First of all, let’s focus on the basics of this work. An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot by Alexander Pope, published in 1735, is, without a doubt, a remarkable piece of neo-classical literature. It added much to the trend of satires (in verse) in that age. Also, the satirical poem exposes the hollow sense of the poetry of the age, at its worst, that inspired almost every man of letters to explore poetry writing… not only as a passion but also as a vocation. And, because of many virtues other than its place in literature in English, this poem by Pope warrants a thorough examination of its literary merits and a more extensive comparison with other satirical works of the same era. The poem, presented as an epistle to Pope’s friend Dr. John Arbuthnot, a prominent satirist and physician, demonstrates Pope’s mastery of the art of satire.
To begin with, it might not be an exaggeration to claim that the literary merits of An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot are multifaceted. Pope’s adept use of the heroic couplet, a form he wielded with finesse, imparts the poem with an exquisite structure. The rhymed couplets not only contribute to the poem’s musicality but also serve as a vehicle for Pope’s razor-sharp wit. The most important part of the poem, the poem’s satire, is layered and nuanced, combining irony, hyperbole, and mock praise to dissect and lampoon various individuals and literary trends of the time. This complexity enhances the enduring appeal of the poem, inviting readers to engage with its layers of meaning. At the same time, enticing historians of English literature and critics to investigate the increasing number of poets trying their feeble hands at the use of heroic couplets to express their unfiltered feelings and intellect.
Irony and Symbolism:
Let’s focus on Pope’s use of mockery and irony in the poem, other than an interesting and subtle use of symbolism. One of the central figures in Pope’s critique is the character of Timon, representing the mediocre poet of the time. Timon embodies the poet driven by ambition but lacking the necessary artistic skill and depth. Pope employs irony and mockery to illustrate the absurdity of such poets, portraying them as more interested in self-promotion than in the pursuit of genuine art. Timon becomes a symbol of the misguided aspirations that Pope sees as diluting the true essence of poetry. And hence, one has to admit the mastery that Pope possessed in the use of symbolism in poetry.
Going beyond a work: Pope’s Epistle as a Critique of the falling standards of poetry
The poet’s criticism goes beyond the individual poet and extends to the broader cultural milieu. Pope bemoans the fact that the pursuit of fame and the desire for recognition has taken precedence over the sincere cultivation of literary skill. This critique is evident in lines such as:
“Not fortune’s worshipper, nor fashion’s fool,
Not lucre’s madman, nor ambition’s tool,”
In these lines, Pope’s criticism goes beyond an individual and focuses on the overall trend of literature. The pursuers of literature are the target of the great satirist. Pope dismisses poets who are slaves to trends, wealth, or ambition, rather than being dedicated to the authentic pursuit of art.
Pope laments the shift from an era where poets were guided by a commitment to genuine artistry to a period dominated by the pursuit of personal ambition. The poem reflects on the consequences of this cultural shift, portraying a poetic landscape cluttered with works lacking substance and enduring value. Pope’s satirical tone is evident when he mocks the emerging poets who, driven by a desire for fame and fortune, produce verse that is devoid of the depth and authenticity that characterized earlier periods.
Moreover, the epistle form itself serves as a clever vehicle for Pope’s critique. Addressing his friend Dr Arbuthnot, a fellow satirist and observer of the literary scene, Pope utilises the epistolary format to convey a sense of personal conversation. This adds an intimate dimension to the satire, emphasising the shared concern for the decline of poetic standards.
Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot in Context of the Era:
Examining the context of the era, Pope’s work can be compared with contemporaneous satirical pieces, particularly Jonathan Swift’s The Dunciad. While both works share a satirical tone and target various aspects of the literary and social scenes, they diverge in style and approach. Swift’s satire tends to be more direct and overt, often employing biting social commentary. In contrast, Pope employs a more intricate and nuanced approach in An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, intertwining personal grievances with broader cultural critique. This stylistic distinction highlights the diversity within the satirical landscape of the 18th century.
Furthermore, Pope’s contribution to English satires extends beyond individual works. His ingenious use of language, exhibited in An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, solidifies his place as a master satirist. His ability to seamlessly blend humour with criticism is a hallmark of his style. The poem satirises individuals and serves as a keen commentary on the prevailing literary and cultural milieu of the time. Pope’s satirical prowess is evident in his other notable works, such as The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, where he adeptly employs mock-heroic and mock-epic styles to lampoon societal follies.
To conclude, An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot is a testament to Alexander Pope’s literary prowess and keen insight into human nature. The poem’s enduring appeal lies in its sophisticated use of satire, elegant structure, and poignant commentary on the 18th-century literary scene. Pope’s contributions as a satirist, as exemplified in this work, have left an indelible mark on English literature, influencing subsequent generations of writers and contributing significantly to the evolution of the satirical tradition. The great use of literature to elicit the ambition-driven practice of poetry in the age tells very much about the deep sense of literature of merit that Pope had. Alexander Pope adeptly satirises the prevailing poetic culture of his age, presenting a scathing commentary on the decline in the standards of the art of poetry. Pope’s critique revolves around the pervasive influence of individual ambitions over the true pursuit of poetic excellence, portraying a literary landscape where the desire for personal success takes precedence over artistic integrity. With these qualities in the work by Pope, An Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, one can certainly see that this satire has its place cemented in the history of English literature, not only because of the subject of the satire but also because of the skilful use of literature and presence of literary merits in plenty.
Alok Mishra for English Literature Education