Mary Wortley Montagu

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Isobel Grundy (essay date 1975)

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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 quoted them; and perhaps most surprising of all, Lord Auchinleck, father of James Boswell. Late in this chorus of praise, resisting the new definitions of poetry to which he had himself contributed, came Byron, demanding of the fourth stanza of 'The Lover', 'Is not her "Champaigne and Chicken" worth a forest or two? Is it not poetry?' [Letters and Journals, 1898-1901]. The nineteenth century in general (Words-worth, Leigh Hunt, Walter Bagehot) thought it was not. George Saintsbury ruled out poetry, the true diamond, when he wrote that her 'verse flashes with the very best paste in Dodsley' [The Peace of the Augustans, 1916].

Yet today Lady Mary's poems need no apology. She herself would not have claimed diamond quality for them, though she did claim to have inscribed eleven lines on a window pane with a diamond. This rather unlikely verve and facility, this small scale, was what she aimed at in poetry. She had the habit of dashing off verse extempore. Her poems demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Augustan tradition within which she wrote, its power to shape the voice and even the thinking of a minor talent. The tradition supplied her not only with forms but with satirical or moral stances based on inheritance from or reaction against the past. She had the gift of successfully embodying her idiosyncratic opinions and attitudes in a verse style heavily influenced by her contemporaries and immediate predecessors, especially Dryden and the Pope of the 1717 Works.

Packed with allusion, echoes, parody, her verse is none the less distinctively her own. Its range is remarkable: Ovidian and Horatian epistles, mock-eclogue, mock-epic, songs and ballads, description, meditation, and translation. Despite her reference to the daemon of poesie, most of her poems owe their existence to the provocation of some outside stimulus, some love-affair, political issue, or debating point to be made.

As a woman and an aristocrat, Lady Mary frequently expressed horror at the idea of writing for print. Yet she may well have connived at or even arranged for the publication of her verse attacks on Pope and Swift. Perhaps for reasons of prudence, she copied neither of these printed poems into the album, now Harrowby MS. 256, which bore her claim, 'all the verses and Prose in this Book were wrote by me, without the assistance of one Line from any other. Mary Wortley Montagu.' This volume contains most of her more successful poems, but with some notable omissions. Others she kept in rough draft, in separate copies, or not at all. Individual poems strayed into print in her lifetime, beginning with the three eclogues stolen and printed anonymously by Curll in 1716 [the critic identifies these in a footnote: "Court Poems: 'Monday', 'Thursday', and 'Friday']. The first collection was published by Horace Walpole in 1747, with her initials on the title-page. He and Joseph Spence had both read her poems, probably in what is now H MS. 256, in Italy; Spence had many of them copied into a volume which he corrected himself. The number of pieces in print as hers was enlarged by the London Magazine and by Dodsley's Collection, 1748. Dodsley's second edition, published later that year, transferred Lady Mary's poems from volume three to volume one; later editions added a few more poems. Issac Reed gathered most of what was available from these sources in a volume of Poetical Works, 1768; James Dallaway enlarged the canon in the last volume of his edition of Lady Mary's Works, 1803. Despite her family's permission to use her papers he reproduced existing inaccurate printed texts, and when printing from MS. adapted freely. Later editors of her works added only a few poems and corrected none. Nor did they explain the grounds on which they accepted or rejected attributions to her.

[Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy] is as far as possible and within certain definable limits complete. She wrote other poems of which no copies survive, as comments by her contemporaries indicate. She also adapted other people's work. [This collection includes] such poems as 'Satyr', modelled on Boileau but substantially an original piece, while omitting some in which Lady Mary made only the most minimal alterations to her source. These include poems previously printed among her works, like 'The Bride in the Country' (which she adapted from another satirical ballad to apply to the marriage of her niece), 'Character' (adapted from verse by Robert Wolseley and William Wharton), and 'To the Same' ('Thôold in ill, the Traitor sure shall find', which she condensed from Creech's translation of Juvenal). An imitation of Dorset's famous ballad, beginning 'To all you ladies now at Bath' and entitled 'Farewell to Bath', appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1731 as by 'Lady M. Montagu', and has been anthologized as Lady Mary's. I have omitted it since even if the ascription is accurate, Lady Mary's name was extremely unlikely to be formulated this way except on the Continent. The designation fits at least two other ladies, daughters of Charles Montagu, Earl of Halifax, and the 2nd Duke of Montagu.

I have omitted the poems from Lady Mary's two juvenile albums, composed at the age of fourteen or a little older. These are interesting as late re-workings of various seventeenth-century conventions, but have too little intrinsic merit and too great length to justify inclusion. I have omitted fragments and insignificant separate couplets, except those already printed. Passages of verse available among her Complete Letters (mainly epistles to Hervey and fragments to Algarotti) are likewise not included here. I have, however, reprinted her poetic rendering 'Turkish Verses', and her epitaph on the lovers struck by lightning, which readers may expect to find among her poems.

The problem of attribution is a tricky one. I have printed, with brief comment, poems in which other writers besides Lady Mary shared, like the 'Friday' eclogue, Dunciad imitations, and the Verses to the Imitator of Horace. There can be little doubt about the poems from H MS. 256, and these are all included here. A few poems in another album (H MS. 255) are marked with her monogram MWM; yet two of these come under the category of adaptations made by the substitution of only a word here and there. Of these one seemed worth inclusion, the other not. The same volume yields a few unmarked poems which seem to be by Lady Mary.

She transcribed many poems without giving any author's name, and she also saved copies made by other people. Some of these poems may be by her, but without further evidence I have supposed that they are not. Sometimes heavy correction in her hand supplies evidence of authorship. I have accepted some but not all of the attributions of those with fairly close knowledge of her: Horace Walpole, Sir James Caldwell, and Lady Oxford and her daughter the Duchess of Portland. This volume therefore contains only poems which are almost certainly by Lady Mary, without the many which may be by her, or which have been wrongly attributed to her.


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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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 My Wy Me was printed posthumously in 1768.

Critical Reception

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."

Isobel Grundy (essay date 1977)

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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 attacking lines.

Pope published his First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated, on 15 Feb. 1733. He devoted some attention (lines 81-84) to his former friend Lady Mary, who had already crossed pens with him:

Slander or Poyson, dread from Delia's Rage,
Hard Words or Hanging, if your Judge be Page.
From furious Sappho scarce a milder Fate,
P-x'd by her Love, or libell'd by her Hate.

Lord Hervey, who was politically opposed to Pope's friends, but had offered no show of hostility in print, received only a glance of disparagement (lines 5-6):

The Lines are weak, another's pleas'd to say,
Lord Fanny spins a thousand such a Day.

There was, however, a common element in the two attacks, in that each aimed at the victim's activities as a writer. Lady Mary tried non-literary means to ensure Pope's future silence, first through Lord Peterborough and then through Sir Robert Walpole. Her first attempt met with humiliating failure; while the second was still under discussion she must have turned back to the idea of verse retaliation.

Despite its rashness and its liability to the charge from Pope of 'fulfilling the veracity of my prophecy', this idea was not new to Lady Mary. After Pope's thrust in the Dunciad, 1728 (ii. 127-128):

(Whence hapless Monsieur much complains at Paris Of wrongs from Duchesses and Lady Mary's),

she had begun work on a mock-epic counterblast. Its action takes place before Queen Anne's death: Dullness, aided by Prophanation, Obscænity and in an early version Cloacina, has settled (anachronistically) in a certain grotto beneath a muddy road: she plots to reverse the national educative process being carried out by Addison; each goddess supports her own candidate for leadership of their forces, and the young Pope is chosen as commander in preference to Swift, Gay, and Arbuthnot [as found in Essays and Poems and Simplicity, a Comedy, edited by R. Halsband and I. Grundy, 1977, revised ed. 1993]. Lady Mary had re-worked the material of Pope's masterpiece and copied his tone with some skill. She had also enlisted her cousin Henry Fielding, at that time a very young writer looking for patronage, as ally. He too, loyally rather than personally indignant, had attacked the Dunciad in Dunciad-like fragments, related to hers, the draft of which he left with her. The subject-matter of this epic story makes it hard to see how either Fielding's or Lady Mary's part could ever have been finished, let alone printed. Any satisfaction which she derived from this counter-attack must have remained private.

