This assignment, intended to be given in advance of class discussion and then used to begin the discussion, asks students to consider a small, formally self-contained unit of text and then locate it within the work as a whole. I find that my students tend to want to look at the forest while neglecting the trees, so this assignment requires sustained attention to a tree. It aims to put into practice several strategies for producing a close reading: paraphrase, attention to diction (and historical definitions of words), and analysis of meter. While I used heroic couplets here, this exercise is quite flexible. It could be adapted for other formal units like quatrains or stanzas. It could also be modified to be an in-class activity.
Adopt A Couplet
For Friday, reread Pope’s “Epistle to Burlington.” Then, choose a single couplet from the poem. Answer the following questions about your couplet and be prepared to share your answers with the class:
1. What is your couplet saying? Paraphrase it.
2. Look up any significant, puzzling, or ambiguous words in the Oxford English Dictionary (link on class toolkit page) to learn what they meant in the early eighteenth century when this poem was written. What sense or senses of the word seem relevant for understanding your couplet?
3. How does your couplet work formally? Does the meter vary from iambic pentameter? To what effect? How does your couplet sound?
4. How is your couplet related to the poem as a whole? What is it adding to the poem? Why is it significant?