Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle II: To a Lady on the Characters of Women

Original Text: 
Alexander Pope, Works (1735). E-10 3938 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
2"Most Women have no Characters at all."
3Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
4And best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair.
5      How many pictures of one nymph we view,
6All how unlike each other, all how true!
8Is, there, Pastora by a fountain side.
9Here Fannia, leering on her own good man,
10And there, a naked Leda with a Swan.
11Let then the Fair one beautifully cry,
12In Magdalen's loose hair and lifted eye,
13Or dress'd in smiles of sweet Cecilia shine,
14With simp'ring angels, palms, and harps divine;
15Whether the charmer sinner it, or saint it,
17      Come then, the colours and the ground prepare!
18Dip in the rainbow, trick her off in air;
19Choose a firm cloud, before it fall, and in it
22Attracts each light gay meteor of a spark,
25Or Sappho at her toilet's greasy task,
26With Sappho fragrant at an ev'ning Masque:
27So morning insects that in muck begun,
28Shine, buzz, and flyblow in the setting sun.
30The frail one's advocate, the weak one's friend:
33Sudden, she storms! she raves! You tip the wink,
34But spare your censure; Silia does not drink.
35All eyes may see from what the change arose,
36All eyes may see--a pimple on her nose.
38Sighs for the shades--"How charming is a park!"
39A park is purchas'd, but the fair he sees
40All bath'd in tears--"Oh, odious, odious trees!"
41      Ladies, like variegated tulips, show,
42'Tis to their changes that their charms they owe;
43Their happy spots the nice admirer take,
44Fine by defect, and delicately weak.
46Aw'd without virtue, without beauty charm'd;
47Her tongue bewitch'd as oddly as her eyes,
48Less wit than mimic, more a wit than wise;
49Strange graces still, and stranger flights she had,
50Was just not ugly, and was just not mad;
51Yet ne'er so sure our passion to create,
52As when she touch'd the brink of all we hate.
55Has ev'n been prov'd to grant a lover's pray'r,
56And paid a tradesman once to make him stare,
58And made a widow happy, for a whim.
59Why then declare good nature is her scorn,
60When 'tis by that alone she can be borne?
61Why pique all mortals, yet affect a name?
62A fool to pleasure, yet a slave to fame:
65Now conscience chills her, and now passion burns;
66And atheism and religion take their turns;
67A very heathen in the carnal part,
68Yet still a sad, good Christian at her heart.
69      See Sin in State, majestically drunk;
71Chaste to her husband, frank to all beside,
72A teeming mistress, but a barren bride.
74Her head's untouch'd, that noble seat of thought:
75Such this day's doctrine--in another fit
76She sins with poets through pure love of wit.
77What has not fir'd her bosom or her brain?
80The nose of hautgout, and the tip of taste,
81Critiqu'd your wine, and analys'd your meat,
82Yet on plain pudding deign'd at home to eat;
84On the soft passion, and the taste refin'd,
85Th' address, the delicacy--stoops at once,
86And makes her hearty meal upon a dunce.
88To Toast our wants and wishes, is her way;
89Nor asks of God, but of her stars to give
90The mighty blessing, "while we live, to live."
91Then all for death, that opiate of the soul!
93Say, what can cause such impotence of mind?
94A spark too fickle, or a spouse too kind.
95Wise wretch! with pleasures too refin'd to please;
96With too much spirit to be e'er at ease;
97With too much quickness ever to be taught;
98With too much thinking to have common thought:
99You purchase pain with all that joy can give,
100And die of nothing but a rage to live.
102No ass so meek, no ass so obstinate:
103Or her, that owns her faults, but never mends,
104Because she's honest, and the best of friends:
105Or her, whose life the Church and scandal share,
106For ever in a passion, or a prayer:
109Or who in sweet vicissitude appears
110Of mirth and opium, ratafie and tears,
112To kill those foes to fair ones, time and thought.
113Woman and fool are two hard things to hit,
114For true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.
116Scarce once herself, by turns all womankind!
117Who, with herself, or others, from her birth
118Finds all her life one warfare upon earth:
119Shines, in exposing knaves, and painting fools,
120Yet is, whate'er she hates and ridicules.
121No thought advances, but her eddy brain
122Whisks it about, and down it goes again.