After Pope's new offensive of 1733, Fielding composed his sympathetic 'Epistle to Mr Lyttleton, occasioned by two Lines in Mr Pope's Paraphrase on the first Satire of the 2d Book of Horace', either at Lady Mary's prompting or on his own initiative. Again he left the manuscript with her; again it remained unpublished. Meanwhile, however, as contemporary opinions about the Verses to the Imitator suggest, Lady Mary struck up the same sort of alliance with Lord Hervey that she had previously had with Fielding. No record of this remains among her letters: the following account comes from other sources than herself. She denied any part in the Verses, saying two years later that they had been written '(without my knowledge) by a Gentleman of great merit, whom I very much esteem, who [Pope] will never guess, and who, if he did know, he durst not attack'. This denial, sent to Arbuthnot the day after the publication of Pope's Epistle to him, can be ignored as a desperate defensive stroke in her mortal combat with Pope. If it is incredible, so are Pope's denials to Peterborough and to Hervey: that he 'never applied that name [Sappho] to her in any verse of mine, public or private; and, I firmly believe, not in any letter or conversation.' Neither of the two enemies could be trusted to speak truth of the other.

Lady Mary cannot be proved a liar. As her biographer writes, 'no documentary evidence survives to prove [her] authorship of the Verses'. No copy in her hand is now known, either in the Harrowby Manuscripts Trust with the bulk of her papers, or elsewhere. Her great-grandson and editor, Lord Wharncliffe, claimed that the poem was 'contained in the collection of poems verified by Lady Mary's own hand as written by her'; and this was repeated by a later editor and a biographer. Yet the surviving album verified by Lady Mary in this way, Harrowby MS 256, shows no sign of anything having been removed from it. Either a copy of the Verses was once lodged, though not bound, in the album, and has since vanished; or a whole volume of Lady Mary's manuscripts, also verified by her hand, has similarly disappeared; or Lord Wharncliffe was entirely mistaken.

Hervey also says nothing of the poem in his surviving letters (which do not, however, include those he wrote to Lady Mary); but he is linked with it by documentary evidence, which will be discussed in detail later. He made two sets of corrections, differing slightly from each other: to a scribal copy now in the British Museum and to a printed copy now at Ickworth, Suffolk. He also wrote a manuscript preface 'To the Reader', assuming rather than claiming authorship, now bound inside the Ickworth copy which he called 'corrected by the Author'; it is the closest we have to an assertion of literary ownership. He refrained from asserting the same thing elsewhere. He mentioned The First Satire of the Second Book without annoyance two days after its publication. Early in 1734, à propos his Epistle From a Nobleman to a Doctor of Divinity, he told Arbuthnot he was sorry 'to enter into a Paper-War' with Pope, apparently not expecting Arbuthnot to reply that he had entered already. In letters he gloried in his severity on Pope, but only the severity of An Epistle, which he disclaimed in the press and discussed at length with his correspondents. Where Lady Mary protests too much, Hervey protests less than might be expected….

[The] next possible source for evidence of authorship is contemporary and later critical opinion. The Verses seem to have been identified as Lady Mary's from the first, and Hervey's contribution recognized only later. Two of the four early transcripts ascribed them to her [so did contemporary hands in copies of Dodd's first, 5th, and 6th editions (Texas)]. On 8 March, the day of publication, Pope wrote to Fortescue of 'that Lady's having taken her own Satisfaction in an avowed Libell'; this sounds more sincere than his later suggestion that he considered the Dodd title-page ascription, 'By a Lady', to be her deliberate confession of authorship. Two days later Theobald told Warburton that Pope had been 'most handsomely depicted in a severe Poem by Lady Mary W. Mountague'. On [18] March Pope again wrote of the 'Libel' as hers alone; he did not link Hervey's name with hers until 2[0] April. Irish opinion also believed the Verses were 'certainly hers'. Voltaire (who never mentioned the Verses in his letters to Hervey) seems to have asked for them as Lady Mary's in early May 1733 [Voltaire, Corr., edited by Theodore Besterman, ii, 1969, 333].

Her authorship was again assumed three weeks after publication by whoever was responsible for printing the Answer to Hammond's Elegy as 'By a LADY, Author of the Verses to the Imitator of HORACE.' (Dodsley's Collection, however, reprinting the Answer as Hervey's, thereby implied his authorship of the Verses too.) Hervey himself kept a copy of the Elegy and Answer (now bound with his copy of the Verses at Ickworth), but he made no mark in it as he did in the other pamphlets collected in this volume as his.

Hostile squadrons gathering against the Verses had no doubt whom to attack. A Proper Reply to a Lady, 'By a Gentleman' (3 April), began with the question of authorship:

What Lust of Malice, what salacious Spite
'Gainst her Alcaeus Sappho moves to write?
It must be Sappho,—Who can chuse but guess
Whence springs this clam'rous Womanish Address?

This 'Gentleman' not only detected feminine ignorance of razors in lines 25-26, but amply hinted at Lady Mary's identity, mentioning her poetry and the scandal over her deranged sister. Another combatant, the 'Gentlewoman' who printed at her own expense her Advice to Sappho (received by Lord Oxford on 12 April [Badminton MSS Fm T/B1/4.4; Bod. M. 3. 19. Art.]), made it clear that her quarry was Lady Mary. An unympathetic commentator in MS agreed. On the other side, the anonymous author of 'In Defence of Lady Mary Wortley' described how 'Ingenious Wortley draws her conq'ring Pen.'

By 2[0] April Pope had heard more of the complicated story of 'Lady M—'s or Lord H—'s performance…. it was labour'd, corrected, præcommended and post-disapprov'd, so far as to be dis-own'd by themselves, after each had highly cry'd it up for the others'. On the first of May Swift wrote of the authors as 'they', not knowing whether 'the production you mention came from the Lady or the Lord'. In any case he was not impressed:

I did not imagine that they were at least so bad versifyers, Therefore, facit indignation versum [sic: he must have seen a copy of the second Dodd edition], is only to be applyed when the indignation is against general vilany, and never operates when a vilian writes to defend himself. I love to hear them reproach you for dulness; Onely I would be satisfied, since you are so dull, why are they so angry?

Thereafter, opinions continued uncertain or ambiguous—none more so than Pope's own in his Letter to a Noble Lord, 30 Nov. 1733. Here he began with a clear statement of Lady Mary's responsibility: 'I wonder yet more, how a lady, of great wit, beauty, and fame for her poetry … could be prevailed upon to take a part in that proceeding.' Further on he implied that her denial of authorship, brought to him by Lord Peterborough, had caused him to change his mind about her part in the Verses; but this he almost immediately contradicted, in a passage famous for suggestiveness rather than for precision:

Your Lordship indeed said you had it from a lady, and the lady said it was your Lordship's; some thought the beautiful bye-blow had two fathers, or (if one of them will hardly be allowed a man) two mothers; indeed I think both sexes had a share in it, but which was uppermost, I know not. I pretend not to determine the exact method of this witty fornication.

Pope never again admitted to believing Lady Mary's disclaimer. He continued to couple her with Hervey as authors of unworthy libels against him, either as 'some Persons of Rank and Fortune' or by name. By this time Hervey had struck again in his Epistle From a Nobleman to a Doctor of Divinity ; Pope did not make it clear whether he was blaming Hervey for that alone, or for a share with Lady Mary in the Verses.

