1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Pope

Anna Brownell Jameson, "The Loves of Pope" Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 455-78.



If the soul of sensibility, which I believe Pope really possessed, had been inclosed in a healthful frame and an agreeable person, we might have reckoned him among our "preux chevaliers," and have had sonnets instead of satires. But he seems to have been ever divided between two contending feelings. He was peculiarly sensible to the charms of women, and his habits as a valetudinarian, rendered their society and attention not only soothing and delightful, but absolutely necessary to him: while, unhappily, there mingled with this real love for them, and dependence on them as a sex, the most irascible self-love; and a torturing consciousness of that feebleness and deformity of person, which imbittered all his intercourse with them. He felt that, in his character of poet, he could, by his homage, flatter their vanity, and excite their admiration and their fear; but, at the same time, he was shivering under the apprehension that, as a man, they regarded him with contempt; and that he could never hope to awaken in a female bosom any feelings corresponding with his own. So far he was unjust to us and to himself: his friend Lord Lyttelton, and his enemy Lord Hervey, might have taught him better.

On reviewing Pope's life, his works, and his correspondence, it seems to me that these two opposite feelings contending in his bosom from youth to age, will account for the general character of his poems with a reference to our sex: — will explain why women bear so prominent a part in all his works, whether as objects of poetical gallantry, honest admiration, or poignant satire: why there is not among all his productions more than one poem decidedly amatory, (and that one partly suppressed in the ordinary editions of his works,) while women only have furnished him with the materials of all his chef-d'oeuvres: his Elegy, his Rape of the Lock, the Epistle of Heloise, and the second of his Moral Essays. He may call us, and prove us, in his antithetical style, "a contradiction:" but we may retort; for, as far as women are concerned, Pope was himself one miserable antithesis.

The Elegy to the memory of an unfortunate Lady, refers to a tragedy which occurred in Pope's early life, and over which he has studiously drawn an impenetrable veil. When his friend Mr. Caryl wrote to him on the subject, many years after the Elegy was published, Pope, in his reply, left this part of the letter unnoticed; and a second application was equally unsuccessful. His biographers are not better informed. Johnson remarks upon the Elegy, that it commemorates the "amorous fury of a raving girl, who liked self-murder better than suspense;" and having given this deadly stroke with his critical fang, the grim old lion of literature stalks on and "stays no farther question." But is this merciful, or is it just? by what right does he sit in judgment on the unhappy dead, of whom he knew nothing? or how could he tell by what course of suffering, disease, or tyranny, a gentle spirit may have been goaded to frenzy? It was said, on the authority of some French author, that she was secretly attached to one of the French princes: that, in consequence, her uncle and guardian ("the mean deserter of a brother's blood,") forced her into a convent, where, in despair and madness, she put an end to her existence; and that the lines

Why bade ye else, ye powers! her soul aspire
Above the vulgar flight of low desire?
Ambition first sprung from your blest abodes;
The glorious fault of angels and of gods,—

refer to this ambitious passion. But then again, this has been contradicted. Warton's story is improbable and inconsistent with the poem; and the assertion of another author, that she was in love with Pope, and as deformed as himself, is most unlikely. "O ever beauteous, ever friendly!" is rather a strange style of apostrophizing one deformed in person; and exposed to misery, and driven to suicide, by a passion for himself. In short, it is all mystery, wonder, and conjecture.

Other women who have been loved, celebrated, or satirized by Pope, are at least more notorious, if — not so interesting. His most lasting and real attachment, was that which he entertained for Theresa and Martha Blount, who alternately, or with divided empire, reigned in his heart or fancy for five-and-thirty years. They were of an old Roman Catholic family of Oxfordshire; and his acquaintance with them appears to have begun as early as 1707, when he was only nineteen. Theresa, the handsomest and most intelligent of the two sisters, was a brunette, with black sparkling eyes. Martha was short in stature, fair, with blue eyes, and a softer expression. They appear to have been tolerably amiable, and much attached to each other: "au reste," in no way distinguished, but by the flattering admiration of a celebrated man, who has immortalized both.

