The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 504 words.)