Exercises The Couplet

We have seen how in Pope's verse the couplet operates at two levels: it organises and often controls syntax at a localised level— as a kind of mini-stanza—and it determines the broader relationships between theme, narrative and perspective throughout the text. Consider how this relationship works in the three pieces quoted below. Use the following interpretive agenda:

(i) Consider the relationship between the speaker and the subject. Clearly Dryden's piece engages with a pattern of mock-heroic doubling similar to Pope's The Rape of the Lock (Flecknoe and Shadwell, his poetic contemporaries, are transposed with the circumstances of imperial Rome). Swift's short piece is more firmly anchored to the situational deictics of a particular street and its inhabitants, while the extract from Johnson focuses upon general and universal themes and conditions.

(ii) Consider how each poet's use of the couplet creates a close structural correspondence between the three texts, whose referential and functional purposes are quite different. For example, Johnson invokes few particular locative references or cultural/social codes. Compare the way in which his couplets organise this hypothetical, generalised continuum with Swift's use of the form to document a particular spatio-temporal situation and Dryden's use of it as an axis between the two levels of mock-heroic reference,

(iii) Re-read the above section on Wimsatt, Jakobson, Riffaterre and the use of rhyme (pp. 85-91), and consider how the internal structure of each couplet (metre, syntax and rhyme) either interferes with or effectively determines textual progression. In short, how does each poet reconcile the potential for tension between the enclosed poetic sphere (semantic interfaces between rhyme words for example) and the discursive, referential pattern of the text?

Lines 1-20 of Dryden's MacFlecknoe

All human things are subject to decay, And when fate summons, monarchs must obey. This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young Was called to empire, and had governed long; In prose and verse, was owned, without dispute, Through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute. This aged prince, now flourishing in peace, And blest with issue of a large increase; Worn out with business, did at length debate To settle the succession of the state; And, pondering which of all his sons was fit To reign, and wage immortal war with wit, Cried: ''Tis resolved; for nature pleads, that he Should only rule, who most resembles me.

Sh-alone my perfect image bears,

Mature in dulness from his tender years:

Sh-alone, of all my sons, is he

Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.

The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,

But Sh-never deviates into sense.

Swift's 'A Description of the Morning'

Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach

Appearing, showed the ruddy morn's approach.

Now Betty from her master's bed had flown,

And softly stole to discompose her own;

The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door

Had pared the dirt and sprinkled round the floor.

Now Moll had whirled her mop with dext'rous airs,

Prepared to scrub the entry and the stairs.

The youth with broomy stumps began to trace

The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.

The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep,

Till drowned in shriller notes of chimney-sweep:

Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet;

And brickdust Moll had screamed through half the street.

The turnkey now his flock returning sees,

Duly let our a-nights to steal for fees:

The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands,

And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.

Lines 1-20 of Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes

Let observation with extensive view, Survey mankind, from China to Peru; Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, And watch the busy scenes of crowded life; Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate, O'erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate, Where wavering man, betrayed by venturous pride, To tread the dreary paths without a guide, As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude, Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good; How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice, Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice;

How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed, When vengeance listens to the fool's request. Fate wings with every wish the afflictive dart, Each gift of nature, and each grace of art, With fatal heat impetuous courage glows, With fatal sweetness elocution flows, Impeachment stops the speaker's powerful breath, And restless fire precipitates on death.

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