123Full sixty years the world has been her trade,
124The wisest fool much time has ever made.
125From loveless youth to unrespected age,
126No passion gratified except her rage.
127So much the fury still outran the wit,
128The pleasure miss'd her, and the scandal hit.
129Who breaks with her,-provokes revenge from Hell,
131Her every turn with violence pursu'd,
132Nor more a storm her hate than gratitude.
133To that each passion turns, or soon or late;
134Love, if it makes her yield, must make her hate:
135Superiors? death! and equals? what a curse!
136But an inferior not dependant? worse.
137Offend her, and she knows not to forgive;
138Oblige her, and she'll hate you while you live:
139But die, and she'll adore you--Then the Bust
140And Temple rise--then fall again to dust.
141Last night, her Lord was all that's good and great;
142A knave this morning, and his will a cheat.
143Strange! by the means defeated of the ends,
144By spirit robb'd of pow'r, by warmth of friends,
145By wealth of follow'rs! without one distress
146Sick of herself through very selfishness!
147Atossa, curs'd with ev'ry granted pray'r,
148Childless with all her children, wants an heir.
149To heirs unknown descends th' unguarded store,
150Or wanders, heav'n-directed, to the poor.
151      Pictures like these, dear Madam, to design,
152Asks no firm hand, and no unerring line;
153Some wand'ring touch or some reflected light,
154Some flying stroke alone can hit 'em right:
156Chameleons who can paint in white and black?
158Nature in her then err'd not, but forgot.
159"With ev'ry pleasing, ev'ry prudent part,
160Say, what can Chloe want?"--She wants a heart.
161She speaks, behaves, and acts just as she ought;
162But never, never, reach'd one gen'rous thought.
163Virtue she finds too painful an endeavour,
165So very reasonable, so unmov'd,
166As never yet to love, or to be lov'd.
167She, while her lover pants upon her breast,
168Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
169And when she sees her friend in deep despair,
170Observes how much a chintz exceeds mohair.
171Forbid it heav'n, a favour or a debt
172She e'er should cancel--but she may forget.
173Safe is your secret still in Chloe's ear;
174But none of Chloe's shall you ever hear.
175Of all her dears she never slander'd one,
176But cares not if a thousand are undone.
177Would Chloe know if you're alive or dead?
178She bids her footman put it in her head.
179Chloe is prudent--would you too be wise?
180Then never break your heart when Chloe dies.
181      One certain portrait may (I grant) be seen,
183The same for ever! and describ'd by all
184With truth and goodness, as with crown and ball.
185Poets heap virtues, painters gems at will,
186And show their zeal, and hide their want of skill.
187'Tis well--but, artists! who can paint or write,
188To draw the naked is your true delight.
189That robe of quality so struts and swells,
190None see what parts of nature it conceals.
191Th' exactest traits of body or of mind,
192We owe to models of an humble kind.
195From peer or bishop 'tis no easy thing
196To draw the man who loves his God, or King:
199      But grant, in public men sometimes are shown,
200A woman's seen in private life alone:
201Our bolder talents in full light display'd;
202Your virtues open fairest in the shade.
203Bred to disguise, in public 'tis you hide;
204There, none distinguish twixt your shame or pride,
205Weakness or delicacy; all so nice,
206That each may seem a virtue, or a vice.
207      In men, we various ruling passions find;
208In women, two almost divide the kind;
209Those, only fix'd, they first or last obey,
210The love of pleasure, and the love of sway.
213Experience, this; by man's oppression curs'd,
214They seek the second not to lose the first.
215      Men, some to bus'ness, some to pleasure take;
216But ev'ry woman is at heart a rake:
217Men, some to quiet, some to public strife;
218But ev'ry Lady would be queen for life.
220Pow'r all their end, but beauty all the means.
221In youth they conquer, with so wild a rage,
222As leaves them scarce a subject in their age:
223For foreign glory, foreign joy, they roam;
224No thought of peace or happiness at home.
225But wisdom's triumph is well-tim'd retreat,
226As hard a science to the fair as great!
227Beauties, like tyrants, old and friendless grown,
228Yet hate repose, and dread to be alone,
229Worn out in public, weary ev'ry eye,
230Nor leave one sigh behind them when they die.
