My Difficulties with Pope's Verse

Of all the pieces that appear in ‘The Poems of the Week’ spot’ of various journals, the one I most enjoy is in the Sunday Times. This week it was chosen by David Mills and he gave an excerpt from An Essay on Criticism by Pope beginning, “ A little learning is a dang’rous thing.” The accompanying note brought home to me why I have never become fond of reading Pope’s verse. Mills quotes several lines from the poet that have become proverbial, like the first line of his choice: “What oft is thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” “ To err is human, to forgive divine.” And there are others: “Pride the never-failing vice of fools.” “Stretched on the rack of a too easy chair.”“ The right divine of kings to govern wrong.” etc. But memorability always comes in the single line. The other half of the couplet only seems to exist to shore up its brilliant partner.

Nobody would suggest that Hilaire Belloc is in anyway Pope’s equal, but his wit, such as it is, comes in complete couplets i.e. in verse. Thus they are easily remembered: “When I am dead, I hope it will be said: / His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.” “ I’m tired of love I’m still more tired of Rhyme. / But money gives me pleasure all the time.” “I am a sundial, and I make a botch / Of what is done far better by a watch.” Admittedly Pope’s epigram, On the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness, “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew; / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” is also easily remembered. It is the only piece of his verse as distinct from individual lines, that I can quote.

My experience of reading Pope’s contemporary couplet-spinner John Dryden is very different. I find I can recite chunks of his masterpiece Absalom and Achitophel without having made any conscientious effort to commit them to memory. The opening six lines of the poem I know by heart and a dozen or so from the famous characterisation of Buckingham, if not always absolutely word perfectly: “ A man so various that he seemed to be / Not one butall mankind’s epitome: / Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong; / Was everything in starts, and nothing long; \ But, in the course of one revolving moon, \ Was chymist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon: \ then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,\ Besides a thousand freaks that died in thinking, / Best madman, who could every hour employ / With something to wish or to enjoy! / Railing and praising were his usual themes, / And both to show his judgment in extremes: / So over violent or over civil / That every man with him was God or Devil,”

Works by Pope that do give me pleasure, are in a little, well annotated textbook, Imitations of Horace, which I see I must have picked up second hand for 40p. My favourite piece within it, is An Imitation of the sixth satire of the Second book of Horace. I can quote the opening six lines of this from memory, which may seem to contradict what I have written above. The poem starts: “I’ve often wished that I had clear / For life, six hundred pounds a year, / A handsome House to house a Friend, \ A River at my garden’s end, \ A Terras-walk, and half a Rood / Of Land, set out to plant Wood.'' In fact these lines are not by Pope. The first 132 lines of the poem are by another couplet addict, Jonathan Swift. Pope finished the piece with the famous fable of the town and country mouse.

Interestingly, these lines are not by Pope. The first 132 lines of the poem are by another couplet addict, Jonathan Swift. Pope concluded the piece with the famous fable of the town and country mouse.