Sound and Sense (Poetry Explication)

This is a poetry explication of the third stanza of Alexander Pope's "Sound and Sense".

Alexander Pope clams in his poem "Sound and Sense" that "The sound must seem an echo to the sense"; he then illustrates this principle in lines 9-12:

"When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,

The line, too, labours and the words move slow.

Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,

Flies o'er the unbending corn and skims along the main."

The first couplet describes the sense of Ajax's strength and movements. There is a steady meter of iambic pentameter in the first two lines that indicates steadiness. The hard vowel sounds of the first line, in "Ajax" and "weight", in "strives", and in "throw" sound strong and big. This is the sense intended by Pope, as the character being described is the Greek warrior, Ajax, known for his strength. The long sounds that sound large are followed by the assonance of sounds in "too", "labours", "words", "move", and "slow", which lend an effect of sluggishness to the second line. Those sounds not only convey the sense of slowness, but their assonance makes it difficult to read aloud with speed.

The first two lines, conveying large, strong, and steady movements, are contrasted by the next two lines, which are about Camilla, a legendary queen reputed for her fleetness of foot. The soft vowel sounds of these two lines, especially the assonance of "swift" and "Camilla" in the third line, indicate smooth, light, and quick movements. The irregular meter of the last line, which is three syllables longer than the other lines, sounds surprisingly smooth when said quickly with no pauses, and this sound echoes the sense of Camilla's smooth, swift movement.

Alexander Pope's diction is done very carefully so that the sound of the poem indeed echoes the sense of the poem and the sense of the characters. Sound is very important in interpreting the sense of a poem.


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