of the system available to the poet: the poem's 'expository formulations insist on the unknowability of the design it asserts' (220).
Alongside the Essay on Man came four 'epistles' addressed to friends, three eminent men, and one obscure (and unnamed) woman. As with the Essay on Man itself, the skewing of the potential symmetry is significant, for Pope never quite resolved how much system, and how much satire, the poems were supposed to contain. In the second volume of his Works (1735), they were revised and grouped in their now conventional order (Cobham, Lady, Bathurst, Burlington), as Ethick Epistles, book II, where the Essay on Man supplied book I; clearly they constitute an attempt to bring the abstract ideas of the Essay on Man into the world of actual human experience. Other epistles to other people (Addison, Bolingbroke, Arbuthnot) were in some editions grouped with the four, which were sometimes called collectively 'Moral Essays', but in the edition of the poems which Pope had printed shortly before his death he called them Epistles to Several Persons, which seems more accurately to reflect their original separateness and tonal flexibility. However, it would be odd not to read the poems as in some ways a collective entity. There is much thematic overlap between them: Cobham, the addressee of the first epistle, is also one of the heroes of the last (To Burlington). The Epistle to Cobham, notionally about character, ends with sketches about riches, which is the theme of To Bathurst and To Burlington.
The Epistle to Cobham [36-7] is designed to act as the pivotal site for the continuing change of focus between the cosmic framework of Essay on Man and the micro-history which that poem begins to move towards, and which the epistles complete. In structure, Cobham is a question with an answer: how can we know the truths about human motivation and personality when so many obstacles and opacities lie between us and other minds, which are themselves extremely variable? Pope's answer is to 'Search the RULING PASSION', where character will always be constant, in the manner already described in Epistle II of Essay on Man. Cobham also shares with the Essay an obsession with optics and perception, and a challenging pedagogic technique whereby doctrine rescues us from chaotic paths into which the poetry deliberately leads us.