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Picture courtesy: Loverna Journey, Unsplash

Hello dVerse Poets!

Sanaa here (aka adashofsunny) to stir your muses. The days are leading us to Spring, when blooming buds offer kisses to one and all, crimson and gold; the season begs for ‘de novo’ and that is exactly what we are offering.

The Verse Epistle is simple to define – it is no more than a letter in verse form but its flexibility makes it difficult to encapsulate. Yet, it is that very flexibility that made it the most ideal form of the era.

Plainly speaking, the “Verse Epistle,” is a letter written in verse, usually taking as its subject either a philosophical or a romantic question.

It spans the transition from manuscript to print not only in its history but its tone and style; those who chose to cultivate it range from virtually all the major writers of that time to many who wouldn’t have considered themselves as poets, it made up a significant proportion of all kinds of verse published. Undoubtedly, we are referring to the English Poetry of the eighteenth century.

Not only could it be adapted for almost any kind of subject, for instance in Alexander Pope’s case from Ovidian love letter (Eloisa to Abelard) to moral philosophy (An essay on Man), and from whimsical commiseration (Epistle to Miss Blount on her leaving the town, after the Coronation) to satirical rationale (An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot), the verse epistle lends itself to a wide range of genres: from compliment to satire, from humor to moral protest and from essay to everyday letter.

Eloisa to Abelard

By Alexander Pope

In these deep solitudes and awful cells,
Where heav’nly-pensive contemplation dwells,
And ever-musing melancholy reigns;
What means this tumult in a vestal’s veins?
Why rove my thoughts beyond this last retreat?
Why feels my heart its long-forgotten heat?
Yet, yet I love!—From Abelard it came,
And Eloisa yet must kiss the name.

Dear fatal name! rest ever unreveal’d,
Nor pass these lips in holy silence seal’d.
Hide it, my heart, within that close disguise,
Where mix’d with God’s, his lov’d idea lies:
O write it not, my hand—the name appears
Already written—wash it out, my tears!
In vain lost Eloisa weeps and prays,
Her heart still dictates, and her hand obeys.

Relentless walls! whose darksome round contains
Repentant sighs, and voluntary pains:
Ye rugged rocks! which holy knees have worn;
Ye grots and caverns shagg’d with horrid thorn!
Shrines! where their vigils pale-ey’d virgins keep,
And pitying saints, whose statues learn to weep!
Though cold like you, unmov’d, and silent grown,
I have not yet forgot myself to stone.
All is not Heav’n’s while Abelard has part,
Still rebel nature holds out half my heart;
Nor pray’rs nor fasts its stubborn pulse restrain,
Nor tears, for ages, taught to flow in vain.

Soon as thy letters trembling I unclose,
That well-known name awakens all my woes.
Oh name for ever sad! for ever dear!
Still breath’d in sighs, still usher’d with a tear.
I tremble too, where’er my own I find,
Some dire misfortune follows close behind.
Line after line my gushing eyes o’erflow,
Led through a sad variety of woe:
Now warm in love, now with’ring in thy bloom,
Lost in a convent’s solitary gloom!
There stern religion quench’d th’ unwilling flame,
There died the best of passions, love and fame.

(Read full poem here)

“Eloisa to Abelard” is a 1717 epistolary poem composed by Alexander Pope, who is commonly regarded as one of the best English poets of the eighteenth century.

The poem is inspired by Ovid’s collection – “Heroides,” and is based on a popular French medieval love story of Heloise and Pierre Abelard. It is written in the form of a love letter in which Eloisa speaks of feelings of solitude, her undying love for Abelard, and yearning for passion and excitement. That kind of love is not only rare but in my humble opinion does something to the person harboring it. One is never quite the same as he used to be before the tempestuous feeling settles in.

Picture courtesy:  “Leaves pressed against glasshouse window,” by
Gemma Evans, Unsplash

Key Influences and Roots of ‘Verse Epistle’:

Although the Verse Epistle reached its fullest development in the eighteenth century, its roots stretch further back to Ovid and Horace. “Ovid’s Epistles,” can in many ways said to be the turning point in John Dryden’s literary career.

When the young publisher Jacob Tonson approached him to contribute to a miscellany edition of Ovid translations, Dryden was at the peak of his reputation.  Since his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1668 (for Annus Mirabilis, 1667) Dryden had dominated the literary scene as a critic and a playwright, however the enthusiasm for heroic drama was beginning to diminish and Dryden was to find in practice of translation a new outlet for his poetical and critical ventures.

The format of Ovid’s Epistles deserves utmost attention. Although, Tonson’s first collection of the translations was not without precedent – Alexander Brome had published in 1666 a selection of Horace’s poems that went through atleast three editions by the year 1680. The publication of Ovid’s Epistles was to link the names of Dryden and Tonson with the genre of classical miscellany.

The genre proved to be an especially favorable ground for poets previously associated with the theatre, such as Dryden, who contributed three of the twenty-three translations (“Canace to Macareus,” “Helen to Paris,” and “Dido to Aeneas.”) Also read, “Summary and Conclusions,” for further and in-depth understanding.

Key influences on the rise of the Verse Epistle were the foundation of the Post Office in 1660, especially as travel and communications improved and the expansion of printing (which promoted the development of a public sphere) to which epistolary writing of all kinds contributed.

The Verse Epistle encompasses the shift from relative informality of manuscript communication, at its simplest, the private letter – to the greater formality in print. Its inherent flexibility made it accessible to a wide range of readers and writers of both sexes who could not easily aspire to canonical genres.

Ovid’s Epistle: Helen to Paris

by Dryden and the Earl of Mulgrave

WHEN loose Epistles violate Chast Eyes,
She half Consents, who silently denies:
How dares a Stranger with Designs so vain,
Marriage and Hospitable Rights Prophane?
Was it for this, your Fleet did shelter find

From swelling Seas, and ev’ry faithless Wind?
(For tho a distant Country brought you forth,
our usage here was equal to your Worth.)
Does this deserve to be rewarded so?
Did you come here a Stranger or a Foe?

Your partial Judgment may perhaps complain,
And think me barbarous for my just disdain;
Ill-bred then let me be, but not unchast,
Nor my clear Fame with any Spot defac’d.
Tho in my face there’s no affected Frown,

Nor in my Carriage a feign’d Niceness shown,
I keep my Honor still without a Stain,
Nor has my Love made any Coxcomb vain.
Your Boldness I with admiration see;
What Hope had you to gain a Queen like me?
Because a Hero forc’d me once away
Am I thought fit to be a second Prey?

(Read full poem here)

Sources:  John Dryden’s Preface to Ovid ‘s Epistles (1680) and “Verse Epistle,” by Bill Overton on Wiley Online Library.

For today’s Poetics, I would like you to write a Verse Epistle. Go philosophical, go solemn, go dark or perhaps political, pose a romantic question – as long as your poem emulates the style of the poetic genre– anything goes. Keep in mind that your contribution need not be half as lengthy or flowery as the examples shared above, I aim for this prompt to be wide in scope and enjoyable for all.

New to dVerse? Here’s how to join in:

*Write a poem (in any form) in response to the challenge.
*Enter a link directly to your poem and your name by clicking Mr. Linky below
and remember to check the little box to accept the use/privacy policy.
*You will find links to other poets and more will join so please do check
back later in order to read their poems.
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