The heroic couplet (heroic designating it as an appropriate vehicle for the epic) consists of two iambic, decasyllabic lines rhyming aa, bb, cc, etc. It was widely used before the Restoration, but in its post-1660 manifestation it became subject to specific prescriptions and formal regulations. For example, Pope effectively rewrote a number of Donne's satyres with the primary objective of reconciling a perceived imbalance between the two dimensions of the double pattern.
Donne: I more amaz'd than Circe's prisoners, when
They felt themselves turn beasts, felt myself then Becoming Traytor, and methought I saw One of our Giant Statutes ope his jaw Pope: Not more Amazement seiz'd on Circe's Guests, To see themselves fall endlong into Beasts, Than mine, to find a Subject staid and wise, Already half turned Traytor by surprize.
What Pope does is to bring syntax more closely into line with the abstract structure of the couplet. The syntactic constructions that effectively dominate Donne's passage (pronouns, relative pronouns and verbs, 'when/They felt', 'felt myself then/Becoming', 'I saw/ One') are in a constant state of tension with the metrical and rhyming framework of the couplets, and as a consequence the speaking presence appears to be in uncertain command of both the subject mediated and of the process of mediation. Pope is careful to ensure that the dominant verb phrase 'Not more Amazement.. .Than mine' and its subordinate clauses accommodate, and are accommodated by, the structure of the couplets: speaking presence and text appear to be united.
To fully address the question of how the stabilising of the double pattern functions in extended poetic sequences we should consider one element of linguistic structure that is fundamental to our perception of how texts are organised, and this is cohesion (see Halliday and Hasan, 1976). Our understanding of textual cohesion is governed by the relation between the basic units of linguistic organisation, sentences. Each sentence of a text, following the first, is linked to the content of one or more preceding sentences by at least one 'tie'. A tie is made by some constituent that resumes, restates or reminds us of something designated by a predicate or a referring expression in a preceding sentence. Consider the following: 'I like dogs. My whole family likes them. At least, most of them do. We used to have six.' None of these sentences can be fully understood without the others. The 'them' of the second sentence ties into the 'dogs' of the first; 'most of them do' (third) ties into 'my family' (second); 'we' and 'six' tie in, respectively, to 'family' (second and third) and 'dogs' (first and second), and the placing of 'used' creates an intriguing temporal distinction between the fourth sentence and the first three. Textual cohesion provides us with a broader textual framework (a 'super sentence'; see Birch, 1989, 145 and Hendricks, 1967) in which we can establish a relation between the deictic and locative pointers and the projected spatio-temporal condition of the speaker or writer.
Practically all work on the literary and linguistic relevance of cohesion has concentrated on its operational function in prose, and very little emphasis has been given to how cohesion is compromised or disrupted when a sequence of syntactic units is supplemented by metrical structure and rhyme. For example the four primary metrical components of the sonnet might bear only an oblique resemblance to its syntactic structure: we might find correspondences between rhyme words or metrical foregroundings that in some way influence our perception of the cohesive structure of the text but which cannot be identified as purely syntactic transferences or ties. The heroic couplet provided the poetic writers of the eighteenth century with a means by which they could effectively control the relation between these two elements of cohesion.
Consider the following verse paragraph from Pope's 'Essay on Criticism',
But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure yourself and your own reach to know
How far your genius, taste and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet (46-51).
The introduction of the subject, 'you', and the post-modifying phrase identifying 'you' as the critic and attributing specific social/ cultural objectives to critical writing, are neatly enclosed within the opening couplet. The second couplet contains the main verb phrase of the sentence and details of how the critic should, ideally, operate, and the third couplet, beginning again with a verb, contains a subordinate clause with further advice on critical writing. The difference between this sequence and our prose example is that it consists not of four but of one very complex sentence. But in a curious way the progressive pattern of ties and correspondences that allows us to contextualise each prose sentence operates in a similar way for each couplet. 'You. the critic' ^ 'Be sure' ^ 'Launch not' create a type of progressive metasyntagm very similar to the sequence of expansions and clarifications of 'I'^ 'My Family' ^ 'dogs' ^ 'them'. The couplet, without necessarily completing a syntactic unit, begins to operate like a sentence: each couplet in this sequence contains a discrete unit of information but the total message cannot be fully understood without our transferring something designated in one unit and transposing it with the constituents of units that succeed it.
