Montagu, Mary Wortley (Poetry Criticism)
Mary Wortley Montagu 1689–1762
(Full name Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortley Montagu; also Montague) English epistler, poet, essayist, and playwright.
Known simply as Lady Mary to her contemporaries, Montagu is appreciated primarily for her witty, candid letters, which span the years 1708 to 1762 and address diverse correspondents and themes. A controversial figure of her time, she perhaps enhanced her reputation with the publication of satirical attacks of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Although much of her verse was written extempore, Montagu used a full range of poetic forms, including Ovidian and Horatian epistles, mock eclogues, ballads, and songs. Isobel Grundy remarked that "[Montagu's] poems demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Augustan tradition within which she wrote," but they are "none the less distinctively her own."
Montagu was the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, the fifth earl and first duke of Kingston. As a child she devised a rigorous academic program for herself, which included writing poetry and learning to speak Latin. In 1712 she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu. By 1715 they were circulating among prominent social and literary circles in London, where she befriended poets John Gay and Alexander Pope. She accompanied her husband when he was named ambassador to Constantinople in 1716; her subsequent correspondence with London friends became the basis for her famous "Turkish Embassy Letters." Montagu returned to London in 1718 and for the next two decades presided over high society, which celebrated her sparkling wit and flamboyant behavior. In 1722 she anonymously published an essay arguing for the practice of smallpox inoculation in England, after observing the procedure performed successfully abroad. Around 1722 she also engaged Pope in a bitter, public quarrel that began for unknown reasons and culminated in her Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace (1733), which further incensed Pope. In 1736 she met and fell in love with Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian count. She wrote an anonymous feminist periodical, The Nonsense of Common Sense (1937-1938), before she left her husband and England in 1739. For over twenty years Montagu lived abroad mainly in Italy, and wrote many more letters, mostly to her daughter, Lady Bute. Shortly after Montagu returned to England in 1762, she died of cancer.
As a female aristocrat, Montagu abhorred the notion of writing for print and circulated her poems primarily in manuscript. A few were published during her lifetime, usually without her knowledge. For instance, Montagu, in collaboration with Gay and Pope wrote a series of eclogues which satirizes the manners and immorality of the court of George I; three of them were stolen and published anonymously in 1716 by the notorious Edmund Curll as Court Poems. The original grouping was later issued as Six Town Eclogues. With Some Other Poems (1747). Yet, Montagu may have intended to print her verse attacks on Pope and Swift. Enraged over Pope's repeated lampoons of her in his poems, Montagu wrote Verses Address'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, assisted by another of Pope's foes, Lord Hervey. The Verses is considered the best satire of Pope written at that time, mockingly equating Pope's offensive satire to his hunchbacked body. The Dean's Provocation for Writing the Lady's Dressing-Room (1734) expresses Montagu's disapproval of the "excremental vision" in Swift's poem, "The Lady's Dressing Room" (1732); her poem accuses Swift of being impotent and stingy. Among surviving manuscript poems, several treat the wretched conditions of women enduring miserable marriages, divorces, and attempted rapes, but some are contemplative musings about love, politics, and personal opinions. A hastily edited collection of some of her poems appeared in 1748 to her chagrin, and The Poetical Works of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e was printed posthumously in 1768.
Montagu's literary reputation rests chiefly on her erudite but entertaining correspondence, particularly the "Turkish Embassy Letters," although her contemporaries also "took her verse very seriously," according to Grundy. Such arbiters of literary taste as Pope, Lord Hervey, Horace Walpole, and Voltaire numbered themselves among admirers of her poetry. In the nineteenth century critics generally received Montagu's letters better than her other writings, especially her poetry, which most rejected as unpoetic. Twentieth-century scholarship has scrutinized her canon for feminist impulses and orientalist elements, yet again with slight attention given her verse. Montagu is considered a minor poet, but several critics have described her poetry as competent if not brilliant. Grundy suggested that "today Lady Mary's poems need no apology," adding that the range of her poetic forms is "remarkable." As Carol Barash recently noted, "Montagu remains the one eighteenth-century woman poet of whom there is both a standard edition and a critical biography."
Court Poems 1716
An Elegy to a Young Lady, In the manner of Ovid… With an answer. By a Lady, author of the Verses to the Imitator of Horace [with James Hammond] 1733
Verses Address 'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace [with John, Lord Hervey] 1733
The Dean's Provocation for Writing the Lady's Dressing-Room 1734
* Six Town Eclogues. With Some Other Poems 1747
The Poetical Works of the Right Honourable Lady My—W—y M—e 1768
† Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy 1977
Other Major Works
"A Plain Account of the Inoculating of the Small Pox by a Turkey Merchant" (essay) 1722; published in newspaper The Flying-Post; or, Post-Master
Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e: Written, during her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, &c. in different Parts of Europe. 3 vols. (letters) 1763
†† The Nonsense of Common-Sense (essays) 1947
††† The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. 3 vols. (letters) 1965-67
*This work includes the earlier Court Poems....
(The entire section is 219 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction in Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy, edited by Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1977, pp. 171-75.
[The following excerpt appears as the introduction to a collection of Montagu's work titled Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy. Grundy, one of the editors of the collection, discusses the construction of Montagu's poetry canon and specifically the selections that she made for this volume.]
