“My picture went last, wrapp’d up in poetry without Fiction.” In lieu of a letter, in December of 1736, the 47 year old Lady Mary Wortley Montagu sent her much younger beloved, the charming Italian bisexual Francesco Algarotti, a portrait of her younger self, along with a love poem that begins: “This once was me, thus my complexion fair.” What do we make of her assertion that the painting, itself an act of fiction in the sense of “fashioning or imitating”[i] is “wrapp’d up in poetry without Fiction”? Rejecting her former “useless Beauty,” Montagu’s statement makes the poetry of desire synonymous with truth. The poet’s voice gestures toward the silent image in an act of distancing from the objectified self—“This once was me.” Throughout her correspondence with Algarotti, Montagu marvels at a more sudden, radical, and invisible form of self-transformation evinced by her passionate abandonment of reason. This transfigured self often writes in French, the language of intimacy, but more importantly, she is compelled to write in verse. Poetry might enable her beloved to see beyond the surface of a body not formed to his inclination to a “constancy and integrity which should take the place of charms and graces.” “Look on my Heart,” her poem concludes in a paradoxical attempt to escape the visual by an act of viewing, “and you’ll forget my Face.” Love was an escape for Lady Mary both from the strictures of stoicism and the bonds of feminine propriety. Love for an effeminate younger man provided a way out of the confines of a beauty synonymous with feminine identity itself. This essay explores Montagu’s letters and poems to Algarotti, as well as her innovative use of classical poetry-- specifically Ovid, Sappho, and Horace--to escape the static objectification, indeed abjectification, of an aging female body, effecting an ecstatic imaginative metamorphosis that questions gendered distinctions and joins her to her beloved. In the beginning of Western literature, as Lady Mary well knew, and as canonical literary and intellectual history often forgets, was the female poet inspired by love. Undoing the satirical damage caused by Pope’s christening of Lady Mary as “Sappho,” this essay portrays Lady Mary as a self-made Sappho, as an innovator and experimenter in the nonfiction poetry (both lived and written) of female desire.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 331-355
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.