Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote “The Lover: A Ballad” in an effort to dismiss the sexist attitudes of several male poets from the period. John Donne (“The Flea”), Andrew Marvell (“To his Coy Mistress”), and Robert Herrick (“To Virgins, Make Much of Time”) attempt, through poetic means, to pressure virgins and youthful women to find mates and lovers before their beauty has deteriorated and the women are rendered useless by their old age. In a calculated response to these men, who wrote these poems around or before the birth of Montagu, she states on behalf of all women her greatest desire: to find the perfect man. Montagu laments the impossibility of this worthy man throughout the poem and addresses the likes of Donne, Marvell, and Herrick in the final stanza by saying “I will never share with the wanton coquette, or be caught by a vain affection of wit.” Montagu’s perspective is this: until the perfect man comes along, a woman should not share her body with every man that approaches her with poems about her beauty. It is not the woman that should be urgent to give up her body, but rather the man who should actively seek it by valuing the woman beyond her physical beauty. Montagu begins the poem with an acknowledgement of the brevity of time: “I know but too well how time flies along,/That we live but few years, and yet fewer are young.” She agrees with her male contemporaries that time is of the essence. But this statement is not entirely pessimistic. She spends much of the poem thereafter describing qualities of a man who represents a glimmer of hope in her mind. This man would “Not meanly boast, nor would lewdly design.” He would be equally at ease in public and in private with Montagu. He would be respectful and trustworthy. He is a glimmer of hope for a world where she would not see time as the enemy, but rather as an ally. She could spend time with her lover in happiness rather than ticking away the seconds until old age. However, even Montagu accepts that the chances of finding such a man are remarkably slim, and she is prepared to live her life as she does now: alone. She says, “But till this astonishing creature I know,/ As I long have liv’d chaste, I will keep myself so.” In Montagu’s opinion, it is preferable to wait for a perfect man than to waste her virginity on the first man who approaches her with a witty song or catch phrase: “I will never share with the wanton coquette,/ Or be caught by a vain affection of wit./The toasters and songsters may try all their art,/But never shall enter the pass of my heart.” Attempting to sway a woman with cheap tricks in turn cheapens the relationship, something that Montagu does not want to sacrifice.This poem appears to be a female response to other poems of the period, mostly from the male perspective. Her considerations of time bear close resemblance to Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress”. In his poem Marvell states, “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying hear…Thy beauty shall no more be found,/ Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound/ My echoing song.” Marvell urges his subject to consider him as a lover before both of them become hardened with time. Even Montagu says, “We harden like trees, and like rivers grow cold.” Both Marvell and Montagu agree that over time the chances of mutual love diminish. However, each seeks a different sort of love. Marvell, like Donne and Herrick, seek a quick fix and are eager to acquaint themselves with any women. Montagu seeks a more romantic love, where there is mutual need and a “happily ever after” ending. Montagu’s considerations of religion seem contrary to those of John Donne in “The Flea.” Donne uses religious symbolism and teachings to convince his subjects that sleeping with him is morally sound: “…and this/ Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is…And cloister’d in these living walls of jet…three sins in killing three.” In response, Montagu states, “I am not as cold a virgin in lead,/ Nor is Sunday’s sermon so strong in my head.” To Montagu, religion holds no influence over her decision. “Sunday’s sermon” seems to give way to raw emotion and her active search for happiness. “The Lover: A Ballad” offers new perspective on 17th century courtship, relationships, and sexual motives. While the poets prior to Montagu often use cheap gimmicks to persuade their women into bed, Montagu offers insight into a previously unexplored facet of every relationship: the woman. Donne, Marvell, and Herrick treat their subjects as objects, a game which they must play for eventual satisfaction. Montagu introduces an emotional tenderness that the men overlook in their romantic assessments. Montagu describes her ideal man, who must be at ease with both genders, yet faithful to her alone. He must be trustworthy, forgiving, and private. The two schools of thought oppose each other, with the men thinking that gimmicks can sway women, while Montagu arguing that the considerations from her perspective run much deeper. The men also argue that virgins are/should be eager to lose their virginity, while Montagu seems very content with her status and seems prepared to uphold her chasteness until death.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s poetry reflects her keen awareness of the gender politics that pervaded her lifetime. Exploring themes of power, sexuality, and beauty in her writing, she stands out because of her criticism of the patriarchal standards that were predominant during the eighteenth century. Her poem “Saturday—The Small-Pox” reflects on feminine beauty and the power that women hold and express in their physical appearances. Though the poem could be viewed as a satirical portrayal of feminine vanity or a criticism of feminine narcissism, it may also be read as an exploration of beauty as a way of expressing power. In the poem, Flavia, a woman who has been scarred with smallpox, relays the loss of power that she experiences as a result of her diminished beauty. Montagu asserts the value of beauty as a form of power in a patriarchally structured society in her poem “Saturday—The Small-Pox.”
The poem focuses on the thoughts of Flavia, who is looking at herself in the mirror and lamenting the loss of her beauty. She is struggling to accept her changed appearance after having the smallpox and is concerned with how this loss of beauty will impact her life. She conveys a great sense of loss in her outcries:
How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre to myself unknown!
Where’s my complexion? Where my radiant bloom,
That promised happiness for years to come? (5-8)
For Flavia, the loss of her beauty is not merely a superficial loss. She feels as though she has lost the promise of a happy future. Montagu seems to be criticizing the unnecessary value that society places on beauty standards through Flavia’s dramatic reaction. A woman’s future should not rely on her beauty alone. Still, for Flavia, her beautiful appearance had allowed her to have a sense of control over her own life in the past, and she feels as though she has been dealt a great loss.
Though the notion that beauty is the most valuable attribute that a woman can possess is founded in patriarchal ideology, it is important to understand that this type of social and political atmosphere would have been the standard for the time. For a woman like Flavia, her beauty may have been her only mechanism for balancing out the power divide between men and women of the eighteenth century. Women of this time had to learn how to operate within the confines of their gender roles, and harnessing the power of their beauty may be one of the ways that women sought control over their own lives. If women were already seen as sexual objects or things to be admired by the men, then, seeking power, the women would have to take advantage of this position and exploit their physical appearances for their own benefit.
The problem with beauty as a form of power is that it is fleeting. For Flavia, her beauty has been taken as a result of smallpox. For other women, beauty, by conventional standards, often diminishes with age. Montagu suggests that this is simply the nature of power. She writes,
Monarchs and beauties rule with equal sway:
All strive to serve, and glory to obey:
Alike unpitied when deposed they grow,
Men mock the idol of their former vow. (85-88)
She suggests that regardless of where a person gains their power, it can be lost. While addressing power’s temporariness, Montagu simultaneously places feminine power on the same level as masculine power. She is asserting that each type of expression of power is equally valuable. By likening beauties to monarchs, Montagu conveys the importance of the power that women possess in their beauty.
In conclusion, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s poem “Saturday—The Small-Pox” helps explore beauty as an expression of female power in a patriarchally structured society. Women of the eighteenth century were confined to submissive positions in society; therefore, these women had to operate within the confines of their roles while still attempting to better their positions in society. Because of this, women would utilize their positions as objects of desire in order to take advantage of the opportunities that it provided them. These women harnessed the power of their beauty in attempts to gain some form of control over their lives. They took control of what was being used against them, and they did it for their own betterment.