Negative and positive standards in "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot"
When Alexander Pope wrote Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot in 1734/5, he wrote it, on a most apparent level, as a list of complaints, mostly centered around an image of his that his contemporary poets, especially bad ones, are more numerous in England than flies are around a dunghill. Furthermore, according to Epistle, all of these `servants of the Muses' have their attention on him, and to Pope that is not a good thing. In fact, it is downright annoying, as they have written, in particular, several literary attacks on him before Epistle was published, and thus Pope has to fight back in the same manner as they have attacked him. This essay will try to indicate various negative and positive standards shown in Epistle and show them to the readers, as despite all the negative emotion in Epistle, some of it is written in a more positive vein. Pope had written his Epistle to contrast positive and negative standards in Epistle, to compare Pope's enemies with friends, in order to promote the positive virtues of friendship over the negative vices of animosity.
Differentiating between these standards, however, may not be as straightforward and easy as the audience may presume at first, since human relationships are complex things, and Pope's verses in Epistle reflect it. Take, as an example, his treatment of Joseph Addison, originally one of Pope's friends, but later his literary and political opponent. In Epistle, Pope carries out a prolonged attack upon Addison:
Peace to all such! but were there one whose fires
True Genius kindles, and fair fame inspires,
Blest with each talent and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease:
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caus'd himself to rise;
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserv'd to blame, or to commend,
A tim'rous foe, and a suspicious friend;
The first three lines of Pope's attack seems to be said in a positive vein - "True Genius...fair fame...blest with each talent" (Epistle, 193-5). However, then Pope compares his ex-friend to "the Turk", a.k.a the Turkish sultan, who was reputed to have had to kill all of his brothers and other rivals once he ascended to the throne, and later downright demeans him, calling Addison "A tim'rous foe, and a suspicious friend" (206). In short, what starts positive does not always continue, let alone end on the same positive note in Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot; more often, it goes profoundly negative all the way through the description. Lord Hervey, "Sporus", whose literary attack prompted Epistle's response, is discussed in lines 305-33 as another prominent example of the profound animosity and scorn that Pope had for his adversaries, as well as his generosity with ink when it came to responding to such attacks. It appears that Pope had a long memory and did not forget people easily, whether for good or evil. Thus, Addison, as a remembrance of their initial friendship is compared to the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, while Lord Hervey is linked to Milton's Devil instead.
Yet, even in a so profoundly negative passage as quoted above, there are implications of a more positive interaction between two people. For example, though Addison is described in a generally negative way, does have some redeeming qualities, or rather qualities that are described in a less vitriolic vein as compared, for example, to Lord Hervey, "Sporus", in lines 305-33.
Conversely, there are also occurrences in Epistle, when the initial positive standards remain positive all the way without any sarcasm suddenly to startle the audience. The first example occurs on line 27, when Epistle's tone softens from the derogatory discussion of Pope's opponent to a more complimentary one of Arbuthnot himself. While the lines previous to line 27 and after had been written by Pope in a profoundly negative tone, after the line 27 the poem turns to praise and compliments instead: "Friend to my Life, (which did not you prolong, / The World had wanted many an idle Song)" (27-28).
Moreover, John Arbuthnot was not just a physician of Queen Anne; he was a fellow member of Pope's Scriblerus Club, a fellow writer and poet, who understood Pope's plight regarding the hack writers of the lines before and after this question, and probably offered condolences during other times in their lives. Pope uses Arbuthnot to show slyly the contrast of their relationship to the relationship of Pope with "a maudlin poetess, a rhyming peer" - "Three things another's modest wishes bound, / My friendship, and a prologue, and ten pound." (47-48).
Around line 125, the poem's theme begins to express predominantly positive standards:
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobey'd.
The Muse but serv'd to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life,
To second, Arbuthnot! thy art and care,
And teach the being you preserv'd, to bear.
For the next ten lines, Pope writes not about his rivals, but about himself, and when compared to the sarcasm directed against his rivals, Pope's standard of description of himself cannot help but come across to Epistle's audience as naturally positive and irony-free. Pope clearly does not think that irony is necessary in these lines, as he is focusing on human virtues, not vices, something that clearly does not need to be ironic in Pope's opinion.
The same lack of sarcastic or ironic content appears in the quotation below, where Pope writes about his and Arbuthnot's friends and cohorts in the Scriblerus Club - Wash, Garth, Congreve, Swift, and others, spoken about almost immediately after his self-description quoted above.
Granville the polite,
And knowing Walsh, would tell me I could write;
Well-natur'd Garth inflamed with early praise,
And Congreve lov'd, and Swift endur'd my lays;
The courtly Talbot, Somers, Sheffield read,
Ev'n mitred Rochester would nod the head,
And St. John's self (great Dryden's friends before)
With open arms receiv'd one Poet more.
Their epithets are not anything fancy - "knowing", "well-natured", "courtly", "mitred", and so on - but the lines "Happy my studies, when by these approv'd! / Happier their author, when by these belov'd!" (138-9) shows how impressed, honored and touched Pope is by counting them as friends! This serves to make Pope's return to that criticism of his opponents - Lord Hervey, Charles Gildon, John Dennis and others - only more vicious, as they seem to lack any qualities that Pope's friends possessed. Pope uses such literary devices as metaphor and hyperbole to ridicule negative, and emboss, so to say, positive standards among his literary contemporaries, foes and friends.
As luck would have it, the more or less positive standard re-emerges for the last times in lines 406-19, when Pope stops talking about some generalized Knave (361-384) and instead gets to his point, his ultimate message to Arbuthnot:
O Friend! may each Domestick Bliss be thine!
Be no unpleasing Melancholy mine:
Me, let the tender Office long engage
To rock the Cradle of reposing Age,
With lenient Arts extend a Mother's breath,
Make Languor smile, and smooth the Bed of Death,
Explore the Thought, explain the asking Eye,
And keep a while one Parent from the Sky!
On Cares like these if Length of days attend,
May Heav'n, to bless those days, preserve my Friend,
Preserve him social, cheerful, and serene,
And just as rich as when he serv'd a Queen!
Whether that Blessing be denied or giv'n,
Thus far was right, the rest belongs to Heav'n.
For the last time in his poem (and these are the last 14 lines of Epistle) Pope discards all of his vitriol and ridicule, and instead turns to rather kind and gentle praising of his dying friend. "Preserve him social, cheerful, and serene, / And just as rich as when he serv'd a Queen!" - is an example of using someone less friendly (the queen was mentioned previously in conjunction with lord Hervey) to emphasize the positive qualities of John Arbuthnot and his life. This is the most prominent example of positive standard in Epistle, which held the message of John Arbuthnot's life and the virtues contained in it. To Pope, virtue triumphs over vice, good triumphs over evil, and life might triumph over death in a manner of speaking - John Arbuthnot may soon be gone (to Heaven, incidentally), but his good name and deeds will outlast him and leave happy memories to his contemporaries in years to come - and that is the true positive standard implied in Epistle.
Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Black, Joseph, et al., eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. 1st ed. 6 vols. Petersborough: Broadview Press, 2002.