You having, in your two last Spectators, given the Town a couple of Remarkable Letters, in very different Styles: I take this Opportunity to offer to you some Remarks upon the Epistolary way of writing in Verse. This is a Species of Poetry by it self; and has not so much as been hinted at in any of the Arts of Poetry, that have ever fallen into my Hands: Neither has it in any Age, or any Nation, been so much cultivated, as the other several Kinds of Poesie. A Man of Genius may, if he pleases, write Letters in Verse upon all manner of Subjects, that are capable of being embellished with Wit and Language, and may render them new and agreeable by giving the proper Turn to them. But in speaking, at present, of Epistolary Poetry, I would be understood to mean only such Writings in this Kind, as have been in Use amongst the Ancients, and have been copied from them by some Moderns. These may be reduced into two Classes: In the one I shall range Love-Letters, Letters of Friendship, and Letters upon mournful Occasions: In the other I shall place such Epistles in Verse, as may properly be called Familiar, Critical, and Moral; to which may be added Letters of Mirth and Humour. Ovid for the first, and Horace for the Latter, are the best Originals we have left.
'He that is ambitious of succeeding in the Ovidian way, should first examine his Heart well, and feel whether his Passions (especially those of the gentler Kind) play easie, since it is not his Wit, but the Delicacy and Tenderness of his Sentiments, that will affect his Readers. His Versification likewise should be soft, and all his Numbers flowing and querulous.
'The Qualifications requisite for writing Epistles, after the Model given us by Horace, are of a quite different Nature. He that would excel in this kind must have a good Fund of strong Masculine Sense: To this there must be joined a thorough Knowledge of Mankind, together with an Insight into the Business, and the prevailing Humours of the Age. Our Author must have his Mind well seasoned with the finest Precepts of Morality, and be filled with nice Reflections upon the bright and the dark sides of human Life: He must be a Master of refined Raillery, and understand the Delicacies, as well as the Absurdities of Conversation. He must have a lively Turn of Wit, with an easie and concise manner of Expression; Every thing he says, must be in a free and disengaged manner. He must be guilty of nothing that betrays the Air of a Recluse, but appear a Man of the World throughout. His Illustrations, his Comparisons, and the greatest part of his Images must be drawn from common Life. Strokes of Satyr and Criticism, as well as Panegyrick, judiciously thrown in (and as it were by the by) give a wonderful Life and Ornament to Compositions of this kind. But let our Poet, while he writes Epistles, though never so familiar, still remember that he writes in Verse, and must for that reason have a more than ordinary care not to fall into Prose, and a vulgar Diction, excepting where the Nature and Humour of the Thing does necessarily require it. In this Point Horace hath been thought by some Criticks to be sometimes careless, as well as too negligent of his Versification; of which he seems to have been sensible himself.
'All I have to add is, that both these Manners of Writing may be made as entertaining, in their Way, as any other Species of Poetry, if undertaken by Persons duly qualify'd; and the latter sort may be managed so as to become in a peculiar manner Instructive. I am, &ct.'
I shall add an Observation or two to the Remarks of my ingenious Correspondent, and, in the First place, take Notice, that Subjects of the most sublime Nature are often treated in the Epistolary way with Advantage, as in the famous Epistle of Horace to Augustus. The Poet surprizes us with his Pomp, and seems rather betrayed into his Subject, than to have aimed at it by Design: He appears like the Visit of a King Incognito, with a mixture of Familiarity, and Grandeur. In Works of this kind, when the Dignity of the Subject hurries the Poet into Descriptions and Sentiments, seemingly unpremeditated, by a sort of Inspiration; it is usual for him to recollect himself, and fall back gracefully into the natural Stile of a Letter.
I might here mention an Epistolary Poem, just published by Mr. Eusden on the King's Accession to the Throne: Wherein, amongst many other noble and beautiful Strokes of Poetry, his Reader may see this Rule very happily observed.Translation of motto: