Verse Epistle from 1590 to 1750: a Study in the Shift of Poetic Sensibility

Elizabeth Latham, Colby College


The verse epistle, like most other art forms, has no definable starting point. Although its predecessor, the published prose letter, is known to have been an independent literary form in the third century B.C., there seems to have been no development of verse letters among the Greeks of that time or among the early Romans. The first evidence of epistles being written in verse comes to us through Cicero, who mentions the witty letters of a young soldier, Spurius Mummius, written in verse around 130 B.C. These were not published, but were preserved by his family. Slightly later Lucilius (l48-103 B.C.) in a book of verse satires included one satire written in letter form. This is the only surviving verse epistle before the publication of the books of Horace.