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Lady Mary Wortley Montague Essay, Research Paper

Literature is a form of art with many facets, many obvious and others

subtle. The surface of literature can be composed of many elements

such as genre, form, rhythm, tone, diction, sentence structure, etc.

Time periods, authors’ personal style and type of work all determine

what elements are used in the literature. The deeper more subtle side

of literature is the use of symbolism, imagery and the significance of

the work. In most works of literature, parallels can be drawn between

the author’s personality and current life’s events through the subject

matter, the characters, and the use of specific literary techniques. Lady

Mary Wortley Montagu’s use of literary techniques in the first two

stanzas of The Lover: A Ballad, are consistent throughout the six

stanza ballad identifying and refuting the ways in which women were

defined by literature of the 18th century era.

“At length, by so much importunity pressed,

Take (Molly) at once the inside of my breast;

This stupid indifference so often you blame

Is not owing to nature, to fear, or to shame;

I am not as cold as a virgin in lead,

Nor is Sunday’s sermon so strong in my head;

I know but too well how time flies along,

That we live but few years and yet fewer are young.

But I hate to be cheated, and never will buy

Long years of repentance for moments of joy.

Oh was there a man (but where shall I find

Good sense, and good nature so equally joined?)

Would value his pleasure, contribute to mine,

Not meanly would boast, nor lewdly design,

Not over severe, yet not stupidly vain,

For I would have the power through not give the pain”

(Montagu, 2567)

The ballad has been traditionally known as the earliest form of

poetry in conjunction with the folk world. It is one of lyrical work,

usually in a simple song or dance form eluding to its’ roots in oral

presentation among the rural culture. The ballad commonly uses

simple language and can be in the form of 3rd person, dialogue or a

combination of the two. The ballad form generally shortens action in

that it focus’ on a single, usually, climactic event and eludes to the

building and conclusion of this event. Coincidentally, the rural roots of

ballads parallel the themes that generally deal with basic aspects of

life, such as; love and death, but seem to have a supernatural element.

“The quatrain, a stanza of four lines, rhymed or unrhymed, is the

most common of all English stanzaic forms. And the most common

type of quatrain is the ballad stanza, in which lines of iambic

tetrameter alternate with trimeter, rhyming abcb (lines 1 and 3 being

unrhymed) or, less commonly abab” (Fergueson, 1114). Montagu uses

many of these elements in that she stays remains consistent with the

theme of ballads and writes about love. The supernatural aspect to her

ballad is not necessarily supernatural, but in fact leans to Greek

mythology. Her conclusion ends with reference to Ovid alluding to

The Metamorphoses’ which “…tells stories of virgins who are

transformed into a laurel tree (Daphne) or a fountain (Arethusa), rather

than succumb to the importunities of a pursuing god” (Footnote to The

Lover: A Ballad, Damrosch, 2568). Greek mythology can be

categorized as supernatural though, depending on the audiences’

beliefs, in that it’s main characters are Gods and humanlike creatures

with supernatural, superhuman abilities. Despite staying in the

framework of themes and elements of the ballad, Montagu goes

against the traditional definition and sets The Lover: A Ballad, in six

eight line stanzas composed of anapestic tetrameter rhyming couplets.

During the 18th century, the literary world was dominated by

male poets and writes leaving the women poets and writers

unsuccessful and unestablished. Notwithstanding the male circles of

literature, Aphra Behn was the exception, she could hold her own and

helped lead the way to women writers at a time when women were

depicted to be passive creatures. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a

strong character not only in her literature but also in her personal life.

After her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed

Ambassador to Turkey she joined him. She saw something that was in

great interest to her, inoculation of smallpox. As being a survivor of

smallpox, when she returned to England she supported, if not lead the

way, to inoculation in England. Her writings at this time became the

groundwork for her fame as a writer (Damrosch, 2558). Nevertheless,

by going against the traditional form of ballads, she shows that women

were not going to define themselves by traditional stereotypes or try to

fit into an image of what women were supposed to be. Montagu’s own

frustration directed at an era in literature and time that depicts women

passively can be felt by the reader by underlying tones of aggression

from being held down by societal stereotypes and values. “There is

hardly a character in the world more liable to universal ridicule than

that of a Learned Woman” (Damrosch, 2557). Already at a young age

of twenty Montagu identifies the limitations of women. “Women, she

counseled, should know much but hide their knowledge, lest they lose

out on the comforts of love, marriage, and social ease” (Damrosch,

2558). By hiding behind her speaker she acknowledges these opinions

and is saves herself from social ridicule.

Montagu’s diction further invalidates the point of women’s

depiction by using strong and direct words to convey the speaker’s

emotions of frustration in trying to find the ideal mate. The speaker

considers her options in choosing a mate and decides she wants

another choice: she describes, carefully and elegantly, the qualities she

seeks in a partner. Montagu’s intelligence and skill in argument and in

poetry strongly refutes conventional definitions of women as silly,

strictly decorative creatures. The speaker describes the qualities she is

seeking for, “Oh was there a man (but where shall I find Good sense,

and good nature so equally joined?)” (Montagu, 2567, Ln. 11), who

will love her unconditionally, “To all my whole sex obliging and free,

Yet never be fond of any but me.” (Montagu, 2568, Ln. 19), and

someone who she can depend on “In whose tender bosom my soul

might confide, Whose kindness can soothe me, whose counsel could

guide…” (Montagu, 2568, Ln. 35). These aspects of an ideal mate can

be interpreted to Montagu’s own personal love life. Although

Montagu’s speaker will remain chaste, she does not think of herself

“…as cold as a virgin in lead…” (Montagu, 2567, Ln. 5), referring to

the Virgin Mary, until she finds her ideal mate, Montagu married

Edward Wortley Montagu. Just as in her writing Montagu does not

follow the traditional rules and had an adulterous affair with the

bisexual Italian writer Francesco Algarotti. Whether she finds she is

disappointed with what marriage is or what she got out of her marriage

to Montagu she unfortunately does not find her ideal mate through

Algarotti either.

