Pope included ‘Sound and Sense’ in An Essay on Criticism which he published when he was only twenty-three years old. It was one of his earliest poems, written, he asserted before he was twenty years old. ‘Sound and Sense’ is one of his most famous poems an one that helped establish his reputation as one of the most important poets of his age.
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Summary of Sound and Sense
The lines take the reader through several different scenarios in which a writer might find themselves. Through demonstrations of meter and content, Pope describes how to write about the sea, the lightly blowing breeze, Ajax, and Camilla from Greek mythology should be written. The sound must match the content.
Structure of Sound and Sense
‘Sound and Sense’ by Alexander Pope is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCC, made up of heroic rhyming couplets. These couplets also follow a metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. Although the poem contains fourteen lines, it does not make use of any of the other formal elements of a sonnet.
Literary Devices in Sound and Sense
Pope makes use of several literary devices in ‘Sound and Sense’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, assonance, and allusion. The latter appears most prominently in the last lines of the poem. The poet makes allusion to several characters from Greek mythology as well as the poet Timotheus. Through the latter, he is suggesting that he has many of the characteristics in his own poetry that made Timotheus’ poetry great.
Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. For example, “surges lash the sounding shore” which appears in line seven.
Assonance is the use and reuse of vowel sounds within multiple words, usually next to one another or closely situated. For example, the long “o” sound in “echo” and “blows” in lines four and five. It appears again one line later with “flows”.
Analysis of Sound and Sense
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
In the first lines of ‘Sound and Sense,’ the speaker begins by using an aphorism. This is an observation of the world that contains a general truth. In this case, he’s saying that the “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance”. This means that it is not easy to become comfortable at writing. True “ease” does not come easily even if it might look that way. It is possible to become a skilled writer through hard work.
He adds in line three that it is not enough to not “give offense” to people with one’s rhymes. If people aren’t offended that doesn’t mean that you are writing good poetry. There must be something more technical to the poem. The sound must go along with the “sense” or the meaning.
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;
In the next few lines, the speaker adds that poetry should resemble a light breeze blowing and a smoothness of meter. This is all seen through the use of rhythm and assonance in these lines. Continuing on, he says that the opposite should be true if one is writing about the “loud surges” of the sea. The sound of a poem should match up with the “sounding shore”. The verse should be “rough…like the torrent roar”.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus’ varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
The ninth line provides the reader with an allusion to Ajax, a mythical figure from Homer’s Iliad. He is described in the story as an incredibly strong warrior, something that is a reference in this poem as well. When he tries to “throw” a rock then the line of poetry needs to sound like it too is laboring. A reader should be able to interpret the strain he is under in the meter.
The next lines contain references to Camilla and Timotheus. The former is a virgin queen of the Volscians. She was described by Virgil as being so fast that she could run over a cornfield without bending the stalks. Pope relays that same myth in these lines. The poetry, when one writes about her skill, should feel just as light.
The last reference, to Timotheus, is about another Greek poet. His poems were surprising and often contained something unexpected. By asking the reader to “Hear” Timotheus’ “varied lays surprise” he is alluding to the belief that he is similar to this man in some way. He too has the skill to write surprising poetry.