Rhymes and Couplets in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens and Alexander Pope

When editing T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” Ezra Pound expresses his distaste for the original introduction to “The Fire Sermon” by crossing out Eliot’s rhyming couplets and writing a cryptic note in the margins: “Too loose… rhyme drags it out to diffuseness… trick of Pope etc not to let couple[t] diffuse ‘em.”[1]  By diffusion, Pound probably refers to the dwindling power of those rhymes dragged out to monotony in a why that diminished their ‘absolute rhythm’ – to use Pound’s own term for virtuosic prosody.  Far be it for Pound to use a word like ‘sing-song’ to describe these trite rhymes that never made it into the final, published version of Eliot’s poem, but to this reader’s ear, Eliot’s rhymes clang awkwardly much like the ditty of a nursery rhyme or a limerick.  Interestingly enough, Pound does not condemn the use of the couplet, but rather some perceived artlessness in the way Eliot uses it.  Even more peculiarly, he makes an elliptical allusion to the way Alexander Pope carries his rhymes from couplet to couplet without letting them diffuse into the monotony of the metronome or the happy-go-lucky ‘sing-song’ of some kind of extravagant or annoying joke.  Placed in juxtaposition to a very different kind of rhyming in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, perhaps Pope’s poems will reveal their ‘trick’ – and perhaps Stevens’ will reveal a trick or two of their own.

File:Wallace Stevens.jpg

Wallace Stevens: My Favorite Poet

In “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Stevens carries a tune over more than 150 lines, rhyming sometimes in couplets and sometimes across spans so long that the rhymes nearly fade or disappear entirely.   In a manner slightly unexpected for a rhyming poem, these rhymes come without a standard quantifiable scheme.  Not a sestina or a Petrarchan sonnet by any stretch of the imagination, Stevens’ poem sometimes rhymes four lines in succession and at other times proceeds in spans of five or six lines without any rhyming at all.  The poem introduces itself with an unrhymed couplet: “The man bent over his guitar,/ A shearsman of sorts. The day was green,” and then brings back the last syllable of the first line in a succession of rhymes: “They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,/ You do not play things as they are.’/ The man replied, ‘Things as they are/ are changed upon the blue guitar.”  Here, Stevens introduces the alternating chords that will form the chorus of the poem: ‘blue guitar’ and ‘things as they are.’  By inserting the bizarre and unrhymed phrase “The day was green” in between these repeated rhymes, Stevens subtly breaks up what might have otherwise been ‘sing-song’ and does so with an unsettling phrase that leaves the reader yearning for the order and sensibility signaled by repeated rhymes.  In fact, were Stevens to write the entirety of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” without any rhymes whatsoever, we would be left with a bizarre tract about creativity and the shaping of reality – without any of the playfulness that makes his act of creation so engaging.

Pablo PIcasso's painting "The Old Guitarist" from his Blue Period has been paired with this poem often (and appropriately so) on cover art and whatnot.

Between the returns of the ‘blue guitar’ and ‘things as they are’ telling us that we are listening to a composition by a speaker who writes deliberately (against any intuitions to the contrary that arise in the wake of Stevens’ nonsense), another kind of rhyming emerges.  In section VIII, for example, we begin with two rhyming couplets, all packaged in noun phrases starting with “the.”  Then, in the third couplet, Stevens drags out the subject matter into a longer exploration; the images of clouds and the synesthesia-inducing ‘drenching thunder’ unwind into the “feeling heavy in cold chords/ struggling toward impassioned choirs.”  Just as Stevens moves from a description of a storm into a broader discussion of music, he intentionally lets the rhymes rest for a few lines.  Then, when the clang of the earlier rhymes has sufficiently exited the reader’s ear, he brings back ‘air’ to rhyme with the final couplet: “And yet it brings the storm to bear./ I twang it out and leave it there.”  Displaying his virtuosity with rhyme, Stevens lets ‘air’ twang on its own, ‘leaves it there’ and then brings it back in a rhyme that mirrors the subject matter.  As if enacting the sounds of the storm he describes, Stevens begins the section with two strong chords struck by rhyming couplets, lets them rumble out into the alliterative phrases that take precedents in the couplets that follow, and then strikes one more thunderous chord in the final rhyme.  Far from ‘sing-song’ in the sense of a nursery rhyme, Stevens vacillates between rhyming couplets, alliterative phrases, unrhymed lines, and a repeated chorus in a way that preserves a sense of music without turning it into the frivolous repetition of a nursery rhyme or the irritating ‘hooks’ of a pop-song.

File:Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl.jpg

Alexander Pope: Not my favorite poet, but a good one nonetheless

Alexander Pope’s rhymes enact themselves in a manner quite distant from Stevens’.  Although both poets frequently employ rhyming couplets – and in Stevens’ case, sometimes even repetitions of rhyming words – each poet takes a divergent approach to the construction of those couplets.  In “An Essay on Man” Pope develops an argument as structured as the iambic pentameter and rigid rhyme scheme that form the backbone of his poetry.  He proceeds from admissions of mankind’s ignorance through various arguments about perfection, imperfection, and man’s relationship with God, finally arriving upon a declaration of the ‘rightness’ of all creation.  These grandiose arguments come neatly packaged within lines that almost uniformly contain 10 syllables, almost always flow in exact iambic pentameter, and – with the exception of a few slant rhymes – all make full rhymes with one another.  This is not to say that Pope’s poetry is universally engaging. Quite the contrary, at its low points, the rhymes indeed ‘drag it out to diffuseness’ – to return to Ezra Pound’s criticism of Eliot.  In section IV, the concluding couplet reads, “And who but wishes to invert the laws/ of order, sins against the Eternal Cause.”  Although ‘laws’ rhymes nicely with ‘cause,’ the reader can imagine Pope struggled to bring these words to the ends of neighboring lines.  With no end-stop in the first line and with an awkward elision of “the” into “Eternal” in the second line, Pope here seems to insist upon his rhyme against all the syntactical and metrical forces working against him.

Elsewhere, and in a great deal of Pope’s poetry, the rhyming couplets read with (unnaturally) natural flow.  In the final section of the first epistle of “An Essay on Man,” Pope’s voice booms at the zenith of its rhetorical power.  While all of his rhymes run on the same iambic current, the syntactical pauses and rhetorical devices make them each ring differently, so that they sound anything like the metronome to which iambic pentameter is often compared.  “Cease, then, nor order imperfection name:/ Our proper bliss depends upon what we blame.”  With a reversal of the first foot, two caesuras, and a concluding anapest, this couplet manipulates the iambic pentameter into a more fluid kind of music.  Although the rhymed words are separated by the same number of syllables as many of the rest, Pope’s syntactical twists and turns make them ring in a time of their own.  In the concluding lines of the epistle, Pope writes,

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

The anaphora that begins the first few of these lines develops a rhetoric of reversals, with each turn signaled by a mid-line caesura.  The metrical qualities of the lines lend some irregularity to the rhymes, but otherwise they seem to come in closely-knit pairs.  Then, for the final couplet, Pope takes a departure from this form, teases us with an internal rhyme (spite/spite), plays with the multiple meanings of “is” (to be/ to exist) and then brings back the rhyme with a very confident, “is right.”  Far from ‘sing-song’ in the sense of a nursery rhyme or a limerick, Pope’s rhymes here come together in an epic finale.  Yes, they do ‘sing’ in a way, but more in the way a rhetorician might ‘sing’ his triumphant exhortation or in the way a Baptist preacher might ‘sing’ the conclusion of a fiery sermon than in the typical sense of ‘sing-song.’

Both of these poets wield couplets skillfully, each in the pursuit of starkly divergent philosophies, through starkly divergent forms.  The ‘trick’ that Pound refers to seems to manifest itself in ways equally divergent.  In Stevens’ poetry, he combats ‘diffuseness’ by the sheer unpredictability of his poetry.  He would be just as likely to repeat the same phrase ad infinitum as he would be to let it dissipate and weave unrhymed poetry for many lines at a time.  Pope, on the other hand, combats ‘diffuseness’ by inserting artful pauses, reversals, and syntactical play within otherwise regular iambic pentameter.  Both poets would probably agree with Pope’s dictum, “All nature is but art,” but both perceive and enact that art with forms as divergent as their philosophies.


[1] “The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript,” 38/39.

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About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
This entry was posted in Pockets Full of Poesy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rhymes and Couplets in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens and Alexander Pope

  1. Wonderfully well executed piece.

    • Kevin says:

      There once was a guy named Zarqawi,Who beheaded people who were not Iraqi,Stop! Stop! the Americans would shout, as the fool continued to flout,There once was a guy named Zarqawi…

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