ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                   Spring 2009


Feb. 23   Lonsdale: poems of Mary Leapor, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Jane Brereton and Anna Seward; selected letters of Wortley Montague (websites)


Recommended: Staves, chapter 5 pp. 228-285 and
Backscheider, Chaps. 5 and 7


Presentation:  Paul Quigley



Websites of interest:


http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/montagu.html  Renascence Editions – an e-text of three prose selections and many poems by Lady Mary, transcribed by Richard Bear.  Contains introduction to LMWM.


http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/montagu-smallpox.html Modern History Sourcebook -- an e-text of LMWM’s letter on smallpox vaccination.


http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1718montague-sultana.html  Modern History Sourcebook – an e-text of LMWM’s letter on dining with the sultana.


http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MonWork.html University of Virginia Electronic Text Center: The Prose and Poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Contains the letter describing the accession of George I (long).


http://www.u.arizona.edu/ic/mcbride/ws200/montltrs.htm  Selected Turkish Embassy Letters by LMWM at the University of Arizona.


http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/t-montagu.htm Selected Poems by LMWM from University of Toronto:  two famous poems, worth reading.



http://www.orgs.muohio.edu/womenpoets/leapor/leapor1751corpus.xml-text4.html The Poetry of Mary Leapor, contains the complete text of Crumble Hall, which is worth reading, and the beginnings of a transcription of the 1748 Poems of Several Occasions. 


There are many other sites on these authors, but I couldn’t locate any of Seward’s letters on line.  There is plenty to add to your reading here, and so we won’t worry about her letters.  Please do sample LMWM’s letters, however.



In addition to the poems contained in the Lonsdale anthology, please read the two additional poems by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room” and “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband”; also read the entire poem “Crumble Hall” by Leapor.  Choose among the letters by LMWM to get a sampling and an idea of what the letters contain, how they are written, what their significance might be.  Note: I’ve removed Duncombe’s Feminiad from our reading.  At some point, it is a good idea to read this commendatory, canon-making poem.  However, we have enough to cover this week.  With the secondary readings in Backscheider and Staves, we have a good amount of literary history and attention to genre, some of which is directly applicable and some that offers context. Staves treated Lady Mary’s Embassy Letters in Chapter Four, and she called it the most brilliant book by a woman author all century.  Take some time to read some of these epistles.  Backscheiders’ chapters focus on friendship poems and the elegy, and so will have pertinence to many of the poets we are reading this semester.  Staves treats Leapor’s poetry in chapter five, and she also discusses Lennox.  Please be sure to read that chapter either this week or next.



Notes and Discussion:


The writers considered here cover the entire length of the eighteenth century and so offer opportunities for noting the changes in style and content of literary works. We will be primarily concerned with their poetry, although they wrote in other genres as well.  For LMWM we should consider her prose writing in the letter form, and in that capacity consider her in terms of life-writing, travel-writing, cultural historian, satirist.  The writers in question also occupy quite different places in social status.  LMWM is an aristocrat with all the bearing of that class; Leapor is a working-class poet, and Seward and Brereton occupy the genteel, educated class.  Consider these factors in evaluating the writings for today .



For example, how does the class/status of the poet affect the choice of subject matter for their poems?  In what sense does the aristocratic class of LMWM give her privileges not available to Leapor , Brereton or Seward.  Conversely, what freedoms does the latter group possess in their subject matter, that LMWM would avoid because of her class?  What examples can you give?


How is the poet’s relationship to writing and, more particularly, publishing reflected in the publishing history or the self-representation of the poet in her poems?  For example, note how, where and when the poems are published?  What attitudes do they express regarding poetry in their poems?  How does the class/status of the poet affect this?


  • Note that LMWM has poems taken from her and published without permission, she contributes to other people’s published works, she publishes anonymously and for the most part prepares her writings for posthumous publication.


  • Brereton refuses to have her poems published by subscription, but after her death her collected works are published for the benefit of her daughters.  She also networks well in provincial locations (Wrexham) and through correspondence.  Female friendship (and networks with key male figures such as Edward Cave) play a role.


  • Leapor’s poems are collected by another and a large subscription is formed, her poems are published posthumously, and she presents a clear ambivalence toward her poetry in her poems.


  • Seward’s career as a poet is the most professional, achieving during her lifetime a reputation for outstanding poetry; she published regularly in periodicals and independently; she published books of poetry.  She also prepared her writings for posthumous publication.


