Nowadays, Alexander Pope is so unpopular that the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society demanded his students rip Pope’s poems from their texts. Certainly, the polished closed heroic couplets that flowed from Pope’s quill would make an incongruous soundtrack for what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.” Yep, the minuet has given way to slam dancing; fixed poetic forms have followed their cousin the typewriter into obsolescence.
Adieu. Toot-a-loo. Later.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the poetic confluence of sound and sense, very few poets can equal that four-foot six-inch Colossus, Alexander Pope, that satiric terror who immortalized his enemies in his verse.
Here he is on synthesizing sound with image and movement:
Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
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 shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Note how via spondees he slows down the first half of line six, a lesson learned by Frost in his short poem “The Span of Life”:
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
Not only do the four consecutive stressed beats of old dog barks back echo what a bark sounds like, but their slowness also reinforces the dog’s old age, his sluggishness. On the other hand, the opening anapests of line two suggest the bounding energy of a puppy. Here the sound does indeed “seem an echo to the sense.”
Ultimately, Pope’s dictum demands that when describing ugliness, poets need to make their poems sound ugly, so I thought it might be interesting to check out a few great poets depicting unpleasant images and to see how successful they are in creating dissonance.
Let’s start with Chaucer’s description of the Summoner from “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”
Click the arrow for sound:
A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake, and piled berd,
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement, that wolde clense and byte,
That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,
Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.
Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,
And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood;
Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.
Fast-forwarding 200 years, here’s Edmund Spenser’s personification of Gluttony from Canto 3 of Book 1 of The Faerie Queene (I’ve modernized the spelling):
And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthy swine,
His belly up-blown with luxury
And also with fatness swollen were his eyes
And like a Crane his neck was long and fine
With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
For want whereof poor people did pine;
And all the way, most like a brutish beast,
He spewed up his gorge, that all did him detest.
Although Spenser succeeds in creating disgusting visual images, I’m not so sure he’s completely successful in creating sonic dissonance. On the other hand, note the dissonance of these lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins describing Industrial England.
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Now that’s brilliantly untuneful. Read it out loud. The rhyme toil/soil is deliciously dissonant, and seared/bleared/smeared ranks up there in rankness as well.
I’ll leave you with Master Will piping some appropriately sour notes:
It is the lark that sings so out of tune
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
That’s Juliet talking, lying in her bridal bed with Romeo, realizing that the bird singing outside her window is not, as she hoped, the nightingale.
Time to get up, star-crossed lovers, and march off to your doom.
No, that’s too dark of a way to end this post.
A Meditation on the Sound of Indecorous Words
Fellatio is a lovely word,
Operatic, in a way:
“The role of Fellatio will be sung
By Mr. Richard Cabot-Clay.”
Sodomy, on the other hand,
Lacks that light Italian ring:
A cry of pain! a serpent’s sting!
Cunnilingus could be a caliph,
Thundering across Arabian sands
Seeking long lost treasure troves
Guarded by Jinn in distant lands.
Fuck, of course, isn’t exotic.
Its harsh cough can cause vexation.
But when a car door smashes your fingers,
It sure beats fornication.