Study Guide

Sound and Sense Quotes

By Alexander Pope

  • Literature and Writing

    True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, (1)

    The poem declares from its first line that it is explicitly about writing. Specifically, it is about how to write with ease or grace. When we hear the word "writing," we immediately think about words on a page, but by the end of the poem we are told to "hear" a "Lay" or song. The lesson in writing becomes a lesson about hearing and about how to listen to (and by implication read) well.

    But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
    The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar. (7-8)

    The speaker continually highlights the fact that he's talking about writing. Though we might think we are in the middle of a stormy sea, the word "Verse" sticks out and pulls us back into the discussion on writing. He does this in line 6 with "Numbers," line 10 with "Line" and "Words." These word choices tell us that the speaker is really talking about the basic units of a poem – the number of words that make up a line and verse – as the backbone for creating sound in a poem.

    Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize, (13)


    "Vary'd Lays" are the heart of the matter for the speaker. The first line of the poem tells us that they are created from "from Art, not Chance," yet their variation leads to surprise, something we might think only chance could produce.

  • Ambition and Imitation

    'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
    The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense. (3-4)

    We like the idea of an echo for many reasons. It highlights the idea of sound and repetition, which makes us think of the idea of imitation. Like an echo, an imitation can sound similar to the original, but it isn't the same exact sound. An echo also brings up the idea of time, since it requires time and succession to keep the sound moving. Our speaker's lines could be understood as an echo through time, imitating the ancients and keeping the sense of their rules alive through sound.

    When Ajax strives, some Rock's vast Weight to throw,
    The Line too labours, and the Words move slow; (10-11)

    Here, the speaker strives to throw a heavy rock, just as Ajax did. The speaker's ambition, in this sense, is big enough not only to imitate Homer, but to also match the strength of a war hero. The speaker wrestles to move the rock with his words. If sound and sense are an echo of each other, then the speaker becomes highlighted and the true hero of the poem.

    Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
    Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main. (11-12)

    The speaker alludes to classical poetry, like the figure Camilla who Virgil wrote about, as a way to indicate he is imitating the great poets. He moves from the masculine and strong war hero Ajax to the feminine, swift, and agile Camilla. Earlier, he uses imagery of a soft breeze and a stormy sea. Encompassing the extremes of nature and both male and female, this speaker believes that he can make his lines match any sound.

    Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
    And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise! (13-14)

    The poet doesn't just want to show off his skill and perform his dance with words. He doesn't just want to avoid offending us. What he wants to do is to move our emotions and expectations. When the poet is this good at his dance, we too are moved and awakened out of our complacency and boredom. But notice, though the speaker tells us to hear Timotheus's song surprise us, it is actually his own poem that is surprising us with something new.

  • Rules and Order

    True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
    As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance, (1-2)

    Art (or practice), not chance (or talent), decides the way these lines strut their stuff. As the speaker compares writing to dancing, he uses elision (the skipping of a syllable to conform to the number of feet per line). It's like he's showing off his fast step and enforcing the idea that writing verse and using techniques like elision are learned. It's also interesting to see how language and rules change over time: you probably wouldn't have pronounced learned with two syllables anyway, but you would pronounce easiest with three.

    'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
    The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense. (3-4)

    The speaker links prosody with content, but it's as if the term "sense" starts to mean more than just meaning or content. In connection with sound, which is one of the five physical senses, the use of "sense" begins to take on this other connotation. Poetry is a kind of "sound sense" that combines thoughts and prosody into one way of coming to know and experience the world.

    Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
    And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows; (5-6)

    The rules of prosody become one and the same with nature – the soft wind, the smooth stream. These lines combine with lines 7-8 to highlight natural images and the way the meter of poetry can be shaped to sound like them.

    When Ajax strives, some Rock's vast Weight to throw,
    The Line too labours, and the Words move slow; (9-10)

    These lines begin the transition from images of nature, to Greek and Roman poets. The prosody in these lines is made to imitate the actions of classical figures. This slight change from nature images to classical allusions serves to make the two appear to go together: the ancients were enacting the rules of nature so their rules of prosody, too, come from nature.

    Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
    And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise! (13-14)

    We notice the strong verbs in these last two lines: hear, surprise, bid, fall, and rise. The speaker commands us to hear and be surprised. The poem bids, or orders, the passions to move. The speaker attributes great power to prosody – even moving the passions. The emphasis on hearing can sometimes be overlooked because we often read poems. But here we must "hear" in order to be surprised and have our emotions moved.