Definition of Epistle
An epistle is a letter written in prose or poetry form to one person or a specific group. Epistles can also take the shape of a story or religious sermon, similar to the New Testament letters to early Christian churches and believers penned by apostles like Paul, Peter and John.
Traditionally, epistles aimed to convey sentiments of affection, philosophical ideas, religious doctrine or moral lessons. However, the literary tradition of epistles stretches back to ancient Roman poetic conventions and Biblical verse. Most epistles compose verses freely, without adhering to any fixed rhythmic structure or rhyme scheme. In this way, epistle writers enjoy freedom in choosing narrative voice and style. Etymologically, the word “epistle” traces back to Greek for a written letter or communication.
How to Write Epistle?
- Decide on a purpose. An epistle is written to advise, inform, teach or persuade someone. Usuallym it is in the form of a letter essay. Determine what you aim to accomplish with your epistle.
- Choose an addressee. Envision the person or audience you are writing to, as epistles are directed at a specific individual or group. This could be a friend, teacher, church members, etc.
- Use a formal tone. Even if addressing friends, epistles adopt an earnest, polite tone. Avoid using casual language or slang. You want to come across as genuine and eloquent.
- Structure with an introduction, body, conclusion format. Introduce the purpose/themes of your epistle. Develop 3-5 key points in detail in the body to support your purpose. Wrap up by summarizing and stating any final encouragements.
- Incorporate imagery and rhetoric. Epistles commonly use rhetorical devices like metaphors, analogies, rhetorical questions and vivid word choices to add persuasive impact. Don’t just state ideas plainly.
- Close with a blessing or well wish. Many epistles end by invoking a blessing or expressing a hope or wish for the audience. This gives a nice sense of closure.
Types of Epistle
Here are some of the main types of epistles:
Personal epistle – A letter which addresses an individual in the familiar form. For instance, the New Testament epistles by apostles to early Christian communities. They were filled with instructions and precepts for newborn churches.
Open epistle – It is an open letter to the public addressing some broad theme, rather than a private one. These epistles made the sharing of doctrines and beliefs among philosophers and thinkers easy.
Verse epistle – A letter-like poem that may be used for satire, politics or philosophy. Roman writers such as Horace and Ovid were distinguished for their verse epistles. It enabled them to play with the instruction.
Pastoral letter – A communique containing spiritual and ethical counsel, guidance or comfort – just like a shepherd cares for his sheep. For instance, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” during incarceration.
The occasional epistle – An epistle written in that particular situation with a specific occasion or temporal event as, for instance national crises death of marriage. These letters capture a snapshot in time.
Examples of Epistle in Poems
“Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope
“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d”
In this section of his poetic epistle, Pope’s persona Eloisa envies the solitary and pious life of a nun. As a vestale virgin devoted to temple service, she enjoys tranquility free from worldly temptation or memories of her ill-fated romance with the scholar Abelard. Through Eloisa, Pope crafts a pastoral epistle, offering spiritual counsel to forsake earthly attachments and painful passions. The nun symbolizes this ideal with her “blameless lot”, “spotless mind” and life spent absorbed in prayerful “resignation”. With lyrical admiration, these lines hold up monastic isolation as an exemplar for the troubled Eloisa to emulate. Pope uses the voice of his dramatized, unrequited lover to muse philosophically on virtue, redemption and the quest for equanimity.
“Horace Book 3 Ode 29” by John Dryden
“Happy the Man, and happy he alone, He who can call to day his own: He who, secure within, can say, To-morrow do thy worst, for I have liv’d to-day.”
In this philosophical epistle, Dryden translates and expands on an ode by Roman lyric poet Horace. The excerpt is part of Dryden’s counsel to live contentedly in the present moment rather than worrying about the uncertain future. He uses the example of a man who feels ownership over the current “day” and can face tomorrow without anxiety or regret. Dryden’s verse epistle applies Horace’s Carpe Diem motif to promote inner peace.
“An Epistle to Mr. Pope” by Thomas Parnell
“Tir’d with the pompous follies of the great, To private shelter my retreat I steal, Where calm Contentment smoothes the bed of ease, And sweetens all my slumbers with its peace.”
These lines are excerpted from. In this poetic epistle, Parnell’s persona relates his choice to retreat into obscurity rather than pursue status or wealth, privileges he deems “pompous follies”. Instead, he makes a moral case for “private shelter” where “calm Contentment” allows true repose. Through pastoral depictions, he puts forth an argument for simplicity, ease and quiet as superior to social climbing, channeling classical epistles in his friendly counsel to poet Alexander Pope.
“Cynthia” by Richard Barnfield
“You have not, Cynthia, learnt the A B C of love, Nor how he strikes brave youth, and kindles the fire. This is no child, believe me, no mere boy, But one strong and lusty to give you joy.”
This epistle conveys the intensity and power of mature romantic love. The author chides Cynthia for not understanding love’s profound effects, describing how it can profoundly impact and transform even the boldest and most vigorous of people. There are references to love’s flames and the way it “strikes brave youth,” emphasizing its ability to disarm and consume a person. The insistence that Cynthia’s lover is “no mere boy” but rather someone “strong and lusty” further underlines the formidable force of passion. Additionally, there is a cheeky implication that this lover will provide Cynthia with ample “joy” and pleasure. To conclude, vivid imagery is used to depict love as an almost violent, transformative experience that cannot be trivialized or underestimated even by the most composed and self-assured of people.
“On the Use of Riches” by Samuel Johnson
“Happy the man who, studying Nature’s laws, Thro’ known effects can trace the secret cause; His mind possessing in a quiet state, Fearless of Fortune, and resigned to Fate.”
Here, the epistle celebrates the thoughtful, learned person who seeks to understand the natural world through careful study and observation. By patiently tracing various effects back to their hidden causes, such an individual gains deep insight and knowledge. As a result, this person attains a state of peaceful, fearless acceptance, undisturbed by external circumstances or reversals of fate. The epistle suggests that the contemplative examination of nature leads to a degree of wisdom and perspective that allows one to remain mentally composed in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs. There is an emphasis on the value of an intellectual approach to the world, the sense of empowerment this provides and the contentment that arises from hard-earned comprehension of intricate natural phenomena.
“Vernal Ode” by William Shakespeare
“Sweet flower, that with thy soft blue eye Dost look through the clear brook so shy, Thy simple beauty to the earth reveals Spring’s opening secret that she silent seals.”
The writer addressed in epistolary form to the blue-eyed speedwell flower spotted by a brook. Through apostrophe to this delicate plant, Wordsworth’s poetic epistle captures a pastoral moment that conveys the larger arrival of Spring. Personifying the small blossom glancing “shy” from the water’s reflection, he uses detailed nature imagery and alliteration (“soft blue eye”) to pay homage to the promise and new life the flower represents. In a friendly, almost confidential tone, Wordsworth’s seasonal meditation unfolds as a living letter that translates nature’s beauty into moral and spiritual meaning for readers. The verse epistle’s intimacy with the flower carries the Romantic invitation to perceive grandeur and rebirth in single petals.
Pastoral literature deals with the lives, loves and troubles of shepherds and rural folk. Pastoral epistles offer spiritual or moral guidance in this pastoral style, seen in religious texts taking pastoral metaphors of a spiritual shepherd and his flock.
Named for Roman poet Horace, Horatian odes use verse to philosophically examine life, ethics, and happiness. Horace pioneered verse epistles on such reflective themes. So epistles and Horatian odes overlap in applying poetry to philosophical rumination on wisdom, virtue, moderation and contentment.