Prose Couplets—The Argument

Paul Hunter’s work, a mighty store and true
Leaves plenty for we lesser souls to rue:
That we might ne’er so far nor clearly see
Across the troubled shoals of prosody,
Nor nevermore such fortune will we find
As when we met that all-consuming mind;
And, as th’initiate’s erring foot is bent
Towards that sage’s lasting monument,
And, as its light through unread letters guides
Th’advancing pilgrim, and o’er her end presides,
So my colloquiates’ lucent time just passed
Shows me how happiest I’d begin, at last.

How but through form thought finds exigence;
Sequestered but in pretty rooms is sense;
In balance each by each is justly held;
By contrary means a single thought’s compell’d;
This much to all the couplet’s giv’n to view,
And depths with shallows’ gleam but glimpsed by few.
Through all this looms unsaid a stubborn trope:
The couplet’s apogee we owe to Pope.

Than his no couplet’s to advantage dress’d!
What oft was writ, but ne’er so well compressed!
Than his no balance finer can be owned
Parnassian Thou! Who thine own self enthroned!
Dissembling judge! our notice you surceased:
You are at once the carpenter and priest.
That forms do work we know full well is true;
Might work itself not read as formal too?
Equivocation and concision join’d:
And prose or verse this double action coin’d.
Against, or with, that coining Johnson duly strove;
Today I’ll say he couplets wrote in prose.

Claude Willan lives in Texas. His book, Literary Authority: A Genealogy, is almost as Gallic as it sounds, and is under contract with Stanford University Press.

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