Study Guide

Sound and Sense Analysis

By Alexander Pope

  • Sound Check

    Because this poem is about the use of sound in poetry, sound is important in every line. But, stepping back for a moment, what does the poem sound like as a whole? To us it sounds like a fun game of echo. "The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense" (4) is the basic mantra of this poem, so it makes sense that reverberations are everywhere. Because each couplet is composed of a line quickly followed by its response, and because of the alliteration, meter, and rhyme, the response sounds similar to the line it follows – enough to sound like its echo.

    (Psst. We talk a lot more about the echoing sound and alliteration in "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay," so be sure to check that out.)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title "Sound and Sense" pretty much summarizes the main topic of the poem. Check out our "Line-by-Line Summary" for lots of examples of how the sound of the poem echoes it's meaning ("sense").

    But we sort of tricked you. The real title of the poem is actually An Essay on Criticism, which is a much longer poem addressing many aspects of poetry, including the rules of poetry handed down by the ancients and the rules that seem to come from nature.

  • Setting

    Despite all of the references to water, this poem doesn't really have a concrete setting. Basically, with this poem you've been dropped into a scene and then someone keeps explaining what's happening. It's sort of like a sports announcer: action with the play by play analysis. Sort of.

  • Speaker

    The speaker definitely has a bit of an ego. He's out to teach us what makes a good poem, and he doesn't mind showing off a bit along the way. Unlike most dudes who go around showing off how cool they are, though, this guy can totally back it up. He takes on the ancients (Greek and Roman poets), imitating them and illustrating that he's just as skilled a poet as they were.

    But our speaker is more than a poet; he's a critic as well. Because of this, we like to call him the poet-critic. He has a public voice, not a private one, because he seeks to intervene in the affairs in the world, like the current conversation about the rules for poetry. The speaker seems to be on a holy quest to rid the world of bad poems, or, at least, to show the world exactly why his are better than everybody else's.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The good news is that "Sound and Sense" is short, and the rhyme makes it fun to read even if you're not always sure what it means. Depending on your tolerance for classical references and your level of comfort with intense sound play, you may get a stitch in your side on this hike.

  • Calling Card

    Heroic Couplets

    Pope has long been hailed the king of the heroic couplet. If you see a smoothly written couplet, especially with a touch of wit or a classical reference, you are probably reading Pope. (If you want to learn more about heroic couplets, check out "Form and Meter.")

  • Form and Meter

    Heroic Couplets

    Pope wrote in rhymed heroic couplets.

    This is an understatement. He was considered the master of all time of all universes of the heroic couplet.

    Um, what is a heroic couplet, you ask? It's a couple of lines (two, to be exact) that are rhymed. And they are in iambic pentameter (that's five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. It sounds like ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM).

    It's important that this poem is written in heroic couplets because it is the ideal form of the neoclassical poets – yes, Pope was considered the best one of these. Neoclassical means "new" classical. And "classical" refers to all things from ancient Greece and Rome. The Neoclassical poets put the ancient Greek and Roman poets on a pedestal and tried to write like them (except in English – but you knew that). Writing "Sound and Sense" in heroic couplets was a statement; with this form Pope's readers would know that he meant business. He was engaging the hot literary topics of the day, paying respect to the ancients, and at the same time putting his own stamp on the history of literary criticism.

    This poem is also fourteen lines longs, which means it might be a sonnet. We say might because it doesn't follow any of the other sonnet rules. We could call it a quatorzain (from the French word for fourteen), but hey, not many people actually use this term anymore.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Sound: Alliteration

    The title gives it away: sound is super important in this poem. Alliteration provides one of the major poetic devices in this poem that delivers the sound that accompanies the sense (or the meaning). Almost every line contains some form of alliteration, whether it's at the beginning of the words or in the middle. Because alliteration is everywhere, we'll just highlight a few of the lines in which it occurs:

    • Line 4: The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
    • Lines 5 and 6: Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,/ And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
    • Lines 7 and 8: But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,/ The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
    • Lines 9 and 10: When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,/ The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;

    Sound: Parallelism

    Parallelism is one way to talk about the way the couplets function in lines 5-14, which is the section where the speaker demonstrates how his theory of sound and sense works. The first line of the couplet gives an example of an image in a poem, while the second line of the pair comments on how that image should sound. Couplets lend themselves to this sort of organization simply because they always come in twos.

