Epistle II. To a Lady

by Alexander Pope

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Epistle II. To a Lady is a long poem of 292 lines, written in heroic couplets in the form of a pseudo-Horatian epistle, or verse letter, that is a satire against women. It is one of four poems that Alexander Pope grouped together under the title Moral Essays (1731-1735), which were supposed to be an integral part of an ambitious and never-completed “ethic work,” inaugurated by his philosophic manifesto An Essay on Man (1733-1734) two years before the publication of Epistle II. To a Lady. The first of these four epistles illustrating the ideas of An Essay on Man concentrates on the characters of men; the third and fourth deal with the use of riches; and the second contains a brilliantly wrought series of female portraits exemplifying the thesis “Women’s at best a Contradiction still.”

Although the poem ranks as a masterpiece of satire, its stereotypical view of women as exemplars of inconsistencies, whose proper sphere is in domestic life, offends modern sensibilities and repeats stale criticisms of women reaching back to the antifeminist literature of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” and diatribes of certain church fathers. Yet Pope is not a misogynist. Dedicated and addressed to his beloved female friend Martha Blount, Epistle II. To a Lady does not really indulge in hatred of women, but ends on a note of praise for the sex, with a presentation of a feminine ideal of goodness to be respected by male and female alike. Morality may be ultimately gender-neutral; a good woman, like a good man, is ultimately a sensible, well-rounded, and self-possessed human being. As Maynard Mack noted in his authoritative Alexander Pope: A Life (1985), women evoked Pope’s deepest fascination and sympathy, especially “with the lot society had assigned them as pawns in the chess game of family aggrandizement that did not blind him to the alacrity with which they sometimes embraced their own destruction.” In a fundamental sense, Epistle II. To a Lady is especially directed at female readers: for their moral instruction, to prevent their destruction, and to promote their well-being.

The poem opens with the poet in the guise of a painter taking readers on a tour through a gallery of portraits of women who demonstrate that the entire sex is more incredibly inconsistent than males are. The survey begins with a procession of foolish females. Pseudo-intellectual Rufa illustrates affectation, with a sarcastic Swiftian comparison with Mary Wortley Montagu as “Sappho.” Soft-spoken Silia next appears, in a sudden rage over a pimple; impossible Papillia wants shade but hates trees; unattractive Calypso attracts by cunning; whimsical Narcissa lacks mental or moral stability; lively Flavia plays the fashionable wit prone to melancholy and radical ideas, and, following a brief study of silly triflers, violent Atossa—alias the Duchess of Buckinghamshire—and heartless Cloe close the ranks of the female fools.

This negative portraiture gives way, in the final third of the poem, to positive glimpses of the good woman, as personified by an overly glorified Queen Caroline and an understated Duchess of Queensbury. The poem concludes on an upbeat if extremely chauvinistic note, insisting that women’s delicately complex personality suits them for domesticity rather than for a public life, driven as they are by two ruling passions: “The Love of Pleasure, and the Love of Sway” (lines 207-248). Let women, therefore, emulate the life of Martha Blount, being addressed throughout the poem. Let them cultivate good sense and good humor in order to transform the contradictions of their divided nature into an integrated personality (“a softer Man”) that is an ideal synthesis of male and female traits.

(This entire section contains 603 words.)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

The outstanding example of Pope the caricaturist at work is Epistle II. To a Lady, a poem that the great critic Samuel Johnson praised despite reservations about its unwarranted psychological generalizations: “That his excellence may be properly estimated, I recommend a comparison of his Characters of Women with Boileau’s Satire; it will then be seen with how much perspicacity female nature is investigated and female excellence selected; and he surely is no mean writer to whom Boileau shall be found inferior.”

The painting metaphor, a recurrent one in Pope’s poetry, is introduced at the outset, when the painter-poet invites the reader around an art gallery of painted beauties that exhibit one consistency—namely, that they are all inconsistent: “ ‘Most Women have no Characters at all.’ ” This infamous maxim drips with the irony of dubious double or triple meaning: Women are infinitely various, fickle, and/or unprincipled. The primary concern is with the infinitely various female personality. The painter-poet captures the inconsistencies through taut and witty couplets loaded everywhere with paradox, rhetorically and thematically—much as a caricaturist such as Annibale Carraci would delineate his grotesque subjects with a few quick and clever strokes of the brush.

The painting metaphor is kept up in various ways, especially through the poet’s role as painter, but also by small hints of pictorial quality in visual imagery and by the use of technical terms from painting. The variegated colors, tools, and skills of the artist’s trade are necessary to paint the inconsistencies behind the glittering surface beauty of the portraits: “For how should equal Colours do the knack?/ Chameleons who can paint in white and black?”

Allied to the painting metaphor is another visual metaphor, the imagery of light, which appears in references to women as changeable as the moon (lines 19-20); as fairest in domestic shade, far from the glare of the male-dominated public arena (lines 199-206); as temperate moonlight (lines 249-256); as sunshine cheering home and hearth (lines 257-268); and as capable of the radiance of a Martha Blount, nurtured under the influence of Phoebus, the sun god (lines 283-292).

Paradox—an apparent contradiction that is somehow true—is at the heart of the poem’s meaning and rhetorical fireworks. Pope was the inimitable master of the closed pentameter couplet (also called the heroic couplet), and his verse repeatedly lapses into the rhetorical harmony of antithesis to capture a transcendent order and divinely guided purpose behind the mortal contradictions of the female lot. Paradox, for example, captures female frailties, such as Calypso’s mediocrity (“Less Wit than Mimic, more a Wit than Wise”) and Narcissa’s infidelity (“Chaste to her Husband, frank to all beside,/ A teeming Mistress, but a barren Bride”). In the end, paradox expresses ultimate female virtue and the ultimate human being, “a softer Man,” who unites contrary traits of femininity and maleness into a serene oneness of being:

Reserve with Frankness, Art with Truth ally’d,Courage with Softness, Modesty with Pride,Fix’d Principles, with Fancy ever new;Shakes all together, and produces—You.