Mastering the heroic couplet, more on Baroque composers, and Frederick Taylor Gates: newsletter, October 29, 2021

October 30, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, October 29, 2021.

Fifty. 50 percent.  Is that a lot or a little? Whenever I encounter a number or statistic, I am reminded of what I read years ago in a book on graphics by Edward Tufte, a guru of graphic presentation of information. He wrote words to this effect: No number has any meaning unless it is compared with another number.

The particular statistic that reminded me of Tufte’s words was that in 2020 50 percent of murders in the United States were solved. In other words, if you committed murder last year, you were as likely to go free as to be arrested and charged. That doesn’t sound great, does it? At least, not to those of us who didn’t commit any murders. But how “not great” is it? It turns out, when you look at the information provided by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), that in 2019, 55 percent of all murders were solved. So, things got worse in terms of unsolved murders in 2020.

Things look even worse when you look back to the 1970s and find that 82 percent of all murders were solved in 1976. We might like to think that if someone commits a murder, that person will be caught and charged. Television shows and much of our crime fiction tell us that is the case. Unfortunately, that’s not so.

Have a wonderful numeric and literate weekend.


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Alexander Pope, the grand master of the “heroic couplet”

Alexander Pope was an 18th century English poet whose name you have undoubtedly heard and whose lines you have likely quoted. He’s the guy who gave us “damning with faint praise” and “to err is human; to forgive divine.” Next to Shakespeare, he is the most quoted author in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Pope, of course, was more than just a quotation machine and lived an active and boisterous life, though racked with tuberculosis and other ills. It was an age that saw the publishing world develop much of the commercial form that we know today. As it was doing so, however, the publishing world of London was much like the later myth of the American Wild West, and Alexander Pope was one of its chief gunfighters.

Alexander Pope was born in 1688 into the family of a successful linen merchant, but from very early in life he suffered numerous disadvantages that he dealt with for his entire life. He was stricken with spinal tuberculosis when he was 12, and that restricted his growth. His height as an adult was only about four and a half feet, and his affliction left him with a large hunchback as well as problems with breathing and irritated eyesight.

Pope’s family was Catholic, and the anti-Catholicism of the age prevented them from living within 10 miles of London and restricted the schooling that he could obtain.

Pope persisted through all of these difficulties to become one of the most erudite and well-read men of his age. He never had a job but is thought to be the first person in English letters to have made his living by his writing alone. It was, indeed, quite a living. He became wealthy enough to buy a large house and estate in Twickenham and to develop a large and famous grotto and garden.

Despite his physical and social difficulties, it did not take Pope long to become a part of a literary elite and to achieve some amount of fame for his writing. Pope’s mastery of the “heroic couplet,” a rhyming set of lines in iambic pentameter, was evident from some of his earliest writings, and that mastery dominated his age. It also made his writing easy to understand and highly quotable.

For instance, these early lines from Pope’s Essay on Criticism, published just before his 23rd birthday in 1711:

’Tis with our judgments as our watches, none

Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

In poets as true genius is but rare,

True taste as seldom is the critic’s share;

Both must alike from Heav’n derive their light,

These born to judge, as well as those to write.

Let such teach others who themselves excel,

And censure freely who have written well.

Authors are partial to their wit, ’tis true,

But are not critics to their judgment too?

The essay was well-received, and it was about this time that Pope made valuable friends of Tory writers such as Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot, who together formed the satirical Scriblerus Club. He also had friends on the Whig side of the political aisle such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, publishers and writers who were highly influential.

Pope’s financial breakout came with the publication of a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which took him nearly five years to complete. Pope announced in 1713 that this work would be available by subscription with one volume appearing each year over a six-year period. The work and the way in which he marketed it turned out to be fabulously successful, and by 1719 he was able to purchase his house and gardens in Twickenham. Pope tried a similar scheme with Homer’s Odyssey (this time with a collaborator), and it had similar financial success.

In 1725, Pope edited and published a deluxe edition of the works of William Shakespeare, which did well financially but which drew critics for the way in which he had edited the Bard. Pope understood the value of controversy, and he answered his chief critic, Lewis Theobald, by making him a central character in one of his satires, The Dunciad.

Pope never shied away from a public fight. He was a prickly personality, but he also understood that controversy meant publicity and publicity meant more book sales.

Pope was a persistent critic of elitism and intellectual snobbery, and his satires could be both gentle and withering. His most famous work, The Rape of the Lock, is in this vein. Sometimes, his satire turned vicious, and there were times when he had to walk the streets armed with pistols.

By the late 1730s, Pope’s many ailments had begun to wear him down, and he died in 1744. With the rise of Romanticism in British letters at the end of the 18th century, Pope’s work fell out of favor. Interest in it was revived in the 20th century, and Pope’s mastery of the language was recognized and re-examined. Such attention continues today.


Many of Pope’s works are available in audio form on Librivox, such as An Essay on Criticism, The Illiad (Pope Translation), and The Rape of the Lock, among others.

Chinese paintings: ink on silk

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is offering visitors a rare look at Chinese ink-on-silk paintings that are hundreds of years old.

These paintings cannot be displayed in public for any length of time because of their physical delicacy, as this review in the New York Times explains:

And although the galleries hold the museum’s permanent collection of Chinese paintings, no picture stays for long. Compared with Western-style oil painting — a hardy, meat-and-potatoes, survivalist medium — Classical Chinese painting is fragile. Often done in ink on silk, it has two natural enemies: time and light. The danger is less that they will fade the ink than that they will darken the silk. Paintings depicting daylight scenes can end up looking twilight-dim. Source: Looking Close at the Fragile Beauty of Chinese Painting – The New York Times

The Times article reproduces some of these paintings, and they are truly exquisite. The theme of the exhibition is solitude, an idea that has long been part of the artistic thinking in China.

