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Poems 1773, Edited by Lisa Vargo and Allison Muri
- from The Westminster Magazine (June 1776): 283-5
 

OBSERVATIONS ON FEMALE LITERATURE
IN GENERAL,
INCLUDING SOME PARTICULARS RELATING TO
MRS. MONTAGU AND MRS. BARBAULD.
[Embellished with an elegant ENGRAVING of those LADIES.]


           Happily we do not live in those days when prejudice condemned our women to ignorance to be deplored. The ridicule which Moliere [1] cast on Female Pedantry brought all kinds of Knowledge into such disrepute with the Women of France, that many of them made a merit of murdering their mother-tongue&nbsp: there have been always, however, some Fair-ones, who, detaching themselves from the slavery of custom, have ventured to think, to speak, and to write with propriety; and there are many Ladies at this time in England who do not blush--who have no reason to be ashamed to discover that they are better instructed than the majority of the smart fellows of the age.
          The ingenious Author of the Feminead*[2], or Female Genius, opens his Poem with the following lines, which must be read by every Lady who thinks the "enlargement of her mind, as well as the expansion of her head," worth her attention, with particular pleasure&nbsp:

Shall lordly Man, the theme of every lay,
Usurp the Muse's tributary bay;
In kingly state on Pindus' summit sit, [3]
By Salic law the female right deny, [4]
And view their genius with regardless eye ?
Justice forbid ! ------ ------
Long o'er the world did Prejudice maintain,
By sounds like these, her undisputed reign;
" Woman! (she cried) to thee indulgent Heav'n
Has all the charms of outward beauty giv'n&nbsp:
Be thine the boast, unrivall'd to enslave
The great, the wise, the witty, and the brave&nbsp:
Deck'd with the Paphian rose's damask glow, [5]
And the vale-lily's vegetable snow;
Be thine, to move majestic in the dance,
To roll the eye, and aim the tender glance;
Or touch the strings, and breathe the melting song,
Content to emulate that airy throng,
Who to the sun their painted plumes display,
And gaily glitter on the hawthorn spray;
Or wildly warble in the beachen grove,
Careless of aught but music, joy, and love."
Heavens! could such artful, slavish sounds beguile
The free-born sons of Britain's polish'd isle ?
Could they, like fam'd Ulysses' d stand crew,
Attentive listen, and enamoured view,

      *The Rev. Mr. Duncombe, of Canterbury
Page 284
           Nor drive the Syren to that dreary plain,
In loathsome pomp where Eastern tyrants reign;
Where each fair neck the yoke of slav'ry galls,
And in a proud seraglio's gloomy walls
Are taught, that, levell'd with the brutal kind,
Nor sense nor souls to Women are assign'd !

Our British Nymphs with happier omens rove
At Freedom's call, thro' Wisdom's Sacred grove;
And as with lavish hand each Sister Grace
Shapes the fair form, and regulates the face,
Each sister Muse, in blissful union join'd,
Adorns, improves, and beautifies the mind.
     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
With various acts our rev'rence they engage,
Some turn the tuneful, some the moral page;
These, led by Contemplation, soar on high,
And range the heavens with philosophic eye;
While those surrounded by a vocal choir,
The canvass tinge, or touch the warbling lyre.

