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Sound and Sense by Alexander Pope: Analysis & Structure

Instructor: Rachel Noorda
This lesson discusses 'Sound and Sense' which is a portion of the 'Essay on Criticism' by Alexander Pope. You will learn more about the meter, rhythm, figurative language, and purpose of 'Sound and Sense' from this lesson. Then take the quiz to test your knowledge!

Introduction to Sound and Sense

What makes a good poem? Should writing poems be natural and include whatever sounds good to the author? Or should writing poems mean applying the rules of poetry to make it the best? This is what Alexander Pope addressed in his poem Sound and Sense. In this poem, Pope talks about what makes a good poem ... a poem about poems!

Sound and Sense is a poem within a larger poem called Essay on Criticism. Pope wrote Essay on Criticism in the early 1700s in England, during a movement in literature and thinking called the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement which focused on reasoning and rationalism. Pope uses rationalism and reason to explain what makes a good poem in Sound and Sense.

Portrait of Alexander Pope
Pope

Meter of Sound and Sense

Sound and Sense is written in heroic couplets. A heroic couplet is a pair of lines that rhyme and that are written in the rhythm of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means 'five iambs' (penta means 'five', like in the word pentagon to describe a five sided shape). An iamb is a pair of two syllables that has one unstressed syllable and then one stressed syllable. Put five iambs together and you have one line of the heroic couplet.

Rhyme of Sound and Sense

When we describe rhyme scheme, or rhyming pattern, we use letters to show that the end of certain lines rhyme with others. So if both the first and third lines are marked with an 'a', then we know that the last word of the first line rhymes with the last word of the third line.

The rhyme scheme for Sound and Sense is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This means that lines 1 and 3 rhyme, lines 2 and 4 rhyme, lines 5 and 7 rhyme, lines 6 and 8 rhyme, lines 9 and 11 rhyme, lines 10 and 12 rhyme, and lines 13 and 14 rhyme. This rhyme scheme is the rhyming pattern of an English sonnet, also called a Shakespearean sonnet because this was the kind of sonnet that William Shakespeare wrote.

Analysis of Sound and Sense

The Purpose and Meaning

The purpose of the poem Sound and Sense is to explain why poetry should not be written in whatever way the author thinks sounds good, but should be written as an art where the author follows the rules of poetry. This is clear from the very first line:

'True ease in writing comes from art, not chance'

In this line, Pope is saying that to be a 'natural' poet and writer, it takes art, not just doing what seems good. Then, to prove this point, Pope compares writing to dancing, where a dancer would move easily and best if they've been trained in the rules and steps of dance.

In the next few lines, Pope says, '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 should like the torrent roar.' Here, Pope is saying that the sound of the words in a poem need to match the meaning of the poem. Pope uses figurative language, such as alliteration, to show us that a line that is talking about softness and gentleness should have consonant and vowel sounds that are soft and gentle. Let's talk a little more in depth about some of the figurative language in Sound and Sense.

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