Two Poets and a Word

The whole of creation, in just three letters

William Wordsworth (left), as painted by Henry William Pickersgill, and Alexander Pope, as painted by Michael Dahl (Wikimedia Commons)
William Wordsworth (left), as painted by Henry William Pickersgill, and Alexander Pope, as painted by Michael Dahl (Wikimedia Commons)

Now and again it is said of a writer that a few favorite recurring words will serve to construct his or her whole world. Jane Austen, for example. One can go pretty far into the mind and world of Jane Austen by paying attention to these three words: elegant, amiable, and fortune. Add wife, perhaps, and the door to her fictional universe is flung wide open. Or to know P. G. Wodehouse, surely you need only know imposter, pig, and aunt. Or Raymond Chandler: blonde, revolver, gumshoe.

Running a finger down a concordance won’t explain this phenomenon; it is not a matter of frequency. Most writers have themes, and most themes are distilled into certain words that capture and compress them, either as single words or sometimes as images. Compressed, they radiate in the story like so many glowing coals. Macbeth is filled with references to children because it is a play about succession, the future. Othello is haunted by images of monsters—sex is the “beast with two backs”—that paint a world of love deformed by jealousy, Othello’s world. Those words and images spell out an attitude, they make the disparate moments of a plot cohere.

It is harder to play this game with poets. That is partly because poems are usually so much shorter than novels and the space for recurring words is smaller. And partly because, unless you write the richly dense prose of John Updike or Virginia Woolf, a poet loads and blesses an individual word with far more intensity and meaning than any mere novelist can manage.

I have in mind two poets and one word. The poets are Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth. The word? Well, it may be best if we approach it stealthily, through another word.

Pope, the greatest English poet of the early 18th century, is very fond of the word half. Without much study one can remember that Man is “created half to rise, and half to fall.” And that Pope’s vile enemy Lord Hervey is a toad, “half froth, half venom.” And that certain dull “Critics” are “half-formed witlings, num’rous in our isle, / As half-formed insects on the banks of Nile.”

Why the word half attracts Pope is no mystery. Apart from a few youthful odes, Pope wrote almost always in rhyming couplets. And anyone who has ever tried to write rhyming couplets understands the pressure of that form to make the writer create a balanced rhythm. The couplet consists of connected halves, and the poet instinctively turns to phrasing that reflects its back and forth, up and down, its “see-saw,” as Pope says, “between that and this.” A couplet requires you to equalize and stabilize, to find a kind of rocking-chair rhythm: “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign / And wretches hang that jury-men may dine.” The couplet is counterpoised by its rhymes and complete in itself. Its two halves make a felt and audible whole. Or in Pope’s case, perhaps because it rhymes handily with so many other words, two halves make his key word—all.

To be sure, he sometimes uses the synonym whole, notably in his Essay on Criticism, where he insists that we “Survey the WHOLE, nor seek slight faults to find.” But whole, with its initial soft consonant blend (called a digraph) is a modest word, thoughtful; it feels like the result of calculation. All is resonant. All is emphatic, dramatic, loud—“why not take ALL of me!” says the poet Sinatra. The powerful word all is far better suited to reconciling the antitheses built into the couplet form. It is the great compressing, resounding word toward which Pope swivels again and again, like the needle on a compass.

It is worth reflecting on what he means by it. For Pope, all consists of separate, distinct parts, arranged by the principle of subordination into a functioning mechanism: “Each works its end, to move or govern all.” He thinks of all as an organized entity. There is nothing original in saying this. Pope still lives in the shadow of the Renaissance, when the nature of things was understood by everyone to be hierarchical, a “Vast Chain of Being” that, in Pope’s phrase, extends from God above down through angels, kings, nobles, and on and on, to the very insects in the field. Everything in the universe is made of parts arranged by rank, function, and importance. It is true of music, of mathematics, of government—“The heavens themselves,” Shakespeare’s Ulysses says, “the planets, and this centre / Observe degree, priority, and place.”

Of course, this chain of rank would also have been obvious to Pope as he looked about his exquisitely nuanced world of lords and ladies. It would have been familiar to him from St. Paul’s comparison of the Church to the organization of the body—mind, eyes, feet, etc., all fitted together in perfect harmony. It is what he and his contemporaries meant by another favorite word: concord, or harmony. Later in the 18th century the comparison would be extended from social rank or the well-ordered body to mechanical constructions: God is the great “Watchmaker,” who has designed a universe that runs like (what else?) clockwork. But the idea of universal design reaches its crescendo a little earlier, in a wonderful passage from Pope’s Essay on Man, when the poet bursts into a rapturous celebration of “the great directing MIND of ALL.” Here he declares, through a drumbeat of repetition that builds like a litany:

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,

Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;

That, changed through all, and yet in all the same …

Lives through all life, extends through all extent,

Spreads undivided, operates unspent …

To him no high, no low, no great, no small;

He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.

