Alexander Pope’s ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’ is a poem about the unrequited love the speaker had for Catharine Howard, one of Queen Caroline’s waiting-women. Throughout the poem, it is described how everyone can see the beauty, grace, and intelligence of Howard except “Envy,” which remains a mute listener in the first two stanzas. It does not remain silent as it has nothing to comment upon the lady’s character, but the poet asks it so. However, in the end, the poet satirically remarks that the lady, being deaf, cannot listen to the world praising her wit.
On a Certain Lady at Court Alexander PopeI know a thing that's most uncommon; (Envy, be silent and attend!)I know a reasonable Woman, Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.Not warp'd by Passion, awed by Rumour; Not grave through Pride, nor gay through Folly,An equal Mixture of good Humour And sensible soft Melancholy."Has she no faults then (Envy says), Sir?" Yes, she has one, I must aver;When all the World conspires to praise her, The Woman's deaf, and does not hear.
Explore On a Certain Lady at Court
In ‘On a Certain Lady at Court,’ Alexander Pope satirizes a woman who doesn’t love him back.
In this poem, Pope’s speaker spends his time talking about her and praising her reason, wit, and beauty. Yet, she is just a friend and nothing more. The speaker seems smitten by the woman’s neglect as he describes her as a beautiful (handsome), humble and sensible person. Everyone in the court can testify to her beauty and nature, yet she does not see it in herself as if she is blind to “Pride” and “Folly.” The tone of the poem is ironic and pointed as the speaker desperately wants her attention and for her to realize her worth.
The poem ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’ is written in a regular rhyme and meter. It consists of four quatrains (stanzas having four lines each). The poem follows the ABAB rhyme scheme. For instance, in the first stanza, “uncommon” rhymes with “Woman” and “attend” and “friend” rhyme together. This poem is written from the first-person point of view. It presents a conversation between Pope’s persona and “Envy.” Regarding the meter, the poem is composed of iambic tetrameter with a few variations.
Pope makes use of the following literary devices in ‘On a Certain Lady at Court.’
- Apostrophe: In the second line, “(Envy, be silent, and attend!),” the poet directly addresses an abstract idea (Envy) as a living being.
- Personification: In the line ‘Has she no faults then (Envy says), sir?’ Pope personifies envy and invests it with the idea of speaking.
- Assonance: There is a repetition of the ‘o’ sound in “soft Melancholy.” The ‘e’ sound is repeated in the line, “(Envy, be silent, and attend!).”
- Consonance: It occurs in the following phrases, “sensible soft,” “says, sir,” and “deaf and does.”
- Hyperbole: The poet says, “The woman’s deaf and does not hear,” which means that the woman is oblivious to her traits and never believes the people who praise her.
I KNOW the thing that’s most uncommon;
(Envy, be silent, and attend!)
I know a reasonable Woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a friend:
Alexander Pope’s poem ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’ starts with a monologue. The poet says that there is one thing that he knows about which is most uncommon of all. Then he asks the listener, Envy, to remain silent. In the next lines, he introduces the woman he likes, Catharine Howard, a waiting-woman of Queen Caroline. He describes her to be beautiful and smart. And then, the poet says despite her beauty and wit, she is “yet” a friend. The tone in the last line is reflective and almost regretful as if the speaker is recounting all his failed attempts to woo her. His tone also reflects a sense of scorn for the lady.
Not warp’d by Passion, awed by Rumour,
Not grave thro’ Pride, nor gay thro’ Folly,
An equal mixture of Good-humour,
And sensible soft Melancholy.
In the second stanza, Pope further describes the woman as someone who is not too passionate. Her senses are not twisted by carnal emotions. She even feels awed to hear a rumor that comes her way. The speaker says the woman is neither proud nor irresponsible in the next line. She takes full responsibility for her follies. Besides, she has a good sense of humor and a “sensible” or normal amount of sadness. To be specific, she was not like those lachrymose, fashionable women of the 18th century. The tone in the second verse is nostalgic and praising as the speaker thinks about the features of the woman he desired to have.
‘Has she no faults then (Envy says), sir?’
Yes, she has one, I must aver:
When all the world conspires to praise her,
The woman’s deaf and does not hear.
In the last quatrain of ‘On a Certain Lady at Court,’ the personified “Envy” asks if the woman has any faults at all. To this, the poet replies that the only fault Catharine has is that she never believes or listens to anyone who praises her. She is too humble to believe in her positive qualities, and this is frustrating for the speaker who is in love with her yet cannot get her to realize it. In a sort of disgust, he says that she is probably “deaf.” Hence, she could not listen to the “world” praising her. Here, the “world” is a metonym for the speaker.
The theme of Alexander Pope’s ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’ is the speaker’s undying love for Catharine Howard and how she is oblivious to his feelings. The poem reflects how the poet’s love fuels his “Envy” because he finds the woman he is in love with perfect. At the same time, he is fully aware of the flaws she has. He thinks that the lady is humorous, witty, handsome, and smart. Much to his regret, he still is not more than a friend to her. This entire poem seems to be a conversation between the speaker and Envy. Upon being asked by Envy if the woman has any flaws, he hopelessly says that she does not believe anyone who compliments her. This is why Pope writes this poem expressing his frustration for the woman’s passivity.
Alexander Pope was an English poet and satirist. He was a prominent writer in the era of Augustan literature. Among his most notable works are, The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism. The poem ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’ is about Catharine Howard, one of Queen Caroline’s waiting-women. Later, she became the Countess of Suffolk and mistress to George II. In this poem, Howard’s self-absorbed nature is criticized with ironic statements. She is portrayed as “deaf” to the world even though others praise her qualities.
Alexander Pope’s ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’ is about a speaker’s unrequited love for a woman who does not believe anyone who sings in praise of her positive qualities. According to the speaker, she turns a deaf ear to the world praising her.
It is a lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. Here, the speaker is none other than the poet himself. The rhyme scheme that is followed in all three quatrains is ABAB. It is composed of iambic tetrameter.
The tone of the poem is desperate, frustrated, and admiring. Throughout the poem, Pope’s persona praises the woman’s beauty, wit, and sense of humor. She does not possess any negative qualities at all. Then, in the last stanza, the poet ironically remarks that she is oblivious to her own worth.
The theme of the poem is unrequited love, virtue, dejection, and desperation. This piece revolves around a speaker’s frustration due to a self-absorbed lady’s rejection.
The following poems similarly tap on the themes showcased by Alexander Pope in his poem ‘On a Certain Lady at Court.’ You can also explore more Alexander Pope poems.
- ‘A Certain Lady’ by Dorothy Parker — This short poem is about a speaker mourning the fact that the person she loves does not love her in return.
- ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ by William Wordsworth — In this poem, Wordsworth examines an unrequited love for Lucy, a girl who died prematurely.
- ‘A Dream within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe — This piece examines the subtleties of time and delves into its effects.
You can also explore these memorable poems about unrequited love.