Pope, Alexander. "Epistle 2. To a Lady."
The Origin of the Poem
The poem is one the four poems which were grouped together by the author under the title Epistles to Several Persons (1744), but are better known by the later title Moral Essays. The poems were originally conceived as parts of Pope's ambitious "ethic work", of which only the first part, An Essay on Man (1734), was completed. "Epistle 2" is concerned with the character of women, being a counterpart to "Epistle 1" which focuses on the character of men. The other two epistles examines the use of riches.
The Form of the Poem
The poem takes the form of rhymed couplets. Formally it is a letter to a specific person, Martha Blount (1690 - 1763), Pope's closest female friend. It presents a satire on women and at the same time a compliment to the addressee. The final part of the poem describes an ideal woman, good-natured, sensible and well balanced, identified with the addressee herself. As a whole, the poem seems to be torn between sympathy and satiric bite targeted at women.
The poet elaborates on the addressee's claim that "Most women have no characters at all" (line 2). He agrees and notes that the supposed character of women is so changeable that they are best to be distinguished by their appearance, specifically by the colour of their hair.
The Portrait Gallery
He introduces the reader into a gallery with portraits of women which he sees as a mere variations on "one nymph" (line 5). (Note: Ladies of the time were commonly painted in costumes and attitudes of fanciful, mythological or historical characters). He mentions e.g. one Leda with a swan and other women pictured with angels, palms or harps. He compares women to Diana, goddess of the moon, which is a notoriously changeable heavenly body. The speaker claims that women in the portraits were caught at their most charming moments by the painters who mostly chose not to portray their defects.
Leaving the appearance of women, the poet continues to examine their character. He sees contradictory opposites unreconciled and struggling in woman's nature. She is by turns a believer and an atheist, chaste and proud, chilled by conscience and acting upon her passions. Women are especially criticized for their behaviour towards their husbands. The poet denies that there is any reasonable explanation for the behaviour of woman and characterizes her as a meaningless puzzle. Woman is also denied to have the ability of thinking and reasoning.
The poet anticipates the addressee's argument that Chloe was created perfect. He admits it was so, only that she missed a heart. She acted "just as she ought" (line 161), but as a soulless machine. (Note: Chloe is an epithet for Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth). She was able to have a lover adoring her at her feet but at the same time to observe "the figures on an Indian chest" (line 168).
Passions in Women
Men are contrasted to women in being ruled by various passions. Women are supposedly ruled by two passions only, either by the "love of pleasure" or the love of power (line 210). To the poet, the only fine feature in women is their beauty. However, when their beauty fades with age, women become embittered. Incapable to come to terms with their giving no more pleasure, they feign it when they entertain guests and pretend to be enjoying themselves.
The poet turns himself to the addressee and compliments both her ability to think and to feel. The addressee is not constantly changing and shifting her moods and loyalties as other women do. The poet believes her to be an exception among her sex and claims that she blends the best qualities of both man and woman. He thinks that her birth was carefully attended by Phoebus, the god of poetry and the god of sun. The poem concludes with the line that the god "To you gave sense, good humor, and a poet" (line 293).
AuthorAlexander Pope. (1688 - 1744).
Full Title"Epistle 2. To a Lady. Of the Characters of Women".
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Pope, Alexander. "Epistle 2. To a Lady". The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 2593-2599.