Throughout her life Lady Mary liked to refer to herself as a poet, often with a touch of irony or self-deprecation. At fifteen or so she confessed to the folly of having 'trespass'd wickedly in Rhime', her confession taking the form of an eight-line poem. At sixty-nine she described herself as 'haunted … by the Dæmon of Poesie'.
Her contemporaries took her verse seriously. John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, referred to her fame in a 'sessions of the poets' piece. Many of the voices raised to honour her are suspect—seekers for her patronage or protesters against Pope's satire. Admirers who carry more weight included the young Pope himself, who longed to read her 'Sonnets'; Lord Hervey, who got her verses by heart; Horace Walpole, who found them as first 'too womanish' but later 'excessively good'; the distinguished foreigners Antonio Conti, who translated them into Italian, and Voltaire and Algarotti, who...
(The entire section is 1386 words.)
SOURCE: "Verses Address'd to the Imitator of Horace: A Skirmish between Pope and Some Persons of Rank and Fortune," in Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 30, 1977, pp. 96-119.
[In the following excerpt, Grundy discusses the events surrounding the publication of Verses, compares various claims to authorship of the poem, and concludes that it was probably a cooperative effort for Montagu and her close friend Lord Hervey].
Pope's imitations of Horace take as grist to their mill the attacks of those writers rash enough to oppose him. Mr. J. V. Guerinot, cataloguing their attempts, considers only one 'a worthy adversary' to Pope, which caught something of his 'own satiric brilliance'. That one, the Verses Address 'd to the Imitator of the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, 1733, has been briefly discussed not only by Guerinot but also by Professor Robert Halsband in his lives of its confederate authors, Lord Hervey and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Much, however, remains to be told…. This article will give a short account of Lady Mary's previous attacks on Pope, of her denial of any connection with the Verses and Hervey's silence about them; it will then … analyse the evidence we have about authorship from contemporary and later opinion and from examination of the Verses themselves, and show the part which they later played in shaping some of Pope's own most brilliant...
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SOURCE: "Condemned to Petticoats: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as Feminist and Writer," in The Dress of Words: Essays on Restoration and Eighteenth Century Literature in Honor of Richmond P. Bond, edited by Robert B. White, Jr., University of Kansas Libraries, 1978, pp. 35-52.
[In the following excerpt Halsband investigates Montagu's feminism as it is displayed in her writings.]
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is sufficiently well known so that mention of her name need not be followed by the rhetorical question with which Time magazine headed its review of her Complete Letters—"Lady Who?" I have elsewhere touched on her stature as a lady of letters and on the general predicament of women writers in her time; ["Ladies of Letters in the Eighteenth Century," Stuart and Georgian Moments, 1972] her ideas and writings on feminism and her career as a miscellaneous writer deserve re-examination now because they are clarified and amplified in the recently published edition of her wide-ranging prose and verse [Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy, 1977]. It may seem anachronistic to call an eighteenth-century woman a feminist, a word applied to that movement a century later, yet Lady Mary, because of her life-long preoccupation with women as women, their privileges and disabilities, rights and wrongs, deserves an honorable place in that movement.
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SOURCE: "Town Eclogues: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and John Gay," in His and Hers: Essays in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature, University Press of Kentucky, 1986, pp. 84-107.
[In the following excerpt, Messenger compares John Gay's version of the eclogue "The Toilette" with Montagu's version which appreared in Six Town Eclogues, and also provides a synopsis of the remaining five poems.]
Before she went to Constantinople and wrote the letters for which perhaps she is best known today, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu spent a year and a half in London. While her husband worked at his government job, eventually winning the post of Ambassador to the court of Turkey, Lady Mary shone in court society, continued her old friendship with Congreve and other literary men, and made the acquaintance of still others, including John Gay. She also continued writing. She had read voraciously and had written both prose and verse from the age of twelve. Some of her early writing is pastoral: in her first manuscript album she called herself "Strephon"; she wrote poems praising the country, and she imitated Virgil's tenth eclogue. In London, the pastoral was to reappear in her poetry in a different form.
John Gay, today best known as the author of The Beggar's Opera and the Fables, is credited with having written the first English "town eclogue," "Araminta" (1713). The genre...
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Halsband, Robert. The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956, 313 p.
Bataille, Robert R. "The Dating of The Lady's Curiosity and Lady Montagu's 'The Fifth Ode of Horace Imitated.'" American Notes and Queries XVIII, No. 6 (February 1980): 87-8.
Searches bibliographic evidence to ascertain when Montagu wrote her "Ode."
Grundy, Isobel. '"The Entire Works of Clarinda': Unpublished Juvenile Verse by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu." Yearbook of English Studies 7 (1977): 91-107.
Thorough overview of Montagu's juvenile verse.
——. "A 'Spurious' Poem by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?" Notes and Queries 27, No. 5 (October 1980): 407-10.
Investigates claims attributing the poem "To Clio, occasioned by her verses on friendship" to Montagu.
——. "'New' Verse by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu." The Bodleian Library Record X, No. 4 (February 1981): 237-49.
Detects strains of erotic attraction and friendly debate in recently discovered manuscript poems.
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