The verses addressed to them, convey in general, either counsel or compliment, or at the most playful gallantry. His letters express something beyond these. He began by admiring Theresa; then he wavered; there were misunderstandings, and petulance, and mutual bickerings. His susceptibility exposed him to be continually wounded; he felt deeply and acutely; he was conscious that he could inspire no sentiment corresponding with that which throbbed at his own heart: and some passages in the correspondence cannot be read without a painful pity. At length, upon some mutual offence, his partiality for Theresa was transferred to Martha. In one of his last letters to Theresa, he says, beautifully and feelingly, "We are too apt to resent things too highly, till we come to know, by some great misfortune or other, how much we are born to endure; and as for me, you need not suspect of resentment a soul which can feel nothing but grief."

His attachment to Martha increased after his quarrel with Lady Mary W. Montagu, and ended only with his life.

"He was never," says Mr. Bowles, "indifferent to female society; and though his good sense prevented him, conscious of so many personal infirmities, from marrying, yet he felt the want of that sort of reciprocal tenderness and confidence in a female, to whom he might freely communicate his thoughts, and on whom, in sickness and infirmity, he could rely. All this Martha Blount became to him; by degrees, she became identified with his existence. She partook of his disappointments, his vexatious, and his comforts. Wherever lie went, his correspondence with her was never remitted; and when the warmth of gallantry was over, the cherished idea of kindness and regard remained."

To Martha Blount is addressed the compliment on her birthday—

Oh be thou blest with all that heaven can send,—

Long health, long youth, long pleasure, and a friend!

And an epistle sent to her, with the works of Voiture, in which he advises her against marriage, in this elegant and well-known passage,—

Too much your sex are by their forms confin'd,
Severe to all, but most to womankind;
Custom, grown blind with age, must be your guide;
Your pleasure is a vice, but not your pride.
By nature yielding, stubborn but for fame,
Made slaves by honor, and made fools by shame.
Marriage may all those petty tyrants chase,
But sets up one, a greater, in their place:
Well might you wish for change, by those accurst,
But the last tyrant ever proves the worst.
Still in constraint your suffering sex remains,
Or bound in formal or in real chains:
Whole years neglected, for some months adored,
The fawning servant turns a haughty lord.
Ah, quit not the free innocence of life
For the dull glory of a virtuous wife!
Nor let false shows, nor empty titles please,—
Aim not at joy, but rest content with ease.

Very excellent advice, and very disinterested, considering whence it came, and to whom it was addressed!!

The poem generally placed after this in his works, and entitled Epistle to the same Lady, on leaving town after the Coronation, was certainly not addressed to Martha, but to Theresa. It appears from the correspondence, that Martha was not at the Coronation in 1715, and that Theresa was. The whole tenor of this poem is agreeable to the sprightly person and character of Theresa, while "Parthenia's softer blush," evidently alludes to Martha. From an examination of the letters which were written at this time, I should imagine, that though Pope had previously assured the latter that she had gained the conquest over her fair sister, yet the public appearance of Theresa at the Coronation, and her superior charms, revived all his tenderness and admiration, and suggested this gay and pleasing effusion.

In some fair evening, on your elbow laid,
You dream of triumphs in the rural shade;
In pensive thought recall the fancy'd scene,
See coronations rise on every green.
Before you pass th' imaginary sights
Of lords, and earls, and dukes, and garter'd knights,
While the spread fan o'ershades your closing eyes,—
Then give one flirt, and all the vision flies.
Thus vanish sceptres, coronets, and balls,
And leave you in lone woods or empty walls!

To Martha Blount is dedicated the Epistle on the Characters of Women; which concludes with this elegant and flattering address to her.

O! blest with temper, whose unclouded ray
Can make to-morrow cheerful as to-day;
She who can love a sister's charms, or hear
Sighs for a daughter with unwounded ear;
She who ne'er answers till a husband cools,
Or if she rules him, never shows she rules;
Charms by accepting, by submitting sways,
Yet has her humor most when she obeys;
Let fops or fortune fly which way they will,
Disdains all loss of tickets or codille;
Spleen, vapors, or smallpox, above them all,
And mistress of herself though China fall.

