Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

by Alexander Pope

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Themes

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Fame, Reputation, and Criticism

The theme of fame and reputation is central to the poem. Pope reflects on the dynamics of fame, success, and reputation and how they affect his sense of self. Notably, he discusses the impact of criticism and the power it holds in shaping a writer's reputation.

On the one hand, he acknowledges the validation and support he has received from esteemed individuals, indicating their influence on his reputation. The mention of respected figures such as Granville, Walsh, Garth, Congreve, Swift, Talbot, Somers, Sheffield, and Rochester highlights the impact of their endorsement on his standing in literary circles.

But why then publish? Granville the polite,

And knowing Walsh, would tell me I could write;

Well-natur'd Garth inflamed with early praise,

And Congreve lov'd, and Swift endur'd my lays;

The courtly Talbot, Somers, Sheffield read,

Ev'n mitred Rochester would nod the head,

And St. John's self (great Dryden's friends before)

With open arms receiv'd one poet more.

Happy my studies, when by these approv'd!

Happier their author, when by these belov'd!

From these the world will judge of men and books,

Not from the Burnets, Oldmixons, and Cookes.

By highlighting their admiration for his poetry, Pope suggests that his popularity and reputation have been established through the endorsements of prominent figures.

However, in the last two lines, Pope takes a critical stance. He contrasts the genuine appreciation of his work by the individuals mentioned above with the judgment of lesser figures, whom he mentions as "Burnets, Oldmixons, and Cooks." These names represent critics whom he sees as lacking discernment and integrity.

By contrasting the genuine praise of respected figures with the disparagement of lesser critics, Pope emphasizes the hypocrisy that can exist within the realm of fame and popularity. In this context, he presents a cautionary view of fame and reflects on the challenges, burdens, and perils that come with it. From the very start, he describes the overwhelming nature of criticism.

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.

The critics are portrayed as a chaotic mob, comparing them to the inmates of Bedlam (a mental institution) or the poets on Mount Parnassus (the home of the Muses in Greek mythology). The critics' passion and frenzy are emphasized as they fervently recite their opinions and judgments.

Moreover, Pope expresses the pressures and expectations that come with his reputation. His words and actions are closely scrutinized, and he feels trapped in a situation where he cannot please everyone. He laments the intrusion of fame into his private life. He feels that even on Sundays when one might expect some respite, he is pursued by aspiring poets and critics seeking his attention. This intrusion highlights the loss of personal space and his constant criticism as a renowned writer.

No place is sacred, not the church is free;

Ev'n Sunday shines no Sabbath-day to me:

Then from the Mint walks forth the man of rhyme,

Happy! to catch me just at dinner-time.

Additionally, he explores the different types of critics and their motivations. Some, he argues, dedicate their writings to the speaker, but instead of praising him, they ridicule him excessively. Others claim to defend his fame, but they are more abusive than his foes. His reference to the anticipation of bribes and demands for subscriptions reflects the opportunistic nature of some critics, who are driven by personal...

(This entire section contains 1019 words.)

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gain rather than a genuine evaluation of his work.

One dedicates in high heroic prose,

And ridicules beyond a hundred foes;

One from all Grub Street will my fame defend,

And, more abusive, calls himself my friend.

This prints my Letters, that expects a bribe,

And others roar aloud, 'Subscribe, subscribe.

Thus, Pope presents himself as a poet who is constantly under scrutiny, facing both positive and negative critiques. The poem explores Pope's personal experiences with fame and his reflections on the price he pays for his literary success.

Self-Reflection and Introspection

The poem explores the theme of self-reflection through Pope's contemplation of his identity and role as a poet, his interactions with critics, and his introspective musings on his motivations and impact as a writer.

Pope examines the origins of his writing and questions his motivations. He ponders whether his inclination towards poetry was innate or influenced by external factors. This self-examination reveals his curiosity about the source of his artistic drive.

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown

Dipp'd me in ink, my parents', or my own?

As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,

I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.

He acknowledges that he did not abandon any other profession or shirk his responsibilities. Instead, he sees his poetic endeavors as a means of alleviating the burdens of his existence and as a form of companionship. This self-reflection highlights the personal significance he attaches to his art and his gratitude towards his close friend, Dr. Arbuthnot, who supported and guided him.

I left no calling for this idle trade,

No duty broke, no father disobey'd.

The Muse but serv'd to ease some friend, not wife,

To help me through this long disease, my life,

To second, Arbuthnot! thy art and care,

And teach the being you preserv'd, to bear.

Furthermore, he reflects on the perception of his work and reputation. He contemplates the reactions of others to his poetry, considering both the comic and tragic elements of his creations. This introspection showcases the speaker's awareness of the impact his writing can have on readers. It acknowledges the range of emotions his work may evoke.

Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?

Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?

Thus, Pope undertakes self-reflection to gain insight into his motivations, navigate through criticism, and define his place in the literary landscape. The poem delves into the complexities of self-perception and the tensions between personal expression and external judgment.

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Analysis