231      Pleasures the sex, as children birds, pursue,
232Still out of reach, yet never out of view;
233Sure, if they catch, to spoil the toy at most,
234To covet flying, and regret when lost:
235At last, to follies youth could scarce defend,
236It grows their age's prudence to pretend;
237Asham'd to own they gave delight before,
238Reduc'd to feign it, when they give no more:
239As hags hold sabbaths, less for joy than spite,
241Still round and round the ghosts of beauty glide,
242And haunt the places where their honour died.
243      See how the world its veterans rewards!
244A youth of frolics, an old age of cards;
245Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
246Young without lovers, old without a friend,
247A fop their passion, but their prize a sot,
248Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!
249      Ah, Friend! to dazzle let the vain design,
250To raise the thought and touch the heart, be thine!
252Flaunts and goes down, an unregarded thing:
253So when the sun's broad beam has tir'd the sight,
254All mild ascends the moon's more sober light,
255Serene in virgin modesty she shines,
256And unobserv'd the glaring orb declines.
258Can make tomorrow cheerful as today;
259She, who can love a sister's charms, or hear
260Sighs for a daughter with unwounded ear;
261She, who ne'er answers till a husband cools,
262Or, if she rules him, never shows she rules;
263Charms by accepting, by submitting sways,
264Yet has her humour most, when she obeys;
265Let fops or fortune fly which way they will;
268And mistress of herself, though China fall.
269      And yet, believe me, good as well as ill,
270Woman's at best a contradiction still.
271Heav'n, when it strives to polish all it can
272Its last best work, but forms a softer man;
273Picks from each sex, to make the fav'rite blest,
274Your love of pleasure, our desire of rest:
275Blends, in exception to all gen'ral rules,
276Your taste of follies, with our scorn of fools:
277Reserve with frankness, art with truth allied,
278Courage with softness, modesty with pride,
279Fix'd principles, with fancy ever new;
280Shakes all together, and produces--You.
281      Be this a woman's fame: with this unblest,
284When those blue eyes first open'd on the sphere;
285Ascendant Phœbus watch'd that hour with care,
286Averted half your parents' simple pray'r,
287And gave you beauty, but denied the pelf
288Which buys your sex a tyrant o'er itself.
290And ripens spirits as he ripens mines,
291Kept dross for duchesses, the world shall know it,
292To you gave sense, good humour, and a poet.


1] Published in February 1735, but completed by January 1733. The characters of Philomede (69-86), Atossa (115-50) and Chloe (157-80) as well as lines 181-98 were first added to the poem in 1744. There is, however, reason to believe that some or all of these portions of the poem were part of the original text, but were suppressed by Pope because they involved people still living in 1735. The Epistle stands in a tradition of poems on women, including Juvenal's Satire VI and Boileau's Satire X. It was also included as part of Pope's larger plan (see introductory note to Epistle to Burlington above). The lady to whom the epistle is dedicated is usually identified as Martha Blount, a lifelong friend of the poet. Martha (1690-1763) and her elder sister Teresa (b. 1688) were members of an old Catholic family. Pope met the sisters in 1711 and carried on a flirtation with them until 1718. After that, it was generally believed that Martha, who spent much time with the poet, was his mistress. His devotion to her was constant.
"[Pope] That their particular characters are not so strongly marked as those of men, seldom so fixed and still more inconsistent with themselves." Back to Line
7] "[Pope] Attitudes in which several ladies affected to be drawn, and sometimes one lady in them all--The poet's politeness and complaisance to the sex is observable in this instance, amongst others, that whereas in the Characters of Men he has sometimes made use of real names, in the Characters of Women always fictitious." Back to Line
16] romantic: "fantastic, extravagant, quixotic" (OED). Back to Line
20] Cynthia: pronounced as two syllables; a name attributed to Queen Elizabeth I by court poets; in classical literature, a name given to Diana. Back to Line
21] Rufa: Redhead. Back to Line
23] Locke: see Epistle to Burlington, line 139. Back to Line
24] Sappho: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; see Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Back to Line
29] Silia: the meaning of the name remains uncertain. Back to Line
31] Calista: "fairest" but suggesting both Callisto, an Arcadian nymph, made pregnant by Zeus, and Callista, the guilty heroine of The Fair Penitent, a "she-tragedy" by Rowe.
