Analysis of Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

Alexander Pope spent some time considering the choice of form for his late-career rebuttal of those who had most demeaned him in print. He selected a poetic letter, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1734), which later critics would deem a rhetorical masterpiece. Because Arbuthnot held the public’s esteem, his choice as the ostensible recipient of Pope’s remarks proved brilliant strategy, as it lent instant credibility to Pope’s words. In its originally published form, the poem did not contain dialogue by Arbuthnot, once a royal physician, a spirited member of the Martinus Scriblerus Club, and one of Pope’s best friends. When the poem was published in Warburton’s 1751 edition, the form most familiar to readers, Arbuthnot’s direct remarks had been introduced, changing the form from epistle to dramatic dialogue.

Arbuthnot apparently had urged Pope to take aim at his detractors, applying the “lash” represented by satire. In 1733 when his friend lay close to death, Pope decided to act on his urging. The 18th century considered satire a desirable form of social punishment, believing it might actually lead the subject to change his ways. However, as Pope began to understand late in his career, such change rarely occurred. He writes in this poem of some of his own satire, particularly that found in The Dunciad (1728), “You think this cruel? Take it for a rule, / No creature smarts so little as a Fool,” to which he adds,

Who shames a Scribler? Break one cobweb thro’,
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 fl imsy lines. (89–94)

While Pope suffered various criticisms over his lifetime to which he skillfully reacted, the year 1733 yielded some of the more vicious attacks. Once Pope’s friend, Mary Wortley Montague took offense at Pope’s unfounded comment about her in his The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace (ll. 83–84), joining Lord John Hervey to publish the vitriolic Verses Addressed to the Imitator of Horace (1733). Montague had in truth been provoked to take action. However, Hervey, an effeminate unpopular courtier and adviser to Queen Caroline, made assumptions regarding some of Pope’s allusions with no true evidence they pertained to him. He published on his own a second attack on Pope during 1733 titled Epistle to a Doctor of Divinity from a Nobleman at Hampton Court. Pope would characterize Hervey in subsequent work as Lord Fanny, while Montague appeared under her own name, as well as the name Sappho. Pope included Lord Fanny among the dunce poetasters in his satires, most specifically in the The Dunciad.

Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot opens in an even tone with a small vignette with which most readers could identify. The speaker urges his friend to sit quietly and talk with him, as they hide from public concerns: “Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu’d I said, / Tye up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.” The speaker engages “John” with a rendition of his troubles, as his attackers seem to be able to find him no matter where he goes, even in his beloved grotto: “They pierce my Thickets, thro’ my Grot they glide.” The vague they later becomes quite specifi c, as Pope takes on many individuals who had caused him confl ict, both by name and allusion. They include the Reverend Laurence Eusden, poet and clergyman, whose drunkenness while serving as poet laureate became legendary; James Moore Smythe, who adopted some of Pope’s work into poorly written drama and joined the dunces in their attacks; Edmund Curll, who published unauthorized work by others as well as notorious literature; and Bernard Lintot, a publisher of most of Pope’s early writing. However, Pope reserves his most skillfully expressed and contained fury for those weak opportunistic individuals who claimed most publicly to be poets:

And has not Colly still his Lord, and Whore:
His Butchers Henley, his Free-masons Moor?
Does not one Table Bavius still admit?
Still to one Bishop Philips seem a Wit?
Still Sapho—”Hold! For God-sake—you’ll offend;
“No Names—be calm—learn Prudence of a Friend.” (97–102)

In this passage, the voice of Arbuthnot interrupts Pope as he names Sapho, whom all readers would recognize as Montague. However, his satire emphasizes the fact that the other names he has used would be just as well recognized. His subjects include “Colly,” or Colley Cibber, long Pope’s deserved target and an actor, playwright, and eventual poet laureate, the hero of The Dunciad; John Henley, an orator who publicly held forth on unsuitable topics; “Moor,” James Moore Smythe, known for his practice of freemasonry; “Bavius,” a catch-all label, actually a poet who attacked Virgil and Homer, an act ridiculous in the extreme; and Ambrose Philips, minor poet and dramatist who served the archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Hugh Boulter, as secretary. The incorporation of Bavius proves an exceptional rhetorical strategy, as Pope places himself in the company of Virgil and Homer by extension.

Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope

Pope next discusses why he became a poet, inserting the now-famous line “I lisp’d in Numbers, for the Numbers came” (128), where the term numbers refers to meter in poetry. His description makes clear that poetry came naturally to him, by instinct, something he argued as far more important than training in his Essay on Criticism. He balances his attacks on the dullards with praise for those he considers exemplary poets, such as Virgil; George Granville, Lord Lansdowne, who served Queen Anne as secretary of war, and to whom Pope dedicated Windsor Forest; William Walsh, a poet and critic who encouraged Pope in his youth; Sir Samuel Garth, author of The Dispensary (1699), a satiric poem on apothecaries that Pope enjoyed; the playwright William Congreve; his friends the poets Jonathan Swift and John Gay; and the celebrated John Dryden, among others. He next engages in self-censure when he writes that he at first wrote purely descriptive poetry, lacking “Sense,” or meaning, comparing himself to Lord Hervey. He notes that the critics, whose advice he meekly attempted to follow, had never written a word of poetry themselves. How then could they claim to evaluate John Milton and Shakespeare, much less the work of Pope and his contemporaries? His narrative notes that he learned from others, particularly Joseph Addison, esteemed poet and essayist with whom Pope had a brief falling out, but would later write of in a more positive manner. Here Pope inserts a description of Addison that became one of the most famous lines of poetry written in the English language, when he describes him as one who tends to “Damn with faint praise” (201), wounding, rather than striking. Addison had publicly criticized Pope for his satiric “strokes” against John Dennis, whose badnatured criticism Pope had attacked. Pope also takes on those poets who write only to praise certain patrons, labeling such a patron Bufo, the Latin word for “toad.”

Most important to Pope is to make clear that he would not use poetry simply to attack a worthy individual who had wounded his vanity, as his enemies had him: “Curst be the Verse, how well soe’er it fl ow, / That tends to make one worthy Man my foe” (183– 184). A dunce is one “Who reads but with a Lust to mis-apply, / Make Satire a Lampoon, and Fiction, Lye.” However, “A Lash like mine no honest man shall dred, / But all such babbling blockheads in his stead” (303– 304). Then he includes the lines later attributed to Arbuthnot that caused some critics to believe Pope took advantage of his friend by placing in his mouth words he probably would not utter. The poem’s speaker mentions Sporus, or Lord Hervey, as one who should tremble in fear that Pope might satirize him. Arbuthnot replies,

“. . . What? That Thing of silk, Sporus,
that mere white Curd of Ass’s milk?
Satire or Sense alas! Can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfl y upon a Wheel?” (305–309)

Pope provides a spirited answer to Arbuthnot’s protest, explaining just why such poetasters do deserve his lash. The low quality of their work remains obvious to the trained eye, but they take advantage of the public by establishing themselves as experts. He concludes that group of lines with a description of Sporus, whose “virtues” even prove repulsive: “Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust, / Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust” (332–33). He continues to blast Hervey as a libeler and a Plagiarist. Worse yet, Hervey had viciously attacked Pope’s family and his heritage, characterizing his parents as having weak characters when the opposite proved true. Pope’s mother lived to read their vindication in her son’s poem; she died at age 93, shortly after its publication. The fi nal lines close the poem with a reverent tone in acknowledging Pope’s dear friend’s illness and wishing him the best, a method modeled after that of Horace.

Of this much published and repeated poem, Samuel Johnon would write:

The Epistle to Arbuthnot, . . . is a performance consisting, as it seems, of many fragments wrought into one design, which by this union of scattered beauties contains more striking paragraphs than could probably have been brought together into an occasional work. As there is no stronger motive to exertion than self-defence, no part has more elegance, spirit, or dignity than the poet’s vindication of his own character.

While one requires references to understand fully the identities of Pope’s targets and the context in which they wrote, the beauty and skill of his expression remain obvious. Alexander Pope believed in the power of poetry, supported by a man’s character, to reveal the truth. He took great offense at those who used it for dastardly purposes. Unfortunately for them, he expressed that offense in a manner guaranteeing their deeds would live in infamy, long after their words had been forgotten.

Clark, John. “Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot, 189–90.” The Explicator 46, no. 2 (winter 1988): 11–13.
Grundy, Isobel. “A Skirmish between Pope and Some Persons of Rank and Fortune: Verses to the Imitator of Horace.” Studies in Bibliography 30 (1977): 96–119.
The Lives of the Poets. Edited by G. B. Hill. 3 Vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.
, Elias F. “Pope’s Imitation of Boileau in Arbuthnot.” Essays in Criticism 38. no. 4 (October 1988): 295–307.
Radner, Sanford. “Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.” The Explicator 46, no. 1 (fall 1987): 11–14.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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