Montagu’s style of writing clashes with the practiced format of

ballads at this time but her ideas and feelings are clearly portrayed in

this six stanza, eight line anapestic tetrameter rhyming couplets. The

only true following of writing in this ballad is the use of the rhyming

couplets. This technique was perfected by Dryden and Pope and many

poets were trying this new highly sophisticated technique. The first

two stanzas of the ballad set off the way the remaining four will be

linked together. Sentence structure, emphasis of ideas and method of

addressment are all introduced in the introductory stanzas. The use of

enjambment is prevalent in every stanza, even linking the separate

stanzas together. Every stanza can be summed up as a single idea and

the use of enjambment has these ideas flowing together while the use

of a period brings these ideas to an end. The characterization of the

typical relations between men and women leads Montagu to pose a

balance of opposites between the extremes where those extremes of

typical male behaviour are described in the first three stanzas. The

fourth through sixth stanzas imagine the ideal relationship as one in

which “…friend and the lover be handsomely mixed” (Montagu, 34).

Montagu’s subtle satire of male weaknesses also admits a degree of

foolishness in her own nature. Both must participate in social

practices, and only so that they reach the ideal only when removed

from public life to their private world. “He may cease to be formal, and

I to be proud” (Montagu, 30). Montagu’s use of short and harsh

monosyllabic words grabs the reader’s attention right from the

beginning. She clearly marks out that the speaker and/or the author are

contradicting women being passive creatures by getting right in the

face of the audience hence the face of men, making them listen to what

women want. Indirectly Montagu is telling them that they are strong

characters needing a voice and not wanting to follow societal

stereotypes while trying to grasp at the same respect that men receive

in the literary world during the 18th century.

In this ballad, the speaker is clearly female and addressing a

close male friend. The relationship between the speaker and the male

character in this ballad is friendly not sexual. The male in which

Montagu’s poem is directed to is identified, but names are concealed

to maintain his privacy. In particular editions, such as the Norton

Anthology of Poetry, identifying him only as “C – ”, a common

convention in literature of this era also used by John Dryden in

MackFlecknoe, the poem indicates that it is addressed to a particular

person. That particular person has thought to have been many people

and has changed in different interpretations of the work. Some would

say it is in reference to Lord Hervey, Mr. Congreve or Richard

Chandler who was a friend of Lady Mary. (Footnote, The Norton

Anthology of Poetry, 350) In other editions, such as the Longman

Anthology, this “C -” has been replaced by “Molly”, which is thought

to be in reference to Maria Skerrett who was a friend of Montagu’s

(Footnote, Longman Anthology of British Literature, 2567).

However, even though the speaker identifies a particular male

recipient, her argument can be read as a commentary on men in

general. Metaphorically, she offers an implied criticism of authors and

readers who accept these definitions of women being passive objects

incapable of rational thought. By Montagu creating a speaker who is

smart, perceptive, intelligent and capable of rational thought and clear

argument she clearly criticizes these literary conventions and the

social relations they reflect.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s use of literary techniques in the

first two stanzas of The Lover: A Ballad, are consistent throughout the

six stanza ballad identifying and refuting the ways in which women

were defined by literature of the 18th century era. Through her skewed

writing of the ballad form, her use of diction and literary techniques

she explicitly and implicitly refutes the way women were portrayed

through literature at the time of the 18th century. Looking more in

depth to Montagu’s life her work resembles her character and

personality. She is a woman who does not like to follow the normal

actions of women her age nor does she like to be a follower. Montagu

seems to want to be known for her good characteristics and for people

to follow her lead as she wanted to follow the feminist Mary Astell.

Through her life’s events her work becomes more introverted through

“made up” characters and her opinions come through more and more.

She pushes the envelope of traditional methods to fit her own personal

style. The Lover: A Ballad, upon the first surface look is a simple love

poem, but on a deeper more analytical level it is a work of great

complexity with many undertones of the time period and the author’s

personal side. Any poem or work of literature can be interpreted

different ways by different people but the author’s intention when

writing should not be overlooked. These true intentions of who this

poem is truly directed at and about lies with one person, Lady Mary

Wortley Montagu.


Damrosch, David, et al. The Longman Anthology BRITISH LITERATURE,

Vol. 1.. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 1999.

Ferguson, Margaret, M.J. Salter, and J. Stallworthy. The Norton Anthology

of Poetry SHORTER FOURTH EDITION. New York: W.W. Norton &

Company, 1997.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Lover: A Ballad. The Longman

Anthology BRITISH LITERATURE, Vol. 1.. New York: Addison-Wesley

Educational Publishers Inc., 1999.

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