How is Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" a typical example of "Augustan" satire?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In a brief but helpful essay on “The Augustans” (published in Webster’s New World Companion to English and American Literature, edited by Arthur Pollard [New York: Popular Library, 1976]), A. W. Bower outlines a number of characteristics of the “Augustan” verse written in the closing years of the seventeenth century and the early years of the eighteenth.  A number of these traits appear in Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” including the following:

  • an emphasis on the virtues of “reason” (Bower 22): This trait is already implied by the implied condemnation of passion in lines 5-6:

Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,

They rave, recite, and madden round the land.

  • a tendency to see England as a “counterpart of the Roman state under the Emperor Augustus” (Bower 21): This trait is apparent, for instance, in Pope’s allusions to Roman culture and myths, such as the reference to the “Dog Star” in line 3 or the reference to a “chariot” in line 10.

In addition, the poem is an example of Augustan satire for the following reasons as well:

  • its use of invented names (such as “Cornus” in line 25 or “Pitholeon” in line 51).
  • its use of couplets and a generally iambic meter (throughout).
  • a professed commitment to virtue (as when the speaker describes himself as a person “Who can’t be silent, and who will not lie” [line 34]).
  • a professed commitment to urbane decorum (as when the speaker, presented with examples of bad poetry, says “To laugh were want of goodness and of grace” [35]).
  • a tendency to echo Roman writers, particularly Horace (as in line 40).
  • a tendency to refer to the names and actions of actual persons (such as the reference to “Curll” in line 53 and the reference to “Lintot” in line 61).
  • allusions to classical literature in general (as in the reference to King Midas in line 69).
  • a tendency to mock contemporary political personalities (as in the allusions to King George II, Queen Caroline, and one of their ministers in lines 71-72).

These and various other traits help to make Pope’s poem a typical example of Augustan satire.

 

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