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Epistles in Poetry

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A branch of poetry bears the name of the Epistle, and is modelled on those pieces of Horace which are almost essays (sermones) on moral or philosophical subjects, and are chiefly distinguished from other poems by being addressed to particular patrons or friends. The epistle of Horace to his agent (or villicus) is of a more familiar order, and is at once a masterpiece and a model of what an epistle should be. Examples of the work in this direction of Ovid, Claudian, Ausonius and other late Latin poets have been preserved, but it is particularly those of Horace which have given this character to the epistles in verse which form so very characteristic a section of French poetry. The graceful precision and dignified familiarity of the epistle are particularly attractive to the temperament of France. Clement Marot, in the 16th century, first made the epistle popular in France, with his brief and spirited specimens. We pass the witty epistles of Scarron and Voiture, to reach those of Boileau, whose epistles, twelve in number, are the classic examples of this form of verse in French literature; they were composed at different dates between 1668 and 1695. In the 18th century Voltaire enjoyed a supremacy in this graceful and sparkling species of writing; the Épître à Uranie is perhaps the most famous of his verse-letters. Gresset, Bernis, Sedaine, Dorat, Gentil-Bernard, all excelled in the epistle. The curious “Épîtres” of J.P.G. Viennet (1777-1868) were not easy and mundane like their predecessors, but violently polemical. Viennet, a hot defender of lost causes, may be considered the latest of the epistolary poets of France.

In England the verse-epistle was first prominently employed by Samuel Daniel in his “Letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius” (1599), and later on, more legitimately, in his “Certain Epistles” (1601-1603). His letter, in terza rima, to Lucy, Countess of Bristol, is one of the finest examples of this form in English literature. It was Daniel’s deliberate intention to introduce the Epistle into English poetry, “after the manner of Horace.” He was supported by Ben Jonson, who has some fine Horatian epistles in his Forests (1616) and his UnderwoodsLetters to Several Persons of Honour form an important section in the poetry of John Donne. Habington’s Epistle to a Friend is one of his most finished pieces. Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) addressed a fine epistle in verse to the French romance-writer Gombauld (1570-1666). Such “letters” were not unfrequent down to the Restoration, but they did not create a department of literature such as Daniel had proposed. At the close of the 17th century Dryden greatly excelled in this class of poetry, and his epistles to Congreve (1694) and to the duchess of Ormond (1700) are among the most graceful and eloquent that we possess. During the age of Anne various Augustan poets in whom the lyrical faculty was slight, from Congreve and Richard Duke down to Ambrose Philips and William Somerville, essayed the epistle with more or less success, and it was employed by Gay for several exercises in his elegant persiflage. Among the epistles of Gay, one rises to an eminence of merit, that called “Mr Pope’s welcome from Greece,” written in 1720. But the great writer of epistles in English is Pope himself, to whom the glory of this kind of verse belongs. His “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717) is carefully modelled on the form of Ovid’s “Heroides,” while in his Moral Essays he adopts the Horatian formula for the epistle. In either case his success was brilliant and complete. The “Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot” has not been surpassed, if it has been equalled, in Latin or French poetry of the same class. But Pope excelled, not only in the voluptuous and in the didactic epistle, but in that of compliment as well, and there is no more graceful example of this in literature than is afforded by the letter about the poems of Parnell addressed, in 1721, to Robert, earl of Oxford. After the day of Pope the epistle again fell into desuetude, or occasional use, in England. It revived in 703the charming naïveté of Cowper’s lyrical letters in octosyllabics to his friends, such as William Bull and Lady Austin (1782). At the close of the century Samuel Rogers endeavoured to resuscitate the neglected form in his “Epistle to a Friend” (1798). The formality and conventional grace of the epistle were elements with which the leaders of romantic revival were out of sympathy, and it was not cultivated to any important degree in the 19th century. It is, however, to be noted that Shelley’s “Letter to Maria Gisborne” (1820), Keats’s “Epistle to Charles Clarke” (1816), and Landor’s “To Julius Hare” (1836), in spite of their romantic colouring, are genuine Horatian epistles and of the pure Augustan type. This type, in English literature, is commonly, though not at all universally, cast in heroic verse. But Daniel employs rime royal and terza rima, while some modern epistles have been cast in short iambic rhymed measures or in blank verse. It is sometimes not easy to distinguish the epistle from the elegy and from the dedication.


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