Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Letter to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
By Alexander Pope (16881744)
18th August 1716.
MADAMI can say little to recommend the letters I am beginning to write to you, but that they will be the most impartial representations of a free heart, and the truest copies you ever saw, though of a very mean original. Not a feature will be softened, or any advantageous light employed to make the ugly thing a little less hideous, but you shall find it in all respects most horribly like. You will do me an injustice if you look upon anything I shall say from this instant, as a compliment either to you or to myself: whatever I write will be the real thought of that hour, and I know you will no more expect it of me to persevere till death, in every sentiment or notion I now set down, than you would imagine a mans face should never change after his picture was once drawn.
The freedom I shall use in this manner of thinking aloud (as somebody calls it), or talking upon paper, may indeed prove me a fool, but it will prove me one of the best sort of fools, the honest ones. And since what folly we have will infallibly buoy up at one time or other in spite of all our art to keep it down, it is almost foolish to take any pains to conceal it at all, and almost knavish to do it from those that are our friends. If Moniuss project had taken, of having windows in our breasts, I should be for carrying it further, and making those windows casements: that while a man showed his heart to all the world, he might do something more for his friends, een take it out, and trust to their handling. I think I love you as well as King Herod could Herodias (though I never had so much as one dance with you), and would as freely give you my heart in a dish as he did anothers head.
But a particular reason to engage you to write your thoughts the more freely to me, is, that I am confident no one knows you better. For I find, when others express their opinion of you, it falls very short of mine, and I am sure, at the same time, theirs is such as you would think sufficiently in your favour.
You may easily imagine how desirous I must be of correspondence with a person who had taught me so long ago, that it was as possible to esteem at first sight, as to love: and who has since ruined me for all the conversation of one sex, and almost all the friendship of the other. I am but too sensible, through your means, that the company of men wants a certain softness to recommend it, and that of women wants everything else. How often have I been quietly going to take possession of that tranquillity and indolence I had so long found in the country, when one evening of your conversation has spoiled me for a solitaire too! Books have lost their effect upon me; and I was convinced since I saw you, that there is something more powerful than philosophy, and, since I heard you, that there is one alive wiser than all the sages. A plague of female wisdom! It makes a man ten times more uneasy than his own. What is very strange, Virtue herself, when you have the dressing her, is too amiable for ones repose. What a world of good might you have done in your time, if you had allowed half the fine gentlemen who have seen you to have but conversed with you! They would have been strangely caught, while they thought only to fall in love with a fair face, and you had bewitched them with reason and virtue; two beauties that the very fops pretend to have an acquaintance with.
The unhappy distance at which we correspond, removes a great many of those punctilious restrictions and decorums that oftentimes in nearer conversation prejudice truth to save good breeding. I may now hear of my faults, and you of your good qualities, without a blush on either side. We converse upon such unfortunate generous terms as exclude the regards of fear, shame, or design in either of us. And methinks it would be as ungenerous a part to impose even in a single thought upon each other, in this state of separation, as for spirits of a different sphere, who have so little intercourse with us, to employ that little (as some would make us think they do), in putting tricks and delusions upon poor mortals.
Let me begin, then, madam, by asking you a question, which may enable me to judge better of my own conduct than most instances of my life. In what manner did I behave the last hour I saw you? What degree of concern did I discover when I felt a misfortune, which I hope you never will feel, that of parting from what one most esteems? For if my parting looked but like that of your common acquaintance, I am the greatest of all the hypocrites that ever decency made.
I never since pass by the house but with the same sort of melancholy that we feel upon seeing the tomb of a friend, which only serves to put us in mind of what we have lost. I reflect upon the circumstances of your departure, your behaviour in what I may call your last moments, and I indulge a gloomy kind of satisfaction in thinking you gave some of those last moments to me. I would fain imagine this was not accidental, but proceeded from a penetration which I know you have in finding out the truth of peoples sentiments, and that you were not unwilling the last man that would have parted with you should be the last that did. I really looked upon you then as the friends of Curtius might have done upon that hero in the instant he was devoting himself to glory, and running to be lost out of generosity, I was obliged to admire your resolution in as great a degree as I deplored it; and could only wish that heaven would reward so much merit as was to be taken from us, with all the felicity it could enjoy elsewhere. May that person for whom you have left all the world, be so just as to prefer you to all the world! I believe his good understanding has engaged him to do so hitherto, and I think his gratitude must for the future. May you continue to think him worthy of whatever you have done; may you ever look upon him with the eyes of a just lover, nay, if possible, with all the unreasonable happy fondness of an unexperienced one, surrounded with all the enchantments and ideas of romance and poetry! In a word, may you receive from him as many pleasures and gratifications as even I think you can give! I wish this from my heart, and while I examine what passes there in regard to you, I cannot but glory in my own heart, that it is capable of so much generosity. I am, with unalterable esteem and sincerity, madam, your most faithful obedient, humble servant.