Alexander Pope originally published Epistle to a Young Lady in 1712. His subject may have been imaginary or real, but in 1735 he changed the poem’s title to reference his dear friend, Martha Blount: Epistle to Miss Blount. They had been close since 1711, when Pope left London at age 23 after a vicious attack on his character and physical features by the critic John Dennis. He settled for a time in a rural community around Binfield and met the Blount sisters, described as possessing two of the finest faces in the universe. Whether Martha Blount became Pope’s lover is unknown, but they enjoyed a lifelong relationship.
Pope subtitled the poem “With the Works of Voiture,” a reference to Vincent de Voiture, a French poet whose gallantry in letter writing proved legend. Much of Pope’s own “epistle” focuses on the act of writing, and he opens,
In these gay thoughts the Loves and Graces shine,
And all the Writer lives in ev’ry Line;
His easie Art may happy Nature seem,
Trifl es themselves are Elegant in him.
While he writes ostensibly of Voiture, Pope references himself by extension. He expresses the opinion that excellent writers make their efforts appear slight, as if natural. However, the smallest matters, “trifles,” they may transform into the elegant simply through the power of the word. Pope continues through line 20 bemoaning the loss of Voiture, describing how his absence will affect his admirers. Their hearts will heave with sighs to have lost “The Smiles and Loves” that “dy’d in Voiture’s death, / But that for ever in his Lines they breath.” Pope emphasizes a familiar theme, that art grants immortality to its creator, as it lives on after the creator’s death.
In the next section, Pope adopts a voice of morality, noting that mere mortals deserve the strict life of “A long, exact, and serious Comedy,” in which each scene will teach a lesson. This sentiment remains fitting to the 18th century, which believed in female propriety and in woman’s position as a moral authority. The speaker does allow that each scene might “both Please and Preach,” following Sir Phillip Sidney’s edict, and that of the classics, that poetry should both teach and delight. The speaker declares his desire that his own life might be “an innocent gay Farce” with more diversion than found on regular days, containing “Humour, Wit, a native Ease and Grace.” After the verbal beating Pope took at the hands of lesser writers, he expresses his honest judgment of his work as worthy. The notion of “wit” proved crucial to readers and critics in Pope’s time. It sometimes meant an edgy humor, but it had additional meanings, one of which was an intellectual nature. Pope wished to remind his detractors that possession of wit alone was insuffi cient; one must also have an ease and grace of expression, as he demonstrates. He makes clear that wit is not bound “to Time and Place,” meaning he can write as easily in a rural setting as a city setting, adding, “Criticks in Wit, or Life, are hard to please, / Few write to those, and none can live to these,” a direct slam against Dennis and others like him.
Beginning with line 31, he speaks directly to his female audience, as he cautions Miss Blount that women allow critics too much effect on their choices. While critics prove rough on him as a writer, women remain the most vulnerable to their effects. Women must abide by custom, which no longer knows why it laid down the edicts that it holds, again alluding to his era’s belief in the necessity of virtuousness in women. Custom forbids many pleasures in the misplaced desire for virtue. Women are “Made Slaves by Honour, and made Fools by Shame.” While marriage chases away some “petty Tyrant,” that of gossips who would accuse the unmarried woman of impropriety, it proves an even greater tyrant. It leaves women still in “Constraint / . . . Or bound in formal, or in real Chains.” Once “caught” by marriage, women have few social choices open to them. A double standard applies where men are concerned; they neglect their wives to fawn on their servants. Critics believe that Pope may have been defending his relationship with Martha Blount, explaining that he will not marry her in order that she may keep her independence.
Pope includes much detail to describe the material benefits a woman gains through a good marriage, such as a “gilt Coach and dappled Flanders Mares, / The shining Robes, rich Jewels, Beds of States,” and the activities she might enjoy, such as balls, opera boxes, and a good seat at the boxing ring. However, these reach only her outward appearance and leave her “wretched”; she remains “no Dutchess at her Heart” (56).
However, should Miss Blount decide to marry, the speaker advises her not to trust to her beauty and physical charms to make the union, as they will not last. What may provide “A Morning’s Pleasure” is “at Evening torn.” In the speaker’s opinion, “Good Humour only teaches Charms to last,” and allows women to continue making conquests, even as they age. Again, Pope touches on the idea of wit, implying that of Miss Blount to be superior to that of certain critics. He emphasizes that Good Humour “binds in Ties more easie, yet more strong, / The willing Heart, and only holds it long.” His critics had certainly exhibited bad humor in their tasteless criticism of Pope’s physical malformation. He clearly intimates that his application of charming rhetoric and easy wit proves superior as a romantic, as well as rhetorical, approach.
The lasting relationship Voiture made through his words caused his “early Care” to “still shone the same,” drawing and holding true lovers together through his language. In death he abides “on th’ Elysian Coast, / Amid those Lovers, joys his gentle Ghost.” Pope employs catachresis to shorten the verb enjoys to the noun joys, utilizing it as a verb. He concludes by comparing Miss Blount’s British eyes to the French eyes that caused Voiture to love and concludes with another comment on the power of the well-written word: “And dead as living, ’tis our Author’s Pride, / Still to charm those who charm the World beside.” While the author has died, his work, his “Pride,” abides, continuing to charm young women, who then charm the world.
Combe, Kirk. “A Contradiction Still: Representations of Women in the Poetry of Alexander Pope.” Notes and Queries 47, no. 2 (June 2000): 254–256.
Nakanishi, Wendy Jones. “Classical and ‘Augustan’ Notions of the Literary Letter.” English Studies 71, no. 4 (August 1990): 341–352.