Pope, "Epistle to a Lady: of the Characters of Women"

These are point-form notes that I didn't have an opportunity to deliver/expand upon on Thursday 9th November. The format is poor: "tab" doesn't convert tidily to web page format. But it will be useful background for what we did take up in class--some functions of rhyme, illustrated with particular lines from the poem.

There were four verse epistles in Pope’s collection Epistles to Several Persons (also known as the Moral Essays)

-he’d started to write them in 1729: this was the last (1735), though when he ordered them he put it second in the sequence

-the first in the sequence (and the second-last to be written) was a poem "on the knowledge and characters of men" addressed to Lord Cobham

-this is very unusual in being addressed not only to a woman, but to an untitled one

The addressee is the "you" of the first line

-but her name wasn’t printed on the title page: it’s problematic to address a public epistle to a female friend

-edition I have: she insisted that Pope suppress her name

-women are supposed to be private (as we are told)

The other three were dedicated to male aristocrats with well-defined public roles

-a characteristic of epistles by the Latin poet Horace

Although the word "satire" isn’t in the title, it has many elements of satire

Content: perhaps the closest genre is that of the satire against women (NPEPP lists common themes: this is the first! others, united by HUMAN WEAKNESS, include social perversity, duplicity/hypocrisy eg of clergy, idiosyncrasy)

Examples of antifeminist satires:

-Latin poet Juvenal’s sixth satire

-Chaucer’s prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale

Howard Weinbrot’s written extensively on C18th satire, a common genre in late C17th/early C18th:

-HW is the source of much that I have to say

-PEPP said that satire in heroic couplets was THE predominant Augustan genre (after civil war, religion too dangerous)

-English neoclassical poetics valued general over particular, morality over subversion, clarity over subtlety, explicitness over obliqueness (NPEPP)

-NPEPP qualifies this assertion:

-Pope’s Essay on Man was nonsatiric: C18th philosophy in verse

-Pindaric ode a licensed departure into disorder

-meter could be irregular

-you could have stanzas of different lengths

-uplifting sentiments

Nice article by Weinbrot on teaching satire reminds us of different (and often overlapping functions) of satire

-punitive: mock the subject, hurt them (Juvenal)

-revelatory: reveal horrors of human nature, often with a "my hands are tied", there's nothing I can do about it...

-"formal" (that’s HW’s term): punishing with the intent to reform

Aim (ostensible) of formal satire to make the world a better place

-a C16th distinction between Horace’s satires (remove vice) and his epistles (plant virtues)

Useful to pay attention to how the speaker crafts his own image

Pope had Horace in mind when he wrote the epistles

-Horace used epistolary form

-attacked folly, not vice

-show the satirist in control of threats to social harmony, humanity

Look for the presence of another voice

-sometimes: a victim of injustice who complains (Juvenal, Johnson)

-usually: challenger (Horace had a lawyer Trebatius)

-satirist Persius: used dialogue to indicate the lack of dialogue/communication

-Horace’s dedicatees were highly placed aristocrats

-in Horace’s culture, showed cohesion of society

-if a poet can give advice to his superiors

-Pope’s dedicatees sometimes not in the "in-group"

-e.g. in his explicit imitations of Horace’s epistles, he created a stink by addressing the 1st epistle of the 1st book to an anti-establishment aristocrat

-Pope’s idealized communities tend to be composed of outsiders

-he was a disabled Tory Catholic

Weinbrot argues that Pope’s epistles (like his Essay on Man) express the belief that we can make sense even of the fallen world, because despite chaos it’s constructed according to certain principles

-God’s gift to each person (and sex?) of a "ruling passion"

-the happy and harmonious reconciliation of all the contraries and inconsistencies of the fallen world: discordia concors

Pope’s "Epistle to a Lady" begins with an affectionate comment, presents us with a small affectionate community

-he’s agreeing w/ something the "you" said once

-`Nothing so true as what you once let fall,

"Most Women have no Characters at all."’

One implication

-she’s the only uncorrupt woman of the lot

-having a decent and agreeable and educable adversarius that has a normative relationship with the speaker reflects the possibility for social harmony

Poem invokes and validates many antifeminist stereotypes

Women "soft" (or fluid)

-virtue: maternal, comforting

-vice: brainless mental deficients

Women confined to private life, sexuality

-virtue: chastity

-vice: lust

Women are deceptive,"artful", characterized by false appearances

-one of you noticed rhyme 15-16: women can choose to have themselves painted in a variety of roles, "sinner it or saint it"

-rhymes with "paint it"

-reinforces that they’re just putting it on, that they’re artful

Related: women are changeable, inconsistent

-vice: most of the women described!


-even Martha’s still described as like the Moon (254)

-in comparison to women who display themselves in public life

Even good women inconsistent: the way Martha at the end of the poem balances apparent opposites

-a transcendence of women’s usual transience, a kind of inconsistency

-artful appearance

-susceptibility to time’s ravaging of their appearance!

It’s pointed out that men are drawn to women by their weaknesses


-41: changes || charms

-45ff: Calypso’s bewitching eyes and tongue

-when she’s not even beautiful


-men are also culpable

-women disrupt all of society

-one critic: they pervert proper human relations



Order of examples

Many of the early ones are made-up, or at least harder to identify

-Calista: from a 1703 play

-Papillia "Butterfly"

-Narcissa, Sin, Flavia

Later ones easier to identify, and often very highly born women

-157: Cloe not identified for certain; perhaps elements of Henrietta Countess of Suffolk


-115: Atossa (Duchess of Marlborough or Buckinghamshire)

-193: Duchess of Queensberry

-291: one last stab at Duchesses before the end of the poem

-182: the Queen

One suggestion: women of rank are severely treated perhaps because of their rank and thus their influence

-shamed by comparison with the addressee:

- who is title-less, dowry-less

Generally we move

-from chaotic human relations (distorted, short-lived)

-to good women’s ability to use inherent contradictions for harmony

-"who ne’er answers till a Husband cools"

-"by submitting sways"

Felicity Nussbaum’s structure

-from pretensions to wit

-23: Rufa reading Locke

-63: Narcissa’s reading Taylor and the Book of Martyrs

-86: Flavia’s a Wit

[Cultural association between wit and


-whoring (via display)]

-to witlessness at 101 (then drops it, until)

-250: Martha’s praise for being able "to raise the Thought" (in others)

-end of poem: "To you gave Sense, Good-humour, and a Poet"

-the wit she’s raised is HIS, not her own

-women’s identity always relational

-women are wife, mother, friend—not anything on their own

For discussion: characterization of Martha?

-Pollak: she’s a cipher, has no presence

-despite being female and therefore identified w/ the body

-virtues are the absence/restraint of things, not anything positive

Already delivered on Thursday 9th: synthesis of points about rhyme