nice: punctilious, with a suggestion of contempt. Cf. line 205 and Rape of the Lock, IV, 124. Back to Line
32] Simplicius. Although there was a fictional Simplicius, Pope here only means "simple-minded." Back to Line
37] Papillia: < Latin papilo (butterfly). Back to Line
45] Calypso: the nymph who kept Odysseus on her island for eight years. The name means "one who conceals something." Back to Line
53] Narcissa: from Narcissus, the Greek youth with whom Echo fell in love. Because he had repulsed her, Aphrodite punished him by making him fall in love with his own image. The love was so powerful that it led to his despair and death, when he was changed into the flower that bears his name. Back to Line
54] wash: lotions for hair and skin. Back to Line
57] trim: "nearly = guise, aspect" (OED). Back to Line
63] Taylor: Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying was a popular seventeenth-century devotional work. Book of Martyrs: John Foxe's Actes and Monuments. Back to Line
64] citron: citron water, flavoured with brandy and a peel of citron or lemon.
his Grace: probably in the sense of any duke, although sometimes identified with Philip, Duke of Wharton.
Chartres: Francis Chartres, "a man infamous for all manner of vices," a gambler, and bawdy house operator, twice condemned for rape. Back to Line
70] punk: whore. Back to Line
73] fault: pronounced to rhyme with ought. Back to Line
78] Tallboy: the booby young lover in The Jovial Crew, a comedy by Richard Brome.
Charles: used generically for the typical footman. Back to Line
79] Helluo: in Latin, a glutton. Back to Line
83] Philomele: "laughter-loving," the Homeric epithet for Aphrodite. Back to Line
87] Floria: "blonde." Back to Line
92] Lucretia: Cf. Essay on Man, note on line 208.
Rosamonda: Cf., Rape of the Lock, note on V, 136. Back to Line
101] Simo: "old man," modelled on the old men in Terence's and Plautus's plays. Back to Line
107] her Grace: some duchess not identified. Back to Line
108] charming: feminine slang. Back to Line
111] draught: pronounced to rhyme with thought. Back to Line
115] Atossa. The historical Atossa was the daughter of Cyrus and Cambyses. Pope applies the portrait generally, but it is developed from the figure of Katherine, Duchess of Buckinghamshire (1682-1743), an arrogant, quarrelsome, eccentric female, though of some energy, intelligence, and public spirit. Back to Line
130] well: in her good graces. Back to Line
155] equal: unmixed, uniform.
knack: trick (from low slang). Back to Line
157] Chloe: another type portrait. Back to Line
164] decencies: proprieties. Back to Line
182] varnish'd out: presumably meaning the painting is complete.
a Queen: Queen Caroline (1683-1737), a firm Whig supporter and friend of Lord Harvey (see Epistle to Arbuthnot). Back to Line
193] Queensbury: Catherine Hyde, Duchess of Queensbury (1700-77), one of the most beautiful women of the eighteenth century. Back to Line
194] Helen: Helen of Troy, whose beauty caused the Trojan wars. Back to Line
197] draught: drawing, sketch of a picture. Back to Line
198] Mah'met: "[Pope] Servant to the late king, George I, said to be the son of a Turkish Bassa, whom he took at the siege of Buda, and constantly kept about his person."
Parson Hale: Dr. Stephen Hales (1677-1761), clergyman and famous physiologist, a close personal friend of Pope's. Back to Line
211] "[Pope] This is occasioned partly by their Nature, partly by their education, and in some degree by necessity." Back to Line
212] fault: see note to line 73. Back to Line
219] queens: with a pun on quean. Back to Line
240] night: visiting night. Back to Line
251] Ring: cf. Rape of the Lock, note on I, 44. Back to Line
257] temper: equanimity. Back to Line
266] tickets: lottery tickets; codille: cf. Rape of the Lock, note on III, 27-100. Back to Line
267] Spleen: cf. Rape of the Lock, IV. 268.
China: with a pun. Back to Line
282] toasts: "the name of a lady being supposed to flavour a bumper like a spiced toast in a drink" (OED).
queens: in all likelihood, with a pun. Back to Line
283] Phoebus: Apollo. Back to Line
289] Wit and gold refines. Apollo, god of poetry, ripens Wit and as god of the sun it was believed he ripened minds. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
D. F. Theall
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.148-54.