The allusion to her affection for her sister, is just and beautiful; but the compliment to her temper is understood not to have been quite merited — perhaps, was rather administered as a corrective; for Martha was weak and captious; and Pope, who had suffered what torments a female wit could inflict, possibly found that peevishness and folly have also their "desagremens." He complains frequently, in his letters to Martha, of the difficulty of pleasing her, or understanding her wishes. Methinks, had I been a poet, or Pope, I would rather have been led about in triumph by the spirited, accomplished Lady Mary, than "chained to the footstool of two paltry girls."

They used to employ him constantly in the most trifling and troublesome commissions, in which he had seldom even the satisfaction of contenting them. He was accustomed to send them little presents almost daily, as concert tickets, ribbons, fruit, &c. He once sent them a basket of peaches, which, with an affectation of careless gallantry, were separately wrapped in part of the manuscript translation of the Iliad: and he humbly requests them to return the wrappers, as he had no other copy. On another occasion he sent them fans, on which were inscribed his famous lines, "'Come, gentle air,' th' Eolian shepherd said," &c.

Martha Blount was not so kind or so attentive to Pope in his last illness as she ought to have been. His love for her seemed blended with his frail existence; and when he was scarcely sensible to any thing else in the world, he was still conscious of the charm of her presence. "When she came into the room," says Spence, "it was enough to give a new turn to his spirits, and a temporary strength to him."

She survived him eighteen years, and died unmarried at her house in Berkeley Square, in 1762. She is described, about that time, as a little, fair, prim old woman, very lively, and inclined to gossip. Her undefined connection with Pope, though it afforded matter for mirth and wonder, never affected her reputation while living; and has rendered her name as immortal as our language and our literature. One cannot help wishing that she had been more interesting, and more worthy of her fame.

In the same year with Martha Blount, and about the same age, died Lady Mary W. Montagu. Every body knows that she was one of Pope's early loves. She had, for several years, suspended his attachment to his first favorites, the Blounts; and she really deserved the preference. But the issue of this romantic attachment was the most bitter, the most irreconcilable enmity. The cause did not proceed so much from any one particular offence on either side, but rather from a multitude of trifling causes, arising naturally out of the characters of both.

When they first met, Pope was about six-and-twenty; and from the recent publication of the Rape of the Lock, and The Temple of Fame, &c., had reached the pinnacle of fashion and reputation. Lady Mary was in her twenty-third year, lately married to a man she loved, and had just burst upon the world in all the blaze of her wit and beauty. Her masculine acquirements and powers of mind — her strong good sense — her extensive views — her frankness, decision, and generosity — her vivacity, and her bright eyes, must altogether have rendered her one of the most fascinating, as she really was one of the most extraordinary, women that ever lived.

There stands, in a conspicuous part of this great city, a certain monument, erected, it is said, at the cost of the ladies of Britain; but in a spirit and taste which, I trust, are not those of my countrywomen at large. Is this our patriotism? We may applaud the brave, who go forth to battle to defend us, and preserve inviolate the sanctity of our hearths and homes; but does it become us to lend our voice to exult in victory, always bought at the expense of suffering, and aggravate the din and the clamor of war — we, who ought to be the peace-makers of the world, and plead for man against his own fierce passions? A huge brazen image stands up, an impudent (false) witness of our martial enthusiasm; but who amongst us has thought of raising a public statue to Lady Wortley Montagu! to her who has almost banished from the world that pest which once extinguished families and desolated provinces? To her true patriotic spirit, — to her magnanimity, her generous perseverance, in surmounting all obstacles raised by the outcry of ignorance, and the obstinacy of prejudice, we owe the introduction of inoculation; — she ought to stand in marble beside Howard the good.

I should imagine that a strong impression must have been made on Lady Mary's mind by an incident which occurred just at the time she left England for Constantinople. Lord Petre, — he who is consecrated to fame in the Rape of the Lock, as the ravisher of Arabella Fermour's hair, — died of the smallpox at the age of three-and-twenty, just after his marriage with a young and beautiful heiress; his death caused a general sympathy, and added to the dread and horror which was inspired by this terrible disease: eighteen persons of his family had died of it within. twenty-seven years. In those days it was not even allowable to mention, or allude to it in company.

Mr. Wortley was appointed to the Turkish embassy in 1716, and his wife accompanied him. The letters which passed between her and Pope, during her absence, are well known. In point of style and liveliness, the superiority is on the lady's side; but the tone of feeling in Pope is better, more earnest; his language is not always within the bounds of that sprightly gallantry with which a man naturally addresses a young, beautiful, and virtuous woman, who had condescended to allow his homage.

