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.)