Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

by Alexander Pope

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

Alexander Pope’s An Epistle from Mr. Pope, to Dr. Arbuthnot (better known simply as Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot) is a poetic “letter” (epistle) of 420 lines written in heroic couplets. In his epistle, addressed to his close friend, the writer and physician John Arbuthnot, who died just before the poem was published, Pope discusses the current state of artistic and political affairs in England while examining his own long career as England’s foremost poet—and most feared satirist.

As was his habit in verse satire, Pope writes in the first person, speaking directly to Arbuthnot (who occasionally interrupts Pope to caution him or to offer a different point of view). Pope’s voice is his own and is fittingly “conversational”; his tone is alternately indignant, comical, bitter, ironic—a rich “orchestration” of moods and attitudes. Throughout much of the poem, readers get a keen sense of Pope’s playfulness: He charms readers with his theatrical posturings (as in the opening vignette, in which a horde of bad writers storms the door of Pope’s retreat at Twickenham), while reminding them with a wink—that they are, after all, only posturings.

The poetic tradition of which Pope was the acknowledged master prized control, and in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot Pope is always in control. When he indulges in self-dramatization, or seems to skirt the edges of self-pity (“how wretched I!”), he does so knowingly, with a greater purpose in mind.

Though he tried his hand at virtually every traditional poetic form (and even produced an English translation of Homer’s Iliad that is still highly esteemed), Pope found satire to be most congenial to his talents. The reasons for this reach to the very core of his personality—and can be glimpsed in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, which is in part a classic apologia of his satiric career.

Pope’s need to defend himself is easy to understand. Through his writing, a satirist “attacks” people and their institutions. Sometimes the attack is light-hearted and comic; sometimes it is dark and scornful. In any case, people stand to be hurt by such attacks, and the satirist, if he or she is at all sensitive to such things (and Pope was sensitive), must be aware that his or her art carries with it an undeniable moral responsibility. With this in mind, Pope defends himself in several ways: by showing himself to have been the undeserving victim of satiric attack earlier in his own life; by depicting his targets as either comically inept or morally despicable; by underscoring the social benefits of satire; and by suggesting that respected writers urged him to respond to his enemies in kind.

Pope’s defense of his satiric career is itself a supremely effective satire. (Together with John Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe,” it is perhaps the finest short poetic satire in the language.) Many of Pope’s old enemies appear, only to be heaped once again with satiric scorn. In a series of brilliant satiric portraits, Pope attacks not only individuals but “types.” His portrait of Lord John Hervey (the “Sporus” of lines 305-333) is both a devastating attack on Hervey personally and an unforgettable indictment of the political, sexual, and moral “double-dealer.” (With an irony Pope surely would appreciate, Hervey is now remembered principally as the target of this acerbic satire.)

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

Effective satire of the kind Pope favored works not so much in calling a fool a fool as in creating a world in which fools show themselves to be fools. Pope is able to create such a world largely through his use of Arbuthnot. As a writer of some talent, but more important as a man of great personal honor and integrity, Arbuthnot provides a firm moral standard against which Pope can implicitly measure both himself and his enemies. Arbuthnot’s background presence is always felt. Readers align themselves with him; when he speaks, they listen. Readers (like Pope) know the moderation he advises to be wise; yet when he lashes out against Sporus, readers know without being told that there are times when even the mildest of men are obliged to strike out against moral and political corruption. The world for which Arbuthnot is the apt moral representative is the reader’s world before it is Pope’s, though soon they share it with him willingly.

In addition to being a great satirist, Pope was a great poet—“If Pope be not a poet,” wrote Samuel Johnson in 1779, “where is poetry to be found?”—and Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot is packed with the stuff of great poetry. Pope uses imagery, for example, in particularly effective ways. From the beginning, he initiates a running cluster of images based on animals, insects, dirt, and disease that culminates powerfully in the portrait of Sporus as “This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings” in line 310. Hence, imagery reinforces meaning on several levels: Sporus has not only the existential status of a “Bug,” but he is a carrier of diseases, both physical and moral. As a brilliantly concise metaphor, Sporus sums up all that is wrong with the England of the 1730’s: corrupt politics, corrupt personal morality—what amounts to a blinding obsession with self-interest that infects the entire social spectrum. To attack such a creature, Pope implies, even to grind it beneath one’s foot, is no more than a good man’s duty.

Few morally “serious” satires pack quite so much life into their lines as does Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. This is attributable in part to Pope’s ability to manipulate language within the formal constraints of the heroic couplet. Though in some ways a highly “artificial” form, in the hands of Pope the heroic couplet resonates with vitality and immediacy. The voice readers hear opening the poem (“Shut, shut the door, good John”) strikes their ears as a real voice, a human voice, and they respond to it with sympathy and interest.

Pope’s talents allow for other effects as well. Whether he is describing a “mad” writer scribbling on the walls of a lunatic asylum or an awful poet named Codrus whose moronic self-absorption makes him deaf to the “Peals of Laughter” inspired by his work, Pope opens up a world of vivid sensory impressions. The sights, the sounds, even the smells of this strange world surround readers as we read.

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