1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Epistle

EPISTLE, in its primary sense any letter addressed to an absent person; from the Greek word ἐπιστολή, a thing sent on a particular occasion. Strictly speaking, any such communication is an epistle, but at the present day the term has become archaic, and is used only for letters of an ancient time, or for elaborate literary productions which take an epistolary form, that is to say, are, or affect to be, written to a person at a distance.

1. Epistles and Letters.—The student of literary history soon discovers that a broad distinction exists between the letter and the epistle. The letter is essentially a spontaneous, non-literary production, ephemeral, intimate, personal and private, a substitute for a spoken conversation. The epistle, on the other hand, rather takes the place of a public speech, it is written with an audience in view, it is a literary form, a distinctly artistic effort aiming at permanence; and it bears much the same relation to a letter as a Platonic dialogue does to a private talk between two friends. The posthumous value placed on a great man’s letters would naturally lead to the production of epistles, which might be written to set forth the views of a person or a school, either genuinely or as forgeries under some eminent name. Pseudonymous epistles were especially numerous under the early Roman empire, and mainly attached themselves to the names of Plato, Demosthenes, Aristotle and Cicero.

Both letters and epistles have come down to us in considerable variety and extent from the ancient world. Babylonia and Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome alike contribute to our inheritance of letters. Those of Aristotle are of questionable genuineness, but we can rely, at any rate in part, on those of Isocrates and Epicurus. Some of the letters of Cicero are rather epistles, since they were meant ultimately for the general eye. The papyrus discoveries in Egypt have a peculiar interest, for they are mainly the letters of people unknown to fame, and having no thought of publicity. It is less to be wondered at that we have a large collection of ancient epistles, especially in the realm of magic and religion, for epistles were meant to live, were published in several copies, and were not a difficult form of literary effort. The Tell el-Amarna tablets found in Upper Egypt in 1887 are a series of despatches in cuneiform script from Babylonian kings and Phoenician and Palestinian governors to the Pharaohs (c. 1400 B.C.). The epistles of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Seneca and the Younger Pliny claim mention at this point. In the later Roman period and into the middle ages, formal epistles were almost a distinct branch of literature. The ten books of Symmachus’ Epistolae, so highly esteemed in the cultured circles of the 4th century, may be contrasted with the less elegant but more forceful epistles of Jerome.

The distinction between letters and epistles has particular interest for the student of early Christian literature. G. A. Deissmann (Bible Studies) assigns to the category of letters all the Pauline writings as well as 2 and 3 John. The books bearing the names of James, Peter and Jude, together with the Pastorals (though these may contain fragments of genuine Pauline letters) and the Apocalypse, he regards as epistles. The first epistle of John he calls less a letter or an epistle than a religious tract. It is doubtful, however, whether we can thus reduce all the letters of the New Testament to one or other of these categories; and W. M. Ramsay (Hastings’ Dict. Bib. Extra vol. p. 401) has pointed out with some force that “in the new conditions a new category had been developed—the general letter addressed to a whole class of persons or to the entire Church of Christ.” Such writings have affinities with both the letter and the epistle, and they may further be compared with the “edicts and rescripts by which Roman law grew, documents arising out of special circumstances but treating them on general principles.” Most of the literature of the sub-apostolic age is epistolary, and we have a particularly interesting form of epistle in the communications between churches (as distinct from individuals) known as the First Epistle of Clement (Rome to Corinth), the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Smyrna to Philomelium), and the Letters of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons (to the congregations of Asia Minor and Phrygia) describing the Gallican martyrdoms of A.D. 177. In the following centuries we have the valuable epistles of Cyprian, of Gregory Nazianzen (to Cledonius on the Apollinarian controversy), of Basil (to be classed rather as letters), of Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine and Jerome. The encyclical letters of the Roman Catholic Church are epistles, even more so than bulls, which are usually more special in their destination. In the Renaissance one of the most common forms of literary production was that modelled upon Cicero’s letters. From Petrarch to the Epistolae obscurorum virorum there is a whole epistolary literature. The Epistolae obscurorum virorum have to some extent a counterpart in the Epistles of Martin Marprelate. Later satires in an epistolary form are Pascal’s Provincial Letters, Swift’s Drapier Letters, and the Letters of Junius. The “open letter” of modern journalism is really an epistle.  (A. J. G.) 