In one of his letters, written immediately after her departure, he asks her how he had looked? how he had behaved at the last moment? whether he had betrayed any deeper feeling than propriety might warrant? "For if," he says, "my parting looked like that of a common acquaintance, I am the greatest of all hypocrites that ever decency made." And in a subsequent letter he says, very feelingly and significantly, "May that person (her husband) for whom you have left the world, be so just as to prefer you to all the world. I believe his good sense leads him to do so now, as gratitude will hereafter. May you continue to think him worthy of whatever you have done! may you ever look upon him with the eyes of a first lover, nay, if possible, with all the unreasonable happy fondness of an unexperienced one, surrounded with all the enchantments and ideas of romance and poetry! I wish this from my heart; and while I examine what passes there in regard to you, I cannot but glory in my own heart, that it is capable of so much generosity."

This was sufficiently clear. I need scarcely remark, en passant, that Pope's generosity and wishes were all "en pure perte;" his spitefulness must have been gratified by the sequel of Lady Mary's domestic bliss; her marriage ended in disgust and aversion; which, on her separation from Mr. Wortley, subsided into a good-humored indifference.

After a union of twenty-seven years, she parted from him and went to reside abroad. There were errors on both sides; but I am obliged to admit that Lady Mary, with all her fine qualities, had two faults, — intolerable and unpardonable faults in the eyes of a husband or a lover. She wanted softness of mind, and refinement of feeling, in the first place; and she wanted — how shall I express it? — she wanted neatness and personal delicacy; and was in short, that odious thing, a female sloven, as well as that dangerous thing, a female wit.

In those days the style of dress was the most hideous imaginable. The women wore a large quantity of artificial hair, in emulation of the tremendous periwigs of the men; and Pope, in one of his letters to Lady Mary, mentions her "full-bottomed wig," which, he says, "I did but assert to be a bob," and was answered, "Love is blind!" On her return from Turkey, she sometimes allowed her own fine dark hair to flow loose, and was fond of dressing in her Turkish costume. In this she was imitated by several beautiful women of the day, and particularly by her lovely contemporary, Lady Fanny Shirley, (Chesterfield's "Fanny, blooming fair:" he seems to have admired her as much as he could possibly admire any thing, next to himself and the Graces.) In her picture at Clarendon Park, she too appears in the habit of Fatima. Apropos, to the loves of the poets, Lady Fanny deserves to be mentioned as the theme of all the rhymesters, and "the joy, the wish, the wonder, the despair," of all the beaux of her day.

But it is time to return to Pope. The epistle of Heloise to Abelard was published during Lady Mary's absence, and sent to her: and it is clear from a passage in one of his letters, that he wished her to consider the last lines, — from "And sure, if fate some future bard shall join," down to "He best can paint them, who can feel them most," as applicable to himself and to his feelings towards her.

And yet, whatever might have been his devotion to Lady Mary before she went abroad, it was increased tenfold after her memorable travels. At present, when ladies of fashion make excursions of pleasure to the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Babylon, a journey to Constantinople is little more than a trip to Rome or Vienna; but in the last age it was a prodigious and marvellous undertaking; and Lady Mary, on her return, was gazed upon as an object of wonder and curiosity, and sought as the most entertaining person in the world: her sprightliness and her beauty, her oriental stories and her Turkish costume, were the rage of the day. With Pope, she was on the most friendly terms: — by his interference and negotiation, a house was procured for her and Mr. Wortley, at Twickenham, so that their intercourse was almost constant. When he finished his translation of the Iliad, in 1720, Gay wrote him a complimentary poem, in which he enumerates the host of friends who welcomed the poet home from Greece; and among them, Lady Mary stands conspicuous.

What lady's that to whom he gently bends?
Who knows not her! Ah, those are Wortley's eyes;
How art thou honored, numbered with her friends,—
For she distinguishes the good and wise!

To this period we may also refer the composition of the Stanzas to Lady Mary, which begin, "In beauty and wit." The measure is trivial and disagreeable, but the compliments are very sprightly and pointed.

