Alexander Pope: “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”
Illustration by Marianne Goldin.
The English poet Alexander Pope (like his favorite Latin poet, Horace) wrote many epistles, verse-letters meant at once for particular friends and for his reading public. One of his best—“Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735)—is about being famous, about the admiration, envy, and bile he found on opening his mail. Pope won fame in his own time (and long afterward) as a master of balanced rhyming couplets: most poets used them, but none as fluently as he did. One couplet can sound almost carefree, the next one grave; one can sound righteously indignant, the next wryly bemused. And every transition sounds just right.
Rappers call this “flow,” and it is one of several ways in which Pope’s epistles resemble hip-hop hits. The 18th-century writer’s sense of history, tradition, and rhythm have little in common with Nas or Atmosphere. And yet Pope’s rhymes—like theirs—pursue feuds, thank allies, disparage enemies (whose attacks on him Pope sometimes expects us to know about), answer (as we now say) player-haters, and show, in ringingly quotable style, how Pope wished his audiences would see him.
In Pope’s own case those wishes include a neat paradox: to persuade us that he’s an independent thinker and a man of moral integrity whom we should emulate, he also tries to persuade us that he doesn’t care what we think of him. In pulling this off over the course of the poem, Pope offers a self-portrait that shows us just what sort of man he is.
Born in 1688, the year England kicked out its king for being not-so-secretly Catholic, Pope grew up as a Catholic at a time when Catholics were barred from many professions, subject to punitive taxes, and banned from owning land near London. Afflicted in childhood with tuberculosis of the bone, Pope never grew taller than four feet six; he also had frequent headaches, joint pain, fatigue, and a spiraling hunchback. Kind parents encouraged his talent for writing, as did the literary luminaries he met in his teens.
Pope lived in a great age of literary feuds, and soon found himself at their center. His first big success, the Essay on Criticism (1708), embroiled him in his first controversy: this long, clear, amusing poem about how to write poetry (taking cues from Horace) was attacked by the volatile older critic John Dennis, who may have resented the young man’s nerve. Financial security would not come until 15 years afterward, when Pope’s sale by subscription of his translation of Homer’s Iliad did an end run around profit-taking booksellers, much as when today’s rock or rap artists successfully set up their own labels. Pope likely became the first poet in English who could comfortably live off his earnings from his books.
By 1734 Pope was still famous, but his friends (or posse), nicknamed the Scriblerians, were mostly dead, or ill, or stuck in Ireland (Jonathan Swift). Their vision of a peaceable, stable England, with honest government and support for the arts, seemed a relic. Instead, Prime Minister Robert Walpole ruled Parliament, masterminding his corrupt hold on power, and King George II, who hated to read, reigned as monarch. (Sound familiar?)
Pope himself remained entangled in rivalries, pursued in privately circulated manuscripts (like street tapes with answer songs) and in published verse. Such rivalries could get nasty: the politically powerful Lord Hervey wrote that Pope’s “wretched little carcass” remained “unkick’d” and “unslain” only because people took pity on Pope’s ugly body.
Pope attracted such attacks—a lot of them, in fact—because he specialized in satire, attacking corrupt politicians, lousy poets, and even (by subtle implication) the king. Dr. John Arbuthnot—a Scriblerian himself, a longtime friend of Pope’s, and a physician—had asked Pope in a private letter to moderate his satires, especially to stop naming those names that might land him in jail. Arbuthnot was, as Pope knew, quite ill: a published response to him would need to make Arbuthnot look good, and Pope sound grateful for, if not humbled by, Arbuthnot’s concern. It would need to explain why Pope wrote satire and sometimes named names. It would need to convey Pope’s moral outrage at the injustices of his age and the shallowness of his fellow fame-seeking writers, and it would have to refute the charge—implied both by Arbuthnot’s friendly caution and by Pope’s seriously enraged detractors—that Pope took undue pride in his own fame.
