When we read the Rape of the Lock we are conscious of a firmly controlled progression. The poet is master, he has put things just so.
The poem performs a lively but stately solo dance, performs it without jerk, however often the pace may change. 1 But though the dance is kept moving towards the conclusion of the story, it fascinates us by its subsidiary footwork as well as by its progression, by the footwork which does not so much break new ground as decorate a small area, as in pirouetting. For the unit, the poem, is made up of subsidiary units (i.e., of parts which, when isolated, invite temporary consideration as things complete in themselves). These subsidiary units are, in order of descending size, the canto, the paragraph, the couplet, even the line, even the phrase.
The following remarks mainly concern the couplet.
The heroic couplet, as Pope wrote it, attracts attention to itself as metre. It is so brief that, as we read, we notice variations between couplets in something like the same way that we notice variations between dominos all of which are of the same size. We do not compare metrical units always: for example, when reading the Faërie Queene we do not compare stanzas; we anticipate and value the metre within
1 The question whether or not the pace may dally sometimes is canvassed in the Introduction, at p. 19 above.
the stanza, but the stanzas nine lines long are too big to be held in the mind as comparable units. But variety among Pope’s couplets cannot well be missed.