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.
Forms and Devices
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,...
(The entire section is 1,114 words.)