I have a weakness for the heroic couplet, and anything comical. Here, for example, is Alexander Pope on coffee, in that part of “The Rape of the Lock” where the Baron gets a new idea about how to gain access to Belinda’s follicles.
For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoaking Tyde.
On those somewhat rare occasions nowadays, when coffee is poured with any modicum of ceremony, usually (but not always) in an expensive restaurant, that last couplet invariably bounces out of some quiet backwater of the brain and makes me chuckle. Following on the “silver lamp” and “fiery spirits,” those “silver Spouts” are already pompous, but especially so when rendered in the plural. Pope is careful, though, to admit of plain cups and spoons, and a straightforward grinder that “turns round.” Mock heroism requires a plain background. Those gliding “liquors,” meanwhile, are perversely “grateful” and, in the next line, amplify in fragrance and volume into a “smoaking Tyde,” with that olfactory hint of seductive acceleration. The previously inanimate cups he deftly turns into a sort of allegorical entity, China’s “Earth,” perhaps lounging there, goddesslike, in receptive mode, or in acknowledgment of the absurd rite performed upon the silly “shining altars of” Japan. All five senses are amply stimulated here, with apparently total lack of effort. But look at the perfect symmetry of the conceit: two lines, each of ten syllables only, five meticulous iambs. By all accounts Pope could rattle off these perfect, cantilevered couplets in their hundreds. No fraught half-hours spent chewing the end of his pencil, or screwed up false starts overflowing from his wastepaper basket. I wonder if he even owned one. Effortlessness, however, was not enough: Pope also exhibited degrees of stylistic polish, cruel wit, and condescension that invariably nailed his intended victim, the better to hold him up to ridicule. The master.
At Starbucks, then, you might as well be dead,
If lattes only came in gingerbread.
Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.