Epistle – Poetry In The Form Of A Letter


Epistle is a poetry form that reads like a letter or short note. This type of poetic work is versatile, which is a relief for those who love to write poetry yet find it difficult to stick to rules when writing.

Epistolary poems can be in any form, such as free verse with no meter or rhyme, or of a more formal style with couplets and rhyming quatrains. It is totally up to the author. There are no hard and binding rules to follow.

Writing an epistle is a fun way to write in loose form. It can be a short poem or, as in ancient times, can contain thousands of words. This form of poetry goes way back in time to ancient Rome and the Christian Bible (ie: Epistles of St. Paul). This form can express just about any topic, from romance, philosophy, sorrow, morality, or even mundane chores.

The poet can write an epistle in a formal tone or a very personal manner. It is basically a form of voice and persona. It is a very liberating way of writing poetry. The epistle can be written as a message to a real or imaginary person, a whole audience, or the self. It can be like notes one often writes to another person and never sent.

Note to neighbor:

Must you always awaken me
So early in the morn
With a crashing drop
From my dream I’m torn,
Of your garbage
In the metal can
So close to my window?
I give you a suggestion,
One you probably would
Not like to hear, man.
So don’t make me say it
Just move your can.

Robert Burns often wrote epistles. In the following example there are just three stanzas of a very long epistle. In Epistle To A Young Friend, his first stanza reads:

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.

The epistle Burns wrote was some sage advice to a young lad who had much to learn before setting out on his own in the world. He warns the lad about the kind of people to avoid:

I’ll no say, men are villains a’;
The real, harden’d wicked,
Wha hae nae check but human law,
Are to a few restricked;
But, Och! mankind are unco weak,
An’ little to be trusted;
If self the wavering balance shake,
It’s rarely right adjusted!

Protect that part of you that is not for others to know Burns advised the lad:

Aye free, aff-han’, your story tell,
When wi’ a bosom crony;
But still keep something to yoursel’,
Ye scarcely tell to ony:
Conceal yoursel’ as weel’s ye can
Frae critical dissection;
But keek thro’ ev’ry other man,
Wi’ sharpen’d, sly inspection.
Most of us have been writing epistles since we first learned how to write a letter. Poetry is so versatile and has many forms to choose from. If you are new to poetry writing, play around with the different forms till you find one that is you. Let your heart and spirit be your guide when you write poetry and you will never go wrong.
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