She sat to Kneller for him in her Turkish dress; and we have the following note from him on the subject, which shows how much he felt the condescension.

"The picture dwells really at my heart, and I have made a perfect passion of preferring your present face to your past. I know and thoroughly esteem yourself of this year. I know no more of Lady Mary Pierrepoint than to admire at what I have heard of her, or be pleased with some fragments of hers, as I am with Sappho's. But now — I cannot say what I would say of you now. Only still give me cause to say you are good to me, and allow me as much of your person as Sir Godfrey can help me to. Upon conferring with him yesterday, I find he thinks it absolutely necessary to draw your face first, which, he says, can never be set right on your figure, if the drapery and posture be finished before. To give you as little trouble as possible, he purposes to draw your face with crayons, and finish it up at your own house of a morning; from whence he will transfer it to canvas, so that you need not go to sit at his house. This, I must observe, is a manner they seldom draw any but crowned heads, and I observe it with a secret pride and pleasure. Be so kind as to tell me if you care, he should do this to-morrow at twelve. Though, if I am but assured from you of the thing, let the manner and time be what you best like; let every decorum you please be observed. I should be very unworthy of any favor from your bands, if I desired any at the expense of your quiet or conveniency in any degree."

He was charmed with the picture, and composed an extemporary compliment, beginning

The playful smiles around the dimpled mouth,
That happy air of majesty and truth, &c.

which considering that they are Pope's, are strangely defective in rhyme, in sense, and in grammar. In a far different strain are the beautiful lines addressed to Gay during Lady Mary's absence from Twickenham, and which he afterwards endeavored to suppress. They are curious on this account, as well as for being the solitary example of amatory verse contained in his works.

Ah friend! 'tis true, — this truth you lovers know,
In vain my structures rise, my gardens grow;
In vain fair Thames reflects the double scenes,
Of hanging mountains, and of sloping greens;
Joy lives not here, to happier seats it flies,
And only dwells where Wortley casts her eyes.

What are the gay parterre, the checkered shade,
The morning bower, the evening colonnade,
But soft recesses of uneasy minds,
To sigh unheard in to the passing winds?
So the struck deer, in some sequester'd part,
Lies down to die, the arrow at his heart;
There, stretch'd unseen in coverts hid from day,
Bleeds drop by drop, and pants his life away.

These sweet and musical lines, which fall on the ear with such a lulling harmony, are dashed with discord when we remember that the same woman who inspired them, was afterwards malignantly and coarsely designated as the Sappho of his satires. The generous heart never coolly degraded and ill-suited what it has once loved; but Pope could not be magnanimous, — it was not in his spiteful nature to forgive. He says of himself,

Who'er offends, at some unlucky time
Slides into verse, and hitches in a rhyme.

One of Pope's biographers [Author's note: Mr. Bowles] seems to insinuate, that he had been led on, by the lady's coquetry, to presume too far, and in consequence received a repulse which he never forgave. This is not probable: Pope was not likely to be so desperate or dangerous an admirer; nor, was Lady Mary, who had written with her diamond ring on a window,

Let this great maxim be my virtue's guide:
In part, she is to blame that has been tried,—
He comes too near, that comes to be denied!—

at all likely to expose herself to such ridiculous audacity. The truth is, I rather imagine, that there was a great deal of vanity on both sides; that the lady was amused and flattered, and the poet bewitched and in earnest: that size gave the first offence by some pointed sarcasm or personal ridicule, in which she was an adept, and that Pope, gradually awakened from his dream of adoration, was stung to the quick by her laughing scorn, and mortified and irritated by the consciousness of his wasted attachment. He makes this confession with extreme bitterness,

Yet soft by nature, more a dupe than wit,
Sappho can tell you how this man was bit.
Prologue to the Satires.

The lines as they stand in a first edition are even more pointed and significant, and have much more asperity.

Once, and but once, his heedless youth was bit
And liked that dangerous thing, a female wit.
Safe as he thought, though all the prudent chid,
He wrote no libels, but my lady did;
Great odds in amorous or poetic game,
Where woman's is the sin, and man's the shame!

