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Alexander Pope spent his writing career penning social criticism in the form of poetry. He was considered the age's toughest and perhaps, most feared, satirist.
In this epistle, a "letter" in poem form, Pope speaks in first person as he often did and addresses his friend, Dr. Arbuthnot. He approaches the letter in a fun and playful way, but he is still using satire to criticize. Unlike other satires, however, this letter is a sort of apology to those who have been victims of his satire...the cold, bitter, and biting satire that he often published and publically humiliated those he whipped with his razor-sharp words. He says that he was also the victim of sharp and unwarranted satire early on in his life. Perhaps the letter demonstrates a maturity and sensitivity he did not possess before, but he offers a bit of a peace offering through this letter to Arbuthnot.
It became clear to Pope fairly early that he was excellent with a pen and pointed words to answer and deflect attacks from his enemies. He often illuminates the stupidity of humanity--vanity, the importance of reputations, silly things we do to pass the time, ridiculous fashion, traditions that make no sense, etc.
This letter is no different, but it does show his playful side a bit more.
This long poem is a typical example of Augustan satire in that it pokes fun at a whole segment of society, in this case would be poets and writers as well as writers who do not deserve their success, such as Ambrose Philips, a plagiarist, or Addison, who is talented but has an inflated self image and wants to be considered the greatest of all. Pope does so in self-conscious reference to the classical world of Greece and Rome, shown from the very opening of the poem with a prefatory quote, in Latin, by Cicero. Allusions to Greece and Rome are scattered throughout his poem, such as "Parnassus" in the first stanza, which is a mountain in Greece.
Pope's poem is a Horatian satire, based on the work of the Roman poet Horace, who was gentler in his satire than the Roman writer Juvenal. (In fact, Pope even borrows in his poem Horace's idea that a poet should wait nine years before publishing a poem.) Pope uses hyperbole to make fun of the hordes of poets he has to lock his door against and also uses this poem as an opportunity to defend himself against his critics, saying he is between a rock and hard place: if he encourages undeserving poets, they write more poems, and if he criticizes them, he is villified as a bad person. Placing himself as a person of balance and moderation person between the excesses of others is typical of the rationalism and controlled emotions of Augustan poetry. The poem is also typically Augustan for being written in rhyming couplets, opening with
Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said,Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.The dog-star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt,All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,They rave, recite, and madden round the land.
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