A broader range of the collection can be found at the Met’s exhibition website: “Companions in Solitude: Reclusion and Communion in Chinese Art.” 

If you find yourself in New York City in the next few months, this would be worth checking out. If not, take a look at these links and prepare to be mesmerized.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


Baroque composers: Barbara Strozzi

Much of the information about Barbara Strozzi is speculative, obscure, disputed, or doubtful. What we do know is that she was a terrific musician—a soprano who could accompany herself on the lute or theorbo (a very long-necked stringed instrument)—who captured the attention of music-crazy Venice during her teenage years.

We also know that she was one of the most acclaimed and prolific composers during the early years of the Baroque era (1600-1750). Unfortunately, like many other female composers of her age, her name and her work have been obscured by the preference for her male contemporaries.

Barbara Strozzi was born in 1619, probably the illegitimate daughter of Isabella Griega and Giulio Strozzi, an influential poet and librettist in 17th century Venice. Giulio wrote plays, opera, poetry, prose, and song lyrics. He was a member of a leading intellectual institute, and his work was known for being the Republic of Venice. Barbara grew up in his household and exhibited great musical talent in her early teens.

By the time she was 15, she had become known as the virtuoso daughter of Giulio, and when she was 16, he was seeking commissions for her well-known musical talent. Her public performances established her talent and gained her a reputation. Barbara had also studied composition with Francesco Cavalli, and many of the pieces that she performed were her own works.

Little is known about her personal life as a young adult, but she may well have lived as a concubine or courtesan of some Venetian nobleman, possibly Giovanni Paolo Vidman, a patron of the arts and associate of her father. She never married, but her relationship with Vidman probably produced two and maybe three children. Speculation about her relationship likely diminished the attention that her music received.

By 1626 two volumes of her vocal compositions had been published, and more were to come. Dedications in these volumes indicated that she was able to gain some patrons, but her supporters never included the Church, which was common among many composers at the time, or any individual in particular. In other words, she made it on her own.

While she borrowed texts of her songs from a variety of sources, she also composed many of them herself. In all, she produced eight volumes of music, which was an extraordinary output for her time.

Strozzi died in 1677 at the age of 58. Interest in her music has revived lately as we have paid more attention to the female composers of the Baroque period.

Here is a sample of some of her music:


Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741)


Frederick Taylor Gates, farsighted philanthropist

John D. Rockefeller had already been asked—several times—if he would make a contribution to begin a great Baptist university in the Midwest, and he had declined. But he had never been asked by Frederick Taylor Gates.

It was a spring morning in 1889 when Gates met with Rockefeller at the magnate’s home in New York City. Gates was the executive director of the American Baptist Educational Society. Its main purpose was to raise money for the establishment of a Baptist university in the Midwest. Rockefeller was a Baptist, and he was a natural target for these efforts.

Gates had been born in Maine, New York, the son of a Baptist minister, and he too had attended seminary and had served as a Baptist minister in Minneapolis. But the year before meeting with Rockefeller, Gates had left the pulpit to help the American Baptist Educational Society. Thus the meeting with Rockefeller.

After a pleasant breakfast, he and Rockefeller strolled up and down Fifth Avenue discussing the society’s plans. Rockefeller offered $400,000.

“That’s not enough,” Gates said politely. A sum of $600,00 would be more in line with what was needed. Rockefeller resisted. Gates persisted. Finally, Rockefeller gave in.

It was, Gates said later, a “thrill I shall never forget.”

The school would be built, and we know it today as the University of Chicago.

Rockefeller may not have been all that thrilled, but he liked Gates and recognized his talents. This was a man Rockefeller wanted on his side. Rockefeller hired Gates to be his business and philanthropic adviser, and for the next three decades, Gates had enormous influence over the distribution of Rockefeller’s vast fortune.

Rockefeller himself believed in folk remedies for many medical problems, but Gates convinced him that his money could do the most good for the greatest number of people if he would invest in researching diseases, identifying their causes, and finding ways to eradicate them. Thus, he designed the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University), of which he was board president.

Gates sought to solve specific problems but also looked for ways to apply or link these solutions to larger problems.

The name of Frederick Taylor Gates has receded into the woodwork of history, but we should bring it out occasionally and hold it up as a man who worked vigorously for the public good.



Check out last week’s newsletter

Marcia D.: I live in a neighborhood that has three hospitals so it’s never quiet.

Eric S.:  Having read and loved Dickens’ novels, I was unaware of his journalism career until your fascinating snapshot of his life opened my eyes. It helped me understand how and why Dickens wrote what he did with such just-the-facts-ma’am insight. Thanks!

Vince V.: Taking the prerogative of an old man, I find myself more and more going to bed shortly after sundown. My late father-in-law was fond of saying that “nothing good happens after the 10 p.m. news.” After 50 years, I will do him one better and make it the 6 p.m. news.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Girl on a horse

Best quote of the week:

We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water. John W. Gardner, author and leader (1912-2002)

Pray-as-you-go podcast

If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Charles Dickens, Parliamentary reporter; Antonio Vivaldi, and wide-ranging reader reaction: newsletter, October 22, 2021



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