Wednesday 6 May 2009

The Art of Sinking in Poetry

I’ve just finished working on one of our upcoming titles, The Art of Sinking in Poetry, and, since I enjoyed it so much, I thought I’d write a few words about it. Penned by the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, it takes the form of a tongue-in-cheek guide to writing “profound”, or in other words “low”, poetry – a device that enables Pope to turn his acerbic wit on the work of his peers. As such the essay consists mainly of extracts of poetry that Pope considered low, accompanied by his ironic commentaries thereon. The poems Pope quotes are often excruciatingly bad, and his sarcastic mockery hilarious, but The Art of Sinking in Poetry also makes informative reading for anyone interested in the art of writing, and in avoiding the pitfalls of style that Pope amusingly ridicules in this book.

A choice extract:
[Leading on from a list of examples...] So astonishing as these are, they yield to the following, which is profundity itself:

"None but himself can be his parallel."

Unless it may seem borrowed from that master of a show in Smithfield who writ in large letters, over the picture of his elephant: "This is the greatest elephant in the world, except himself."
And another, in which Pope offers us an example of the depths of inanity:
Ah silly I, more silly than my sheep
(Which on the flowery plain I once did keep).
At times Pope’s criticisms can verge on pedantry, and his insistence on what seem now rather outdated notions of “high” and “low” subject matter, and the inadvisability of mixing the two, can be a little alienating for a modern reader. However, the great majority of the extracts Pope singles out for his scathing treatment richly deserve it. Nor does Pope pick on small-fry: his principle targets were eminent poets of the day, including the then Poet Laureate. In fact, even the Bard himself does not escape some oblique mockery, for these lines adapted by Dryden from the Tempest:
Advance the fringèd curtains of thy eyes,
And tell me who comes yonder…
Lastly, lest we should consider Pope free of faults as a writer, it is thought that a good number of the most amusing examples of bad verse contained in this volume are quotations from, or paraphrasings of, an epic poem he wrote himself in his youth – and burned once he realised how bad it was. For example, a wonderfully precious description of the closing of a door, which I have been unsuccessfully trying to slip into conversation ever since I read it:
The wooden guardian of our privacy
Quick on its axle turn…

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