A consistent feature of Pope's and Dryden's major couplet poems is their ability to sustain two patterns of signification throughout a single text. The best known manifestation of this has been categorised as the mock heroic, in which individuals and objects are established as phenomena that inhabit a real, contemporary, continuum outside the text while their presence within the text is distorted and transformed by images and patterns of association drawn mainly from classical literature, the bible or myth. The juxtaposition or reconciliation of images drawn from the immediate context of the utterance with those from distant historical, religious or cultural contexts is a common feature of most poems (it corresponds with Jakobson's distinction between the syntagmatic-paradigmatic axes); Donne's transposition of the flea with the marriage bed and the church is an obvious example. But in the Augustan couplet poem the effect of narrative cohesion effectively controls and disciplines the tendency for metaphoric, associative play to disrupt the reader's command of the relation between text, context and signification. Consider the following well-known sequence from Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed, Each silver vase in mystic order laid. First, robed in white, the nymph intent adores, With head uncovered, the cosmetic powers. A heavenly image in the glass appears, To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;
The inferior priestess, at her altar's side, Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride. Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here The various offerings of the world appear; From each she nicely culls with curious toil, And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil. This casket India's glowing gems unlocks, And all Arabia breathes from yonder box. The tortoise here and elephant unite, Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white. Here files of pins extend their shining rows, Puffs, powder, patches, bibles, billet-doux. Now awful beauty puts on all its arms; The fair each moment rises in her charms, Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace, And calls forth all the wonders of her face; Sees by degrees a purer blush arise, And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes. The busy Sylphs surround their darling care; These set the head, and those divide the hair, Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown; And Betty's praised for labours not her own.
It is possible to divide this sequence into three separate referential patterns, each drawing upon a different extra-textual context. Two of these belong to the cultural code: there is the combination of Christian symbols and images drawn from the more occult and fantastic sphere of Rosicrucian mythology—Belinda and Betty are presented as priestess and inferior priestess attended by sylphs, and the dressing table is described as an altar; this pattern is transposed with a less dominant context of martial combat—her 'pins' are in 'files' and 'shining rows', and her application of the cosmetics is compared with the 'awful' image of the epic hero who 'arms' himself. The third pattern relates specifically to the functional purpose of the poem (Belinda is a thinly disguised version of the real Arabella Fermor, both figures elsewhere conflated as the 'Belle'). This literal pattern (in terms of metaphor, the tenor) provides the consistent undertow against which the figurative patterns of religious ritual and the epic (the vehicle(s)) are foregrounded—the former registering as 'the toilet', 'the glass', 'the combs', 'the files', 'puffs, powder, patches', 'the blush', 'the hair', 'the sleeve', 'the gown'.
To use Johnson's formula it might seem that Pope's 'ideas' of martial combat, religious ritual and domestic detail are just as 'heterogeneous' as Donne's conflation of God, sexuality and war in his 'Holy Sonnet'. So how is it that Johnson could regard such juxtapositions in Pope as consistent with the Augustan objectives of clarification and order, yet condemn the Donne technique as a 'violent yoking', a 'discordia concors'? Pope's achievement of apparent order within the text is due primarily to his use of the heroic couplet as the keystone of textual cohesion.
The relation between the three referential patterns is already well established in the mind of the reader prior to our encounter with this particular sequence. As an isolated unit the opening couplet involves a peculiar juxtaposition of different codes—we hardly expect a 'toilet' or dressing table to be 'unveiled' or to disclose a 'mystic order'. But just as we interpret We used to have six' as an extension of the already predicated notion of an individual, a family and a preference for dogs, so we similarly draw upon the by now familiar relation between Belinda as an ordinary, early eighteenth-century female, and images of a priestess attended by sylphs. The part played by the rhetorical and syntactic mechanism of the couplet in this process of cumulative awareness is crucial.
I have already stated that most work on textual cohesion has focused upon the relation between prose sentences (for an accessible survey see Enkvist, 1973, ch. 7), but it becomes evident that Pope's use of the closed couplet represents a significant and as yet undocumented departure from these patterns. Two terms are useful here: theme and rheme. These might be transposed with the more familiar terms, topic and comment, given and new. In syntactic theory the simplest account of the relation between these two elements is as a linear progression in which the established theme of one sentence is taken up by the reader to clarify the rheme of the next, and each successive rheme is contextualised as an addition to or deviation from the established network of relations. The couplet supplements the relation between separate sentences by becoming an independent unit of signification in which the theme-rheme relation can be both restated and extended. Consider the opening couplet of the poem:
What dire offence from amorous causes springs,
Here two of the dominant referential patterns of the poem are introduced, and indeed the parallelism of the couplet form (dividing the syntax into four metrical units separated by caesura—line ending and rhyme—caesura—line ending and rhyme) succeeds in binding the otherwise disparate concepts of 'dire offence', 'mighty contests' (martial combat, the epic code) and 'amorous causes', 'trivial things' (the familiar, functional code relating the poem to eighteenth-century society) into a purposive structure, suggesting correspondences and causal relations. As the poem proceeds this same structural framework operates as the point of organisation and synthesis in which the three referential patterns are restated and their correspondences clarified. For example in the fourth verse paragraph in which Belinda is addressed by her 'guardian sylph' we find the following sequence,
Know, then, unnumbered spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky
These, though unseen, are ever on the wing,
Hang o'er the box, and hover round the Ring.
