Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Court Poems (earliest anon. publication, 1713)

Genre: satirical lyrics, though she was principally known for her letters, especially those written from Turkey (1st ed. 1763), and those written from her exile in Brescia [Italy] which were included in later editions.  Lady Mary's actual correspondence should not be confused with the English literary "epistle," which she also wrote.  The epistle is a public letter in the form of a poem, and a letter on the topic of Mrs. Yonge's divorce follows the tradition established by Ovid in his Heroides, a sequence of poems written from women of classical myth to the heroes who had betrayed and abandoned them.  (Clearly there is some irony intended in this classical allusion, since Mr. Yonge hardly could be considered "heroic.")

Form: Turkish Embassy Letters XXVI and XXXI are a form of polished personal correspondence that is meant to be read by the public.  Its style puts it on the path toward the "epistolary novel" (Richardson's Pamela or Fanny Burney's Evelina), as well as the travel narrative or philosophical essay, which the letters would become if simply stripped of direct reference to a correspondent.  See the poem, "Epistle," for a poetic form of the same strategy.  "The Lover: A Ballad" is set in eight-line stanzas composed of iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets.   Note these are not the popular ballad stanzas as described by Abrams in the glossary of terms at the back of the Norton, poems which build four-line stanzas out of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines rhyming abab. "Epistle from Mrs. Young to Her Husband" is composed in rhyming tetrameter couplets with very free mingling of iambs with dactyls and anapests to achieve a colloquial tone, like the verse of Matthew Prior.

Characters: Montagu could use both the type-characters of Prior's satiric lyrics and the direct satire of living persons of the Old Comedy.  The "Epistle" is an outstanding example of this, giving the abominably treated Mrs. Yonge a voice to answer the public humiliations and impoverishment heaped upon her by her hypocritical husband.  Its heroic epistle structure, though clearly suggested by Ovid's Heroides (see above), also could be compared with Pilate's wife's speech to "Pilate" defending "Eve" in Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

Summary:

Turkish Embasy Letters XXVI and XXXI--Montagu adopts the convention of writing as one noblewoman to another, complete with the obligatory modesty-trope of using only their initials and dashes to "disguise" their names (though everyone in London's small "world" soon knows who they are by gossip).  The discussion of the Turkish women's bathhouse or bagnio is strikingly open-minded in its discussion of nakedness, fashions, and the entire issue of cultural difference.  Compare her description of the Turkish women's reaction to the English women's clothing with Behn's description of the Amerindians' response in Oroonoko.  Which one seems more "modern" and which more "provincial" or nationalistic?  The discussion of smallpox vaccination has both literary and scientific importance.  Wikipedia will tell you (or did on 11/26/12 at 4:10 PM) that Edward Jenner was the first to pubicize vaccination to prevent smallpox in 1796.  Yet this letter predates Jenner's scientific announcement by 59 years.  See Montagu's discussion of English doctors for a clue as to why they did not immediately adopt this preventative method sooner.

"The Lover"--click here to read the poem, which was cut in the shift from the eighth to the ninth edition.  The poem's characterization of the typical relations between men and women creates Montagu's ideal by posing a "mean between extremes" wherein those extremes of typical male behavior are described in rapid succession for the first three stanzas.   The fourth through sixth stanzas imagine the ideal relationship as one in which "friend and lover [are] handsomely mixed" (34).  Montagu's gentle satire of male foibles also admits a degree of foolishness in her own nature as a result of the social conventions that both must participate in, so that they approach their ideal only when removed from public life to the private sphere wherein "He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud" (30).  The conclusion's reference to Ovid alludes to The Metamorphoses'   tales of women transformed into vegetable or mineral or liquid form by their attempts to evade the usual array of divine thug-wooers.

"Epistle" addresses Mr. Yonge only in name, but its true intended audience is "Just heaven," from whom the speaker invokes a righteous revenge (15).  As in Astell's critique of marriage (and the Wife of Bath's), the poem attacks the common male presumption that the female will be a kind of superior sort of servant, and it does so by invoking the Hobbsian notion of justice based on covenants made (19-24).  The comparison of wives and slaves also suggests Behn's Oroonoko may have some relevance to Montagu's analysis of the relationship.  She also alludes directly to Shylock's appeal for equal treatment for Jews in The Merchant of Venice in l. 26, and by inference suggests that the law of "Nature" condemns any attempt to argue a radical difference between men and women on the grounds of "biology."   When the speaker ("Mrs. Yonge") comes to admit her adulterous affair, she turns the indictment back upon her own notoriously unfaithful husband and takes comfort in the divorce he demanded as freeing her from his tyranny.  The farewell (69-80) resembles Donne, Dryden and Swift in its satire of the rake's demeaning pursuit of status among the nobility.


Issues and Research Sources:

  1. When reading Montagu's letters from Turkey, how would you characterize her tone when describing cultural differences which challenged her English expectations?  Compare the view of Italian culture in Jonson's Volpone, and Behn on the African and Amerindian cultures in Oroonoko.  What kind of changes may be occuring in English culture as a result of its increasing contact with cultures other than its own?
  2. After reading Montagu's view of gender relations in the early eighteenth century, how would you compare them with the view of women's and men's lives in the earlier poets?  Especially consider Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Wyatt's and Sidney's description of their beloveds' behavior, and the responses from Lanyer and Astell.
    • Are we seeing progress here, or are there signs that things grow less equitable, less acceptable, in some historical periods?
  3. Montagu's capacity for deft wit often brings her into collections of "epigrams," short and witty poems treasured for their succinct expression of a just judgment.  Compare, for instance, her short poem which describes a famous male author of etiquette guides in a moment with his mistress: "Be plain in dress, and sober in your diet, / In short, my deary, kiss me! and be quiet."
    • How does such a short poem differ in its effects and strategies for achieving them from a longer lyric or an epic?
    • What kinds of cultural context does it require to communicate with its readers?
    • In what kinds of cultural settings would such epigrams be recited, and how might that affect their subjects?

    For the text of this poem and a host of others, see the hyperlink to the Brown University Women Writers Project, below.

  4. For an extensive biography of Montagu, followed by excerpts from her letters and her occasional verse, click here.
  5. Other sites which offer scholarly editions of previously unpublished works by women who wrote during the Renaissance, Restoration, and 18th century include the Brown University Women Writers Project, and the Emory Women Writers Resource Project at Emory University's Lewis H. Beck Center.  The Brown site has an exceptionally large text base of edited Renaissance women writers, and the Emory site's strength is its unedited (as in previously unpublished) texts.  These are being used as part of Emory's graduate program to teach editing practices.  To see Professor Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click here.

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