Oliver R. Baker – Close Reading vs. Accretions of Dubious Scholarship: A Question of Competence. A Response to Kathryn Walls

Close Reading vs. Accretions of Dubious Scholarship: A Question of Competence. A Response to Kathryn Walls

Oliver R. Baker

Published in Connotations Vol. 21.1 (2011/12)

Three years before Alexander Pope published the five canto version of his mock−epic verse satire, these two couplets appeared in his major work, An Essay on Criticism (1711):

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind:
(Pt II, 297−300)

Evidently I do not have to worry about mind−matching with Kathryn Walls. On the other hand, Connotations is a journal where all shrines of orthodoxy and 'settled science' are exposed to critical debate and where those found wanting are either modified or kicked over. Demonstrating that Pole, Tillotson, and Wimsatt were in error should not be heresy. I do not deny that Tillotson's "Appendix C—Ombre" has been influential. Unfortunately, that is the problem. Published in 1940 for volume two of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, he chose to neither revise it for the second edition in 1953 nor for the third edition in 1962. For seven decades it has been misleading in terms of violating not just close reading of Pope's text, but violating [→page 13] the contemporary rules of Ombre and the fundamental tenets of good card play. Pope's enigma has a solution, provided we adopt the precept that Sherlock Holmes urges on his companion Doctor John Watson: "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"1)

There are no differences between the 'as played' hands for the Baron and the Knight given by Tillotson in the Twickenham editions and those published in Connotations, except that I have not arbitrarily assigned values to the non−court cards. My disagreement with Tillotson, and with Walls who writes to defend his solution, involves two of the nine cards held by Belinda:

Twickenham editions


A♠1, 2♠2, A♣3, K♠4

K♥9, Q♥8


K♣5, Q♣7

Connotations 2007/2008

Belinda [Elder Hand]

A♠1, 2♠2, A♣3, K♠4

K♥9, Q♥8

Void in♦

K♣5, Q♣7, ♣6

As shown above, Tillotson gives Belinda two clubs to the queen−king and a singleton low diamond, whereas in the Connotations derivation Belinda has three clubs to the queen−king and a diamond void. On tricks six and seven Belinda and the Knight are sloughing losers on the Baron's diamond leads. But whether, in my solution, Belinda sloughs her club queen on the sixth or seventh trick is unknowable and immaterial: a loser is a loser. This part of my derivation of Belinda's hand hinges on the close reading of six couplets which apply only to the sixth and seventh tricks:

The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;
Th' embroider'd King who shows but half his Face,
And his refulgent Queen, with Pow'rs combin'd,
Of broken Troops an easie Conquest find.
Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild Disorder seen,
With Throngs promiscuous strow the level Green.
Thus when dispers'd a routed Army runs,
Of Asia's Troops, and Africk's Sable Sons,
[→page 14] With like Confusion different Nations fly,
Of various Habit and of various Dye,
The pierc'd Battalions dis−united fall,
In Heaps on Heaps; one Fate o'erwhelms them all.
(iii.75−86: emphasis in the original)

My inference for tricks six and seven comes from the line, "Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild Disorder seen" and seems obvious—whoever is sloughing clubs on those two disordered heaps, it cannot be the Knight who only had a singleton club which we know he sloughed on the fourth trick. The Baron leads his king and then his queen of diamonds (iii.75−77) and "of broken Troops an easie Conquest find[s]." Two diamond tricks, two heaps of cards "in wild disorder [are] seen" and these cards are "clubs, diamonds, [and] hearts"—where I acknowledge Pope's use of the plural forms. A few lines earlier Pope writes, "The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace," from which we have no difficulty inferring that he has consecutive leads and that each is a diamond (iii.75). To try and argue that a plural is really a singular is unconvincing (Walls 231). To me it seems that Walls permits the accretions of scholarship to influence close reading (cf. Baker 211−12).

Applying Occam's razor, my interpretation is: two heaps, two tricks, two clubs, two diamonds, and two hearts. In other words—six cards—two diamond leads from the Baron, two heart sloughs from the Knight, and two club sloughs from Belinda. Perhaps a diagram which applies only to tricks six and seven will help:












Diamonds, hearts, and clubs


rather than Tillotson's














Diamonds, hearts, and a club

Pope does not let these six couplets apply to the eighth trick as here we know Belinda sloughs her heart queen, and the Knight has only hearts left anyway. This is why Belinda must have three clubs to the [→page 15] queen−king and why she cannot have a plebeian diamond to follow suit and play on the sixth trick. So, Pole (1873−74) misinterpreted these six couplets making an error that Tillotson did not correct. Consequently, Tillotson's reconstruction is incorrect (cf. Walls 231). Pope, never a pedant about scansion, and this line is particularly strained, could have written it differently, but he did not.