More than a year after the Verses were published, a third name was added to those of the suspected authors. Lord Oxford wrote on his copy of the first Dodd edition, 'The Authors of this poem are Lady Mary Wortley, Lord Harvey and Mr Windham under Tutor to the Duke of Cumberland and married to my Lady Deloraine'. Since William Windham married Lady Delorain only in April 1734, Oxford's identification was written more than a year after the Verses were published—very likely at the same time that he annotated his copy of the 'Fifth Edition', January 1735. Despite this time-lag Windham is a plausible third collaborator. His courtship of Lady Delorain (the 'Delia' Pope linked with 'Sappho') provided ample grounds for reprisals by him. He might be the esteemed gentleman whom Lady Mary considered Pope would not guess or dare to attack—a description by that time entirely unfitted to Hervey, who had just been trounced as Sporus. A Letter to a Noble Lord mentions 'your friend Wm'. Professor Maynard Mack has argued that Windham's marriage and his part in the Verses are glanced at in the Epistle to Arbuthnot:

To please a Mistress, One aspers'd his life;
He lash'd him not, but let her be his Wife.

Lord Oxford may have been simply following this same reasoning, or he may have had positive information. His wife was a close friend of Lady Mary, and their daughter the Duchess of Portland (whose transcript of the Verses, ascribed to Lady Mary, has already been mentioned) an equally close friend of Lady Mary's daughter. The paragraph in the Verses beginning

Not even Youth and Beauty can controul
The universal Rancour of thy Soul

was taken by W. J. Courthope to be a tribute to Lady Mary, but is more appropriate to Lady Delorain, who was eleven years younger. These lines, if no others in the Verses, may well be Windham's contribution. If he took a larger part, it seems odd that it attracted such slight and tardy notice.

Later attributions of the Verses followed one or other contemporary view. In 1768 Isaac Reed, editing Lady Mary's Poetical Works, reprinted them from the Monthly Review, 1767, without suggesting that she was not sole author. Lady Mary's son quoted the Verses as hers. James Dallaway, first editor to be allowed by her family to use her papers, mentioned that the poem was 'said to have been the joint performance' of her and Hervey [in Jonathan Curling, Edward Wortley Montagu (1954), 208]. J. W. Croker, who edited Hervey's Memoirs, decided on the basis of the manuscript evidence that Hervey wrote it—but decided against his own critical judgement, for he found it

smoother, keener, and in every way better than any of Lord Hervey's single-handed productions—except (if that be one) the 'Answer' to Hammond. … a marked superiority over Lord Hervey's other works, both in vigour and polish—

and especially over An Epistle From a Nobleman. W. J. Courthope found in the poem various characteristics of Hervey (triplets, enjambement, lack of cæsura), but also 'greater vigour than is usually found in Lord Hervey's style, which, when he uses metre, is, as a rule, mean and dull' A modern critic finds An Epistle 'inferior to the Verses, lacking the crack and sparkle which frequently distinguish' them. Halkett and Laing's Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature ascribes the Verses to Lady Mary (rev. ed., 1926-43). Hervey's most recent editor gives as 'the accepted view' that she wrote them, possibly with Hervey's help. His biographer, wittily elaborating Pope's paradoxes, finds in the poem 'a crude vitality and masculine robustness more characteristic of Lady Mary … than it is of Hervey, most of whose verse is monotonously fluent and nerveless', and concludes it to be hers.

It still remains to analyse the poem more closely and to compare it in some detail with others by each writer. This analysis will confirm the view of Lady Mary's dominance, but with some qualifications. The opening of the Verses is strongly Herveyesque: antitheses as thick as bees o'er vernal blossoms, and six lines of subordinate clauses (in most of Lady Mary's poems the first main verb occurs in the first or second line). On the other hand the extended climactic image occupying the last paragraph has many parallels among her verse, while Hervey usually prefers to end with a detached, pointed couplet. If genuine collaboration went into the Verses, then the influence of each contributor enabled the other to surpass his or her usual level. They have none of the prolixity which was Hervey's besetting sin, and little of the careless syntax and construction which was Lady Mary's. She seldom uses 'thou' and 'thee' with so few lapses into 'you'. The balance of lines and couplets (especially in the series of antitheses at lines 93-100) is more exactly judged than is usual in any but short passages of her writing. Hervey was certainly no fonder of triplets than she was; but while his generally enclose their sense within the three lines in the approved manner, she treated this device in more cavalier fashion, often making the third line introduce a new idea or lead hurriedly on towards the following couplet, as it does in all the triplets of the Verses except the first.

In content the poem reflects sometimes one author, sometimes the other. The sneer at Pope's classicism in the first paragraph expresses an attitude which Hervey (like Fielding) consistently took towards him: that of one who has enjoyed the classical education proper to a gentleman. In his revisions to the Verses and also in later attacks, Hervey accuses Pope of inability to appreciate the ancients; in An Epistle From a Nobleman he laments the increasing rustiness of his own classical learning, with a polite air of deprecating a grace which in fact his correspondent knows him to possess. This poem, like the Verses (line 4), compares Pope to his disadvantage with the 'ancient Sense' which Hervey felt himself better equipped to savour.

The Verses's admission (line 96) that many people had formerly prized Pope's work possibly reflects the fact that Lady Mary, who never liked his satires, had once deeply admired his pre-Dunciad poems. By 1728 she had lost her admiration sufficiently to call them 'smooth unmeaning Rhime'; perhaps a contrast with that smoothness is implied in the Verses, line 19: 'none thy crabbed Numbers can endure'. Hervey made no distinctions as to chronology when attacking Pope's work.

The reference (Verses, line 61) to physical weakness as 'The Female Scold's Protection in Offence' would read oddly coming from Lady Mary. So would the gibe at Pope as one who may legitimately be beaten since he 'cannot fight' (line 62), which may imply a contrast with Hervey's surprisingly bold conduct in his duel with Pulteney in 1731. The threat of inflicting punishment is in itself harder to assign; there are innumerable parallels in other people's pamphlet attacks on Pope, and some elsewhere in Hervey's and Lady Mary's writings. Hervey had mentioned late in December 1731, and again in January 1733, the likelihood of physical chastisement for Pope: on the first occasion he seems to have been quoting a phrase of Lady Mary's, as reported by Horace Walpole; on the second he used, like the Verses, line 65, the word 'cudgel'. This passage goes on to depict Pope escaping actual punishment ('Limbs unbroken, Skin without a Stain, / Unwhipt, unblanketed, unkick'd, unslain'), as does the concluding line of Lady Mary's 'P[ope] to Bolingbroke', written after An Essay on Man: 'You scape the Block, and I the Whipping-Post'. The effect in both poems is that of a barely-suppressed rather than a direct threat.

The Verses contain no unique accusations, only those repeated elsewhere by Hervey, Lady Mary, Fielding, and others. Yet some distinctions may be drawn. Pope wrote of the Verses:

'Tis a pleasure & a comfort at once to find, that with so much mind, as so much Malice must have to accuse or blacken my character, it can fix upon no one ill or immoral thing in my Life; & must content itself to say my Poetry is dull, & my Person ugly.

Insofar as this is accurate, it suggests a contrast with Lady Mary's other verse attacks on him, which fix on a large number of specific if unjust moral charges: superstition, obscenity, profaning religion, unfairness to Addison, Tickell, Lintot, Walpole, and Mme Dacier; toad-eating, cheating subscribers, causing bad blood between husband and wife, boasting of fictious amatory exploits, and having the clap. From the beginning, and increasingly with time, she points at Pope's personality rather than his writing, abusing his 'Father, Mother, Body, Soul' as well as 'Muse' with more inclusiveness and particularity than Hervey. Oddly, in view of the latter's career, her attacks outside the Verses are more politically angled than his; they present Pope linked with Bolingbroke and others, a poison working in the body of the state, while Hervey presents him as an obscure private lampooner.