Published just weeks before the doctor died, Pope’s epistle did all of this with humor and force. Long by our standards (though not by Pope’s), the 419-line poem becomes easier to follow if you think of it as having seven parts. Part One (lines 1–68) begins with the poet overwhelmed by fake admirers: “Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu’d I said, / Tye up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead”—anything to shoo the fame-seekers with their countless manuscripts (today they would be demo tapes) away from his country retreat at Twickenham, where alcoholic clerics, idle lords, and lunatics traveled far out of their way to show him their poems, he complained:
What walls can guard me, or what shades can hide?
They pierce my thickets, through my grot [grotto] they glide . . .
All fly to Twit’nam, and in humble strain
Apply to me, to keep them mad or vain. (lines 7–8, 21–22)
Exaggerating for comic effect, Pope’s lines jostle like the crowds of wannabes who block his path and devour his time. What can Pope do (he asks his friend) about these people, who figuratively (if not literally) make him sick?
Friend to my life! (which did not you prolong,
The world had wanted many an idle song)
What drop or nostrum can this plague remove?
Or which must end me, a fool’s wrath or love?
A dire dilemma! either way I’m sped,
If foes, they write, if friends, they read me dead.
Seiz’d and tied down to judge, how wretched I!
Who can’t be silent, and who will not lie;
To laugh, were want of goodness and of grace,
And to be grave, exceeds all pow’r of face. (lines 27–36)
“Drop or nostrum” means, roughly, “drug or prescription”; “sped” means “done for.” The obvious cure—to praise and assist the bad poets—would be worse than the disease, since it would involve telling lies. Pope cannot even listen in respectful silence: he would crack up—the poetry is that bad. Forced to say something, Pope offers advice from Horace, who told would-be writers to wait nine years before circulating their poems:
I sit with sad civility, I read
With honest anguish, and an aching head;
And drop at last, but in unwilling ears,
This saving counsel, “Keep your piece nine years.” (lines 36–40)
Rather than heed Pope’s words, the bad poets ask him to fix their bad poems. One implores him: “The piece, you think, is incorrect: why, take it, / I’m all submission, what you’d have it, make it.” (lines 45–46) Another offers to split the profits that his play in verse will surely make, once Pope agrees to rewrite it (in lines 55–68: “snacks” means “50-50”). These haplessly persistent writers seek not artistic merit nor literary wisdom, but the commercial success Pope’s involvement could bring.
If the first section of the poem considered the inconveniences of fame, Part Two (lines 69–124) will consider its supposed dangers. “Good friend forbear! you deal in dang’rous things; / I’d never name Queens, Ministers or Kings,” the poet imagines the doctor saying, as if he were in the room (lines 75–76). Pope answers the doctor by telling jokes and shrugging off the risks of making enemies. If he faced real danger, his named targets would care enough about what Pope said to retaliate against him, or take it to heart and reform their ways. If the bad playwright Codrus, for example, truly felt hurt by Pope’s criticisms, he would stop writing plays; since he doesn’t, he must not feel the barbs, and so would have no reason to want to hurt Pope:
You think this cruel? take it for a rule,
No creature smarts so little as a fool.
Let peals of laughter, Codrus! round thee break,
Thou unconcern’d canst hear the mighty crack:
Pit, box, and gall’ry in convulsions hurl’d,
Thou stand’st unshook amidst a bursting world. (lines 83–88)
Pope pays ironic tribute to the endurance (stronger than Samson!) of terrible playwrights, who shrug off criticism that would demolish smarter, more self-aware folk. The same is true, Pope says, for other sorts of bad writers, who are as obliviously industrious as spiders, and whose lines will last no longer than spiders’ webs:
Who shames a scribbler? break one cobweb through,
He spins the slight, self-pleasing thread anew;
Destroy his fib or sophistry, in vain,
The creature’s at his dirty work again;
Thron’d in the centre of his thin designs;
Proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines!
