Epistle II. To a Lady

by Alexander Pope

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Themes and Meanings

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Epistle II. To a Lady is a poem about the need for women to cultivate a rounded and rational perspective on life in order to overcome the contradictory shortcomings of their nature that, unrestrained by reason, true love, and common sense, can lead to emotional and immoral excesses. As a satire modeled on the casual Horatian verse letter, or epistle, the poem inculcates this theme through ridicule of excessive female types and through closing praise of female norms of right conduct for the edification of female readers. In meaning and movement, the poem is very much like Pope’s famous The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), but without the epic machinery or the focus on a single and more innocent beauty such as Belinda. The poem’s gallery of portraits and casual elegance also bear comparison with the technique and tone of Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735).

The greatest artists share an underlying vision of reality as a contradiction, a duality of oppositions, a paradox. Many authors envisage the end of life and the aim of art to be the synthesizing of contradiction, the integration of dualities, and the harmonizing of paradox. Pope is no exception, in either philosophical vision or moral-artistic goals. Of all the poems in his canon, An Essay on Man offers the underlying optimistic vision for Epistle II. To a Lady and expounds a psychology and philosophy of paradox, at the crux of his satire against women. In An Essay on Man, humanity is defined as a paradox, “A being darkly wise, and rudely great,” made imperfect by pride but capable of pursuing perfection under the guidance of reason and good instincts, both of which help to transform innate self-love and distinctive ruling passions into virtuous conduct and a higher love of others and of God. Such a process of internal transformation causes the harmonizing of human paradox and the transmutation of human ills into goodness and meaning. If one submits to the process and the divine scheme of things, Pope insists, then the contradictory chaos of reality is only an appearance, whereas the serene oneness of reality asserts itself to prove “Whatever IS is RIGHT.”

These assumptions buttress the theme of Epistle II. To a Lady. All foolish beauties, from Rufa to Cloe, are creatures of contradiction misled by pride, weak in reason, and, therefore, unrestrained in their self-love or their female ruling passion for pleasure and domination. By the same token, even good women such as Martha Blount are “at best a Contradiction”; however, they find integration through reason and common sense (“Sense, Good-humour”), generating useful and selfless service to others and becoming models of an ideal humanity (“a softer Man”) to be admired by all.

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