Hervey also moves away from the literary towards the personal in his attacks, but never becomes so specific in his personalities as Lady Mary. His Epistle From a Nobleman, devoting only part of its space to attacking Pope, singles out poor translation and plagiarism. His prose Letter to Mr. C-b-r, 1742, reproves Cibber for attacking 'nothing but his Morals, which no body defends', and goes on to criticise his poetry. The Difference between Verbal and Practical Virtue, published a few days later, says that Pope should be castigated for 'that worse Deformity, his Mind', mentioning specifically literary faults as well as vindictiveness, lying, and ingratitude. Of the major ideas of the Verses, that of Pope as inhuman is more characteristic of Lady Mary; that of his verse as unintentionally innocuous is more like Hervey.

In their plan the Verses differ from Lady Mary's other poetic attacks. Those are all cast in dramatic form, involving more than one character (Dullness, her 'subservient Pow'rs', and the Scriblerians; Swift and a prostitute; Pope and Bolingbroke), whereas Hervey always chooses to argue directly in his own person, like an orator speaking for the prosecution. The Verses come closer to his method, though the fact that they are addressed to Pope, like an epistle, gives them greater immediacy of attack than an address to a third party, and they are not without dramatic characterization.

Hervey undoubtedly made use of the Verses' second paragraph,

Thine is just such an Image of his Pen,
As thou thy self art of the Sons of Men:
Where our own Species in Burlesque we trace,
A Sign-Post Likeness of the noble Race;
That is at once Resemblance and Disgrace,

nine years later in The Difference Between Verbal and Practical Virtue:

But whilst such Features in his Works we trace,
And Gifts like these his happy Genius grace. …
It seems the Counterpart by Heav'n design'd
A Symbol and a Warning to Mankind:
As at some Door we find hung out a Sign,
Type of the Monster to be found within.

But the image of Pope's body as sign and type of his mind weakens the fearsome image of his body as a signpainter's travesty of a man. Later and inferior re-workings are not evidence either for or against authorship; but it is of some interest that Hervey's The Difference re-works many ideas from the Verses and weakens almost all of them. For instance, it reduces to a run-of-the-mill accusation of impotence the force of 'the gross Lust of Hate' (Verses, line 30) and 'No more for loving made, then to be lov'd (Verses, line 49), and in making a statement of the suitability of Pope's mind to his body misses half the point of Verses, lines 50-51:

It was the Equity of righteous Heav'n,
That such a Soul to such a Form was giv'n.

These details add up to a real and important difference between the pictures which the two poems present. The Difference takes the form of a general essay on the failure of poets to practise what they preach: Pope, though likened to a monster, to Domitian, to 'some yelping Mungril', remains recognisably an actual writer, who has faults which Horace, Seneca and others had, only worse. Despite the shrill tone which is de rigueur among Pope's antagonists, it remains a rational argument, as does that part of An Epistle From a Nobleman which deals with Pope. (Hervey points out in An Epistle that Pope has mangled 'what Homer thought', which is a derogatory opinion; Lady Mary in 'P[ope] to Bolingbroke' makes him refer casually to himself as 'The Homer, and the Horace of the Age', which is a dramatization.) Though the Verses do not, like other works by Lady Mary, present Pope as a developed fictional character, they go further than Hervey's in transforming the raw material which he represents.

The first paragraph of the Verses, perhaps Hervey's, is entirely logical if one accepts its premises. Thereafter, nonrational suggestion takes over. The images of the poem cluster round several central ideas: that of Pope as nonhuman, which the sign-post image introduces; that of his works as instruments of hurt, a whole catalogue of which succeed each other between lines 21 and 37, and 73 and 88; that of unavailing effort in 'Weeds, as they are, they seem produc'd by Toil', 'doubly bent to force a Dart', the lines on beauty, 'rancorous Will', 'stings and dies' and 'try at least t'assassinate' (all of which assert the opposite of Pope's own claim to Horatian ease); and that of oneman warfare against the rest of mankind. This idea dominates the poem, steadily growing in importance and incidentally producing some fine lines ('The Object of thy Spleen is Human Kind', line 33; 'To Thee 'tis Provocation to exist', line 35). As an enemy to mankind (and first of all to women), Pope is linked with Milton's Satan in his later, ignoble stages, Whether snake, porcupine or wasp, he is something the surrounding human beings look at with wonder and contempt. At last he becomes the outcast homicide Cain. One can see how indispensable to the design is the most offensive aspect of the poem, the use it makes (from the second paragraph to the last couplet) of Pope's deformity.

Whether or not it is true, as J. V. Guerinot thinks, that 'the experience of years of friendship, possibly of love … made it possible for Lady Mary to wound deepest of all', it is true that the Verses inflict some wounds which are almost caressing. There is insulting pity in 'thy poor Corps' (line 91), in 'wretched little Carcass' and 'angry little Monster' (lines 70 and 76), and in lines 81-82 (surely Lady Mary's, since Hervey struck them out in both his copies):

One over-match'd by ev'ry Blast of Wind,
Insulting and provoking all Mankind.

This glimpse of embattled mock-pathos is vivid enough to oppose to self-portraits of the heroic satirist; yet despite hints of pathos or even amusement, the Pope created in the Verses is a creature whom in the end it is appropriate to banish with Old-Testament rigour.

The Verses make comparatively little effort to take up points from the First Satire of the Second Book. One might expect Hervey to look for debating points, or Lady Mary to be provoked by its celebration of Pope's friends, 'Chiefs out of war, and statesmen out of place', since they were her habitual targets in polemical verse. But all is subordinated to the substitution of the imaginary pest for the real man or for the modest crusader depicted in the Satire. Where the Verses do allude to specific lines it is always on this point of self-portraiture. Their 'if thou drawst thy Pen to aid the Law' (line 64) refers to the Satire's passage, lines 105ff.:

What? arm'd for Virtue when I point the Pen,
Brand the bold Front of shameless, guilty Men. …

The second of these two lines also suggested the image of Pope's deformity as the brand 'Mark'd on thy Back, like Cain, by God's own Hand'. Line 84, 'To make those tremble who escape the Law', paraphrases Pope's claim in his line 118. Immediately afterwards, lines 85-86,

Is this Ridicule to live so long,
The deathless Satire, and immortal Song?

refer to Pope's seeing the victim of his satire in his lines 79-80:

Sacred to Ridicule! his whole Life long,
And the sad Burthen of some merry Song.

This distorts Pope's claim by over-stating it and ignoring its irony and humour.

Pope surpassed his attackers in turning their weapons back upon themselves. Five years later he took 'But Horace, Sir, was delicate, was nice' from the Verses, line 16: 'Horace can laugh, is delicate, is clear'. He may also have recalled 'none thy crabbed Numbers can endure' (line 19) when he wrote in the Epistle to Arbuthnot that 'Congreve lov'd, and Swift endur'd my Lays' (line 138). But of all his re-workings of the lines of others against him, laying them low with words from their own mouths, the most striking is the Sporus portrait (Arbuthnol, lines 305-333), which can be seen as virtually a composite portrait of the two collaborators.

In the Sporus passage the Verses seem to live a ghastly resurrected life. One of their accusations is re-animated in 'florid Impotence', one of their techniques alluded to in 'vile Antithesis'. Pope used their comparison of himself (line 55) with 'the Snake of Eve' for 'at the Ear of Eve, familiar Toad'. 'This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings' has its source in 'as we're told of Wasps, it stings and dies' (Verses, line 88). He was already fond of insectimagery, but his identification of Sporus-Hervey with butterfly and bug acquires an extra force from the Verses' use of this very image. Indeed, for readers—let alone the writers—of the Verses, an additional layer of meaning informs this passage. No wonder if on the publication of Pope's epistle someone 'supposed that some copies would be called for'. The poem had acquired notoriety as an assault on Pope of which 'Your Lordship indeed said you had it from a lady, and the lady said it was your Lordship's'. Although 'both sexes had a share in it', the lady, more sorely provoked and more poetically inventive, probably had the greater. Yet the lord was taking public acknowledgement and blame. The Sporus portrait, already rich with complex allusions to Hervey's sexual reputation, his influence on Queen Caroline, the behind-the-scenes nature of his court and pamphlet politics, acquires a new level of significance through the unacknowledged place in it of Lady Mary. Like Walpole she speaks through Hervey's mouth, like the Queen she is corrupted by him:

The sexual innuendoes of A Letter to a Noble Lord can be seen as a preliminary draft for this portrait, clumsy in comparison with the finished product.