Pope is a poet of extraordinary ambition. He is drawn to projects of great scope, like his translations of Homer and his proposed epic of Brutus. And he wants to see his own poetry as an organized all. He wants his numerous individual works, his “parts,” fitted into a grand design, an analog to universal design. Throughout his life he toyed with schemes to organize his poetry. The Essay on Man was meant to be only the beginning of a vast philosophical structure that would include his Moral Essays and his satires, all part of a system.

Pope is also a satirist, partly no doubt from temperament. But he often justifies his satiric jabs by describing his victims as dull upstarts who disrupt the true order of things. The rotten Poet insists on his talent, but his “fustian’s so sublimely bad, / It is not Poetry, but prose run mad.” The Dullard pretends to be a Wit, the Old Maid a Young Beauty. The world’s harmony is disrupted by people who will not see, or will not accept, their proper rank in the order of things. They preen, they pretend, they presume; and if they cannot quite shake cosmic harmony, they can be an irritant, sand in the universal gears: “All this dread ORDER break—for whom? For thee? / Vile worm!”

Nowhere is this clearer than in his sublime mock-epic satire against dullness and stupidity, The Dunciad (1742). As civilization appears first to nod, then begins its long fall toward annihilation, the word all recurs again and again (if I do open the concordance, the word appears 131 times in just 1754 lines). Toward the end, the nod becomes a yawn, Pope’s diction becomes Miltonic, and at the unforgettable climax of the poem he turns one more time, just as we should expect, to his key word:

Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word;

Thy hand, great ANARCH! lets the curtain fall,

And universal Darkness buries All. 

In the summer of 1798, during a tour of the English Lake Country, William Wordsworth, then 28 years old, paused near the ruins of a church called Tintern Abbey, by the banks of the Wye River. It had been five years since he had visited this northern pastoral scene, and as always for him, remembrance of time past leads him to reimagine those lost hours. And what he notices in 1798 is how changed he is from what he was when he “first came among these hills” as a boy. Then, he bounded “like a roe” in “glad animal movements,” in the woods, alongside the river, over the mountains and streams ”wherever nature led.” Then, he was haunted by passion, by an “appetite” for the natural beauty all around him, “a feeling and a love.” And this glorious passion arose in him because, he tells us, “Nature then … to me was all in all.” All in all.

As “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” makes plain, Wordsworth’s world is broken. A glance back reminds us that Pope’s world is not. Pope’s all is complete, unchanging. If its parts are in unceasing movement, that movement resolves, according to design, into concord: “Tho’ all things differ, all agree.” But Wordsworth’s world is not complete, perhaps not even permanent. Time snaps the Great Chain of Being. Wordsworth has changed, and the world as he experiences it has changed. He has somehow lost the spontaneous joys of the past, its “dizzy raptures.” Now, chastened by life, he looks on Nature, “not as in the hour of thoughtless youth,” but as a sober adult, “hearing the still, sad music of humanity.” And he has no idea why this change has come about.

“Tintern Abbey” is about recovering that wholeness before Time divided the world. Wordsworth writes blank verse, not couplets; there is no pressure for him to divide things into halves. His all comprises the vast time before birth, faintly glimpsed or remembered by the poet and the child, and the present time. He speaks very little of the future. That is because his task is not to reconcile contradictory parts into a whole. His task is to perceive the unity of past and present. It will not be a unity of parts. It will be a unity of spirit, or a unity of great moving forms that make up, not a mechanical clock, but a “presence,” a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” All is interfused, a fusion. In a passage gorgeously animated by repetition of his key word, we can feel the indefinable rolling power of a poet who, just for this moment, has truly “seen into the life of things.” That wonderful power is

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things … all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye and ear.

Pope could speak, crisply and intelligently, of the universal “Mind of All.” Wordsworth has actually seen that Mind. In the concluding book of his own epic poem, The Prelude (1850), meant like Pope’s works to be part of a still larger philosophical structure, Wordsworth recalls a trip to Mt. Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. At one point, ahead of his companions, solitary, Wordsworth looks up at the moon, then down over the fog to the ocean, which he cannot see, but which, like the limitless spirit of all things, he can intuit. This merging of moon, “solid vapors,” and the “roar of waters, torrents, streams / Innumerable, roaring with one voice” is a new kind of unity or fusion. He compares the scene to “the emblem of a mind / That feeds upon infinity.” And in a sure sign of change from Pope’s well-ordered all to the Romantic poet’s egoism, the poet chooses a new image—all is both a mind and a voice (perhaps his voice). Earlier, crossing the Alps, Wordsworth had heard the same spirit-voice in the cascading streams of a mountain pass and seen the same majestic mind.

The darkness and the light—

Were all like workings of one mind, the features

Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree …

The types and symbols of Eternity.

And if voice, mind, and water are to be the new images of a new age, replacing the 18th century’s chain and clock, the poet has also taken up a new favorite word—not all, but one. It is an ambiguous word, which can express both everything and a single self. All done.

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Max Byrd’s most recent novel is Pont Neuf.


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