2. Epistles in Poetry.—A branch of poetry bears the name of the Epistle, and is modelled on those pieces of Horace which are almost essays (sermones) on moral or philosophical subjects, and are chiefly distinguished from other poems by being addressed to particular patrons or friends. The epistle of Horace to his agent (or villicus) is of a more familiar order, and is at once a masterpiece and a model of what an epistle should be. Examples of the work in this direction of Ovid, Claudian, Ausonius and other late Latin poets have been preserved, but it is particularly those of Horace which have given this character to the epistles in verse which form so very characteristic a section of French poetry. The graceful precision and dignified familiarity of the epistle are particularly attractive to the temperament of France. Clement Marot, in the 16th century, first made the epistle popular in France, with his brief and spirited specimens. We pass the witty epistles of Scarron and Voiture, to reach those of Boileau, whose epistles, twelve in number, are the classic examples of this form of verse in French literature; they were composed at different dates between 1668 and 1695. In the 18th century Voltaire enjoyed a supremacy in this graceful and sparkling species of writing; the Épître à Uranie is perhaps the most famous of his verse-letters. Gresset, Bernis, Sedaine, Dorat, Gentil-Bernard, all excelled in the epistle. The curious “Épîtres” of J. P. G. Viennet (1777–1868) were not easy and mundane like their predecessors, but violently polemical. Viennet, a hot defender of lost causes, may be considered the latest of the epistolary poets of France.

In England the verse-epistle was first prominently employed by Samuel Daniel in his “Letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius” (1599), and later on, more legitimately, in his “Certain Epistles” (1601–1603). His letter, in terza rima, to Lucy, Countess of Bristol, is one of the finest examples of this form in English literature. It was Daniel’s deliberate intention to introduce the Epistle into English poetry, “after the manner of Horace.” He was supported by Ben Jonson, who has some fine Horatian epistles in his Forests (1616) and his Underwoods. Letters to Several Persons of Honour form an important section in the poetry of John Donne. Habington’s Epistle to a Friend is one of his most finished pieces. Henry Vaughan (1622–1695) addressed a fine epistle in verse to the French romance-writer Gombauld (1570–1666). Such “letters” were not unfrequent down to the Restoration, but they did not create a department of literature such as Daniel had proposed. At the close of the 17th century Dryden greatly excelled in this class of poetry, and his epistles to Congreve (1694) and to the duchess of Ormond (1700) are among the most graceful and eloquent that we possess. During the age of Anne various Augustan poets in whom the lyrical faculty was slight, from Congreve and Richard Duke down to Ambrose Philips and William Somerville, essayed the epistle with more or less success, and it was employed by Gay for several exercises in his elegant persiflage. Among the epistles of Gay, one rises to an eminence of merit, that called “Mr Pope’s welcome from Greece,” written in 1720. But the great writer of epistles in English is Pope himself, to whom the glory of this kind of verse belongs. His “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717) is carefully modelled on the form of Ovid’s “Heroides,” while in his Moral Essays he adopts the Horatian formula for the epistle. In either case his success was brilliant and complete. The “Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot” has not been surpassed, if it has been equalled, in Latin or French poetry of the same class. But Pope excelled, not only in the voluptuous and in the didactic epistle, but in that of compliment as well, and there is no more graceful example of this in literature than is afforded by the letter about the poems of Parnell addressed, in 1721, to Robert, earl of Oxford. After the day of Pope the epistle again fell into desuetude, or occasional use, in England. It revived in the charming naïveté of Cowper’s lyrical letters in octosyllabics to his friends, such as William Bull and Lady Austin (1782). At the close of the century Samuel Rogers endeavoured to resuscitate the neglected form in his “Epistle to a Friend” (1798). The formality and conventional grace of the epistle were elements with which the leaders of romantic revival were out of sympathy, and it was not cultivated to any important degree in the 19th century. It is, however, to be noted that Shelley’s “Letter to Maria Gisborne” (1820), Keats’s “Epistle to Charles Clarke” (1816), and Landor’s “To Julius Hare” (1836), in spite of their romantic colouring, are genuine Horatian epistles and of the pure Augustan type. This type, in English literature, is commonly, though not at all universally, cast in heroic verse. But Daniel employs rime royal and terza rima, while some modern epistles have been cast in short iambic rhymed measures or in blank verse. It is sometimes not easy to distinguish the epistle from the elegy and from the dedication. (E. G.) 

For St Paul’s Epistles see Paul, for St Peter’s see Peter, for Apocryphal Epistles see Apocryphal Literature, for Plato’s see Plato, &c.