Lady Montagu’s Pursuit of Love

July 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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