The authors of the Verses had put up a fierce fight, but the champion was not to be worsted. He gave Hervey what is probably the most memorable of all his satirical lashings; he allowed Lady Mary (like'her own later imagined version of himself) to escape the public whipping-post. In private she was not exempt. Pope deflected the weighty blow of the Verses' closing lines by skilful paraphrase:

It appears that he was not blind to the element of insulting pity in the poem, for he took up that weapon and with that too proved himself the victor:

The annals of poetic warfare can hardly show a finer example of wounding, as the Verses have it (line 26), 'with a Touch, that's scarcely felt or seen.'

Principal Works

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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 MyWy Me 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 My Wy Me: 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.

††This work contains the play Simplicity, an adaptation in English of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730).

‡This work was published as a periodical in nine numbers from 16 December 1737 to 14 March 1738.

††† This work is also known as "Turkish Embassy Letters."

Robert Halsband (essay date 1978)

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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.

Lady Mary was an aristocratic, stubborn, and self-educated woman. Her dates, 1689 to 1762, span the lifetimes of the two most conspicuous feminist women of the century—Mary Astell (whom she knew) and Mary Wollstonecraft. She is thus one of a trinity of Marys. Unlike the other two she did not enunciate feminist principles in boldly signed pamphlets and books advocating that cause with revolutionary fervor. Yet she states or clearly implies this doctrine in her private correspondence with friends and family, and in her essays and poems, whether published or not. As a feminist she earns her credentials also by her vigorous activity in the profession of writing, which in her time was dominated by men. What better proof of women's equality with the other sex than competing on this intellectual battlefield!

Lady Mary's feminist ideas were not static, but became emancipated as she grew older. Whether or not women are inferior to men was a frequently debated question, and often decided on a theological basis. When Lady Mary, at the age of twenty-one, translated the Enchiridion of Epictetus (from a Latin version) and sent it to Bishop Burnet for correction she says this of women: "I am not now arguing for an Equality for the 2 Sexes; I do not doubt God and Nature has thrown us into an Inferior Rank. We are a lower part of the Creation; we owe Obedience and Submission to the Superior Sex; and any Woman who suffers her Vanity and folly to deny this, Rebells against the Law of the Creator and indisputable Order of Nature." No doubt her conventional posture was stiffened by her awareness that the good Bishop was not guilty of holding advanced notions of creatures whose genealogy begins with Adam's rib. (It was he who probably dissuaded the future Queen Anne from endowing the college for women as envisioned by Mary Astell.) Like any sensitive letter-writer Lady Mary tailored her ideas to her correspondents' interests and expectations.

Forty years later, as an expatriate in Italy—when she boasted of being "old without peevishness, superstition, or slander"—she writes that in her opinion "Nature has not plac'd us in an inferior Rank to Men, no more than the Females of other Animals, where we see no distinction of capacity, thô I am persuaded if there was a Common-wealth of rational Horses (as Doctor Swift has suppos'd) it would be an establish'd maxim amongst them that a mare could not be taught to pace." Whether or not women were intrinsically inferior to men was a moot question since they were undoubtedly treated as though they were, especially in their education. …

[T]here can be no doubt that as a writer [Montagu] was engaged by feminist topics—that, in other words, she combines both roles of my title, feminist and writer. Her very first publication, in fact, was an essay in the Spectator that satirically treated marriage from a wife's point of view. (She was the only woman, incidentally, who contributed to that periodical.) In June 1714 the Spectator had printed a letter written by Addison in the role of "a tall, broad-shoulderd, impudent, black Fellow … every way qualified for a rich Widow." He complains that he has been unable to capture a rich widow in marriage because his courtships have been obstructed by the Widow-Club, made up of "nine experienced Dames" who meet to pool their information about widow-hunters, and are thus able to resist suitors like himself. "Their Conversation," he continues, "often turns upon their former Husbands, and it is very diverting to hear them relate their several Arts and Stratagems, with which they amused the Jealous, pacified the Cholerick, or wheedled the Good-natured Man, 'till at last, to use the Clubphrase, They sent him out of the House with his Heels foremost." In its gentle raillery and condescension Addison's fictitious letter is typical of his attitude toward women in most of his essays.

A month later, Spectator No. 573 printed a reply from Mrs. President, head of the Widow-Club, and it was Lady Mary who had held her pen. "You are pleased to be very Merry, as you imagine, with us Widows," she begins; and then in her counter-attack as well as defence of the club she relates the history of her own extensive marital career: having disposed of six husbands, she intends to take a seventh. (She thus outranks Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who could boast of only five husbands.) Her constant suitor, the seventh husband-to-be, is called the Hon. Edward Waitfort, evidently Lady Mary's private little joke about her husband Edward Wortley's long and querulous courtship. At the end of her account she sums up her marriages: "I do not believe all the unreasonable Malice of Mankind can give a Pretence why I should have been constant to the Memory of any of the deceased, or have spent much time in grieving for an insolent, insignificant, negligent, extravagant, splenatick, or covetous Husband; my first insulted me, my second was nothing to me, my third disgusted me, the fourth would have ruined me, the fifth tormented me, and the sixth would have starved me. If the other Ladies you name would thus give in their Husbands Pictures, at length, you would see, they have had as little Reason as my self to lose their Hours in weeping and wailing." At the head of the essay Lady Mary put a Latin motto from Juvenal that sums up her reply: "Being reproved they bite back." This needs to be kept in mind, for the portrait of the widow is far from idealized; she displays some characteristics that are less than admirable. Mrs. President shows herself to be both frivolous and mercenary, but her various husbands easily surpass her in their faults. Lady Mary as a feminist regarded women as human creatures of mixed qualities and not as idealized saints.

She had more opportunity to "bite back" in a periodical that she herself conducted in 1737-38. The chief mission of her paper, which she called The Nonsense of Common-Sense, was political, as its title implied, for it supported Robert Walpole's administration against the Opposition paper Common Sense. …

In Number VI of The Nonsense of Common-Sense, Lady Mary devotes the entire paper to an impassioned and enlightened defence of womankind. …

In the entire canon of Lady Mary's letters, essays, and poems this is her most extended, articulate, and reasoned defence of women. …

Besides essays in a weekly journal, an earnest propagandist could utilize pamphlets, especially if the argument could be spun out in elegant verse couplets. (The recently issued bibliography by David Foxon lists the enormous number of verse pamphlets that were published between 1700 and 1750.) Lady Mary used this means at least twice for feminist propaganda: once to defend women in general against a satirist's scorn, and once to set forth her thoughts on courtship and marriage.

Jonathan Swift's The Lady's Dressing Room, published in 1732, vividly depicts how a naif Strephon explores his Celia's dressing room, with its evidence of slatternly filth (including an unemptied chamber-pot), and steals away disgusted,

Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

Among the various responses to the poem—it caused Mrs. Pilkington's mother to vomit—four writers issued anonymous pamphlets; one of them has only recently been identified as being by Lady Mary. Swift's poem, like others of his "excremental vision," is sometimes cited as proof of misogyny; one may wonder how a woman writer would treat it. She might scold him for his lack of charity, reprove him for his obscenity, accuse him of undue bias in choosing such a nymph as heroine. Lady Mary does none of these; the title of her poem indicates her strategy: The Dean's Provocation for Writing the Lady's Dressing Room. She spins out a fiction of how he had gone to a prostitute, who demanded payment before her services; how when he proved impotent and demanded the return of his payment, the prostitute refused; whereupon he vowed that in revenge he would ruin her trade by describing her dressing room.

In her jeu d'esprit Lady Mary very cleverly parodies Swift's own verse style—his octosyllabic couplets, his blunt, unpoetic diction, his digression, animal parallels, sententiae, and even his use of scatological words—as in her concluding lines. The prostitute, refusing to return the money, says:

Perhaps you have no better Luck in
The Knack of Rhyming than of——.

When the Dean replies with the threat that he will describe her dressing-room:

She answer'd short, I'm glad you'll write,
You'll furnish Paper when I Sh—e.

In this poem Lady Mary is not at all lady-like, but why should she be? Although "condemned to petticoats" (as she phrased it) she neither demanded nor expected consideration for being a woman. Is that not the frame of mind fitted for sexual equality, the "equal opportunity" that fem inists strive for today?

Her other feminist poem, published as a pamphlet (in 1733), is about courtship and marriage. It is The Answer to a love elegy (printed along with it) by James Hammond, an impecunious young man who had fallen in love with a young woman at court. In her reply to the man's love-poem Lady Mary, answering for the woman, realistically points out that a marriage without financial safeguards would cause bitter regret for both: the woman would be "a poor Virtuous Wretch for Life"; and as for both: "Love soon would cease to smile, when Fortune frown'd." And so at the conclusion the woman makes a firm resolve not to encourage him:

Whilst other Maids a shameless Path pursue,
Neither to Honour, nor to Int'rest true;
And proud to swell the Triumphs of their Eyes,
Exult in Love from Lovers they despise;
Their Maxims all revers'd, I mean to prove,
And tho' I like the Lover quit the Love.

In her view of marriage Lady Mary recognizes the stringencies of her social class, where in a successful match financial settlements had to accompany love as a protection for the wife (as well as the husband). At the same time she sharply condemns a purely mercenary marriage, a "Nuptial Sale," and characterizes women who marry for that reason "legal Prostitutes." The phrase had already been used, in slightly different form, by Steele in the Tatler and by Defoe; it was made famous by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. With or without Lady Mary's consent, her printer revealed her authorship by putting on the pamphlet's title page "By a Lady, Author of the Verses to the Imitator of Horace." The printer no doubt hoped to profit by the notoriety of her feud with Alexander Pope.

Lady Mary had already devoted a long poem to women's disabilities after marriage, to the cruel punishment suffered by wives because of the double moral standard imposed by society. In the "Epistle from Mrs. Y[onge] to her Husband," purportedly written by a cast-off wife, Lady Mary criticizes the moral code that permits a husband to commit adultery with impunity yet punishes his wife for the same crime:

She then asks:

The eloquence of this poem seems to reflect Lady Mary's urgent convictions; and whether or not she intended it to be printed, it remained unpublished among her manuscripts.

Adultery and divorce were so common among those she knew that she once suggested (in a letter to her sister) "a genneral Act of Divorceing all the people of England. You know, those that pleas'd might marry over again, and it would save the Reputations of several Ladys that are now in peril of being expos'd every day." Often in verse as well as in prose she scornfully attacked men's "gallantry," whether in or out of marriage, and particularly condemned the injustice of punishing or ostracizing women when their seducers were really the guilty ones….

How do her ideas on marriage contribute to her advocacy of feminism? The faults of conventional marriage of the time are to the woman's disadvantage—the mercenary principle that treats her as a financial commodity, and the double standard of morality that permits a husband's infidelity but harshly punishes a wife's. Woman's lot would be improved, Lady Mary implies, if the institution of marriage were accepted honestly and seriously as a union between equals.

All of her writings that I have so far discussed illustrate both parts of my title simultaneously: her ideas on feminism and her activity as a writer concerned with those ideas. But in most of her writings she did not confine herself to that subject; she stands out as a woman whose literary energy and passion drove her to compete in an activity ruled by men. She is thus a feminist in practice.

Ann Messenger (essay date 1986)

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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 is a curious one, part pastoral, part burlesque, sometimes imitating a classical model, sometimes not. It is clearly enough defined to be recognizable, yet loose enough to allow a variety of attitudes and forms. Adina Forsgren, in her two-volume study of Gay, describes the genre and its mixed nature in detail. Gay published five such poems, following "Araminta" with "The Toilette" and three more in his collected poems of 1720. Lady Mary wrote six, published for the first time as a group in 1747, but composed during her stay in London in 1715-1716 when she first met Gay. One of her eclogues is also called "The Toilette"; it is the "Friday" poem in the group of six that is arranged in a "week" like Gay's Shepherd's Week (1714). Clearly there are connections, although, with one exception, the relationships among the poems by the two poets are general rather than particular.

The exception is "The Toilette," in which the relationship is direct, even intimate—bewilderingly so. "The Toilette" was first published in 1716 by the unspeakable Edmund Curll, in (of course) an unauthorized edition. He suggested that Lady Mary might have written the poem, or Pope, or Gay. A much revised text, authorized, appeared in Gay's Poems on Several Occasions in 1720. But a manuscript album of Lady Mary's includes not only Curll's version of the poem but also a statement that she wrote every line of it herself. Pope thought it was "almost wholly Gay's"; Walpole republished it in 1747 as Lady Mary's, whose eclogues he preferred to Gay's. Robert Halsband surveys and analyzes the whole problem and concludes that Lady Mary could not seriously claim it as hers, but Isobel Grundy, in the Halsband/Grundy edition of Lady Mary's work, not only includes the poem in the earliest version but also says that Gay's version of 1720 "really amounts to a different poem." It could be the product of some sort of collaboration, with Gay and Lady Mary working together on the first version and Gay adapting and lengthening it for his 1720 version. We can never really know. And even if one could call up their ghosts and ask just who wrote what, they might not be able to answer. When two minds, working closely together, produce a poem or a novel or other literary work, ideas and words and phrases are somehow generated by the partnership in a manner that mysteriously defies individual attribution. Perhaps that is the explanation.

But no matter who wrote what, Gay clearly laid claim to the 1720 version, consisting of 106 lines, while Lady Mary laid claim to the 1716/1747 version, consisting of 78 lines. If she did not write all of it, she at least preferred it enough to call it her own. These claims represent an inextricable tangle of creative and critical activities: the generating of words and phrases and the revisions, omissions, and additions of words and phrases. The result of all this, as Grundy says, is indeed two quite different poems, which I shall call for convenience Lady Mary's poem and Gay's poem. What matters, at least for my purposes here, is not the technical question of attribution, but which poet laid claim to which version—that is, which poet took responsibility for which ideas and point of view. For this comparison I shall use Lady Mary's text as printed in Grundy and Halsband, and Gay's text as printed in Dearing and Beckwith, without considering the minutiae of variations from one edition to another of either poem. Nor shall I look at every verbal variant between the two basic texts; many are so slight as to be insignificant, and besides, it would be foolish to search for significance on a microscopic level when the whole question of authorship is so tangled. But major differences in content and organization, in omissions and inclusions, and even, occasionally, in single words, are worth examining in order to show how two different sensibilities, a woman's and a man's, perceived and felt about the same female character and the same urban scene.

Lady Mary's poem opens with ten lines describing Lydia, now thirty-five years old, deserted by the many lovers who had once crowded the street before her door; now she has nothing to do but look out her window or into her mirror. The body of the poem (ll. 11-68) is Lydia's lament for her lost youth, speculation about how she shall pass the time today, and fury at Damon, her faithless lover, who has deserted her for his own young wife, Cloe. Lydia heaps abuse on Cloe and on the institution of marriage until her maid appears, carrying her bandbox, and com pliments Lydia fulsomely on her appearance. Lydia then smiles and prepares to go to the playhouse (ll. 69-78).

