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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2011

18 - Poetry of the first half of the eighteenth century: Pope, Johnson and the couplet

Summary

When Voltaire asked Pope why Milton had not written in rhyme, Pope replied, ‘Because he could not’. The arrogance seems striking, but Dryden, who, like Pope himself, revered Paradise Lost, also thought Milton ‘plainly’ wrote it in blank verse because ‘Rhyme was not his Talent’. The official French assumption that the twelve-syllable alexandrine couplet was the appropriate measure for serious poems was mirrored by the status, for Dryden’s or Pope’s generation, of its English cultural analogue, the pentameter couplet. Pope ‘translated’ or ‘versify’d’ Chaucer or Donne, almost in the spirit in which Voltaire translated Shakespeare and Milton into rhymed alexandrines. Samuel Wesley wrote in 1700 that Chaucer’s ‘lines’ were ‘rough and unequal’ for ‘our Augustan days’. Pope believed that he was bringing to these unpolished English writers (who themselves wrote in couplets) some of the structural symmetry and ‘correctness’ which he considered the achievement of a politer age, and to which Milton sourly attributed a possibly Frenchified trendiness. There were no French poets among those Milton praised for ‘Heroic Verse without Rime’, who included ‘some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note’, along with classical masters.

Both the alexandrine and the English heroic couplet are medieval forms, the former named after the twelfth-century Roman d’Alexandre (which it predates) and the latter much used by Chaucer. They were, however, seen as having been through an analogous process of refinement (which Boileau described as ‘Just Weight and Measure’, easy grace of diction, clarity, order and no enjambment), as the poetic currency of a ‘polite’ culture.