Whom have I hurt? has poet yet, or peer,
Lost the arch’d eye-brow, or Parnassian sneer? (lines 89–96)
(“Parnassian” means having to do with the muses, and hence characteristic of exalted poetry.) Pope continues his clever belittling by sometimes giving real names and sometimes classical pseudonyms for living individuals whom he has previously satirized—all (he jokes) indifferent to what he has said. (“Sappho,” here, is Mary Wortley Montagu, a poet and friend of Pope’s until she started collaborating on poems with Lord Hervey.)
In claiming that he is in no danger, Pope is mostly kidding. He (and Arbuthnot) knew that bad writers and titled lords could feel injured enough by Pope’s critiques to attack him—even if they hadn’t taken those critiques to heart. (In fact, Pope felt sufficiently afraid that after he published Dunciad [1728–29], he walked around London protected by two loaded pistols and a Great Dane.) Pope’s jokes here about his writings’ reception show a facet of his character—his determination to say what he believes. His real worries, he claims, come not from enemies but from slavish fake friends, who flatter him with absurd comparisons: “I cough like Horace, and though lean, am short” (line 116). (Horace was short and fat.)
Vexed by these fawning portraits, Pope offers as an alternative a summary of his writing life, which constitutes Part Three (lines 125–146). “Why did I write? what sin to me unknown / Dipt me in Ink, my Parents’ or my own?” No poet knows the true answer to that question, and most poets think they have no choice:
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no Calling for this idle trade,
No Duty broke, no Father disobeyed.
The Muse but serv’d to ease some Friend, not Wife,
To help me thro’ this long Disease, my Life,
To second, Arbuthnot! the Art and Care,
And teach, the Being you preserv’d, to bear. (lines 126–134)
The verse slows down and the syntax becomes much simpler, because at this point Pope isn’t kidding at all. He reminds us that he is physically and legally unable to enter many other trades, and that the kind of poetry he writes (the same kind Horace wrote) can “help” and “teach” the soul to “bear” life’s moral dilemmas and mental strain, much as a doctor can repair bodily health. Pope didn’t ask for special authority—he simply couldn’t help writing poetry, and then discovered that people wanted to read it.
Nor, sometimes, could Pope help defending his poems when attacked. Part Four (lines 147–260) considers individuals who have criticized or denounced Pope’s poetry. The first set of critics puzzle Pope because they attacked his inoffensive early poems about the beauty of the seasons: here Pope suggests to Arbuthnot that whatever he does, he will be attacked by someone (so why not write satire? why not say what he thinks?). He also suggests that his early opponents were “mad” (crazy) or just out for money.
The next opponents are textual editors, who catch petty mistakes and “live on syllables,” with no sense of what makes people—or poems—good. (They clashed with Pope over his edition of Shakespeare: some of them, though Pope will not admit it, were right.) Other enemies (lines 173–191) are simply incensed that Pope won’t boost their plagiarized or pretentious works. Then there are more significant opponents, such as Joseph Addison (“Atticus,” lines 192–214), once a friend and a talented essayist, now deluded by his own posse into thinking himself infallible, and so a bad example for other writers. There is the affluent, pretentious Bufo (lines 215–244), whose name means “toad,” and who expects servility from the writers he funds:
His library (where busts of poets dead
And a true Pindar stood without a head,)
Receiv’d of wits an undistinguish’d race,
Who first his judgment ask’d, and then a place:
Much they extoll’d his pictures, much his seat,
And flatter’d ev’ry day, and some days eat:
Till grown more frugal in his riper days,
He paid some bards with port, and some with praise,
To some a dry rehearsal was assign’d,
And others (harder still) he paid in kind. (lines 235–244)
Bufo is proud to own an ancient sculpture of the Greek poet Pindar, but the sculpture is headless—that is, brainless, like Bufo. “Undistinguished” writers ask Bufo for his opinions (“judgment”) but what they really want from him is a job (“a place”); unable to keep giving these flatterers money, Bufo has begun to reward them only with drink, or with praise as insincere as theirs, or (worse yet) with his own bad poems.
