Mary Wortley Montagu Montagu, Mary Wortley (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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."

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."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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."

Isobel Grundy (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1386 words.)

Isobel Grundy (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5294 words.)

Robert Halsband (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 entire section is 2327 words.)

Ann Messenger (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3885 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)