The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 511 words.)