These people (Bufo, Addison/Atticus, and others) inhabited a literary scene where most poets survived by being independently wealthy, or by accepting support from people who were, or by writing for the London stage (which made them dependent on promoters, actors, and first-night gossip). This world of cliques and claques, of selfish aristocrats and self-important literary arbiters, is even worse, Pope reminds us, because it fails to support poets who (in Pope’s view) deserve it the most; poets such as John Dryden, whose big funeral—but not whose writing—such types were willing to fund. Nor did the Bufos of this world support Pope’s friend and fellow Scriblerian John Gay, who died young and relatively “neglected.”
These indignant attacks on his worldly enemies reinforce the importance that Pope places on a poet’s retaining intellectual independence—and, if he can, financial independence, thus avoiding having to grovel or lie. You don’t have to be rich to write well, Pope implies—most poets need to make money somehow—but you do have to write what you think, rather than parrot what other people think in order to earn their praise and pounds sterling. Pope here connects financial to intellectual independence, and intellectual independence to aesthetic success.
That connection becomes explicit in Part Five (lines 261–304), in which Pope describes his current attitude toward his career and his life. The money Pope made might have made him a magnet for the fools and wannabes described in Part One, but at least it let him avoid taking anyone’s orders:
Oh let me live my own! and die so too!
(“To live and die is all I have to do:”)
Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,
And see what friends, and read what books, I please.
Above a patron, though I condescend
Sometimes to call a minister my friend:
I was not born for courts or great affairs;
I pay my debts, believe, and say my pray’rs;
Can sleep without a poem in my head,
Nor know, if Dennis be alive or dead. (lines 261–270)
Pope imagines himself “above” aristocrats and government officials (“ministers”), reversing the social hierarchy. Since he has more independence than they do, he is also “above” full-time literary critics (such as Dennis), and he writes as well as he does because his work acknowledges that the basic moral obligations of life are more important than the beauties of verse, and far more important than the rank and status assigned by the court.
Pope’s artistic and moral gifts lead overeager readers to pester him constantly about when his next poem will appear, and to attribute others’ works to him (lines 271–282). And those gifts, in these times, leave him no choice but to write satire: to denounce any prominent figure “[w]ho loves a Lye, lame slander helps about, / Who writes a Libel, or who copies out” (that is, who makes, or spreads, false accusations) (lines 289–290).
Call it the Spider-Man principle: with great power comes great responsibility, and with great verbal powers come, Pope argues, the responsibility to rebuke impudence and uncover sleaze. (“A lash like mine, no honest man shall dread / But all such babbling blockheads in his stead”). This principle justifies Pope’s earlier satires (the ones that made the doctor nervous); it also justifies his sketches of Addison, and Bufo, and others mocked in Parts Three and Four.
The same principle justifies Part Six, a famously angry portrait of Lord Hervey (“Sporus”) (lines 305–333). Hervey looks unimportant, effeminate, and flighty, so much so that Arbuthnot (imagined, again, as in the room) asks Pope not to bother to mock him. In fact, though, Lord Hervey represents the very worst of his age:
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
Yet let me flap [swat] this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne’er tastes, and Beauty ne’er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite. (lines 307–314)
If Pope is a paragon of independent judgment, Hervey is a nadir of servility, a man who will say (and write) anything to please the people (at court and in government) whose approval he craves. He values glamour, sensual pleasure, and social climbing—all traits and habits that Pope’s verse has denounced. Hervey was also homosexual, a fact not ignored in Pope’s verse. If Hervey could go after Pope’s hunchback, Pope may have reasoned, then Pope could go after Hervey’s sex life. The original “Sporus” was the Emperor Nero’s male concubine, whose sexual tastes the obedient and “impotent” Hervey (in this portrait) shares; he is “now Master up, now Miss, / And he himself one vile antithesis. . . . Now . . . a Lady, and now . . . a Lord.” (lines 324–329) This most fervent of Pope’s attacks also contains the poem’s only triple rhyme (lines 323–325), as if to emphasize what he thought of as Sporus’ special depravity, his way of being neither one thing nor the other, but a sleazy neither-and-both. Hervey is not only a man-woman but an animal-demon, a shape-changer, like Satan:
Eve’s tempter thus the rabbins have express’d,
A cherub’s face, a reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust. (lines 330–334)
This is exactly the sort of aggressive verse-portrait (though thinly disguised by the “Sporus” pseudonym) that Arbuthnot had cautioned Pope not to write. By placing it here, Pope tells Arbuthnot that he will go on denouncing whatever vice he sees. Pope also implies that he carries off such attacks not for fun (though he clearly relishes them), much less for revenge, but as a necessary consequence of his independent character. In the last of his attacks, Pope is more than ever compelled to speak his mind.