          In the number of ingenious Female Writers who have distinguished themselves in several branches of polite literature, the two Ladies whom we have selected for the embellishment of our present Magazine make a very brilliant appearance. With regard to these Ladies, indeed, the Author of this sheet cannot, for obvious reasons, expatiate on their respective merits in a manner agreeable to his inclination; but he hopes that nothing which he does say concerning them will give the least offence. He is very sure, that he wishes to give them rather pleasure than uneasiness, by his sketches of their literary characters.
          Mrs. Montagu [6], with a very pleasing person, a liberal mind, a benevolent heart, and a large fortune, appears, in consequences of her combined advantages, in a great variety of attractive situations. In her life, as well as in her writings, the solidity of her understanding and the elegance of her taste are equally conspicuous&nbsp:
By Fortune follow'd, and by Virtue led,
Mrs. CARTER. [7]
She is also
With wit well-natur'd, and with books well bred.
POPE. [8]
With a mind richly cultivated and highly polished, Mrs. Montagu has favoured the Public with compositions which are truly classical, and which may be frequently read with renewed satisfaction.--The Three Dialogues of the Dead written by her, and published by the late Lord Lyttelton [9] at the end of his own, abound with good sense, sprightly sentiments, and sound morality. The first of these is between Cadmus and Hercules, and is calculated to set forth the use and excellence of learning. The next, between Mercury and a modern fine Lady, is a pleasant ridicule on the trifling, dissipated manner in which our modish fair ones mispend their time. The last, between Plutarch, Charon, and a modern Bookseller, is a lively satire on the literary taste of the present age, which, to the great disgrace of letters, delights in fabulous, obscene, and immoral romances.
           These Dialogues certainly discover the fair Writer's judgment and her taste; but they both appear dans tout leur jour [10], in her " Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets; with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of M. de Voltaire."--The merits of the Essay are not, however, confined to a mere defence of Shakespeare [11], or to observations of Voltaire's criticisms. It abounds with curious disquisitions, and will undoubtedly hold a high rank among the most classical pieces of the same nature in the English language. The parallel drawn between the conduct of the two Poets, in respect to the Ghost of Darius, in the Perseus of Eschylus, and that of Hamlet, as well as the comparisons made between Shakespeare and the French Dramatic Writers, are attended with a great number of the most judicious and beautiful observations. The charge against Voltaire of misrepresentations, of not understanding the English language, and of his being guilty of the greatest absurdities in his translation of the first act of Shakespeare's Julius Cæsar, are abundantly proved.
          Mrs. Barbauld, who, with the name of Aikin, first darted into the poetical world a few years ago, and charmed all those who have a true relish for the effusions of a genius under the immediate inspiration of the Muses, still shines with a lustre sufficient to make the Mob of Gentlemen who write "about it, Goddess, and about it," appear like "little stars hiding their diminished rays" at the approach of the sun in his rising splendor. This Lady is not only poetically enchanting, but personally attractive. With a countenance in which every thing agreeable in a woman is strongly expressed, she prepossesses you
Page 285
extremely in her favour at first sight; and you are doubly pleased with the display of her intellectual powers in conversation with her, as she seems not to be conscious of an understanding superior to the greatest part of ther sex. "Her eye speaks sense distinct and clear," when she is silent, and she never opens her lips to deliver her thoughts with an oracular sententiousness; nor does she ever converse with an oracular duplicity. She never speaks as if she attempted to command admiration; but she says nothing which does not deserve it. With her lettered friends she opens her mental stores with the least affectation to be imagined, and is doubly cautious, before the illiterate, to shade her talents with the veil of diffidence, that she may not force them to feel their inferiority. There is, indeed, a delicacy as well as propriety in her deportment uncommonly pleasing; which, joined to the mildness of her manners, and her affability to all kinds of people, throw an inexpressible charm over her whole person, and induce us to venerate the beauties of her mind.
          With regard to Mrs. Barbauld's poetical compositions, there is a masculine force in them, which the most vigorous of our poets has not excelled&nbsp: there is nothing, indeed, feminine belonging to them, but a certain gracefulness of expression (in which dignity and beauty are both included) that marks them for the productions of a Female Hand. Her style is perfectly Horation [12], elegantly polished, and harmoniously easy. The curiosa felicitas dicendi [13], which Genius alone and the ear that Nature has harmonized can produce, is frequently to be found in her beautiful Poems. She has also written some pieces in prose, which, in point of elegance, are as much superior to the laboured Essays of our sturdy Moralist as the easy motions of a fine Gentleman are, in point of grace, to the stiff attitudes of a Dancing-master.


Notes

1. The pen name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-73), playwright, actor, and theatre manager known for his farces and comedies of manners. His plays about art and nature, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659) and especially Les Femmes savantes (1672), might be in mind here. It should be noted that the reviewer seems to be giving a selective view of Molière's attitudes; in other plays, in particular L'École des femmes (1662), he satirizes men who wish to keep women ignorant.
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2. John Duncombe, a friend of Elizabeth Carter, wrote The Feminead: or, Female Genius, a Poem, which circulated in manuscript before being published in 1754 (2nd ed. 1757). The poem is a celebration of virtuous learned women and was meant to encourage women writers.
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3. Pindus' Summit: A mountain range in central and northwestern Greece whose highest peak is 8,650 feet.
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4. Salic Law: A law thought to derive from the code of laws of the ancient Salic Franks which prohibits a woman from succession to the throne.
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5. Paphian roses are related to Paphos, a city near the southwest coast of Cyprus, where Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was said to have been born from the sea-foam. A temple to the goddess was built at Paphos in the 12th century B.C.
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6. Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800) was an essayist, letter writer, patron, and bluestocking hostess. Montagu was a friend of Elizabeth Carter, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Lord Lyttleton, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and a patron to James Beattie, Anna Barbauld, Frances Burney, and Hannah More. She contributed three essays to Lyttleton's Dialogues of the Dead (1760) and published An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare in 1769. Her four volumes of letters were published in 1809 and 1813. Source: Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, 1660-1800. Ed. Janet Todd. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987. 221-2.
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7. "By fortune follow'd, and by Virtue led," "To _____" (52) from Poems on Several Occasions (1762), page 14.

Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), poet, essayist, translator, and letter writer, was a close friend of Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Montagu. She wrote Poems on Particular Occasions (1738), two papers for the Rambler (Nos. 44 and 106) and Poems on Several Occasions (1762). Her best-known work was a translation of Epictetus (1758). Her letters to Montagu were published in three volumes (1817) and letters between Carter and Talbot appeared in four volumes in 1809. Source: Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, 1660-1800. Ed. Janet Todd. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987. 75-6.
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8. "Epistle to Miss Blount, With the Works of Voiture" (1712), line 8.
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9. George Lyttleton, first baron Lyttleton (1709-73) was a patron of literature and friend of Pope and Fielding and an opponent of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. He is addressed by Thomson in The Seasons. He published poems and a history of Henry II (1767-71) and co-authored Dialogues of the Dead (1760) with Elizabeth Montagu who wrote three of the eighteen essays in the collection. Source: The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Margaret Drabble. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
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10. In their best light, to advantage.
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11. A refutation of criticisms by Voltaire and published in 1769.
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12. Characteristic of the Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) whose writing is known for its formal rigor, succinctness, and elegance.
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13. Thoughtful felicity of expression.
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