What role do well-known men (Swift, Pope, Cave, Johnson, Scott, for example), play in the works and writing lives of these female poets?


What forms do they choose to write in?  Recall the opinions of Lonsdale and Doody:

Lonsdale:  “In the course of the eighteenth century itself ‘polite’ taste had increasingly come to favour a poetry of self-conscious elevation above the facts of the mundane world, which produced much that was insipid and stilted.  Throughout the century, however, there were many writers who expressed, in verse of a sociable, unpretentious, sometimes homely, sometimes idiosyncratic kind interests and experiences which must contradict some of the generalization made about the period” (xliii).


Doody: “A poet such as Leapor benefits from the eighteenth century’s openness to the physicality of experience.  The empiricism of Locke placed sensory experience at the root of consciousness, and thus of all knowledge and all forms of self-consciousness.  Consciousness is formed through experience and through reflection on experiences.  If that is so, then the role of authority – already rendered politically suspect in the Revolution and the Restoration – becomes less important.  A combination of political and philosophical views gave more opportunity for women and the poor to enter the literary arena, to create works that would be heard, than they ever had before.  In order to understand their own society, and the world in which human beings really do live, men and women of the eighteenth century could believe it would be valuable to understand the experiences of others.  We can know another person, or person, or even perhaps class, by entering imaginatively into their sensations” (227).


“The early eighteenth century is an era of creative ferment, both in fiction and in poetry.  Poets test the limits of ‘the poetic’, surprising us with the unexpected, taking a cue from the satiric and conversational poets such as Horace, and women writers participate to good effect” (227).


What changes in form can you see across the period represented by these poets?  For example, how does the satire of LMWM differ from that of Leapor and more pointedly from Seward?  Compare the use of satire with the developing taste for sentiment, evident in Seward’s poetry.


Many of the themes we explored earlier return here:  examine and compare the representation of the poet, for example.  Leapor’s appear to be the most striking.


Female friendship emerges in each of the poet’s works.  How do they represent relationships among women?  What is the role of the poetry in the depiction of female friendship?  What is the role of female friendship in the writing of poetry?  Backscheider claims that the “friendship poem” is a legacy of the eighteenth-century woman poet.  What contributions do these writers make to the genre?


Beauty is a predominant theme in both LMWM and Leapor.  Compare and contrast.  Both have a predilection for portraying the ugly, but they do so in different ways and for different ends.  Explore.


Examine the representation of public themes in each of the poet – public events or figures (Pope or Swift in LMWM, the affair of Mrs. Yonge  [see also Staves’ assessment of this poem 180-1]; the American revolution by Seward).  How does this challenge the assessment of female poets as essentially private and domestic?  Or does it?


I am particularly interested in the ways in which these writers use the popular poetic form of the landscape poem.  How does each approach the form (or the land?)  To what purpose is the landscape constructed in the poems?  How does this change from poet to poet?  Take a close look at Verses written in the Chiosk of the British Palace, by LMWM, Crumble Hall by Leapor and Eyam by Seward.


Examine and compare the use of the epistle form by LMWM and Leapor in particular.  Recall that Lonsdale also observes that “women poets, like their unfashionable male contemporaries, were often intimidated by or indifferent to the loftier poetic genres and worked most happily in less self-conscious, social forms:  most notably, throughout the century, in the familiar verse epistle, in which generic expectations were minimal, polished diction inappropriate, and the writer would be confident of her ability to amuse a friend whose interest was guaranteed” (xlv).


Finally, examine the representation of courtship and gallantry in the poems.  The writers choose to deal with it in different ways, but we can continue our conversation about the subject from earlier classes.  How do women deal with / construct the inevitability of marriage, the subordination of women?


Continue to think on the question of how or why we value these works/writers:




“The argument from literary quality needs reinforcement from the argument for the value of knowledge.

            If as students we wish to know, and if as teachers we wish our students to know, something about the workings of gender in society, then we need those early women’s voices.  They alone can teach us something of how it felt to live as a woman in a culture (so different from our own, yet sharing so much with it) in which the inferiority and subordination of women was utterly taken for granted.  They can teach us something important, too, about the impulse to literature – the sources of poems, stories, and so on – something of how to read the work of those who broke into literature from the outside, who in taking up the pen were claiming a privilege which in general was denied to them” (185).


What value judgments does, for example, Staves make about Lady Mary and Mary Leapor?  How does this compare with the assessments offered by Backscheider?