This very short block of lines comes from Pope’s much longer Essay on Criticism (external link). He wrote this at 23, without the aid of a university education.
The references are obscure to everyone except English Lit majors, perhaps, but they do enrich the poem if looked up. Same task as one does for a modern poet like Eliot with The Wasteland (internal link) or Prufrock (internal link).
There is always Shmoop, approachable and friendly if not always crazy accurate. Here’s their take on the reference to Camilla:
“Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the main.”
“Camilla is another shout-out to Greek and Roman mythology. She is the virgin queen of the Volscians. The great Roman poet Virgil writes that she was so swift she could run over a field of corn without bending one blade and run over the sea without getting her feet wet. Notice that the speaker kind of steals Virgil’s way of describing Camilla’s swiftness. By paraphrasing Virgil, he’s implying that he’s in the same league as this great poet.”
“The speaker is also doing the amazing things that Camilla does except with his verse. He creates swift lines by using iambic meter. Also, while Camilla flies over the corn, the poet flies over two syllables by changing the word “over” to “o’er” and combining “the” with “unbending” by taking out the ‘e.'”
I know self-study suggests difficulty when we want easy reading. After all, who wants to work? I’d ask, who wants to learn? It will read effortlessly in time. As we learn to write better over time. Pope states the overlooked obvious, we must learn how to dance.
From: An Essay on Criticism
by Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main. . .