How to make poetry from normal, banal, petty life.

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Aug. 4 2009 7:02 AM

Same-Old, Same-Old

Alexander Pope's "Epistle" and the art of making poetry from normal, banal, petty life.

Portrait of Alexander Pope.
Alexander Pope

Life is not all grand passions, high spiritual aspirations, profound questions, and tormented inner feelings. Some of the time, our feelings are petty rather than grand, our aspirations worldly rather than spiritual, our questions trivial. Sometimes, our inner feelings—or is it just mine?—are irritable, even bored, rather than tormented. One looks a little sour; one hums a little tune. One plays with one's spoon or keeps checking the clock.

Artists have noticed this. As a supreme example, Nikolai Gogol's novel  Dead Souls is a great work about how petty we can be. It's not an empty paradox to say that Gogol explores the profound sadness of shallowness.

In a gentler, teasing but courtly poem, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) comforts a friend who has had to miss out on the 18th-century equivalent of a hot party in L.A. or New York (or an inaugural ball in D.C.) for some "wholesome country air" in, let's say, the Dells of Wisconsin. In a kind of sublime and flirtatious kidding, Pope amuses his friend, Miss Blount, by laughing at her boredom—laughing, too, at the pageant of dukes and earls she misses and even, graciously, at his own wish that he were with her.

He also laughs at the manners and poetry of courtship. Writing more than a century after the sonnet vogue, he can call Miss Blount "Zephalinda" and refer to himself as her "slave" with a recognition that all this is largely conventional language, the word slave being nearly as formulaic in this courtly context as "I beg your pardon" might be in conversation.

Pope's "Epistle" wakes me up, enlivens me, in a way remarkably different from many poems by George Herbert or Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens. This poem is social. It is written in the social form of a letter. Art here elevates the social into a more intense realm, just as another work might elevate sexual desire, piety, or admiration for a landscape into a transforming intensity. The agile wit, the adept couplets, the intelligence Pope displays (and that he implicitly recognizes in Miss Blount) make a remarkable, orchestral whole in a way quite different from the conventions of our own time. The poem challenges my contemporary American tastes and expectations in ways I like.

I like, for example, the way Pope makes simple monosyllables funny in the droll plainness of "She sighed not that They stayed, but that She went." I like the way nature, the "purling brooks" and so forth, is made to seem just as attractive as "prayers three hours a day." He makes the word tho' funny by having it mean little or nothing: "Whose laughs are hearty, tho' his jests are coarse." Above all, I like the way Pope generously resolves the poem with his own daydreaming irritability. He has headaches, he has trouble finding a rhyme, sedan chairs annoy him as taxicabs might annoy a modern city dweller, and when his poet friend John Gay taps his shoulder, the author is, like Miss Blount, not where he wants to be.

"Epistle to Miss Blount, on Her Leaving the Town, After the Coronation"

As some fond virgin, whom her mother's care
Drags from the town to wholesome country air,
Just when she learns to roll a melting eye,
And hear a spark, yet think no danger nigh;
From the dear man unwillingly she must sever,
Yet takes one kiss before she parts for ever:
Thus from the world fair Zephalinda flew,
Saw others happy, and with sighs withdrew;
Not that their pleasures caused her discontent,
She sighed not that They stayed, but that She went.
@@@She went, to plain-work, and to purling brooks,
Old-fashioned halls, dull aunts, and croaking rooks,
She went from Opera, park, assembly, play,
To morning walks, and prayers three hours a day;
To pass her time 'twixt reading and Bohea,
To muse, and spill her solitary tea,
Or o'er cold coffee trifle with the spoon,
Count the slow clock, and dine exact at noon;
Divert her eyes with pictures in the fire,
Hum half a tune, tell stories to the squire;
Up to her godly garret after seven,
There starve and pray, for that's the way to heaven.
@@@Some Squire, perhaps, you take a delight to rack;
Whose game is Whisk, whose treat a toast in sack,
Who visits with a gun, presents you birds,
Then gives a smacking buss, and cries—No words!
Or with his hound comes hollowing from the stable,
Makes love with nods, and knees beneath a table;
Whose laughs are hearty, tho' his jests are coarse,
And loves you best of all things—but his horse.
@@@In some fair evening, on your elbow laid,
You dream of triumphs in the rural shade;
In pensive thought recall the fancied scene,
See Coronations rise on every green;
Before you pass th' imaginary sights
Of Lords, and Earls, and Dukes, and gartered Knights;
While the spread fan o'ershades your closing eyes;
Then give one flirt, and all the vision flies.
Thus vanish scepters, coronets, and balls,
And leave you in lone woods, or empty walls.
@@@So when your slave, at some dear, idle time,
(Not plagued with headaches, or the want of rhyme)
Stands in the streets, abstracted from the crew,
And while he seems to study, thinks of you:
Just when his fancy points your sprightly eyes,
Or sees the blush of soft Parthenia rise,
Gay pats my shoulder, and you vanish quite;
Streets, chairs, and coxcombs rush upon my sight;
Vexed to be still in town, I knit my brow,
Look sour, and hum a tune—as you may now.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@—Alexander Pope

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "Epistle to Miss Blount, on Her Leaving the Town, After the Coronation." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on "Epistle to Miss Blount, on Her Leaving the Town, After the Coronation" and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing commentsbefore posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

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