1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Montagu

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 9:594-95.



It is very singular, that the wives of two first cousins of this family of Montagu should thus stand at the head of the Nation for epistolary genius. The lately-published Letters of Mrs. Montagu give her a clear superiority over Lady Mary. Mrs. Montagu was born at York, Oct. 2, 1720. Her Father was grandson of Sir Leonard Robinson, youngest son of Thomas Robinson, esq. of Rokeby in Yorkshire; from whose eldest son was descended Sir Thomas Robinson, of Rokeby, bart. and his brother Dr. Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, who was created Baron Rokeby, of Armagh, with remainder to the Robinsons of West Layton; in consequence of which, Mrs. Montagu's brother, Matthew Robinson, of Mount-Morris, succeeded to that honour in 1794; which, at his death in November 1800, descended to her nephew Morris Robinson. Her mother, Elizabeth Drake, was a Cambridge heiress; and during her residence in that county she derived great assistance in her education from Dr. Middleton, author of The Life of Cicero, whom her maternal grandmother had taken as a second husband. Her extraordinary talents, as well as beauty, appeared from her earliest childhood. At this period she formed an intimacy of Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley, who in 1734 married the late Duke of Portland. This was cemented by her frequent visits to Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, then the seat of Lord Orford. Her Letters to this Correspondent, which are preserved from her twelfth year, shew her astonishing prematurity of wit and language. Her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakspeare, in answer to the frivolous objects of Voltaire, must always rank with the best Illustrations of our great English Poet. Her work is not an elaborate exposition of obscure passages, but a comprehensive survey of the sublimity of his genius, of his profound knowledge of human nature, and of the wonderful resources of his imagination. But such was the inimitable excellence of her Letters, by which she carried on an intercourse with a large portion of the Literati of her time, till the close of her long life, that all agreed in entreating that on some future day they might be published. Lord Lyttelton and Lord Bath, in particular her favourite friends, repeatedly urged it, as considering that they exhibit the fertility and versatility of her powers of understanding, and the excellence of her disposition, in a more complete manner than any other species of composition. The same request was made by Dr. Young, Mr. Gilbert West, Lord Chatham, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Stillingfleet, Lord Kaimes, Dr. Beattie, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Burke, Mrs. Carter, and Mrs. Vesey. Two volumes of her Letters were published by her nephew and executor, Matthew Montagu, esq. M.P. 8vo. 1809; which were followed by two more in 1813.