It is important to recognise that these two hands, Belinda's and the Knight's, must be derived simultaneously. If my interpretation of the plurals is correct—despite the irregular scansion in that line—then the only way Belinda can be playing a singleton diamond on the sixth trick is for the Knight to be playing a club on that trick, too. And that would require altering the Knight's hand, the two versions of which are shown below:

Twickenham editions

Sir Anonym [Dealer]

6♠2, 3♠1

J♥9, 2♥8, 3♥7, 4♥6, 6♥5



Connotations 2007/2008


♠2, ♠1

J♥9, ♥8, ♥7, ♥6, ♥5



The major difference between these is that Tillotson follows Pole even to the extent of assigning identical numerical values to the non−court cards; for which, of course, there is neither necessity nor textual justification.2) I also disagree on the seating and therefore on who is the Dealer, but these two details affect neither the derivation nor the card play, just the drama.8)

In my 2007⁄2008 article, I argued that the Knight's non−court diamond and his club knave must be singletons unless you intend to make a very poor player of him (Baker 217−20). He may be one; but this should emerge from his play and not be taken as an assumption to aid a proposed reconstruction. On the face of it, sloughing the club was not a particularly good play; sloughing one of his four plebeian hearts would have made more sense, but we cannot rewrite this portion of Pope's satire.3) At the end of the fifth trick, all eleven spade trumps have been played.4) In the only instance of a lead being [→page 16] trumped in this tour the Baron trumps Belinda's club king lead with his fifth−ranked spade queen to win the trick and take control. Moreover, after the fifth trick the rest of the play is no−trump—whatever is led, the other players must follow suit, or slough something else if they cannot. Tricks six to nine will be taken by the highest−ranked card played in the suit which is led. If, as I surmise, neither of the other players had any diamonds left by trick six, any diamond leads by the Baron, the three lowest non−court cards would have taken the tricks as readily as the three court cards—and for the Baron, a pity he did not have a fourth diamond.

Some confusion arises from the improper use of card game nomenclature. When Walls writes, "the trumped hearts (of the Knight) and Belinda's (also trumped) clubs" (230), she does not appear to recognize the distinction between plain trick taking and trumping—perhaps she means sloughed rather than trumped? This highlights the Baron's error in not discarding his fourth−ranked heart ace.5) His spade queen is a 'stopper'—Belinda may make her lowly ombre but she cannot make vole in spades, even if they were split six−five−nought−nought: Belinda with six, the Baron with five, the Knight with a void, and none in the talon. They were not. For a fee—one lesser counter—the Baron has the possibility of drawing: another heart (pity, but no harm); a club (no harm, he exchanges a club void for a heart void); another spade trump (magic, but in this case impossible, as they are all in play, although he cannot know this); or another diamond (wonderful, if he ever gets the lead after all the trumps have been drawn, he can impose Codille).

Some readers may wonder what this exchange is all about. It concerns a reconstruction I propose to replace those currently available in print and electronically. Some card games foster an understanding that rational behaviour requires reaching conclusions and making decisions by examining the available evidence. I did not label the players Nincompoop, Nymph, and Knight. In fact, I wrote, "scholars can engage whichever theoretical approach suits the needs of their literary analysis" (Baker 226−27).6) If my reconstruction is in error, the resolution [→page 17] resides in reasoned demonstration not contradiction. To recapitulate, play is counter−clockwise and because Belinda is seated to the right of the Dealer—an instance of place being important—hers is the Elder Hand which has the powerful privilege of leading whomever wins the auction to declare the trump suit.9) Momentarily forget the poem: pick a seat, print out Seymour, Cotton, and Cotgrave from ECCO and EEBO, and then figure out what you would do if you were Baron, Nymph, or Knight at Hampton Court Palace for a day with a pocketful of guineas and these cards.7)



♠, ♠

J♠, ♠, ♠, ♠, ♠


Belinda [Elder Hand]

A♠, A♣

K♠, 2♠

K♥, Q♥

Void in ♦

K♣, Q♣, ♣


Q♠, J♠, ♠, ♠, ♠


K♦, Q♦, J♦

Void in ♣

Whether Belinda plays badly, perhaps deliberately bidding the 'wrong' suit, was always beyond the scope and intent of my reconstruction. That said, a case can be made for blaming the Sylphs. Lacking a reliable reconstruction, or perhaps because the significance of precedence was deemed irrelevant, critics have overlooked the following three couplets. Depending entirely on how we interpret

Soon as she spreads her Hand, th' Aerial Guard
Descend, and sit on each important Card:
First Ariel perch'd upon a Matadore,
Then each, according to the Rank they bore;
For Sylphs, yet mindful of their ancient Race,
Are, as when Women, wondrous fond of Place.
(iii.31−36: emphasis in the original)

[→page 18] we are presented with a bizarre either ⁄ or dilemma, highlighted by the phrases "sit on each important Card" (iii.32) and "wondrous fond of Place" (iii.36). Black aces excepted, trump suit selection determines the importance of any card. Strangely, this importance is evident to the Sylphs, "Soon as she spreads her Hand" (iii.31). But this is seven couplets before "The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care" (iii.45), which is just before she says, "Let Spades be Trumps!" (iii.46). Pope might only be making the satiric point that some women were preoccupied with—race and place—pedigree and social status. But it is hard to believe that Pope creates his machinery and then gives Belinda's Sylphs no significant role in the first mock−battle beyond the decorative one of perching unseen on her cards. How these preoccupations lead to a flawed evaluation of Belinda's hand and a sans prendre ombre bid in the 'wrong' suit must, alas, be the topic of a separate full length article.

Simon Fraser University
British Columbia, Canada