English verse the stopped couplet, which was correct in its meter and accent, and which was the most effective medium of Pope's artificial poetry.

      Thus, the correctness of Pope as a poet consists not in his correct thoughts and ideas, but in his expression, in his choice of words and phrases, in his exact adaption of word to sense, in his orderly and rational composition, in his careful and painstaking workmanship and in his dexterous handling of the heroic couplet.

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