Reading about Language

  • Tom Jones


What did Pope think about language? He says that in good poetry the sound should seem an echo to the sense, and this statement might imply that he held an Adamic view of the relationship between words and their meaning: language is divine and gives the right names to the right things — as Adam did in the garden — and poetry is the best expression of the divinity of language. If Pope held this view he would be a nostalgic poet, adhering to views of language popular in the seventeenth century and earlier, views that Milton might have held, and that see divine appropriateness in onomatopoeia and etymological relationships between words.1 Yet, as I have already noted in the Introduction, Pope’s echo is a matter of artifice, or seeming, and not simply a natural or divine phenomenon. Other statements in Pope’s Essay on Criticism place him closer to other schools of thought on language. He says that ‘Expression is the Dress of Thought, and still / Appears more decent as more suitable’ (11. 318–19), perhaps implying that words are external signs that more or less correctly reflect thoughts that exist independently in the mind of a speaker. Stephen Land for one takes these lines by Pope as evidence that ‘Pope’s concept of language is very close to that of Locke’, who, as I will demonstrate shortly, holds something like the view of language just sketched.2


Natural Sign Expressive Behaviour Figurative Language Propositional Language Distinct Idea 
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    John Leonard, Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 1–22, presents this as Milton’s likely relationship to Adamic and Cratylic theories of language.Google Scholar
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    Stephen K. Land, From Signs to Propositions: The Concept of Form in Eighteenth-Century Semantic Theory (London: Longman, 1974), p. 22. Other writers who refer to Locke when providing a philosophical context for the interpretation of Pope include David B. Morris, Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 154–5 and Blanford Parker, The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 107, 111, 132–3.Google Scholar
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