Think what an equipage thou hast in air,
And view with scorn two pages and a chair.
As now your own, our beings were of old,
And once enclosed in woman's beauteous mould;
Thence, by a soft transition, we repair
From earthly vehicles to these of air.
The familiar extra-textual pattern of 'the box' (the theatre), 'the Ring' (Hyde Park), 'an equipage' (a carriage) and 'a chair' (a sedan chair) is invoked and drawn into an apparently causal and verifiable relation to the minor sylphs, who 'hang o'er the box' and 'hover round the Ring'. Here we find what might be termed the microlinguistic structure of the individual couplet drawing upon and recontextualising the separate referential patterns. As such the couplet becomes the axis between these microlinguistic correspondences and the broader macrolinguistic structure of the text. For example, the rather vague reference to 'the light militia of the lower sky' is an unsubstantiated rheme that we will carry forward and recontextualise as an element of the martial—epic theme that becomes more fully substantiated in the card game of Canto III.
So when we encounter the sequence describing the toilet-altar we find ourselves locating each couplet as a point of synthesis in which each theme, each given topic, will be recontextualised and related to a new rheme. It should be stressed that the couplet serves a number of interrelated purposes as an instrument of textual cohesion. Often it will maintain the foregrounding of a single referential pattern. Lines 127-32 of the toilet-altar sequence maintain the fantastic image of Betty as the inferior priestess disposing the materials of the ritual, but the four lines, two couplets, following this sequence, reinstate her activities within the more immediate context of where Belinda's cosmetics come from (India and Arabia) and their practical functions (elephant tusks, combs).
We should now broaden the context of our readings and consider the issue of how the poet corresponds with the text. Very few of the archetypal Augustan texts seek to identify the speaking presence as a participant in the events or experiences that brought the poem into existence. Even with Pope's 'Epistles' the notion of the addresser-addressee relation is qualified by the foregrounding of the text as a medium in which the writer/addresser has the opportunity to recuperate cultural and broader contextual codes as elements of immediate functional intentions. The Augustan poem becomes the forum in which the immediate, the contextual and the cultural/intertextual codes can be disposed, juxtaposed and reconciled by the controlling presence of the poet—a presence that determines, rather than in the metaphysical context responds to, the spatio-temporal circumstances of the utterance. The closed couplet operates as the fundamental unit in the realisation of this objective. It coordinates the relation between the codes within the text; and, consequently, stabilises the relation between the text and the speaking presence.
A vast number of critics have commented on the ordering function of the Augustan couplet. They generally agree on the workings of its structural and formal features and they also, generally by implication, offer further evidence of its functional and ideological status. Matthew Arnold classified Dryden and Pope as 'classics of our prose' and in Jakobson's terms it could indeed be argued that their use of the couplet foregrounds the syntagmatic/metonymic element of language at the expense of its paradigmatic/metaphoric counterpart. Donald Davie in Articulate Energy (1955) divided poetic syntax into five types (subjective, dramatic, objective, like music, like mathematics). The Augustan couplet is objective (for which we might substitute Benveniste's 'histoire): 'it follows a form of action, a movement not through any mind but in the world at large' (79). Its success in impeding the interference of the poet or the text in 'the world at large' is perhaps a means of imparting to the functional role of poetry the much broader eighteenth-century ideals and imperatives of 'order' in politics, society, architecture and philosophic thought. Laura
Brown (1985): 'Pope's art is at once a mode of representation and an act of adjudication through which an elaborate and sophisticated linguistic structure, emulative of the imperial age of Roman culture, shapes a "world" where rhetoric, belief and morality perfectly intersect' (7; see also Easthope, 1983, Fussell, 1965 and Price, 1964). Hence, the closed couplet was the perfect vehicle for the so-called 'public poem' whose functional purpose was closely allied to that of the discursive prose essay. But what of those poems that sought to centralise the subjective and perhaps deviant relationship between the speaking presence, language and the world? In the later eighteenth century those writers often regarded as pre-Romantic (particularly Gray and Collins) favoured the complex and unpredictable interweavings of the double pattern in the stanza and the ode, and as we shall see the ode became the archetype of the Romantic interface between text and speaking presence. But a century earlier, John Milton had chosen to use poetry as a means of addressing not merely the verifiable patterns of the pre-linguistic world, but the unverifiable nature of our origins as the human species.
Was this article helpful?