Gay's poem opens with twenty-two lines describing the deserted Lydia, with much more detail about her dressing room, populated by "Shocks, monkeys and mockaws" (l. 9) who behave in a comically human fashion, and with observations about her hair and make-up. The fuller detail does not include a window as Lady Mary's poem does, however; Gay does not give us a Lydia who feels trapped. Again, the body of the poem is Lydia's lament (ll. 23-98), also more detailed but covering the same ground of regret for lost youth, distress about how to spend the time today, and jealousy of fifteen-year-old Chloe. This Chloe, however, is not Damon's wife but a rival mistress. Lydia speculates unhappily about the possible marriage and Chloe's probable behavior as a wife. She breaks down in passionate sobbing until the maid appears with bandbox and flattery. The upshot is the same—a smile and preparation for the playhouse (ll. 99-106)….

Gay's Lydia is foolish and pitiable, and Gay's sympathy for her takes away the bite of his satire; as Spacks says, "The satirist's energy disappears in … compassion." Lady Mary's Lydia is also foolish and pitiable, but she is something more—she is, … in some senses admirable as well. This quality complicates and strengthens the satire immeasurably. The world that dictates the values and behavior of such a potentially strong character is the more strongly condemned, and we regret the loss of her potentialities. We smile when Gay's Lydia stops raving and smiles. When Lady Mary's Lydia smiles, we do not….

The greater vigor of the central character and unambiguous though multipronged satire of [Montagu's] version of "The Toilette" are characteristic of her eclogues and of her attitudes in general, in both verse and prose.

To see Lady Mary's strength in prose, one can open her collected letters almost at random and find strong expression, no matter how complex the feeling she is discussing and no matter how often she changes her mind. She is particularly vigorous in her opinions of her own sex, opinions often far more purely condemnatory than those of Gay the gentle man. For instance, she praises her friend Philippa Mundy at the expense of most other women: "I wish Mr. M. may be sensible how happy he is in that uncommon thing (so rare that like the Phoenix its very existence is disputed), a Woman of Youth and Beauty without Coquetry. In this vile Town, the Universal follys of the fair, the ugly, in short, the whole sex that way ought to make all Husbands revere those Wives that have sense enough not to be led by the Croud, and Virtuous Courrage enough to stand the Laugh that will infallibly insult them with the name of Prudes." She addresses Philippa again: "I confesse, contrary to the Generallity of my Sex, I am of Opinion that both good and ill Husbands are of their Wives' makeing, for as Folly is the root of all matrimonial Quarrells, that distemper commonly runs highest of the Woman's side." Women, beware women! And foolish women are her target in all but one of her town eclogues.

Gay's town eclogues are discrete poems; Lady Mary's form a "week" from Monday through Saturday, like Gay's Shepherd's Week (1714). Written between February 1715 and July 1716, the order in which she finally arranged them is not that of composition, so it must have some rationale. It can be seen as an order of increasing complexity of satiric tone and increasing intensity of theme—the theme of loss, observed caustically in others at the beginning and drawing closer and closer to home toward the end. Neither the theme nor the organization is absolutely strict or all-pervasive; it would take a very convoluted argument indeed to force every detail, indeed every poem, into the pattern. And, of course, the theme of lost love is the standard stock-in-trade of the pastoral, urban or otherwise; Gay uses it often. Nevertheless, one can see a special treatment of that theme and a degree of coherence in Lady Mary's group of poems.

"Monday: Roxana; or The Drawing-room" is the most politically dangerous of the poems and the most personal argument ad feminam. Returning from court, oppressed by sorrows even more than her chairmen are by their "cruel load" (l. 5)—the lady is fat—Roxana laments the loss of an appointment in the Princess's household which she had expected to obtain. The satiric attack is at least two-pronged. Roxana the prude has engaged in immodest behavior, attending "filthy Plays" (l. 16) and the like, to win the favor of the Princess; the poem suggests that her prudery was hypocrisy in the first place and that her ambition, given her age (she has three grown daughters) and general unattractiveness, is foolish. The second and more dangerous prong is levelled at the Princess: if frivolous, even lewd, behavior is believed necessary to win her favor, her own standards are called into question, although Roxana hypocritically (or diplomatically) says that the Princess is miraculously virtuous in the midst of a corrupt court (l. 54). Court life in general, as well as Roxana and the Princess in particular, is satirized. Lady Mary has no sympathy for any of her objects in this poem. A personal tone gives it added bite: the young, slender, Whig Lady Mary obviously enjoyed getting her knife into the middle-aged, fat, Tory "Roxana," the Duchess of Roxburghe. Roxana's lost appointment stirred up no compassion. The verse pattern may occasionally echo Gay's "Araminta," but the tone certainly does not.

"Tuesday: St. James's Coffee-house: Silliander and Patch" is the odd poem out in the Week. It is a wonderfully funny bragging match between two gentlemen, Silliander (silly plus man [Greek: anēr, andros]) and Patch ("a paltry fellow": Johnson). They compare notes on the favors they have won from various unnamed but noble ladies—rings, shoe buckles, snuff boxes, and opportunities to view specific areas of flesh. Patch wins. Like Gay's "The Tea-table" and "Monday" in his Week, it is a parody of the pastoral singing contests in which shepherds praise the charms of their mistresses, and as such it expresses, as do all the town eclogues, a sense of the loss of rural innocence. The gentleman to whom it was addressed and the two gentlemen disguised as Silliander and Patch may have felt some loss of dignity. But the poem has no important link to the theme of loss in the rest of the group. It stands with Lady Mary's "Monday," however, as an example of satire that is relatively simple because it is entirely unsympathetic.

The tone begins to change with "Wednesday: The Tête à Tête," the one poem other than "Friday: The Toilette" in which Lady Mary uses Gay's trick of an ironic twist at the end to create satire. For eighty-two lines, the poem could be a truly rural pastoral. Dancinda laments the loss of her heart to Strephon, describing his courtship and complaining in classic style that she dare not yield to him because he would then despise her. The loving woman's eternal dilemma is expressed in conventional terms and yet with strength and passion. Real questions and real issues are raised: dare a woman confess that she loves? how can she conceal it? is love anything more than lust? how can she prove her love without losing the man who asks her to prove it? But then "She paus'd; and fix'd her Eyes upon her Fan" (l. 83), the first hint, apart from the context of the whole group of poems, that we are not in a pasture. Strephon confirms the town setting by taking a pinch of snuff in the next line, and all the lady's passionate argument is called into question. Her image of her own virtue is unequivocally destroyed when the maid knocks at the door and warns her of her husband's approach; Strephon "cursing slips down the back Stairs" (l. 92). The poem has other endings as well. Pope wanted Lady Mary to conclude, after the maid's knock, with Dancinda blaming Strephon for wasting time: "You have but listen'd when you should have kist!" Another ending, by Lady Mary, gives Strephon a speech in which he differentiates between lust and love, apparently successfully, because the lady allows him to "put out the Light, / And all that follow'd was Eternal Night." Lady Mary's first ending has the advantage of brevity, which makes the shock sharper. But all three serve the same purpose, the undercutting of the lady's lament. Yet one cannot forget that the lament raises real issues, real not only for an innocent shepherdess but also for any woman who loves in a social context that limits her sexual freedom.

This poem has a doubleness, but it is unlike Gay's doubleness, which Spacks calls "ambiguity." Gay's town eclogues arouse mixed feelings toward his characters—scorn blended with pity, contempt blended with tolerant amusement. Lady Mary's "Wednesday" creates two separate reactions: concern for the issues raised and then contempt for the lady raising them. The two levels are sharply distinguished. The issues are obviously important ones, and, being aware of the writer's sex, the reader takes them all the more seriously: here is the voice of authority and perhaps of experience. The ironic twist shows, in a flash, that the speaker is a hypocrite and either an adulteress or fast on the way to becoming one. The condemnation is unambiguous. Although she has been speaking of serious issues, she has not emerged as an individualized character, so she is easy to condemn. But the issues remain.

