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Turning the Language on Itself

In: English and Literature

Submitted By emcch
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Professor Lynch
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Turning the Language in on Itself: Mary Leapor’s Poetry

Deftly manipulating the poetic traditions surrounding female beauty and the Pastoral, Mary Leapor creates a satirical platform through which to insert her writings and her working class, female self into the literary tradition. Her writing mimics the traditional forms, faithfully recreating the atmosphere and lyricism common to them; however, Leapor goes beyond the traditional forms by using startling, even distasteful, imagery to make her point. These contrasts are set sharply against the mood and context of the initial forms, yet they work because they follow the general “rules” of the traditions. By instilling her own form of reality into the Pastoral, Leapor gives herself permission to recreate the genre in an aesthetically, ideologically acceptable way. Leapor’s theme focuses upon her position as a female author and the position her identity as an author places her in relative to society: her use of the pastoral emphasizes that theme. Leapor uses these techniques to create a body of work that is structurally in line with the Pastoral, yet definitively sets her ideals and themes in the forefront of her poetry, thus placing both Leapor and her writing within the literary tradition. Leapor’s satirical voice is clear and distinct within the bounds of her poetry. The Pastoral form, with its gentle verses and lovely scenes, contrasts completely with Leapor’s voice. Leapor’s shift from the traditional subject of Pastoral poetry gives her the opportunity for contrasts that allow satire and emphasis. In “An Epistle to Artemesia, On Fame,” the subject of the poem, a young authoress called Mira, is not at once identifiable by her employment as a servant. Her initial description, which follows, gives no real indication of who Mira is: “ Ev’n Mira’s Self, presuming on the Bays, / Appears among the Candidates for Praise . . .” (63-64, X 7) and, later, “’I’d thank you, Mira; but my Thanks are poor. / I wish, alas! But Wishes are in vain. / I like your Garden; and I’ll come again.” (112-114, X 8). At first, one expects to find that she is a young poet living in luxury and seeking the aid of the gods to inspire her writing. Instead, Leapor gives us a woman who loses her employment because women who lack social standing are not supposed to be writers. Mira is clearly not the typical heroine of such verse, as Leapor shows with the continuation of the above verse, where Cressida assumes that she has taken tea at Mira’s house, in Mira’s garden: “’Dear, how I wish! – I do, or let me die, / That we liv’d near’ / -- Thinks Mira, ‘So don’t I.’”(115-117, X 8). Mira does not live in the house where she entertains the Muse, she is a servant there! By wielding the same tool that romanticized the lower class women who people the Pastorals but who were never correctly identified or realistically portrayed, Leapor turns the tradition in upon itself. By manipulating the textures and lyricism of her verse, Leapor is able to successfully combine her theme and satirical style within the Pastoral form. Leapor’s adherence to the literary form, does not simply allow her to draw attention to the theme of her work, but also gives her the ability to make changes to the traditional forms and themes without compromising their integrity. For example, in the excerpt from “Mira’s Picture. A Pastoral”, Leapor writes, “… But who is she that walks from yonder hill, / With studious brow, and night cap dishabille? […] Like her! -- I’d rather beg the friendly rains/ To sweep the nuisance from thy loaded plains … “ (1-10, X 12). Leapor uses the language and style of the Pastoral, but what would normally be an exalted tallying of the beauties of the local shepherdess, is actually a spurious description of the local bookworm and author. Later, in the same poem, Leapor writes, “---- Where mountains upon mountains rise! / And, as they feared some treachery at hand, / Behind her ears her listening shoulders stand” (28-30, X 13). Despite the fact that Leapor is describing her subject’s faults where another author would be adulating a shepherdess’s charms in a glorious blazon, she is using language which creates an illusion of elevation through exaggeration and description. One of the most interesting qualities of Leapor’s writing is the way in which she combines the completely fantastical world of the Pastoral with the reality of her own life as a writer. In “Mira’s Will,” Leapor uses a type of blazon to describe what she will do with her assets when she dies, but she does not describe her own physical beauty. Instead, she describes herself as a writer would by listing her intellectual and moral qualities: “And first discharge my funeral – and then / To the small poets I bequeath my pen” (15-16, X 13). The conflict between her identity as a writer and her social situation provides Leapor with thematic material. In “Mira’s Picture. A Pastoral” she describes her difficulties and the way lower class women writers were treated: “She read! – She’d better milk her brindled cows . . .” (22, X 13). She also comments, in “An Epistle to Artemesia, On Fame,” where Mira argues with the housekeeper, Sophronia, “...’Sure I need not come / to you for lectures; I have store at home. / What can I do?’/ ‘ -- Not Scribble.’ / ‘ – But I will.’/ ‘Then get thee packing – and be aukward still.’”(159-164, X 9). On both occasions, Leapor describes the general reaction of society to the idea of a lower class woman who writes. It is considered better for her to be at her work, rather than indolently writing her time away. Leapor inserts these observations within the bounds of her Pastorals, a place not normally reserved for such commentary. The dichotomy between Leapor’s theme and her use of the Pastoral, a socially acceptable form of writing, is felt intensely within her poem, “Upon her Play being returned to her, stained with Claret.” Though the poem is not a pastoral, it does give a good view of the 18th century female author and the struggle that was inherent in maintaining that identity. Leapor writes, “But now I’ll keep you here secure: / no more to view the smoky sky; / The Court was never made, I’m sure, / For idiots like thee and I” (21-4, X 12). Male authors, such as Johnson, were lauded for their efforts in the realm of writing, but the female author had a much more difficult time of it. Nowhere do you see Johnson write verses such as, “In some close corner let me hide, / Remote from compliments and pride; / Where morals grave, or sonnets gay, /delude the guiltless, cheerful day … “ (“The Visit,” 11-13, X 12). It is as if women, by writing, were seen as having opening their most personal selves for censure and approbation, and, in a sense, were prostituting their creativity in exchange for praise. Perhaps there is a sense that men who write deserve the praise they receive for their efforts while women who write are seeking, and, therefore, do not deserve it. In the above verse, Mira has discovered that she has been deluded by the praise of society and seeks to hide herself, as a dishonored woman would. Mary Leapor has not only to deal with the censure of society as a woman author, but also deals with the fact that she is not of the upper classes. In the end, she writes, “Hope shines a while, but like a vapour flies / (The fate of all the curious and the wise) / […] / You see I’m learnèd , and I show’t the more, / That none may wonder when they find me poor” (“An Epistle to a Lady,” 15-20, X 14). She proves through her poetry that she is not a simple servent or a praise seeker, yet she cannot attain the recognition of the literate except through those who recognize her genius within the bounds of her writing. Leapor places herself within the literary tradition through her use of the Pastoral form and the way in which she integrates her unexpected imagery and themes within it. She addresses the problem of the author in society and the female as an author by shifting the form of the pastoral to accommodate her personal sense of realism. At the same time, she maintains both lyrical and structural qualities by closely adhering to the rules of the form. At the same time that she maintains the form, however, Leapor also recreates it using satire and humor. This accomplishment places her within the literary tradition, and could only have been achieved through a mastery of her art. Turning the language of the Pastoral in upon itself, Leapor creates her own niche in the realm of authorship and makes a convincing case for the cause of women as authors.

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