A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!’
‘Saturday’ (published 1747)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)
|Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley|
Montagu by Johnathan Richardson,
1725 (held at Sandon Hall, Stafford).
If you’ve never heard of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu then you’ve seriously been missing out – as well as being a talented poet and writer, she also played a key role in dispelling British suspicion of inoculation against small-pox and thus ultimately contributed to the preservation of countless lives. Although her father had wanted her to marry a wealthy heir called Clotworthy Skeffington, Lady Mary instead eloped with the lawyer and MP Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712. Later, she accompanied her husband during his appointment as ambassador to Constantinople at the heart of what was then the Ottoman Empire, and it was during her time here that she first learnt of the Turkish practice of inoculation. The subject was of particular importance to Montagu, for she had herself survived a potentially fatal case of small pox in 1715.
The poem I’ll be looking at today forms one of Montagu’s Six Town Eclogues, a series of short poems in which there is one for every day of the week except Sunday. The series was written around 1715-16 but was not officially published until 1747 (three of them were pirated by the publisher Edmund Curll in 1716, but ‘Saturday’ was not one of these). The poem is written from the perspective of a society lady whose beauty has been affected by small pox, and so it begins:
The wretched Flavia on her couch reclined,
Thus breathed the anguish of a wounded mind.
A glass reversed in her right hand she bore,
For now she shunned the face she sought before.
‘How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!
The shift from external narrator to the actual voice of Flavia here allows Montagu to convey the psychological impact of the physical scarring. Her appearance irrevocable altered, Flavia is now ‘to [her]self unknown’, and the rest of the poem is narrated from her perspective as she is overwhelmed by the loss of self-worth that she equates with the loss of her beauty. In particular, this worth is defined through the influence her good-looks had given her over men from many different walks of life. She lists her former triumphs:
‘For me the patriot has the House [i.e. the Houses of Parliament] forsook,
And left debates to catch a passing look;
For me the soldier has soft verses writ;
For me the beau has aimed to be a wit.
For me the wit to nonsense was betrayed;
The bashful squire, touched with a wish unknown,
Has dared to speak with spirit not his own:
Fired by one wish, all did alike adore;
Now beauty’s fled, and lovers are no more.
(lines 28-32, & lines 37-40)
Remember that the poem’s opening highlighted that Flavia perceives her appearance as indistinguishable from her identity when it stated that she is now to ‘[her]self unknown’. The ‘me’ in these lines does not so much refer to Flavia herself but to her physical features. It is her beauty which the politician wants ‘to catch a passing look’ of, and it is for her beauty that ‘the soldier has soft verses writ’. No hint is given in the poem of Flavia possessing any other qualities beyond her physical attractiveness. We are told how in the past Flavia has gazed into her dressing room mirror:
While hours unheeded passed in deep debate,
How curls should fall, or where a patch to place
(lines 48-49) [just in case you don’t know, the ‘patch’ referred to here is a beauty patch, usually a small fancy shape in black that was intended to draw attention to the most attractive feature of the face]
Later in the poem Flavia throws spiteful shade upon women she deems ‘meaner beauties’ (meaning those less beautiful than she had been) claiming that ‘Tis to my ruin all your charms ye owe’, and that if ‘pitying heaven’ would return her to her former glory her now successful rivals ‘still might move unthought of and unseen’ (around line 60). But this is actually the closest the poem comes to allowing Flavia an opportunity to expose herself to ridicule. Montague’s crucial, unspoken question here is whether Flavia has allowed herself to be defined by her appearance, or whether it is the everyday sexism of her time that has caused her to equate her personal value solely with her physical appearance.
Hints as to the answer to this question are given in various subtle ways throughout the poem, for example when Flavia begs her servants to remove the portrait of herself before her illness:
Far from my sight that killing picture bear,
The face disfigure, or the canvas tear!
That picture, which with pride I used to show,
The lost resemblance but upbraids me now.
Perceiving herself to be mocked by the portrait of her former self, the choice of the term ‘upbraid[ing]’ here indicates Flavia’s assumption of blame for the situation, as if she herself is somehow at fault. This is of course totally untrue, and having suffered an illness like small pox she is genuinely lucky to still be alive; but the fact that she even unconsciously absorbs blame or fault for what has happened to her contains within it the implication that it is somehow a duty or responsibility for her to look beautiful. Her success or failure as an individual, her whole worth as a person, is defined by her appearance. As the poem draws to its conclusion, the problem that Flavia now feels she faces is the inability to reclaim a life for herself in a society that prioritises surface appearance over substance. It is not just her sense of identity which she has lost, but her capacity to influence others and be respected as an individual. Flavia exclaims:
But oh, how vain, how wretched is the boast
Of beauty faded, and of empire lost!
What now is left but weeping to deplore
My beauty fled, and empire now no more?
The syntactic repetition of the clause structure – ‘Of beauty faded […] of empire lost’ – solidifies the link between the two terms still further. As a woman, Flavia’s power has been derived from her appearance. It’s especially worth keeping in mind here that this pessimistic self-expulsion from society is not, of course, the approach Montagu took in her own life – the very existence of this poem (written after Montagu’s own experience of small pox) obviously belies the sense of uselessness that Flavia has fallen prey to here. All that Flavia believes is left for her is to ‘Forsake mankind, and bid the world adieu’ since she believes she is now fit only for the mockery of those men who previously worshipped her beauty. Although she refers briefly to some visits from male admirers come to console her, she is painfully conscious of what their eventual attitude towards her will be when their predictions of her swift recovery and resumption of beauty are not fulfilled: ‘Men mock the idol of their former vow’, she notes darkly. What Montagu draws attention to here is actually that Flavia is only worth less because of her illness if the society in which she lives considers her to be so. There is also an implicit critique of a society in which women like Flavia are made to feel that physical beauty is the only way in which they can contribute. That Montagu was able to use her own experience to fuel her passion for promoting better standards of health-care owed much to the privileged position she occupied, and to her own determination to use that position to best effect. As her most recent biographer Isobel Grundy notes, ‘Lady Mary had more of a life outside her family than most women of her class’ (p. 261).
You can find this poem:
(Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive – a nice free copy with added notes and information)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘Saturday’, from Six Town Eclogues, in Roger Lonsdale (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pages 143-6(A fantastic collection of poetry, highly recommended!!)
You can find out more about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:
(Wikipedia – often a useful first stop for general information)
(Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive – includes links to many of Montagu’s poems, and a short biographical note; also details editions of her poems and writings in case you want to delve further)
Resources used in writing this blogpost:
Paula Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)