Part Seven (lines 335–419, with some digressions) is Pope’s final draft of his self-portrait, summing up the virtues he wants Arbuthnot (and us) to believe he has. He is “not proud, nor servile”; he writes “not for fame, but virtue’s bitter end”. He shrugs off “distant threats of vengeance” (line 348). He has had to endure more serious problems, among them the death of his father. No wonder he does not much care what his society thinks.
And yet he cares enough to ask what people are going to say at his death. He hopes, and believes, that if they know him rightly, they will say
That Flatt’ry, even to Kings, he held a shame,
And thought a Lye in Verse or Prose the same:
That not in Fancy’s Maze he wander’d long;
But stoop’d to Truth, and moraliz’d his song. (lines 338–341)
That is, Pope chose to use his gifts for “Truth,” lauding the good and trying to shame the bad. Lest we think him too stern, Pope then describes his softer, kinder virtues. He has helped—with money, and with companionship—former enemies, such as the elderly Dennis: “Foe to his Pride, but Friend to his distress.” Taking his example from his mild father, Pope refrained from replying to the sometimes scurrilous imputations described in lines 374–380, even when booksellers passed off fakes as his own work.
Pope’s uprightness has everything to do with his artistic merit. He writes satire in the service of virtue – not simply self-defense. In doing so, his poetry can preserve the names of true friends: “Unspotted Names, and memorable long, / If there be Force in Virtue, or in Song” (lines 386–387). Such balanced lines, with their paired adjectives (unspotted, memorable) and nouns (virtue, song), imply that the first part of each pair informs the second: things that are unspotted, virtuous, deserve to be remembered; virtue merits song. (Many of Pope’s couplets use pairings in similar ways.)
Last among the virtuous names comes the poet’s late father, a paragon of unpretentious uprightness:
Unlearn’d, he knew no Schoolman’s subtle Art,
No language, but the Language of the Heart. . . .
His Life, tho’ long, to sickness past unknown,
His Death was instant, and without a groan.
O grant me thus to live, and thus to die!
Who sprung from Kings shall know less joy than I. (lines 398–405)
This last portrait lets Pope, so often angry and indignant, conclude on a note of dignified praise—and with an allusion to his own frailty. The chronically ill poet knew plenty of groans; his impossible prayer shows him grateful to live at all, and indifferent (again) to social status. Pope then prays to “extend a Mother’s breath . . . And keep a while one parent from the sky” (line 413). Pope’s mother was alive in 1731, when he first drafted these particular lines, and he seems to have decided that they fit his later epistle too well to be altered; he did, after all, take care of his mother for years. Those hopes for her health form a bridge to his prayer for the recovery of “my Friend,” the doctor, though “that Blessing” (health for Arbuthnot) “belongs to Heav’n” (lines 418–419). And there it ends.
Pope has justified himself to his friend by explaining his whole career—and sliced up a few rivals at the same time. If the poem works for you (and not everyone likes it; not everyone liked Pope), you will find its exaggerations funny and sympathetic, and its claims about Pope’s fame credible. You might even enjoy Pope’s sense of his own powers: his thinly concealed delight in how he can use words to recommend virtue and to cast shame on people who do wrong. Reading it, it’s hard not to discover in Pope a confident, loyal friend; a talented, overworked professional writer; a man who has to defend himself amid a busy, backstabbing literary scene; a model of filial piety; and a sentiment familiar in any era: don’t hate the player—hate the game.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...