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An epistle is a letter that comes in the form of either prose or poetry.

It was traditionally written to express something like love or speak on an important philosophical or religious topic. The themes of these works are often lofty. They often deal with important subject matter but all writers have a different way of utilizing the form. 


History of the Epistle 

In ancient Egypt, it was part of a school of letter writing. These were pedagogical in nature. There is evidence of letters written between a fifth dynasty pharaoh and his viziers. These letters were also written to the dead and in the Ramesside Period, to the gods. Schoolchildren are known to have written epistles on ceramics. 

In Greek and Roman history epistle writing was quite important. For example, the letters of Cicero have revealed a great deal about the time period and methods of communication to scholars. Piny the Younger also wrote letters that are studied for their historical and literary importance. One final example from the period is Ovid who wrote dozens of epistles in elegiac couplets. 

Today, the most commonly cited epistles come from the bible, such as those written by Paul known as the Pauline epistles. These letters began with the name of the author and then that of the recipient. They used phrases like “Grace and peace to you” at the beginning. 


Types of Epistles 

There are two larger brackets into which epistles fall: 

  • Moral/Philosophical: this form of epistle was popularized by Horace and has been in use since the Renaissance. These epistles deal with complex and important subject matter such as the nature of life and the meaning of death. 
  • Romantic/Sentimental: the second category is often connected with the poet Ovid. These letters became popular in the middle ages. 


Examples of Poetic Epistles 

Example #1 Epistle to Augusta by Lord Byron 

In the first lines of this epistle, the poet clearly addresses the lines to his sister, Augusta. He calls her “sweet” and the dearest and the purest person that he knows. These affectionate words are followed by a number of other long stanzas outlining how he feels about her, where he is mentally and emotionally and reflecting on everything that’s passed between them. Take a look at this, the last stanza of the poem: 

For thee, my own sweet sister, in thy heart 

I know myself secure, as thou in mine; 

We were and are—I am, even as thou art— 

Beings who ne’er each other can resign; 

It is the same, together or apart, 

From life’s commencement to its slow decline 

We are entwin’d—let death come slow or fast, 

The tie which bound the first endures the last! 

In these lines, he is concluding his letter by describing how he is part of her and she, him. They can never “resign” one another. No matter where they physically are, they are always together, “entwin’d”. 


Example #2 Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot by Alexander Pope 

Pope wrote several epistles. In this one, he is addressing his friend, John Arbuthnot. The poem is satiric in nature and was first published in 1735. He composed it a year earlier when he found out that his friend was dying. Here are a few lines from the beginning of a stanza: 

Friend to my life! (which did not you prolong, 

The world had wanted many an idle song) 

What drop or nostrum can this plague remove? 

Or which must end me, a fool’s wrath or love? 

A dire dilemma! either way I’m sped, 

If foes, they write, if friends, they read me dead. 

Seiz’d and tied down to judge, how wretched I! 

Who can’t be silent, and who will not lie; 

In total, the poem consists of 419 lines made out of heroic couplets. This demonstrates, as do the other poems on this list, that epistles may be written in any form the poet chooses. 


Example #3 Letter to N.Y. by Elizabeth Bishop 

In this poem, Bishop delves into a theme that is common throughout much of her work, isolation. The text of this letter conforms to the second category of epistle, that dealing with love. Bishop addresses a woman, Louise Crane, in these letters, asking her to tell her a bit about his life and what he does during the day. Take a look at the first and second stanza: 

In your next letter I wish you’d say

where you are going and what you are doing;

how are the plays and after the plays

what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,

driving as if to save your soul

where the road gose round and round the park

and the meter glares like a moral owl,

Bishop uses poetic techniques like anaphora, repetition, and refrain in order to take this poem out of the realm of prose and into that of poetry. The lines are also organized into clear stanzas, each of which contains four lines. 

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