The result was a deadly and interminable feud. Lady Mary might possibly have inflicted the first private offence, but Pope gave the first public affront. A man who, under such circumstances, could grossly satirize a female, would, in a less civilized state of society, have revenged himself with a blow. The brutality and cowardice were the same.

The war of words did not, however, proceed at once to such extremity; the first indication of Pope's revolt from his sworn allegiance, and a conscious hint of the secret cause, may be found in some lines addressed to a lady poetess, to whom he pays a compliment at Lady Mary's expense.

Though sprightly Sappho force our love and praise,
A softer wonder my pleased soul surveys,—
The mild Erinna blushing in her bays;
So while the sun's broad beam yet strikes time sight,
All mild appears the moon's more sober light.
Serene in virgin majesty she shines,
And unobserved, the glaring orb declines.

Soon after appeared that ribald and ruffianlike attack on her in the satires. She sent Lord Peterborough to remonstrate with Pope, to whom he denied the intended application; and his disavowal is a proved falsehood. Lady Mary, exasperated, forgot her good sense and her feminine dignity, and made common cause with Lord Hervey (the Lord Fanny and the Sporus of the Satires). They concocted an attack in verse, addressed to the imitator of Horace; but nothing could be more unequal than such a warfare. Pope, in return, grasped the blasting and volleyed lightnings of his wit, and would have annihilated both his adversaries, if more than half a grain of truth had been on his side. But posterity has been just; in his anger, he overcharged his weapon, it recoiled, and the engineer has been "hoisted by his own petard."

Lady Mary's personal negligence afforded grounds for Pope's coarse and severe allusions to the "color of her linen," &c. His asperity, however, did not reform her in this respect: it was a fault which increased with age and foreign habits. Horace Walpole, who met her at Florence twenty years afterwards, draws a hateful and disgusting picture of her, as "old, dirty, tawdry, painted," and flirting and gambling with all the young men in the place. But Walpole is terribly satirical; he had a personal dislike to Lady Mary Wortley, whom he coarsely designates as Moll Worthless, — and his description is certainly overcharged. How differently the same characters will strike different people! Spence, who also met Lady Mary abroad, about that time, thus writes to his mother: "I always desired to be acquainted with Lady Mary, and could never bring it about, though we were so often together in London. Soon after we came to this place, her ladyship came here, and in five days I was well acquainted with her. She is one of the most shining characters in the world, — but shines like a comet: she is all irregularity, and always wandering: the most wise, most imprudent, loveliest, most disagreeable, best-natured, cruellest woman in the world!" Walpole could see nothing but her dirt and her paint. Those who recollect his coarse description, and do not remember her letters to her daughter, written from Italy about the same time, would do well to refer to them as a corrective it is always so easy to be satirical and ill-natured, and sometimes so difficult to be just and merciful!

The cold scornful levity with which she treated certain topics, is mingled with touches of tenderness and profound thought, which show her to have been a disappointed, not a heartless woman. The extreme care with which she cultivated pleasurable feelings and ideas, and shrunk from all disagreeable impressions; her determination never to view her own face in a glass, after the approach of age, or to pronounce the name of her mad, profligate son, may be referred to a cause very different from either selfishness or vanity: but I think the principle was mistaken. While she was amusing herself with her silk-worms and orangerie at Como, her husband Wortley, with whom she kept up a constant correspondence, was hoarding money and drinking tokay to keep himself alive. He died, however, in 1761; and that he was connected with the motives, whatever those were, which induced Lady Mary to reside abroad is proved by the fact, that the moment she heard of his death she prepared to return to England, and she reached London in January, 1762. "Lady Mary is arrived," says Walpole, writing to George Montagu. "I have seen her. I think her avarice, her dirt, and her vivacity, are all increased. Her dress, like her language, is a galimatias of several countries. She needs no cap, no handkerchief, no gown, no petticoat, no shoes; an old black-laced hood represents the first; the fur of a horseman's coat, which replaces the third, serves for the second; a dimity petticoat is deputy, and officiates for the fourth; and slippers act the part of the last." About six months after her arrival she died in the arms of her daughter, the Countess of Bute, of a cruel and shocking disease, the agonies of which she had borne with heroism rather than resignation. The present Marquess of Bute, and the present Lord Wharncliffe, are the great-grandsons of this distinguished woman: the latter is the representative of the Wortley family.