Study Guide

Sound and Sense Themes

By Alexander Pope

  • Literature and Writing

    "Sound and Sense" takes on writing as its main subject. The speaker, who is both a poet and a literary critic, proposes that great writing is a cultivated art and that sound must fit the content. The majority of the poem gives examples of these two claims, using the ancient writers to support his cause while also giving an example through his own verse. The poem teaches us how to read poetry: to look for the way the sound helps create the meaning.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. If writing comes from art (you know, practice and hard work), not chance or nature, then why does the poet use so many images of nature in the poem?
    2. There are several references to great ancient poems and poets in "Sound and Sense." How do these references help get across the point that sound is essential to poetry?
    3. What about voice? If this poem sounds like a conversation that the critic is having with poetic community (those dead and alive), how might it not be consistent in its theory of nature and art?
    4. How do all of the voices it includes make it different than a strict argument for or against a certain artistic principle?

    Chew on This

    Writing is an art, but an art grounded in nature.

    This poem argues that individual poems take precedence over general rules about poetry; for example, sound is so important to the meaning of a poem that regular meter must sometimes be broken.

  • Ambition and Imitation

    This speaker, who is both a critic and poet, just oozes with ambition. With "Sound and Sense," he happily jumps into a major critical debate about the role of nature (think "natural talent") and the role of art (think "practice makes perfect") in writing great poetry. He also attempts to be the poet that can employ these rules with ease. He name-drops great classical (a.k.a. ancient Greek and Roman) poets like Homer and Virgil and implies that he has these guys' skills. Neoclassical poets like Pope imitated classical poets as both a way to honor them, as well as a way to declare their own ambition to enter the literary world.

    Questions About Ambition and Imitation

    1. Pope uses some phrases from other poets, like the way he paraphrases Virgil's description of Camilla (see the "Line-by-Line Summary" for more on that). How does the idea of multiple voices brought up in "Themes: Literature and Writing" relate to imitation and the gray area of plagiarism? (Check out the article "Pope and plagiarism" if you're interested in the changing understanding of plagiarism in the eighteenth century.)
    2. There are several references to great ancient poems and poets in "Sound and Sense." How do these references help get across the point that sound is essential to poetry?
    3. How is the speaker commenting on the nature of language by utilizing imitation?
    4. Is sound an imitation of the content; or is the content the imitation of the sound? Does it matter? Why?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's voice may seem distinctly original at first, but the echo of the ancient poets, as well as that of the contemporary poets the speaker seeks to teach, creates a poly-voiced speaker who revels in imitation.

    The couplet form structures the poem according to the logic of an echo, which shows that imitation can be the basis for good poetry.

  • Rules and Order

    The speaker of "Sound and Sense," who seems to be a member of the Poetry Police, plays with the way the meter of a poem can imitate the content of the line. He gets an A+ in prosody, the study of the way verses are put together. In the larger poem, he criticizes the current poets of his day that follow the rules of iambic pentameter too closely and write boring poetry. He proposes a higher rule that he argues the ancients followed – matching sound and sense.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. The speaker is reacting to established rules that he thinks have led to some pretty bad poetry. Can you reconstruct the rules and ideas against which the speaker is arguing?
    2. If the speaker is breaking the rules of iambic pentameter, and in this sense disordering the poem, why does it still seem so ordered?
    3. How is sound the basic ordering property of poetry? How does it bring order to this poem?
    4. Like most eighteenth-century poetry, this poem was meant to be read aloud. How does the idea of the poem being read aloud contribute to ideas of voice, sound, and prosody?

    Chew on This

    The rule of art (as opposed to chance) enables a varied prosody without verging into disorder.

    Because this poem is attempting to teach us about poetry, it creates an atmosphere of authority, which adds a sense of order to its prosody that might be considered disordered by some standards.