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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


Born on May 15, 1689 to Evelyn and Mary Pierrepont, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is remembered primarily as a letter writer. Her father was a wealthy Whig who later became the Marquess of Dorchester, and Lady Mary, like other aristocratic women of her time, was educated at home. In her father's library she secretly taught herself Latin, and by 1710 she had translated Epictetus' Enchiridion and sent a copy to a London bishop with a letter advocating a woman's right to formal education. Such independence of mind would characterize her entire adult life. Known for her flamboyant behavior, Montagu often wore elaborate Turkish clothing and took snuff; in her poems, too, Lady Mary exhibited an uncommon independence, wit, and candor.

In 1712 Lady Mary eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu, a Whig M.P. like her father. Her first poems would appear shortly thereafter, under the pseudonym "Lady President." In 1716 her husband was appointed ambassador to Constantinople; while traveling with him in Turkey, Lady Mary wrote what would become her most widely-known work—the "Turkish Embassy Letters." Although many of these letters were written to specific friends, she also took the opportunity to address a larger audience on subjects such as the patriarchal legal system. As per her wishes, the letters were not published until one year after her death.

Although her marriage would gradually fail, through her husband and his friendship with Joseph Addison Lady Mary met many of the writers of her generation, including Alexander Pope and John Gay. Her relationship with Pope began on friendly terms—he admired her wit and exuberance—but they would later have a very public falling out: Pope attacked her in print as a "Sappho" and Lady Mary returned the favor with a scathing satire of Pope, VERSES Address'd to the IMITATOR of the FIRST SATIRE of the Second Book of Horace (1733).

Like her peers, Lady Mary wrote in many of the forms of Augustan verse—satires, mock epics, translations, and ballads. By all accounts, she often wrote at the spur of the moment with little revision. Her poems maintain some of this casual feel. Nonetheless, they reveal a strikingly independent and clever mind. They appeared sporadically during her life and were first collected posthumously in 1768. Lady Mary spent the latter part of her life traveling in Europe, primarily in France and Italy. She died on August 21, 1762.

By This Poet


Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband

Think not this paper comes with vain pretense
To move your pity, or to mourn th' offense. 
Too well I know that hard obdurate heat;
No softening mercy there will take my part,
Nor can a woman's arguments prevail,
When even your patron's wise example fails.
But this last privilege I still retain;
Th' oppressed and injured always may complain
    Too, too severely laws of honor bind
The weak submissive sex of womankind.
If sighs have gained or force compelled our hand, 
Deceived by art, or urged by stern command,
Whatever motive binds the fatal tie,
The judging world expects our constancy.
    Just heaven! (for sure in heaven does justice reign,
Though tricks below that sacred name profane)
To you appealing I submit my cause,
Nor fear a judgment from impartial laws.
All bargains but conditional are made;
The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;
Defrauded servants are from service free;
A wounded slave regains his liberty.
For wives ill used no remedy remains,
To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.
    From whence is this unjust distinction grown?
Are we not formed with passions like your own?
Nature with equal fire our souls endued,
Our minds as haughty, and as warm as our blood;
O'er the wide world your pleasures you pursue,
The change is justified by something new;
But we must sigh in silence--and be true.
Our sex's weakness you expose and blame
(Of every prattling fop the common theme),
Yet from this weakness you suppose is due
Sublimer virtue that your Cato knew.
Had heaven designed us trials so severe,
It would have formed our tempers then to bear.
    And I have borne (oh what have I not borne!)
The pang of jealousy, the insults of scorn.
Wearied at length, I from your sight remove,
And place my future hopes in secret love.
In the gay bloom of glowing youth retired,
I quit the woman's joy to be admired,
With that small pension your hard heart allows,
Renounce your fortune, and release your vows.
To custom (though unjust) so much is due;
I hide my frailty from the public view.
My conscience clear, yet sensible of shame,
My life I hazard, to preserve my fame.
And I prefer this low inglorious state
To vile dependence on the thing I hate--
But you pursue me to this last retreat.
Dragged into light, my tender crime is shown
And every circumstance of fondness known.
Beneath the shelter of the law you stand,
And urge my ruin with a cruel hand,
While to my fault thus rigidly severe,
Tamely submissive to the man you fear.
    This wretched outcast, this abandoned wife,
Has yet this joy to sweeten shameful life:
By your mean conduct, infamously loose,
You are at once my accuser and excuse.
Let me be damned by the censorious prude
(Stupidly dull, or spiritually lewd),
My hapless case will surely pity find
From every just and reasonable mind.
When to the final sentence I submit,
The lips condemn me, but their souls acquit.
    No more my husband, to your pleasures go,
The sweets of your recovered freedom know.
Go: court the brittle friendship of the great,
Smile at his board, or at his levee wait;
And when dismissed, to madam's toilet fly,
More than her chambermaids, or glasses, lie,
Tell her how young she looks, how heavenly fair,
Admire the lilies and the roses there.
Your high ambition may be gratified,
Some cousin of her own be made your bride,
And you the father of a glorious race
Endowed with Ch----l's strength and Low----r's face.