Sound and Sense
by Alexander Pope
Lines 1-4 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
- The poem opens with an aphorism. (OK, so that's fancy schmancy vocab for "a concisely worded principle." It's usually pretty clever too. Try using the word in class; your teacher will it eat up).
- The speaker seems to be someone that feels comfortable telling us the way writing works. This writing critic (and by critic we mean someone who analyzes writing, not someone that says bad things about it) makes a pretty bold claim here about how good writing comes about: plain old hard work.
- The first line means that being so good at writing that it looks effortless is not something that just happens. You've heard people say things like "You're either a natural or you're not. You either have it or you don't." Our speaker says that's bogus. Good writing may look easy, but it looks that way because the writer has mastered the art.
- In the first line, the word "Art" means a skill that has been practiced and practiced. He gives us an example in the second line: dancing. People who look really great out there shaking their thing have learned how; the guy out there making a fool of himself doesn't have the skills because he hasn't trained hard enough.
- Note that the speaker compares writing (in this, case, writing poetry), with dancing because both depend on sound and rhythm. In fact, if you subtract sound and rhythm from dancing, you really don't have much left. And if someone is dancing fast and bouncy to a slow, sad song, it doesn't make any sense. The same goes with poetry. The sound and rhythm has to fit with the ideas being expressed.
- By the way, the reason we're analyzing the lines by two is because Pope is considered the greatest poet of the heroic couplet: two rhymed lines (see our "Glossary" for more).
- Pope is a total master of sound and rhythm. In the first two lines, he's already busting out his skills when it comes to movement, sound, and meter (rhythm).
- Notice how when you read the first line it flows until you get to "not Chance." The comma before this phrase breaks the flow. The speaker breaks the ease of writing at the same time that he tells us what doesn't make for easy, nice sounding poems.
- He makes the "sound" of his writing match the "sense" (meaning). Get it? It's just like the title promises. Watch out for this little trick. Pope will keep it up throughout the poem.
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense:
- The speaker says it isn't enough to simply not offend people with your rhymes. Just because no one boos you doesn't mean you're writing great poems.
- The word "Offence" here doesn't mean get you in a tizzy with R-rated stuff. It means polite society does not find the poem low-class or low-brow (something only un-educated people would like).
- Believe it or not, people in the 1700s practiced reading and writing poems for their friends. They even had wars of witty poetry – sort of like rap battles. And just like rapping your words with the right emphasis, rhythm, and smoothness is crucial, they really thought something called "elocution" (the way you read the poems) was super important.
- Educated people also learned a lot about something called "prosody" – the way sounds come together in poems in things like meter and rhyme. The speaker is saying that even if you can write a smooth-sounding line, you have to go one step further: the sound has to go along with the meaning.
- And the sound does go along with the meaning in these lines: do you see how there is an echo of the "o" in "Offense" in the word "Eccho"? Also, look at all the "s" sounds in the first line and then see how they are repeated or echoed in the second. All of these S's create a smooth sound that rolls off the tongue; there is no "harshness" in the sound of the lines.
- Notice that the line ends with a colon to indicate to us that now the speaker is going to really demonstrate what he means. He just told all the smooth-dog poets out there that they aren't cutting it; now it's a throw down challenge to show them what he's got!