Epistle Definition

An epistle is a letter in the form of prose or poetry to a particular person or group. It can also be a story or a religious sermon similar to the New Testament letters written by Paul, Peter, and John to their church congregation or a small group of believers. Traditionally, an epistle was written to express love, philosophy, religion, and morality.  However, the roots of epistle composition date back to ancient Roman poetic form and The Bible.  Most of the epistles are written in free verse without following any strict meter or rhyme.  In this sense, the writers are free to write in whatever narration, or character they select to write. Etymologically, epistle refers to a letter or written communication.

Types of Epistle

In literature, there are two basic traditions of verse epistles.

  1. Horace’s Epistles: The tradition of Horace’s epistle deals with moral and philosophical themes and has been the most popular form since the Renaissance.
  2. Ovid’s Epistle: The tradition based on Ovid’s epistle includes romanticism and other sentimental subjects. These epistles gained popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages. The best example of Ovid’s epistle is the letter of Paul the Apostle that illustrates the spread of Christianity in the world.

Examples of Epistles from Literature

Example #1

Letter to N.Y. by Elizabeth Bishop

“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 goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl?”

The writer has used rhyming couplets to express her isolation. The poet directly addresses the person whom she knows and asks about his routine. The first line of the poetry illustrates the use of epistolary mode, as it states a direct note to the person. This extract falls under the category of Ovid’s epistle, as it deals with the subject of love.

Example #2

Epistle To A Young Friend by Robert Burns

“I Lang hae thought, my youthfu’ friend,
A something to have sent you,
Tho’ it should serve nae ither end
Than just a kind memento:
But how the subject-theme may gang,
Let time and chance determine;
Perhaps it may turn out a sang:
Perhaps turn out a sermon.”

Robert has used rhyming couplets to express his affiliation with his friend. The poet addresses his friend at the beginning of the poem and expresses his wish that he wants to give something to his friend. However, the direct address of the person and the informal style of writing makes this poem an epistolary text. This is also an example of Ovid’s epistle, as it deals with the subject of love.

Example #3

Epistle to a Lady by Alexander Pope

NOTHING so true as what you once let fall, “Most Women have no Characters at all.
“ Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear, and best distinguished by black, brown, or fair.
How many pictures of one Nymph we view, all how unlike each other, all how true! Arcadia’s Countess, here, in ermin’d pride, is, there, Pastora by a fountain side.

This extract is written in the form of Horatian epistle, a verse letter, which is a satire on women. The poet starts his argument with a claim that most of the women have no character and argues that the supposed character of women is always changeable. To him, they are best to be distinguished by their physical appearance, especially, by the color of their hair.

Example #4

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church by Robert Browning

“Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? Nephews — sons mine — ah God, I know not! Well — She, men would have to be your mother once, Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was! What’s done is done, and she is dead beside, Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since, And as she died so must we die ourselves, And thence ye may perceive the world’s a dream.”

In this extract, the dying priest is addressing to his sons and nephews gathered around his death bed. He starts his speech with negative comments and gives them direction about his death and burial. He also refers to a mistress that has long been dead and starts questioning life. This is ironic for as a religious leader. It is because he should have been content and satisfied. However, his words speak of his fear and weaknesses. It is a type of Horatian epistle that exposes the mind of the religious leader. Moreover, it also shows how an epistolary mode is adapted to the poetic mode to give room to the poet’s ideas.

Epistle Meaning and Function

Epistle functions as a tool to enable the writers to express their feelings and emotions in the form of conversation. It liberates them from the clutches of rules of formality. It is also that this colloquial or conversational style suits the addressees in a way that they understand the precise meanings. The epistolary mode has also been adopted for some novels to give a clear picture of both sides to the readers. The readers get a peep into the characters’ thinking about different characters as well as about the character himself. In poetic form, it gives more room to the poets to express their hidden feelings in the poetic language embellishing it with literary devices to convey their messages effectively.