Concern and condemnation are not kept tidily apart in "Thursday: The Bassette Table: Smilinda, Cardelia." The satiric tone is growing more complex. The theme of loss is central: Cardelia has lost at cards and Smilinda has lost at love. The two ladies debate which loss is the greater, in pastoral singing-contest form. The terms of the two topics mix and cross: the faithless lover is a "sharper" and basset is a "passion." Both love and cards are games, as in The Rape of the Lock, and both are passions. The emphasis, however, falls upon the game, for Smilinda too plays cards and indeed lost her lover to her rival at the gaming table. Both the ladies are being satirized: one has trivialized love and the other inflated the importance of cards. They even seem to be boasting about their suffering, as each tries to top the other in detailing her pain. Both passions are uncontrollable: "I know the Bite, yet to my ruin run, / And see the Folly which I cannot shun," Cardelia laments (ll. 74-75). Cardelia loses her reason when she looks on the charms of basset (ll. 86-87), while Smilinda loses her prudence in the arms of her sharper (ll. 98-99). The lady who is to judge this contest is Betty Loveit. If this were Restoration comedy, one would expect the name to indicate simply sexual eagerness, as it does in Etherege's Man of Mode. But this Loveit "all the pains of Love and Play does know" (l. 23), having often tried both. And at the end of the poem, impatient for her tea, she awards prizes to both the contenders. The judge in Gay's "Monday" similarly declares a draw and expresses his boredom with the songs. That conclusion is purely comic, but there are satiric complexities in Loveit's judgment in Lady Mary's poem. It implies that love and cards are equally significant, or equally trivial; that both are games; that in the world of the town eclogue, all passions are the same, though perhaps the passion for tea is strongest. If we had expected love to be more important, as Loveit's name leads us to do and as our own priorities should, we find the poem's satire leveled at us because we do not understand the town.

The same strategy is part of the complexity of "Friday: The Toilette: Lydia," complicated … by the admiration we are made to feel for the emotional honesty and self-assertion of Lydia, until we find that she "raves."

"Satturday: The Small Pox: Flavia" brings the complexities to a climax. While Smilinda, the forsaken lover in "Thursday," might be modeled on Lady Mary herself, Flavia, lamenting the loss of her beauty to the ravages of smallpox, definitely is. Lady Mary, who was disfigured by the disease in 1715, said she expressed her own feelings in this poem. The value of beauty is the satiric center of the poem. In the marriage market, and in fashionable society in general, beauty was a precious commodity. Money could buy a husband when beauty was lacking, but with beauty, one had a wider field to choose from and needed rather less money. But beauty is ephemeral, especially in an age of primitive medicine and dentistry, and, like other things of the flesh, has no value for the orthodox moralist. That beauty confers power, indeed wealth, on a woman is thus evidence of the corruption of the world. Also, beauty has aesthetic value, which has nothing to do with morality and on which one cannot set a price. All this, along with the fact that the author was expressing her own feelings, creates a poem of great complexity and power.

Like "The Toilette," "The Small Pox" consists almost entirely of the protagonist's speech lamenting her loss. Flavia lies on her couch. "A Glass revers'd in her right hand she bore" (l. 3); the detail is emblematic, ceremonial, like the reversed arms of the escort in a military funeral. Flavia is now hors de combat. It is a small detail, but it sets the mock heroic tone of the poem, a tone that comes and goes throughout both Lady Mary's and Gay's town ecologues and that dominates this poem more than any other. Perhaps Lady Mary chose the mock heroic tone because the subject is beauty and its power, as in The Rape of the Lock. Certainly that tone works: its elevation and importance fit her own real feelings and the value that beauty had in her world, while its ironic gap shows the littleness of the topic from the moral point of view—the insignificance of ephemeral beauty and the wrongness of those who value it. The mock heroic poet can have it both ways.

Flavia laments, "How am I chang'd!" (l. 5), regretting the loss of her complexion "That promis'd Happyness for Years to come" (l. 8). She is already an object of satire, if she believes that beauty could last. She is morally wrong to think that it could confer happiness on its possessor. And yet, in some respects and to some extent, in this world, could it not? Flavia goes on to reveal how enchanted she used to be with her own image, as Belinda worshiped hers in The Rape of the Lock. She dwells sadly on former evidences of her power: gifts of opera tickets, cherries, china, and much attention:

Perhaps one should add this passage to the list of Pope's sources for the following lines in An Essay on Man:

Both poets are attacking pride. Pope's proud man lays claim to cosmic importance, while Flavia claims power equally vast, given the scope of her world, power to make various kinds of men contradict their own essential natures. Flavia, who is Lady Mary herself, the men, and their world are all objects of satire in these lines, and yet the grief, like some degree of the power, is real.

Next, Flavia glances around the room and exclaims over her portrait, now out of date, and her toilette, now useless. "Meaner Beauties" (l. 55) may now shine but only because they have no competition from her. The pride, the former self-worship, the boasting are all obvious. And yet, so is the sadness of her loss. Doctors had promised she would be well and beautiful again, but their oaths were false. In the last two verse paragraphs, Flavia counsels herself to "bid the World Adieu" (l. 84), since "Monarchs, and Beauties" (l. 85) are unpitied, even mocked, when they are deposed. The comparison shows her awareness that, in losing her beauty, she has lost her power. She will retire to an "obscure recess" (l. 89) from the parks, operas, and parties of the world, and hide her face "in shades" (l. 94). Real pastoral landscape is to be a retreat from the urban pastoral world, a morally superior retreat in which no false friend will pretend compassion (l. 91) and "Where Gentle streams will weep at [her] distress" (l. 90). And yet, this world, pathetic fallacy and all, is of course a fiction, a literary fiction. There is no place to hide.

Each of Lady Mary's town eclogues can stand alone as a skillfully wrought, interesting poem, sometimes complex and sometimes simple in satire, sometimes topical, sometimes autobiographical. Gay's town ecologues, with their different kind of appeal, are intended as single poems, but Lady Mary has put hers together in a series in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One's admiration for her artistic skill and control and for her penetrating vision of her social world grows as the series unfolds. That admiration reaches its peak when, at the end, she shows us herself, disfigured and in tears, making, as many poets have, good art out of grief.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423


Halsband, Robert. The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956, 313 p.

Definitive biography.


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.

——. "The Politics of Female Authorship." The Book Collector 31, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 19-37.

Discusses Montagu's reaction to the printing of her poems.

Halsband, Robert. "Ladies of Letters in the Eighteenth Century." In Stuart and Georgian Moments, edited by Earl Miner, pp. 271-91. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Comprehensive overview of Montagu's writings, contrasting her literary career with those of other eighteenth-century woman authors.

Lerner, Laurence. "Subverting the Canon." The British Journal of Aesthetics 32, No. 4 (October 1992): 347-58.

Reexamines Montagu's poems in the context of an analysis of the male-dominated canon of great poetry. Although he finds "some good poems, and a fresh perspective on love poems" in Montagu's work, Lerner maintains that there is little reason for "establishing alternative criteria of poetic merit."

Looser, Devoney. "Scolding Lady Mary Wortley Montagu? The Problematics of Sisterhood in Feminist Criticism." In Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds; Feminism and the Problem of Sisterhood, edited by Susan Ostrov Weisser and Jennifer Fleischner, pp. 44-61. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Questions Montagu's status as a "feminist authorial model" in an overview of her changing feminist reputations.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "Imaginations Warm and Tender: Pope and Lady Mary." South Atlantic Quarterly 83, No. 2 (Spring 1984): 207-15.

Examines the letters written between Montagu and Pope before their quarrel, discerning a subtext of struggle.

Van Ostade, Ingrid Tieken-Boon. "Do—Support in the Writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Change in Progress." Folia Linguistica Historica VI, No. 1 (1985): 127-51.

Analyzes Montagu's use and non-use of the word "do," "as it can be detected in the language of one single educated upper-class author."

Additional coverage of Montagu's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Literature Criticism 1400-1800, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 95, 101.

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Montagu, Mary Wortley (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Montagu, Mary Wortley (Feminism in Literature)