Friday, March 16, 2012

Suppose it were Friday lvii: finding the words

for David Letimide

What delights the poet, then,
in the exposition of an idea?

I am afraid the answer is
offered Harvard's Helen
Vendler in her Clark Lec-
tures at Trinity College 
in 2003 - an annual rite
in letters on a par with
being offered the Order
of the Garter for endur-
ing the scrutiny of the
Victoria Cross. To this
ingredient, she offered
two others from Alexander
Pope - memorableness and

If, then, it is not so much ideas that Pope is after as the representation of his own more vivid form of thinking, how shall we define the kind of thinking the literary reader finds in Pope? Living thought must establish itself as the norm at the very beginning of the verse .. Living thought has to be quick and mobile, ever darting to extremes and polarities, but resting in none of them. Living thought must, like ordinary thought, character-ise, allegorise, reason, de-nominate and analogise - but it must also jump up and down, over and under, left and right; it must swell and contract, leap from register to register, joke and feel pangs.

     Above all, it must advance 
     too swiftly for instant 
     intelligibility: the reader 
     must hang on for the ride, 
     bouncing to the next hurdle 
     hardly having recovered his 
     seat from the last. It is 
     as if the poet wants to 

     This is what thinking is 
     really like: have you 
     ever known it?

In his Epistle ii from the poem Vendler is discussing, An Essay on Man (1733), Alexander Pope lends her this explicit support:

Most strength the moving principle requires;
Active its task, it prompts, impels, inspires.
Sedate and quiet, the comparing lies,
Form'd but to check, delib'rate and advise ..

Always when one comes to the Essay, 
the glory of play is what rises 
closest to the formative surface, 
permeating and suffusing that 
veneer as we feel in our sweetest 
exertions. Even 'sedate and quiet'
as our posture may be, we engage
in that extracting, idealising
race which is the victory of
our poetry - to make itself our
natural mode of discourse with
those we love: memorable, con-
cise, too fleet to refuse. 

Helen Vendler
Poets Thinking
  Alexander Pope: Thinking,
  Miniaturizing, Modeling,
  and Mocking Ideas
Harvard University Press, 2004©

Alexander Pope
The Poems of Alexander Pope
  An Essay on Man, II, 67-70
John Butt, editor
The Twickenham Text
Yale University Press, 1963©


  1. Or what's a heaven for? Wonderful.

  2. Dear Gésbi, thank you for coming & I'm glad you could enjoy this very little appreciation of "the moving principle" in our expression.