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.

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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.)

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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...

(The entire section contains 1059 words.)

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