    Movement: Dance

    Did you notice all the images of movement in the poem? "Dance" is only referred to once, but it's important for helping us understand the idea of sound matching sense. This poem insists that movement in poetry, as in dance, is central to the art.

    • Line 1: The poet introduces the simile of ease of movement in writing in terms of a learned dancer's graceful movements. We get a bunch of other movement-related words, including:
    • Line 5: blows
    • Line 6: flows
    • Line 7: Surges, lash
    • Line 11: swift, scours
    • Line 12: flies, skims
    • Line 14: fall, rise

    Movement: Echo

    The poem also sounds and moves like an echo. Some of the sounds actually echo through the lines (like "Eccho" → "blows" → "flows"). The poem is also echo-like because each line is always a complete phrase or thought. The lines in this poem are never enjambed, but are end-stopped – that is, they are complete and end with some type of punctuation. This keeps each line discrete, while the rhyme brings the couplet together into one unit – a kind of sound and echo, or dancing partnership of sorts. The idea of an echo becomes an extended metaphor for the way that the lines work: they are echoes of each other. Here are some sounds that seem to echo:

    • Line 4: Eccho
    • Line 5: blows
    • Line 6: flows
    • Line 8: hoarse, Torrent, roar
    • Line 9: throw
    • Line 10: labours, slow
    • Line 12: flies, skims
    • Line 14: fall, rise

    Movement: Cadence

    How fast or slow the line actually moves, or its cadence, is super important in connecting sound and sense in this poem. For example, the line moves slower when speaking about Ajax than when speaking of the flying Camilla. The uses of stresses and elisions (removal of syllables, as in "o'er" instead of "over") changes the cadence and causes us to treat even the commas (or caesuras) in the middle of the lines differently. For Ajax in lines 9-10 the comma in the middle of the line feels like a weighty pause, because he's struggling to pick up a heavy rock. For Camilla in lines 11-12, the comma feels like we are just giving a quick pause while she jumps up in the air and flies over a little crack in the line.


    Funny that the poem begins with the claim that great writing comes from art (a.k.a. hard work and practice), not chance (a.k.a. natural talent), but then most of the images are things in nature. Why is the poet doing this? Is he undermining his argument? Or, is he showing that art and nature are pretty close to the same thing?

    • Lines 1 and 2: The first image is one of artifice – using a simile to compare good writing to the stylized art of dancing (he's not talking about primitive dancing....or is he?).
    • Lines 5 and 6: A gentle breeze in nature, a smooth stream, and then suddenly we realize the stream the speaker is referring to is the smooth numbers of syllables in a line of poetry. This metaphor really smears the difference between nature and the art of writing.
    • Lines 7 and 8: Loud ocean waves beat the shore and then again, we are suddenly in the midst of a metaphor comparing the ocean to the sound of poetry.
    • Lines 9 and 10: The poem continues with the nature metaphors, including a rock's weight enacting a laboring line of verse, as well as the geography of the plains filled with corn being the space of the poetic line.

    Classical Figures

    There are three classical allusions in this short poem, which tells us that the classical writers are important to the speaker of this poem. In Pope's day, classical writes (meaning ancient Greek and Roman poets) were all the rage.

    • Line 9: The allusion to Ajax places us suddenly within the epic poem the Iliad by the awesome Greek poet Homer. By name-dropping Homer, the speaker is implying that the greatest poet in Western civilization uses the principle of matching the sound to the sense. And the writer of this poem is doing the same thing! (Comparing himself to the great poets of the past… not exactly modest is he?)
    • Line 11: Alluding to Camilla puts us in the realm of the Roman poet Virgil, the other great poet of Western civilization. Our speaker has dropped the two biggest names in the classical book using them to support his critical principle, as well as showing that he can perform the same tricks.
    • Line 13: The final allusion to Timotheus rounds out the classical references. This poet really broke the mold when it came to surprising an audience with his sound. The speaker holds Timotheus up as an ideal for other poets, including himself, to imitate.
  • Steaminess Rating


    Nothing here you wouldn't find in a Disney movie.

  • Allusions

    Classical Allusions

    • Ajax, from Homer's Iliad (lines 9-10)
    • Camilla, from Virgil's Aeneid (lines 11-12)
    • Timotheus, a Greek poet (line 13)