Heroic Couplet of Alexander Pope

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      Pope is the unchallenged master of the heroic-couplet, just as Milton is of blank verse. Almost all of Pope's poetry is in the heroic couplet. (Heroic-couplet is so called because this form of verse was formerly used in heroic verse, or narrative verse dealing with stories of heroes). Pope molded the heroic couplet exactly to his purpose, polished it to the extreme of melodiousness, and touched it to sparkle with the utmost brilliance. The rhythm of Pope's couplet has perfect smoothness and regularity, though sometimes appearing to be artificial, has a pleasing effect upon the ear. Dryden is another master of the heroic couplet. Pope, it is true, has neither the freedom nor the vigor of Dryden, but his verse has more ease and facility and smoothness than that of Dryden. But the smooth chiseling to which Pope subjected his verse made Cowper complain that the former:

Made poetry a mechanic art;
And every warbler has his tune by heart.

      But could every warbler catch Pope's tune? Even Cowper, delightful as he was, never attained Pope's sparkle and ease. Pope's art was so subtle that no one could catch its secret, and so where Pope flow with ease, others lumbered slowly on the ground.

      Pope mostly used the "stops' couplet - that is, there is a final pause after every couplet; one couplet does not flow into the next couplet, carrying on its sense. This kind of couplet limits the scope of the poet for he has to cut his thought to the size of the couplet, i.e., thought has to be so narrowed down as to be expressed within the range of two lines. So the heroic-couplet has a way of limiting and controlling the poet, who is not its master. But Pope was the master, not the victim of the heroic-couplet. He condensed his thought so precisely and chose his words so aptly that he could express his thought aptly and forcibly within the range of two lines. Thus, he made of the heroic-couplet a fine poetic instrument.

      The heroic-couplet tends to be monotonous in inferior hands, and as Keats says, it gives a swaying movement, like that of a rocking horse. But in Pope, it is the sense that controls the movement of the verse. A line of heroic verse has normally five accents, but in a large number of Pope's lines there are four strong accents and in some six accents. There are four strong accents in the line:

No, fierce Othello in so loud a strain

      and six accents in the line,

Sighs, sobs and passions and the war of tongues.

      Pope packed into his couplet as much sense as it could hold. He composes his verse on the principle that verse, being distinct from prose, required brevity of expression and there is rarely any verse in the English language, which shows as much brevity as that of Pope. Swift paid a great tribute to Pope when he said that "Pope could fix in one couplet more sense than I can do in six." Though there is some sort of music in Pope's verse, it never sings. His poetry is intellectual and impresses more by its sense than by its music. There are some poets, whom we can enjoy even without attending to what they say; we are carried on by the music of their verse.

      Many passages of Shelley win us at once by their magic of music, but give us trouble when we try to examine the development of the thought. The effect of Pope’s poetry is of a different kind. It comes not so much from its music as from the precision of his ideas and the rapidity of their ordered development.

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