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Letter Poem, Epistle: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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September 02, 2014

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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letter poem, epistle: A kind of letter in poetry. The verse epistle, as it was once called, is a poem specifically addressed to a friend, a lover, or a patron. In his Epistles (20–14 B.C.E.), Horace established the type of epistle poem that reflects on moral and philosophical subjects. In his Heroides (ca. 25–16 BCE), Ovid established the type of epistle poem that reflects on romantic subjects. They are fictional letters from the legendary women of antiquity (Helen, Medea, Dido) to their lovers. Horace’s letters on the art of poetry, known since Quintilian as the Ars Poetica(ca. 18–19 BCE), are also verse epistles, and so are Ovid’s poignant poems of exile, Tristia (9–12 C.E.).

Ovid’s Heroides particularly influenced the troubadours and their poems of courtly love, which are shaped as love songs from a distance. The Horatian epistle had a lasting influence throughout the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. There are Petrarch’s Epistulae metricae (1331–1361) in Latin, Ariosto’s Satires (1517–1525) in vernacular Italian, Garcilaso’s Epístola a Boscán (1543) in Spanish, and Boileau’s À mes vers (1695) and Sur l’amour de Dieu (1698) in French. Ivan Funikov’s ironic verse epistle, “Message of a Nobleman to a Nobleman” (1608), is the oldest dated Russian work in verse. It jokes about his misfortunes in riotously funny rhymed couplets. Epistolary poetry was also the most popular literary genre in fourteenth-century Uzbekistan. Elif Batuman explains, “Poems during this period took the form of love letters between nightingales and sheep, between opium and wine, between red and green. One poet wrote to a girl that he had tried to drink a lake so he could wallow her reflection: this girl was cleaner than water.”

Samuel Daniel introduced the epistle into English in his Letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius (1599) and in Certain Epistles (1601–1603). Ben Jonson employed the Horatian mode in The Forest (1616), which was also taken up by John Dryden in his epistles to Congreve (1694) and to the duchess of Ormond (1700). Alexander Pope modeled “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717) on Ovid’s Heroides, and adapted the Horatian epistle in his Moral Essays (1731–1735) and An Epistle to Dr. Arbuhnot (1735). The epistle fell into disuse in the romantic era. Since then, it has been occasionally revived and renamed as a letter, as in W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland (1937). Richard Hugo brings the form closer to a real letter in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977). Robert Lowell created a controversy in the 1970s by taking actual letters from Elizabeth Hardwick and reshaping them as unrhymed sonnets.

The letter poem is addressed to a specific person and written from a specific place, which locates it in time and space. It imitates the colloquial familiarity of a letter, though sometimes in elaborate forms. Some create fictive speakers, as in Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Li Po, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (1915). Some are addressed to those long dead, as in Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937), others to contemporaries. But unlike an actual letter, the letter poem is never addressed to just its recipient; it is always meant to be overheard by a third person, a future reader.

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Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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