30 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/13


Here lie John Hughes and Sarah Drew.

Perhaps you'll say, what's that to you?
Believe me, friend, much may be said
On this poor couple that are dead.
On Sunday next they should have married:
But see how oddly things are carried.
On Thursday last it rained and lightened:
These tender lovers, sadly frightened,
Sheltered beneath the cocking hay,
In hopes to pass the storm away.
But the bold thunder found them out
(Commissioned for that end, no doubt)
And, seizing on their trembling breath,
Consigned them to the shades of death.
Who knows if 'twas not kindly done?
For had they seen the next year's sun,
A beaten wife and cuckold swain
Had jointly cursed the marriage chain.
Now they are happy in their doom,
For P[ope] has wrote upon their tomb.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Usually I pretty much ignore the lives of the poets and concentrate on the single poem for the week, figuring that it's easy enough for anyone reading this to do a little web research if he or she so wishes, but I would like to encourage you to look up Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: she had a fascinating life and I would willingly read a full-length biography of her and not just a Wikipedia article. Though she wrote poetry she is best remembered for her Turkish Embassy Letters, written while her husband was British ambassador in what is now Istanbul. She knew or was related to many of the major British figures of her time (her time being 1689 to 1762); this particular poem was inspired by her then-friend Alexander Pope, who was seen even then as the major poet of his day (they later had a falling-out and sniped at each other viciously in various poems). So let's look at the epitaph by Pope that she refers to in her final line:

Epitaphs on Two Lovers Struck Dead by Lightning

When Eastern lovers feed the Funeral Fire,
On the same pile their faithful Fair expire;
Here pitying Heav'n that Virtue Mutual found,
And blasted both, that it might neither wound.
Hearts so sincere th'Almighty saw well pleas'd,
Sent his own lightning, and the victims seiz'd.


Think not by rig'rous judgment seized,
     A pair so faithful could expire;
Victims so pure Heav'n saw well pleas'd,
     And snatch'd them in celestial fire.


Live well, and fear no sudden fate:
     When God calls Virtue to the grave,
Alike 't is Justice, soon or late,
     Mercy alike to kill or save.
Virtue unmov'd can hear the call,
     And face the flash that melts the ball.

Alexander Pope

Rather oddly for someone famed for satirical wit, Pope takes an elevated and even heroic stance here, suggesting that the dead pair were such models of loving virtue that they were taken to Heaven together, sparing them separation in this world (and blasted both, that it might neither wound). He begins with a reference to the Hindu practice of suttee, in which a widow joins the funeral pyre of her late husband (his use of lovers to refer to the men and the Fair to refer to the women is typical usage of the period). He is presenting this immolation as a sign of devoted mutual love and the lightning strike as a seal of Heavenly approval. It's interesting that he uses what would have been for the time an exotic reference to "Eastern" practices, rather than to something from more familiar Greek mythology. Perhaps the reference was made with Montagu's Turkish residence in mind, or more generally as a sign of growing British interest in and knowledge of a part of the world they were already starting to move in on, or perhaps it was just an intriguing and unusual bit of color, a variant from the inevitable Greek and Roman classics. In his second stanza the poet assures us that the lightning was a sign of God's approbation, not His anger (Think not by rig'rous judgment seized, / . . . Victims so pure Heav'n saw well pleas'd). In the third stanza, he draws a general moral: a virtuous, well-lived life leaves you ready for the grave at any time. He's advocating a stoic approach: indifferent to life's vagaries, Virtue can hear the call of death without being moved to emotions either sad or joyful. Pope hints at a Christian underpinning to this philosophy: such an exemplar of Virtue can face with equanimity even the Last Judgment (the flash that melts the ball; I take the ball to be our planet).

Montagu responds with an amused, more down-to-earth rival epitaph. She begins by naming the dead lovers, but on their own the names don't mean anything to most of us: we do not know them, and are therefore indifferent to the deaths of these fellow humans (Perhaps you'll say, what's that to you?). She finds the accident that killed them not noble or tragic but odd, an example of the peculiar things that can happen (but see how oddly things are carried). She describes the lovers frightened by the storm (lightened means lightning was striking). The language here feels suggestive to me, as if she's undercutting Pope's assertions of virtue, which in this context implies chastity. Cocking hay refers to hay cocks, which are small heaps of hay piled up temporarily, but it wouldn't surprise me if Montagu were punning on cock meaning penis. The bold (perhaps because intrusive on a tryst?) thunder finds the pair, and with offhand irony (Commissioned for that end, no doubt) the poet undercuts the idea that this death was a deliberate act by Heaven. She then wonders, with compassionate cynicism, if perhaps the death of the engaged couple might actually have been the kindest thing fate could have done to them: married even for only a year, she would have cheated on him, he would have beaten her, and both would have regretted the matrimonial chains. She ends by suggesting that their unusual death should really be seen as a cause of happiness for them, since it has prompted the greatest poet of his time to write some lines about them. Though this sentiment seems to be mostly about Pope's fame (especially given that she's been undercutting his poem all along), it does hearken back to a familiar poetic trope, that someone or something will find lasting fame only in the words of the poet (for an example, see Shakespeare's Sonnet 55, Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes). And indeed she was accurate here; John Hughes and Sarah Drew would be long forgotten if not for Pope – and also for Montagu; though she mentions Pope specifically, her own poem has also preserved the dead lovers for us.

I took the Montagu poem from Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale. The Pope is not in the copy of his work I have; I found it on the Internet. Presumably as a fairly minor poem by him it would only be in a collection of his complete poems, if you can find one.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent and hilarious.